Tips for Reading to an Audience

Lost and Found Short Story anthology from Dahlia Press book coverRecently I attended Voiced at the Exchange in Leicester and the launch for “Lost and Found: Stories from Home” at the same venue.

“Voiced” was an evening of poetry, spoken word and music as part of several events for Refugee Week in Leicester. I was among the contributors reading poems from “Over Land Over Sea: poems of those seeking refuge”.

The latter was for a launch of anthology published by Dahlia Publishing where some of the contributors, including me, read from their short stories.

The tips below are not directed at any of the performers at either of the above events.

Tips for Reading to an Audience

Rehearse

Know how much time you have to read (ask the organisers if they don’t tell you), select the material you are going to read and time your reading, including any introductions.

Once you know how you are going to fill your allocated time slot, practise reading. You don’t have to learn your material by heart, but get a feel for the pace of your reading and where you can breathe without interrupting the flow.

Staging

You may not know how the stage will be set up until you are at the venue. The stage may simply be a space at the front of the room rather than a raised platform. Think about how the audience will see you: you’ll probably find yourself standing. There may be a microphone. There may be a table or lectern, if so, ensure these do not become barriers between you and the audience. Put the table to one side (do not sit on a chair behind it. Make sure the highest point of the lectern is lower than your chin. Some of your audience may need to lipread. If the lectern is too high, the words will bounce off the lectern back at you instead of out to your audience.

If there is a microphone, use it. You might think you have a loud voice, but the person at the back may still struggle to hear you over traffic, fidgeting or noise from nearby rooms. This might mean the inconvenience of adjusting the mic stand height but it’s worth doing. Do ask the organiser if you’re unsure of how to adjust the mic – it’s not in their interests to have performers who can’t be heard or embarrassed by a stand that won’t adjust.

Reading

Whether you read from paper, a book or a mobile device such as a table or phone will be down to personal preference. Make sure there is a good contrast between text colour and background – what looked OK in broad daylight might be difficult in a dimly-lit venue – and check the font is large enough. Ensure that you can scroll or turn pages easily.

When reading, avoid covering your mouth. It may be tempting to hold your book or device in front of you and hide behind it, but your audience came to hear you read.

Even if you don’t feel it, try to stand confidently. If you hunch over or lean on the lectern, you might find it difficult to breathe or project your voice. If you look tense and nervous, your audience will feel tense and nervous. If you appear relaxed and in control, your audience will mirror you.

Introductions

As a general rule, the briefer the better. It may be that you need to explain your story or poem is set in a historical period or in the future or you might need to mention your narrator is nothing like you or that your story or poem is set in a particular location. It’s not worth explaining your poem is a sonnet or a concrete poem in the shape of a butterfly: your audience can’t see it.

Do mention the title of your piece. “This story is about x,” or “This poem is set in the 18th century,” isn’t going to help your audience find it afterwards.

Do try and look up occasionally at your audience. It lets them know you’ve not forgotten them.

Wrapping Up

If you are reading several poems do say “This is my last one” or “I’m going to finish with…” or some variant because it signals to the organisers or audience that you are about to finish.

Do thank your audience – a simple “Thank you” is good. This is often taken as a signal for applause.

Don’t hurry off the stage area but don’t outstay your welcome either. If the event is running on time or is ahead of time, then a measured stroll is fine. If the event is running late, don’t make it later by hanging around.

Don’t leave the venue immediately. Unless there is a compelling reason, e.g. public transport timetables, stay until the end of the event, especially if you are one of several people reading. If you do need to leave sooner, make sure the organiser knows.

If you don’t stay and listen to other readers, they won’t be inclined to stay and listen to you if you find yourself reading a similar, subsequent event.

If you show your audience and other performers respect and courtesy, you will earn respect and courtesy from them.

A Reminder

I’ll be reading poems from “Mimicking a Snowdrop” at Friends (Quakers) Meeting House on Queens Road in Leicester from 3.30pm on Saturday 13 December. Entry is free and refreshments will be provided. Books will be available to purchase.

Mimicking a Snowdrop by Emma Lee forthcoming reading in Leicester in December 2014

Hearing Voices Poetry Magazine Launch

Hearing Voices Poetry Magazine coverFriday 4 March was the launch of “Hearing Voices” magazine, which included my poems “Opposing the line of least resistance” and “Filming in the Hindu Kush”, at De Montfort University.  It was well attended and smoothly organised – people had to put their names forward in advance to read and were told they would have 3 minutes to read (if you allow a minute a poem, which is fine for a standard magazine length poem of up to 40 lines, that’s two to three poems).  Cynics might suggest that having twenty-two readers would have guaranteed a minimum audience of 44, but the audience was larger and some in attendance weren’t readers or partners/friends of readers.  Crystal Clear Creators who publish “Hearing Voices” originally had funding for three issues but Jonathan Taylor, one of the directors, hinted there may be further issues forthcoming.

Jonathan Taylor started the evening with an introduction and read two poems, “Moving House”, predictably about moving house but not so predictably about moving into a house sold after an acrimonious divorce, and “Thermodynamic Equilibrium,” touching on the second law of thermodynamics.  He also acted as master of ceremonies throughout, briefly introducing each poet and keeping things moving. 

He was followed by Jayne Stanton with a poem with a provisional title of “I want to hear you say I am not like my mother”  which may be a mouthful but is very apt, “the oh, so constant slap-down/ disapproving glower/ spittle thrower/ finger pointer/ chip on her shoulder/ boulder-heavy baggage./ No,/ she is the carrier…”  David Bircumshaw started with a lengthy introduction to his “Fragments from a Chinese Diary,”  which contains the memorable imagery, “A woman is shouting at her own locked door./ I have counted khaki on the Great North Road./ A quartet crashes/ through the silence of my wall…” immediately identifiable to anyone who’s spent time in flimsy multi-occupancy housing.  Roy Marshall had been writing a sequence of poems about Wilfred Owen so read, “Volunteer” and “Wilfred Owen’s Last Letter Home” from the sequence.  The latter being especially poignant as it was written at a time when Owen and his soldiers relaxed and entertained themselves, aware, as they were every night, that tomorrow might be their last.  For Owen it was his last night.

Emma Lee reading her poem Opposing the Line of Least Resistance published in Hearing Voices Magazine

photo credit: Miranda Lee

A year ago on 4 March 2010, it was International Book Day and I found myself running poetry workshops at King Edward VII School in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire.  These inspired a poem, “Opposing the lines of least resistance” where one girl scribbled initial thoughts on paper, expecting praise but was given suggestions on how to turn the idea into a poem.  One boy decided he was not going to write a poem.  Until he got a drink and I got him thinking about water which triggered a poem about a river.  The girl’s second attempt later won a poetry competition so the effort was worthwhile.  My second poem was “Miranda’s Warning.”

Deborah Tyler-Bennett had done a residency at Brighton Pavilion which inspired a series of poems influenced by film noir and Brighton dandies, typified by “Heist”, in a bar with suitably black décor, “barman looking as though trouble/ could enter, kissing you on the lips, leaving/ incriminating scarlet, as if some lowlife punched you on the jaw.” and a companion piece, “Penny Falls” inspired by typical seaside resort slot machine arcade with observations from staff and players.  The detail-packed descriptions make you feel as if you’re there.

Graham Norman proceeded his poem by a short introduction, which felt like a lecture although was not intended to be, about Dutch Elm Disease (and ‘innocent insects’ carrying it).  The poem, “Daughters of the Elm”, funnily enough, is about Dutch Elm Disease and begins, “Octet of goldfinches, chromatic flash,/ here come and gone like charm, that faultless vice,/ the sun upon their wings, a splatterdash/ of black and dun and gold and liquid voice,..”  The collective noun for goldfinches is charm and I don’t accept that there can be a “faultless vice” or that charm can be a vice., but understand that “vice” is used for the part-rhyme with “voice.”  Some parts felt as if they were over-written to support the rhyme scheme.  Using Latin names for beetles and fungi (but not for elm) further points to someone who prioritises research over communication.  Kathy Bell read two poems, “Occupation” and “Painting at the Midi” about aspects of the German occupation of France during the Second World War and a third poem inspired by learning that Gerard Manley Hopkins had burnt some of his poems whilst at a Jesuit college in Roehampton.  From the enjoyment in talking about and reading her poems, Kathy had clearly enjoyed the research as much if not more than writing the poems.  Aly Stoneman’s research had taken her to Peru in 1781 where an Incan leader had been tied to four different horses so they’d pull him apart (a not a-typical method of dealing with opponents at the time), in “After the Battle”, “There were horses and rumour of horses;/ saddles and bridles hanging like shame, lop-sided and jangling./ Gashed and lame, they refused to be caught, shied sideways and/ lashed out, the agents of men no more.” 

Robert Richardson provided some light relief and took his full three minutes for read four very short poems, one about Andy Warhol at a cricket match, “The English Philosopher”, “Revolving Door” and finished on “George Gershwin”, “…something we must sing// and, yes, enjoy as a part/ of what it means to be us,// yet he knew we are lovers/ and that is the place to start.” which perhaps needed more melody.  It’s difficult to hear a poem about a songwriter without looking for some of the songwriter’s techniques in the poem.  The first of the two co-editors, Sue Mackrell took us up to the interval with “Crossing the Bridge” in memory of her late father and incorporating London-based rhymes and references.  Her “The Unknown Warrior” took inspiration from the gold-coloured helmet that was part of the recent discovery of Middle Age treasure and tried to imagine who would have worn it.  Both poems were very evocative.

After the interval, first reader was the second co-editor, David McCormack with a low-key reading, “She Waits”.  Kate Ruse followed with “Songs” and “Choke” from “Hearing Voices”.  The first takes a woman asking a man how he writes his songs, he breathes looking out at albatrosses, blue and coal tits and a kestrel so, “She breathed in as if it was her last,/ searched the hill for a spill of shadows,/ set up wooden cages, doors flapping open,/ scattered sunflower seeds and dry crusts for luring/ then waited, the words already fluttering on her tongue.”  The extended metaphor very apt and very well sustained without labouring the point.

In contrast, Mark Mawson read “My Uncle Den”, a funny, nostalgic look at a favourite uncle, “This middle aged Bourneville salesman/ Carried the chocolate, the can// And the bottle of fizzy drink/ With a sweet tongue, a knowing wink,”   A poem portrait of someone who was clearly a bit of a charmer but still a family man and with more allure than Graham Norman’s goldfinches.

Maria Taylor read “Little Acheron” and “Topography” clearly and warmly.  Michael Martin seemed nervous but become more confident as he read “To Phil Dillon”, a former student at De Montfort University who had been reported missing and was later found to have accidently drowned in the River Soar, a sad loss.  A student, Clare Baldwin read “Misconception” about a child discovering it was born after its mother had suffered a miscarriage and felt very much like the second choice, the not-quite-wanted child, and a poem called “Home”.  Amanda Doran read, without introduction, “A Ballad of Larkhill Lane,” which was entertaining and warmly read but not particularly memorable. 

A change of tone with Philip Dobson’s “A Doctorate in Insanity”.  “Obsession was your spouse/ until the messy divorce. It got jealous/ and started arguments that didn’t make sense./ Now it hangs around your house. Sends you love letters/ made out of newspaper cuttings.// You went to a hospital. Possibly a penitentiary/ (The brochure was unclear.)”  The suitably wry reading matching the mood of the poem.  Rajvee Vyas read “Tied” which she’d written with her sister Sheetal, “Anorexic made;/ Sold for the price of/ A zamindaar’s soul./ Next truck goes, shedding salt…” (a zamindaar is a landlord).  She was followed by Caroline Cook who read “Red on Red” inspired by the artist Rothko and a second poem whose title I missed.  Simon Perril finished the evening off with “A Soft Rumination”.   Jonathan led a vote of thanks for the readers and students who’d organised the event.

It felt like an evening of two halves.  Although not rushed for time, the second half did feel hurried because some poets stuck to one poem and little in the way of introduction.  It’s a tricky balancing act: too long an introduction and your audience have fallen asleep, too short and the audience are still untangling the title when you’ve reached the last line.  However, no one mumbled, gabbled or made it awkward for the audience to listen so the evening felt relaxed and informal. A balance of readers of both genders too, although not alternating between a male and female voice so it didn’t feel as if the balance was obvious.