Poet Voice

Poet voice is loosely defined as when a poet adopts a lilting cadence, mostly end lines on down-notes and introduce pauses within sentences where they aren’t necessary. The affect is that, to listeners, the poet’s voice is flattened so listeners can’t use the poet’s rhythm and tone to identify the more dramatic parts of the poem and the poem loses its musicality. Frequently it turns audiences off because it makes the poems harder to hear.

How can poets avoid using poet voice?

  • Don’t copy other poets. Do go to readings for inspiration and to listen to how other poets deliver their poems, but think about what made a good reading, what made a boring reading and what elements are worth adapting for you.
  • Focus on each individual poem and what story it tells or what emotions it evokes or which images you particularly want to draw attention to. How will you convey this for each poem you read?
  • Select your poems carefully: if you use a humorous poem after a few serious ones, you will change the tone and rhythm of your reading. Intersperse some newer poems amongst a group of themed poems.
  • Don’t put up barriers between you and your audience. You may be up on stage, but your audience want to feel engaged rather than patronised. They want you to succeed by using your voice to invite them on stage with you (not literally, but by treating them as friends rather than patronising them).
  • Does it help you to think you are performing your poems or reading them? For some, adopting a persona and performing each poem helps when giving a poetry reading. For others, focusing on reading the poems and not trying to perform eases that self-conscious feeling when reading to a group. Know which works for you and make it work for your audience.
  • Avoid comparing yourself to or trying to sound like other poets. Your comparison should be the last reading you did and making improvements for the next. There’s little point in putting all that effort into creating a unique voice for your poem and then flattening it with poet voice.
  • Always rehearse before a reading, even if speaking aloud is part of your writing process. Rehearsals force you to think about the pace of the reading both for individual poems and as a whole, you have to think about where you’re going to pause to breathe and for effect and the order of the poems you’re reading. How are you going to hold your interest? If you can’t, your audience will get bored too.

Our City or An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Leicestershire.

Call for submissions in a book about Leicestershire

Editor: Jon Wilkins
Publishers: Dahlia
Deadline for abstracts: 31 January 2019

It’s so strange how words affect us. I was reading my favourite Francophile crime writer, Cara Black’s latest paperback, “Murder in Saint Germain”. Her hero Aimee Leduc scoots around Paris solving crimes. Paris is the key, the second most important character in her books, but I digress. As background in the story, Aimee’s partner Rene, mentioned Georges Perec and his writing. Apparently, Perec spent three days in St Sulphice, Paris, watching and recording. From that came “An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris” which is an amazing piece of work. Which is where you come in I would like to invite Leicester related topics to appear in “Our City or An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Leicestershire” They can be pieces on:

* The City
* The County
* The People
* Places
* Ideas
* Past
* Future
* Fantasy
* Social history
* Sport
* Food

Or anything else you can think of. It can be a ghost story set in the city, a short story about your love of Leicester City FC, a poem about one of the green spaces, there are no hard and fast rules, but it must be PASSIONATE about Leicester or Leicestershire. It should show your LOVE of the city, so I invite submissions from writers in any of the following forms:

* Fiction 2,000-4,000 words
* Poetry 50 lines maximum
* Short Story 2,000-4,000 words
* Flash fiction 100-500 words
* Creative non-fiction 2,000-4,000 words
* Essay 2,000-4,000 words

Contributions in your native tongue are welcome alongside a translation.

* There is NO publication fee. Each contributor will be provided two complimentary copies of “Our City or An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Leicestershire” in 2019.
* You retain the copyright in your Contribution.
Please send completed submissions, along with a short bio-sketch to leicesterstories@btinternet.com You will be given the opportunity to read your work at the launch event in October 2019.

Deadline for abstracts: 31 January, 2019.


Addressing a Poetry Reading

A comment left on an earlier blog article asked about “addressing a poetry reading, the articulation, accessibility and where to stand as in the steps for how to engage with your notebooks or computer or paperfiles” so I’ve tried to cover these points here. (TL;DR: scroll to end)

Addressing a Poetry Reading



Open Mic Spots

Some organisers introduce each poet in turn, some organisers expect the poets who know who they follow. There will be a time or poem limit so keep introductions short. Do mention your name either before you read or at the end of your slot. Don’t be tempted to promote you latest book or CD or next poetry reading unless you have agreed this with the organiser beforehand. Note, the time limit includes introductions, promotional plugs and your poems so don’t spend the five minute slot reading poems and then take over the next two slots plugging your latest pamphlet. You’ve just knocked two poets off the bill and won’t be invited back.

Reading with other poets

Check beforehand how the reading will be organised. Will someone introduce each poet in turn, or will all poets be introduced at the beginning of the evening or one poet introduce the next? If you have a say in how you are introduced, keep it brief. It makes life easier for the organiser and the audience aren’t there to listen to the organiser but the poets. It also gives you more opportunity to introduce yourself and make it more relevant to the poems you are reading.

Solo Readings

Think about whether you are happy to introduce yourself or whether you’d prefer someone else to. If your event is being organised by someone else, e.g. you are reading at a hosted night, the organisers generally have someone who will welcome the audience before the event is underway and introducing the poet briefly can be done as part of that. If your publisher is present, they may be happy to introduce you and remind the audience there is a bookstall.

If you are introducing yourself, remember the audience are there to hear your poems. You don’t need to run through your entire publishing career or list every reading you’ve ever done. Focus on a few key points and move on to the poems.

Introducing the poems

Your audience don’t need to know you’re reading a sonnet or that you’ve invented a complex rhyme scheme. Generally they’re not reading poems from the page as you read them. They don’t need to know when you wrote the poem or how long it took you either. Introduce a theme, “This one’s about…” or mention the location if it offers your audience insight into your poem and keep it short, preferrably shorter than the poem.

If you can, avoid mentioning the title of your poem before or during your introduction and only read the title as you are about to read the poem. There’s a risk that your audience may assume your introduction is part of your poem if you do this.

Pause slightly at the end of each poem. Some audiences like to applaud each poem, other audiences wait until the end of a reading. A pause helps indicate to the audience you’ve reached the end of your poem and gives them chance to absorb it before you move onto the next poem.

Engaging your Audience

Before you introduce yourself or your first poem, look at your audience. Even if you’re not feeling it, try to appear relaxed. Audiences generally mirror the performer, so if you look tense and nervous, your audience may start feeling nervous. If you’re concerned someone may put you off reading, focus on a point located within the audience.

Check you have your audience’s attention before you begin. That might mean waiting for a conversation to finish or attracting their attention (“Hello!” usually works).

Once you have your audience’s attention, ask for mobile phones to be turned off or to silent and let them know the format and approximate timings for your reading, e.g. “I’m going to read for around half an hour, there will be a twenty minute interval, and then a question and answer session or further reading.” Then your audience know what to expect and when their next comfort break is. If you do have an interval, remind your audience there is more to come in the second half – even if you say so at the beginning, some audience members may leave during the interval thinking the event has finished.

If you’ve brought books to read or arranged with a publisher/bookshop to have a stall, mention it in your introduction and just before the interval if you’ve having an interval.

You may not be able to look at your audience whilst reading your poems, but do remember to look at them while you’re introducing the next poem or at the pause at the end of a poem.

If there is a disruption, e.g. a late-comer or someone decides they have to get up and open a window, stop reading and let the late-comer find a seat, the window-opener open their window before continuing.

If there is a heckler, ask them to save their comments until the end/the interval. If they are persistent, ask them to leave. Don’t be afraid to ask for support from the organiser or the rest of the audience. It is not just your reading that the disrupter is interrupting, but also the audience’s ability to listen to and enjoy your reading. Don’t let the fear of hecklers put you off reading. Audiences come to readings to hear you read and want you to succeed in your reading.

Accessibility and Where to stand (or sit)

Venue accessibility is not your issue unless you are also the event organiser so I’m not going to cover it here.

Some venues will have an obvious stage area. If the stage is raised area and not accessible to you, use an area in front of the stage because the audience will expecting to look in the direction of the stage.

In less formal settings, pick a spot where all the audience can see you and no audience member is behind you. Some theatres or conference venues organise the audience in a horse-shoe shape around a performance area. In this case, mentally draw a line between the two open ends of the shape and stand along that line. If you try to stand in the middle, some audience members will be behind you and won’t hear you.

If pillars or bookshelves block an audience’s view, you may to ask some members of the audience to move.

If you use a table or lectern, ensure the top level is below your mouth otherwise your voice will hit the table or lectern and bounce back to you rather than out to your audience. This is particularly important if you sit down to read.

If there is a microphone, adjust it to suit you, even if you are only reading one poem. There will be an impact on your ability to read if you’re cramped over or stretching up to reach the microphone.

If there is no microphone, pick a spot on the back wall or at the back of the venue and project your voice to reach it. If there’s opportunity, practice projecting your voice before the audience arrive so you know how loud you need to be.

Where possible, ensure your mouth can be seen. You won’t know if some of the audience need to lip read and if the audience can see your mouth, they can generally hear you.

Engaging with Notebooks, Computer or Paper Files

Reading from a printed page or electronic device is a matter of preference and there’s no right or wrong. What’s key is rehearsing with your preferred set up and ensuring that you can move smoothly from poem to poem. Ask the organiser in advance if they provide any stand or lectern if you want or need somewhere to put papers or a device whilst reading. It is possible to get portable lecterns or use a music stand that you can bring yourself if that benefits you and the venue doesn’t provide one.

If reading from memory, it helps to put your audience at ease if you also have a printed or electronic copy of what you are reading, even if these are put on a table, lectern or stand near you.

If using printed pages, make sure the font is large enough for you to read easily and that the font is printed in a sufficient contrast for you to read in a dimly-lit venue – black on white is fine but if you prefer to read from a coloured background, check the contrast with the text colour.

If you’re reading from a bound book, use bookmarks or sticky notes to easily find the poems you want to read. You can’t look up at an audience, read a table of contents and flick through a book to the right page at the same time.

If reading from loose printed pages, use a pin or treasury tag to keep the pages together and practice reading with them beforehand so you know you can turn to the next poem without dropping all the pages on the floor. Fan through your papers before the reading so there’s less chance of pages sticking together.

If you use wallets or files to keep loose pages together, choose ones with a matt surface so you’re not struggling with glare from overhead lamps on a gloss cover.

Sticky notes are great for making bullet points on to use as prompts for introducing poems.

If using a phone, tablet or computer, ensure the font is large enough, the screen is sufficiently backlit and you can scroll through as you read. Ensure any device is fully charged and think about having a back-up in case of electronic failures on the night.


  • Try to read at a slightly slower pace than you would normally.
  • If you rehearse beforehand, you’ll be practised at pacing your reading to fit the time allocated and will gain a feel for how long it takes to read each poem.
  • Don’t try to act out your poems, the words of your poems will speak for themselves.
    Let your tone rise and fall as it would in a general conversation with a friend or neighbour. Don’t try to affect a voice that’s not natural to you.
  • Now is not the time to try and lose an accent in favour of received pronunciation or develop Poetic Voice (where a poet reads slowly, enunciates each word, favours a monotone and dramatic pauses (unless the poem actually calls for a dramatic pause) and the result is the reading feels unnatural and uncomfortable for the listeners).


Focus on what you can control:

  • Your choice of poems, whether you read from pages, books or an electronic device (check it’s fully charged beforehand). Rehearse so you can read fluently without awkward pauses while you look for the next poem or juggle between a notebook and book.
  • Reduce barriers between you and the audience – I often stand in front of lecterns and tables because I’m not tall – and don’t cover your mouth when you read.
  • Look at your audience periodically to remind them you know they’re there and help them engage.
  • When it comes to introductions, less is more.
  • Try to appear relaxed and comfortable, even if you’re not, because your audience will generally mirror you.
  • Have a plan to deal with your equipment or memory failure (if reading from memory) but don’t stress about the venue’s equipment failures (e.g. microphone not working). You’re not responsible for the latter. If you can, get to the venue early so you can check what equipment’s provided and whether there are any potential problems such as lighting being too dim.
  • Remember to sell books, pamphlets etc if you’ve brought them to sell.

Writing is Not Lonely unless you make it so

There are two myths in writing that are not true. The first is “write what you know” which is limiting, restrictive and should be “know what you write about”, i.e. do your research. The second is that writing is a lonely business.

It isn’t. Sure, you have to actually have to put the words on the page yourself and that’s generally done when you’re alone. But “alone” is not necessarily “lonely”. Even when alone you write with the knowledge of what you’ve read, you turn to other writers for inspiration, suggestions and advice. You join writers’ groups, either online or IRL. You don’t have to be alone when you write either. You can write surrounded by people (providing they don’t become a distraction), e.g. in a cafe.

Once you’ve got the words on the page, formed them into a poem and edited it as far as you can, you start thinking about beta readers, workshops, editors. You might take your work in progress to a writers’ group or post it in an online forum for comments. When you’re ready to submit, you read magazines and try and find the right place to place your poems.

Writers now are expected to get involved in promoting their work, particularly poets. Most poetry books are sold at readings rather than in bookshops. That means getting out and giving readings. A local open mic slot is a great way of meeting other poets and getting feedback on your work. But if you just turn up, read your work and leave afterwards, you might find that slots become unavailable because no one wants to listen to your performances if you won’t stop and listen to others. If you turn up unprepared, either mumble or shout into the microphone and make your audience uncomfortable, you’ll also find you’re not invited back. By all means, tackle uncomfortable subjects but poor presentation can ruin the best of poems.

But what if you want to set up your own events? You book the venue, do your own publicity, figure out your own set list and turn up hoping for an audience. But you don’t do that in isolation from others. If you want your event to be a success, you check local listings to ensure you don’t clash with a similar event. After all, giving an audience a choice of two events on the same date and time usually means they won’t go to either. You liaise with the venue to get the booking that suits you and to get the equipment you need. Obviously having the venue staff on your side by being polite and clearly communicating what you want gives you a better chance of a successful event. Being bullish and making unreasonable demands risks loss of cooperation and assistance, which will negatively impact on your event. When you do your own publicity, you rely on others to use your press releases, display your leaflets, share your event on social media and tell others about it. They will only do this if you have written your press release professionally, your leaflets are attractive, you have made it easy to share on social media (and not guilt-tripped people into sharing) and your reputation is such that people are willing to tell their friends and contacts about your event. The audience will only turn up if they’ve enjoyed previous readings by you or they trust the venue or they trust the person who shared your event. If you’re unrehearsed or show your audience contempt, they won’t be back.

What if you decide you want to do a reading with other poets, e.g. a festival event, a reading with a group with the same publisher or a themed event, e.g. to raise funds for a cause or to draw attention to a campaign? You can’t do it alone. You need to see who is available to read with you (reputation will take you a long way here), check availability of venues, check what other events are taking place, be sure who is doing what to avoid duplication or worse that some key task is not undertaken because everyone thought someone else was doing it, be clear about who is doing what publicity and whether there are any restraints on publicity (some venues will insist they do the publicity for certain channels, if you use a venue owned by a local authority you may need to do publicity through their press office). When deciding on a reading order, it’s best done collaboratively. A reader might need to leave early, another reader might prefer to read later in the order. If one person dictates the reading order without reference to others and hasn’t taken into account readers’ needs, upset and friction occur. A good team works towards a consensus with sensitivity towards the needs and approaches of individual members. If one team member assembles publicity material, they should check with other team members that the material is agreed by all and be prepared to make amendments. If two team members simultaneously produce material, a positive team will work to merge the best ideas from both. If a team is already discussing material produced by one member and, during the discussion, another member produces new material, suggests this new material is an alternative and is not talking about merging ideas, this member is not working collaboratively. When team members are asked to choose between material A and material B, they should refuse because they are actually being asked to choose sides, which divides a team.

For the event itself, everyone needs to be clear about the part they play. Someone running late without notifying or apologising (or having a good reason to be late) or someone failing do to what they’d agreed to do (without good reason; emergencies occur) puts stress and pressure on the remaining team members who may still be able to put on a smooth event or may find it impossible to put on the planned event. The disruptive team member(s) will find themselves isolated.

That isolation will come about through lack of invitations to join readings, other poets declining to join events organised by someone with a reputation for being disruptive or showing a lack of respect for others, audiences staying away and people no longer making recommendations and shares on social media. That’s when a writer becomes lonely.

Voice Projection at Poetry Readings and A Poetry of Elephants

Anyone who regularly attends poetry readings and open mic nights will have met Poet A who shuffles on stage, fails to look at the audience and mumbles into the mic or reads as if the audience is less than an arm’s length away. Equally irritating is Poet B who yells like a stereotyped sergeant major who leaves listeners feel as if they’ve been flattened by a steam roller.

There is a happy medium and finding that medium where poets can read their poems sufficiently loudly for the audience to hear without yelling at them. Yelling damages vocal chords. The aim is to project your voice without damaging it.

If you have a microphone, you don’t need to project your voice beyond normal conversation. You do, however, need to check that the microphone is at the right height for you so you can speak into it without crouching or without stretching or tilting your mouth upwards. Pay attention to the people who’ve read before you or to the compere: do they get very close to the microphone or maintain a book’s length’s distance? Copy them. When the microphone’s at a comfortable height, read slightly slower than normal (remember the audience may not be familiar with your poems and gabbling through them isn’t going to sell them). It’s worth taking those extra few seconds to adjust the microphone otherwise you won’t be projecting into the microphone but the stand or the air above it and it won’t transmit your words to the audience.

If you don’t have a microphone, you need to project your voice. It’s true that an engaged audience will overcome the struggle to hear you, but you need to engage them first which won’t happen if you can’t be heard. Yelling at your audience is the equivalent of using only capital letters on social media. If your voice sounds flat with a higher-than-normal pitch, you’re yelling. Projection gives your voice a depth which carries it over the distance of the room.

To project your voice, you need to be able to breathe. If you can stand, do so, but even sitting, avoid slouching and ensure you can fill your lungs when you breathe in. Focus on someone in the back row and visualise your voice reaching them. Your voice will sound loud and you will retain enough control to relax into reading your poem because you won’t be expanding the effort you need if you yell.

When I did my very first poetry reading, I had the advance of knowing how big the room was. Part of my preparation involved placing a recording device at a distance slightly longer than the room. I then read and played back my reading so I knew, whatever else went wrong on that night, the audience not being able to hear me wasn’t going to be one of them.

If you think that sounds too much like hard work, don’t invite me to one of your readings. If you don’t respect your audience enough to rehearse and plan ahead, you won’t earn their respect on the night.


A Poetry of Elephants book coverA Poetry of Elephants is now available from: https://poetryofelephants.wordpress.com/. This is a crowdfunded anthology so 100% of the sales will go to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, the most successful orphan-elephant rescue and rehabilitation program in the world and one of the pioneering conservation organisations for wildlife and habitat protection in East Africa.

A Poetry of Elephants is full of poems that celebrate elephants, some grieving at the prospect of extinction but others showing how their image occupies our everyday life and speech. We hope that it may in some small way help to raise awareness and funds for those who work tirelessly to save these beautiful animals for future generations.

It includes my poem “Mary’s Elephant.” Mary Queen of Scots embroidered an elephant whilst detained, pending execution for treason so her cousin Elizabeth I could further secure her claim to England’s throne. The embroidery is held in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.



Do Something cover image

The launch of Do Something, an anthology to raise funds for Hope Not Hate, at Firebug, Millstone Lane, Leicester LE1 5JN from 3pm on Saturday 3 December. There will be readings from the anthology and a panel discussion. Cake was also mentioned! More details: https://www.facebook.com/events/1678502645705533/permalink/1684711035084694/

Two forthcoming Poetry Readings

Brittle Star Magazine is coming to Nottingham on 27 November 2014 from 7.30 pm at West Bridgford Library. I will be amongst the readers.



For almost fifteen years, Brittle Star has been publishing scintillating poems and short stories from new and early-career writers, many of whom have seen their work in print for the first time. And on Thursday 27 the November, 7.30pm, we’ll be at West Bridgford Library, Nottingham at a joint launch and say-hello-to-Brittle Star event. You’ll get a chance to meet the editors, Martin Parker and Jacqueline Gabbitas, and share some good, writerly, readerly times. This event is free, but booking is advised. Telephone the library on 0115 981 6506. So, come and join us for an evening of fantastic writing, readings and company –  And, being so close to Jacqueline’s birthday, there might even be cake!


The next forthcoming poetry reading is in Leicester:

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

What makes a good Poetry Reading

Recently, having been to WORD! and Shindig spoken word evenings and attended events as part of Leicester University’s Literary Leicester festival, I’ve been thinking about what makes a successful poetry reading. I’m also preparing for my poetry reading and book launch of “Mimicking a Snowdrop” at Leicester’s Friends (Quakers) Meeting House on Queens Road, LE2 1WP from 3pm on Saturday 13 December.

I’m sharing some thoughts below and welcome comments:


Poetry likes intimacy, but intimacy doesn’t necessarily mean a small venue. A cabaret-style arrangement where the audience sit around tables rather than in the regimental lines of a theatre or lecture hall creates a more relaxed feel. Letting the audience know how the event is structured helps create a welcoming feel.

The audience need to see the poet too, so a poet who can stand or can use a stage will command more attention than someone who sits behind a table.


Noisy, attention grabbing garb can be just as distracting as a poet who’s clearly not comfortable in the clothes they’re in. Some clothing can rustle or squeak and some jewellery can provide distracting reflections. None of this is a problem if the poems are excellent but it does make the audience work harder to hear them.

A poet who’s turned up with a set list and has easy access to poems in the order they are being read helps the audience relax. A poet who is forever flicking through a file of papers, asking themselves ‘what shall I read next?’ or constantly pausing whilst scrolling through a tablet screen will lose the audience’s attention.

Introductions to Poems

Introductions are important: they’re an opportunity to give the audience a few clues towards what a poem they’re about to hear for the first time is about. But introductions should be proportionate to the reading. The introduction of one poem should not be longer than the poem. The introduction of a body of work in a reading lasting half an hour may be longer, particularly if the body of work is arranged around a theme.

Any introductions that effectively suggest the poet would rather be elsewhere and not doing this should not be voiced. The audience doesn’t want to know that the poet is feeling nervous, or that the poet isn’t sure how the poem’s going to sound or that the poet’s not sure if they’ll remember the whole thing (if reading from memory). Projecting nerves onto the audience tends to make the audience nervous and they won’t be focused on the poet’s reading.

It’s a good idea to only mention the title when about to read the poem. Announcing the title, rattling off an introduction and then reading the poem gives the impression the introduction is part of the poem.

Reading the Poems

Being able to hear the poet is obviously good. But that doesn’t mean the poet shouting. It means the poet being able to speak clearly and without any face coverings. Even a stage whisper can be heard if projected correctly.

This is where the unrehearsed come unstuck. Poets who’ve read their poems aloud and are fully aware of rhythmic structures and sound patterns have greater success.

Audience Engagement

The poet who shuffles awkwardly on stage, rustles through papers, holds their printed poems up in front of their face while reading and generally behaves as if the audience isn’t there, will find the audience absent themselves through distractions.

Looking at the audience may not be easy – some venues use spotlights so the audience is in darkness, some poets fear they’ll spot the awkward heckler at table three and get discouraged – but finding a fixed point to look out at, particularly when introducing the poem, gives the audience the impression they are acknowledged.

Don’t tell the audience how to behave. There is a trend at spoken word events for the audience to applaud every poem, at other events the audience may wait until the end of the reading. If you’ve based your selected poems around a theme or they are a sequence and you don’t want applause to break the flow, say “I would prefer….” with an explanation not “Don’t.” No one likes a dictator.

Wrapping Up

Whether the poet’s reading one poem or thirty, the audience need a signal the reading’s over. A simple “Thank you” is always good. Keep the thanks in proportion: if you’ve been reading for half an hour or are the guest/featured poet then thanking the organisers and or venue is a courtesy but leave thanks for your friends, family, pets, primary school teacher, trusted readers, etc for the acknowledgements page in your latest collection.

Naturally readings are a good opportunity to promote forthcoming events or a latest publication, but keep it in proportion and check with the organiser first. No one’s going to mind a poet mentioning their next reading or naming the current/forthcoming collection. But if you’re reading one poem in an open mic slot, don’t overstay your welcome and reduce time available for other poets by launching into a lengthy list of tour dates, publications and where they can be purchased from.


Open Mic Poetry Readings

Recently I’ve read at Leicester’s Shindig (organised by Nine Arches and Crystal Clear Creators) and Word! which both support open mic readings as part of their programme. Both these benefit from good organisation and having a core of regular attendees so it’s easy for a newcomer to feel welcomed and included.

Open mic events are good ways of reaching an audience, networking with other poets and can provide opportunities to indirectly promote your work. However, they are multi-reader events and each has their own brand and conventions. Keep in mind your audience will be other poets and/or poetry readers. They know your book won’t be available in the local bookshop and will seek you out if they appreciate your reading. Your poems are your best advertisement so present them to their best advantage.

Successful Open Mic Readers

  • Know how long their time slot is and stick to it
  • Rehearse
  • Check what facilities are available beforehand and turn up early (or at least on time)
  • Wear ‘quiet’ clothes – this isn’t about vibrant colours, strong geometric patterns, clashing tweeds or neon hair dye, but silk can rustle, leather squeak, bangles jangle and chandelier earrings chime, noises that might seem faint but can be picked up and amplified by microphones making it harder for your audience to hear your poem
  • Give some thought to how their poems should be introduced
  • Only read the poems they’ve introduced
  • If reading from a page, ensure they can do so easily and without holding the page directly in front of their face
  • If reading from a mobile phone or tablet, have checked the screen settings have been adjusted for the lighting in venue
  • If reading from memory, do so fluently
  • Acknowledge the audience – stand or sit so they can be seen
  • Take a couple of seconds to adjust the height of the microphone if necessary
  • Read poems appropriate to the time slot they have – in a short time slot it’s better to stick to individual stand-alone poems; if you really want to read from a sequence and isn’t time for the whole sequence, pick the parts that stand-alone and represent the sequence rather than two linking sections that need a long explanation before reading
  • Are aware of potentially distracting habits – no one stands completely still when reading, but if you over-do your arm gestures or try to act out your poem you might find the audience are watching you and not listening to your poem
  • Don’t beg the audience to laugh at jokes or dictate how to react or when to applaud
  • Remember they are not the only poet reading
  • Show the compere respect – checks beforehand about running order and event conventions
  • Check with the compere about acceptable marketing – some events run bookstalls, some events only allow the featured readers to promote their books. It’s fine to mention that the poems you’re reading at the event are available in your publication, but not to remind the audience after every poem and again when you’ve read your last poem
  • Don’t hurry off as soon as they have finished reading (unless they need to and have warned the organiser in advance)
  • Listen to the other poets reading while waiting their turn
  • Help promote the event

Unsuccessful Open Mic Readers

  • Turn up unprepared – the hurried shifting through a file full of poems, telling the audience “I’ll read this one, oh I’ve not got it with me, I’ll read this one instead”, the running out of breath because the caesura in line five was ignored, over-running because of the assumption that the time slot refers to reading time and doesn’t include time wasted searching for poems or introducing them.
  • Forget or ignore their time slot so either overrun or have to be told to stop reading
  • Lack of rehearsal – it is glaringly obvious to the audience if you haven’t read your poem aloud a few times before your open mic slot. Reading aloud should be part of your drafting and writing poems. Showcasing that poem you scribbled on the back of an envelope on the bus on the way to the venue is not going to give a good impression of your poetry. Most of your audience will be writers and/or readers of poetry so will know the difference between a good yet-to-be-published poem and a rough draft
  • Fail to check what facilities are available and complain about the lack of a lectern or other equipment during their time slot
  • Wear noisy clothes – jewellery that clashes, squeaky leather or textiles that rustle, especially when the reader tends to sway or shuffle about when reading
  • Introductions are hasty, ill-thought out or too long. A gabbled introduction is worse than no introduction, an introduction that focuses on the layout of the poem or the formal structure used in the poem isn’t much use to an audience who don’t have a copy of the text in front of them. If your introduction’s longer than your poem, it’s too long.
  • Talk about poems they’re not reading – the audience doesn’t care if you decided not to read your poem scribbled that afternoon or that poem you wrote for an anniversary if they can’t hear these poems and you’re wasting valuable reading time
  • Insert their poems in glossy folder inserts so the text is obscured by reflections from overhead lighting
  • Produce scrappy bits of paper where some of the ink/handwriting has rubbed off and the reader has to pause to work out what word was supposed to be there
  • Read from a mobile phone or tablet without practicing how to scroll through a document and keep reading at the same time, thus leaving the audience trying to figure out which pauses are intentional and which are unintentional and forgetting entirely about the actual poem
  • Squint at their poems because they haven’t thought about the font size in relation to their eyesight or have forgotten their glasses or are wearing the wrong glasses
  • Hold their page/device in front of their face so it’s impossible to lip read and creates a barrier between audience and reader as well as making it more difficult for the reader to project their voice
  • Begin to read from memory but lack of rehearsal or nerves mean there are frequent pauses while the reader tries to remember the next line or the poem is abandoned part-way through because the reader didn’t bring a printed copy to refer to
  • Don’t acknowledge the audience – if you fail to look at the audience, mumble, stand or sit so you can’t be seen easily you’ve lost the audience
  • Fail to adjust the height of the microphone – you can’t read properly if you’re cramped over a microphone that’s too low or balancing on tiptoes because the microphone’s too high and if you don’t use the provided microphone, your audience might not be able to hear you (even if you shout; one academic was finally persuaded to use a microphone when an audience member who was hard of hearing complained she couldn’t lip read the academic’s accent and couldn’t use the hearing loop because it depended on the microphone being used)
  • Don’t read poems appropriate to the time slot – either by trying to cram in a long poem to a short slot or not selecting stand-alone poems when there’s no time for a whole sequence. Don’t think you can cram more poems in by reading them faster: your audience won’t have the text in front of them and, especially if it’s a poem they’re not familiar with, will struggle to keep up
  • Beg the audience to laugh at jokes or tell them not to clap or when to clap – it’s not the audience’s fault if they don’t get your jokes and it’s not up to you if the audience want to clap or not
  • Behave as if they are the only poet reading – if you want to do a solo performance, arrange your own
  • Fail to respect the compere – start their slot by criticising what the compere’s said or complains their name has been mispronounced (because they didn’t check with the compere first), doesn’t leave the stage if asked to or complains about the venue or the running order
  • Fail to check what marketing is acceptable and wastes most of their time slot trying to sell their books rather than reading.
  • Hurry off as soon as they’ve finished reading. If you do have to leave, e.g. to catch public transport or because of a family emergency, try to tell or warn the compere or tell someone in the audience or make explain afterwards
  • Fail to listen to other poets but shuffles through their poems, reads through the poems they intend to read, fidgets distractedly, heckles or otherwise deters others from listening. If you can’t be bothered to listen to others, why should others listen to you?
  • Fail to help promote the event. Most open mic events have a regular audience but also need your support in keeping and expanding that audience. You may not be able to drag friends and family to every event, but you can tweet, post links and tell people about the event

Can you think of anything I’ve missed are there any good or bad points you’d like to add?

By Emma Lee