|Me reading from "Her Life Collected"|
Poetry News ran an article by Martyn Crucefix on this subject back in 2001, and I've had it tacked to my bulletin board above my desk ever since. It was called "Ten Steps to a Good Poetry Reading." Here are 10 steps which are a compilation of his, mine and others I've picked up along the way:
1. Warm Up It's true that no other performers walk on stage without warming up. I know most poets don't have a green room where they can do a few preliminary "me me me me's" before going on stage, but at least give some thought to your voice and how you project it.
2. Prepare Organize yourself. Know in advance what you want to read and have it to hand. I've seen poets walk on stage and start pulling scraps of paper out of their pockets because they hadn't given any thought at all to what they were going to read. How can the audience take the work seriously if the poet isn't taking the audience seriously?
3. Respect the Audience Know that they are there because they want to be there. If the audience knows that the poet is trying to seriously connect with them then they are more likely to listen carefully.
4. Eye contact This goes with number 3. Look at your audience. Dare I say, smile. Make them know that you are happy they are there and grateful that they are willing to listen to your work.
5. Slow down People tend to speak and read aloud faster than they realise. When a horse whizzes by you can't see the shine of his coat, can you? Slow down and read slower than you think is needed. Even that is likely to be too fast.
6. Don't rush This is different than slowing down. By this I mean leave a little breathing space between poems. Give them a chance to sink in and make their weight felt. As Crucefix said, "Poems aren't like TV advertisements. They need a moment or two -- or three or four -- of rest to let them sink in."
7. Show confidence, in the way you walk on, stand, read. Nothing will make an audience more uncomfortable than watching someone fidget nervously. The audience will assume you're nervous. We are all nervous -- it's been said that people's greatest fear is public speaking. Yes, public speaking is number 1. Death is number 2. But if you look confident then your audience will relax, and if they are relaxed then you will more likely relax, as well.
8. Introduce but not too much Audiences need a bit of time to prepare to hear something and people always like to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the workings of a poet's mind. So do set up the poem (or group of poems) before you read it. But don't go on too long or people's will start to glaze over.
9. Watch the clock If you have been asked to read for 10 minutes, then read for 10 and not 15. If you have been asked to read 1 poem then don't read 2. Sure, sometimes a situation will occur when the atmosphere is looser or changes. Change with it. But you don't want the audience looking at their watches, and you certainly don't want the other poets getting irritated for fear that their own time slot will be affected. Another reason to prepare and rehearse.
10. Make them laugh, make them cry Don't be afraid to ask the audience to work, to feel. But that request is best made after they have had a moment to relax and get comfortable with you. Nothing earns pathos quite like humour. Don't be afraid to use it and, conversely, don't be afraid to be serious, either.
No doubt, giving poetry readings is hard (and all of this applies to reading fiction aloud as well, of course). But like anything else, it is a skill which can be developed through thought and practice. Most important of all, though, is to enjoy it. If you're happy, chances are your audience will be, too.