Nell’s Notes: Poetry in Performance
June 21, 2010
Well, slam competitors seem to think they are. And so do ‘performance poets’. What about the rest of us?
Let’s imagine you’ve just published a pamphlet of poems. Your local writers’ group has invited you to come and read to them. What’ll make your reading a success?
Think about the way the brain processes aural information. People are going to hear each line only once. It’s a million miles away from reading on the page, when the eye can jump back and forward at will.
Traditional aural forms (like songs and ballads) compensate for this by incorporating lots of repetition. If you hear the chorus or repeating phrase ten times, at least the key words will connect.
Your poetry, however, may well be free verse, with no repetitive structures to help the ear follow. Your audience is going to have to concentrate intensely to pick up every word and phrase. You need to help them.
That’s one reason why introductions to poems are important. They allow the audience to get into correct listening mode, the equivalent of ‘Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.’
Links between the poems allow you to switch between intense poem-register and conversational ease. The audience needs that. If you dive from one intense poem right into another, the chances are you’ll lose them. Listening well is really difficult.
Reading well isn’t easy either, of course, but it’s an art you can learn. Go and hear other poets in performance and learn from what they do (or don’t do), just as they have learned from others. Here are a few tips for starters.
1. Practise. Make sure you know how long both poems and links will last so you don’t, in any circumstances, over-run your time.
2. Read slowly and carefully. Speed kills.
3. Make your mouth work. Every single syllable needs to be heard.
4. Know the poems. (Know where they are in the book too.) If you know them well, you’ll know which line’s the one that trips you—and you’ll be ready for it.
5. Prepare your links as well as your poems. Keep the proportion right.
6. The closing words of each poem are crucial. If you look down at the page as you read them, your voice will go into your boots.
7. Before you start a poem, pause. When you end a poem, pause. Let a silence open. That silence is the white space at the top and bottom of the page, and it needs to be heard.
8. Look at your audience from time to time. If they can’t hear you, or aren’t following you, you’ll see it and adjust.
9. Keep your sense of humour. If you totally duff up a poem, stop. Apologise. Start again.
10. Not all poems will work equally well in performance. Choose those that do.
11. Make it varied. An intensely sad poem benefits from the contrast with something lighter.
12. Stand proud. It’s not about you, it’s about the words. Trust them. If they’re good ones, they will carry you
Helena Nelson is the founder and publisher of HappenStance Press, who this month celebrated their 5th birthday and last week won the Michael Marks Publishers’ Award. This column first appeared in Issue 3 of our Poetry Reader.