Thursday, 18 November 2010

Top 10 tips for performing poetry

I began performing in 2003 and will have totted up 200 appearances before this year is out. 

I've spouted in slams and jams, open floors and secret gardens, Palm House and Slaughterhouse, The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf (Las Vegas) and Bolton Socialist Club. I've been translated into sign-language, broadcast on a Big Screen and banned from a Cathedral (not my fault).

None of this makes me an expert, but I've picked up a few DOs and DON'Ts along the way - which I am happy to share - hope it helps or inspires (especially a reader of this blog who is about to perform for the first time!) Even if you're not about to launch onto the poetry / spoken word scene, these tips may also help with other public speaking.

The Tips

  1. Don't worry! No-one is going to 'boo' you - I've never seen it happen unless someone was being really offensive. Ask yourself: What's the worst thing that will happen? And then don't answer! At the Dead Good Poets Society in Liverpool we often have newbies 'losing their performance cherries' and while they might not give a flawless performance (everyone gets nervous), they are always welcomed and applauded - it takes guts and we all remember our first time!
  2. Case the joint. You'll feel more comfortable if you've been to the venue before and know the layout and clientèle. If you can't do that, arrive early and chat to a few people so you're not performing to a room full of strangers. And watch how other performers use the mic - how close do they stand to it?  

  3. Be prepared. Know what you're going to read and practice beforehand so you're comfortable with the poems - you don't have to memorise them, even for a slam, but if you haven't read them aloud before, you won't do as well as you could. Have a drink to hand in case of 'dry mouth' and, if your hands tremble, try sticking your poems in a book or folder and reading from that - it reduces page-shake.  
  4. Time yourself - practice at home so you're used to reading your poetry out loud, make a note of how long each piece takes (allow time for intros and applause) and keep to time - it really helps organisers, and they are your friends.

  5. Choose material that suits the audience and venue. Try to suss out the audience and the vibe before you make your final choice what to perform. Some poems are better read and some better heard - a good rule of thumb is not to read anything too heavy to inexperienced audiences - instead, delight them with something accessible, funny or quirky and not too long. Save more 'poetic' material for serious poetry lovers.

  6. Breathe. It really, really helps. Even if you don't think it's helping, it is. Take really slow, deep breaths for a few minutes before you get up to read and it WILL calm you down. 

  7. Slow down. Most people start out reading their poems too quickly... okay you want to impress with your fluid tongue, and get away again quickly, but speak too fast and people can't take in what you're saying. You really can get away with reading a lot slower than you think. 
  8. Mix it up a bit. Start strong with something that will grab attention -  launching with a lively poem can release tension (theirs and yours!).  A 5-minute open floor slot will allow two longish or three short poems (see 4 above) so you can vary the tone. For longer sets, it's even more important to vary the pace - a funny poem after a downbeat one, a fast one after a couple of slow ones. Exaggerate changes in pace within poems too.

  9. Make eye contact with your audience as much as you can - it helps them connect with you, and if you're looking up, your voice will project  better. 

  10. Enjoy yourself - smile! It's actually fun and empowering to stand up there, speak your own words and get an instant reaction. Nothing beats the feeling of an immediate response to your work... the relief when you've done it afterwards!

P.S. Maybe I ought to add:  
11. 'Don't forget to take your poems to your gig' - like I did last night!

Pictured above: Me, Alabaster de Plume, Colin, Abi & Me

Pictured right: The lovely people at Write Out Loud - check their site for an open floor near YOU!


  1. This is a great post, and useful for people reading their prose work as well.

  2. Most of this applies to preaching too.

  3. Such good advice--wish I'd had it before my few forays in reading prose. Out of that limited experience, I certainly endorse practicing reading aloud, timing it, and slowing down. Amazingly tough to slow down!

    Now I'm hoping you'll post a few videos of your own performances. I seem to recall that you'd put one up at some point, and it was great!

  4. Rosie - Thanks very much! Have you caught the performing bug since your last post then?

    Dave - I hadn't thought of that but you're absolutely right (again! *sigh*) - and I may be unwittingly giving advice to politicians too!

    Rainy - Thanks. It took me ages to slow down - I talk quite quickly anyway. My epiphany was when I lost my place half way through a poem, thought I'd left an en...our...mous gap while finding it again - and no-one even noticed!

    Re those videos, there are a couple of glam slam ones on YouTube but missing the very beginning (again!) - I may post them here but I could do with some better ones... hmmm *strokes beard*

  5. Having witnessed your most brilliant poetry performance last night (and getting LOTS of positive feedback from the student crowd today), I should say that these Top Tips work.

    My tip to new perfomers is, 'If you think you are speaking far too slowly, then you are speaking at exactly the right speed.'

  6. Great advice. I'd be terrified but I guess as with most things, the more you practice the easier it becomes.

    Christmas Tales Blogfest

  7. Great advice, which I am going to print off, and if you mean me (as in first performance) believe it or not, I've done quite a few. But somehow I forget that, and am just as wobbly each time. (Especially since I went to a poetry slam last year and didn't realise you had to have three poems in case you got to all three rounds. I only had one. So I had to be eliminated anyway after round 1. They did laugh, very gratifyingly, at the poem. But my place in the competition was short-lived ....)

  8. I have just taken a gander, and yes, very glam indeed! All friends in the area must take Flipcams (or equivalent) to BB's next performance, put them up on YouTube, and inform us all. After all, can only those in Merseyside have all the fun?

  9. Good rules, I stick by similar ones.

    I'm only just learning about microphone etiquette - eg, if you are going to shout step away from the mike. (Really the mike can be dispensed with a lot of the time but it seems to be de rigeur in Melbourne poetry. Such is life.)

  10. Moptop - thanks again, sweetie pops!

    Ellie - yes, that's a good point. I still get nervous though!

    Fran - yes it was you - I thought you said it was a first? Sounds like you did well in your slam - some people only need to take one poem with them as they are eliminated in the first round. Have I seen any of your poems btw? Maybe I should organise an on-line slam so the wobbles don't show?

    Rainy - ooh, I feel shy now! Did you like my 'posh' voice? It was the hat wot done it!

    TimT - Yes - another good point about the shouting! I seem to remember bush hats being de rigeur in Melbourne poetry society too! See middle pic ... were you there that day?

  11. Yes, we do like a good bush hat. I wasn't there on the day unfortunately! One of the few days I missed at the Dan.

    though I do manifest in hats they're fedoras and the like, and I take them off inside and place them on the table. I'm not quite sure why those fellas insist on wearing their hats inside -to protect themselves from barflys?

  12. Hi - have a look on my blog under 'Poems by Me' if you want a taster. Went to a writers' day and met another performance poet - recommended she look you up and she wrote your name down.