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