Not all poets are natural public speakers. Spontaneous gab isn’t everyone’s bag. But even if it is, when reading poetry to the public it would be disrespectful to turn up unrehearsed.
Poets seldom get paid as much as musicians, so it is in our interests to learn how to put on a spellbinding performance. Mumbles and falters are not what a paying audience needs.
I’m naturally a shy person who finds social interaction draining. When I was at college, I studied theatre and never got the hang of improv. I liked to know I had everything nailed down before I set foot on stage. It’s the same with reading poetry aloud. Practice, practice, practice, it’s the only way I feel sure enough to stand there in front of everyone.
Here are some ideas about how we can flex our poems like a pizza chef does a base, until we inhabit them as if they were a favourite old (and comforting) pullover.
- Get a microphone to record yourself. Perhaps on your laptop. Put it on one side of the room and stand on the other. See if you can project your words clearly enough to produce a steady recording of your work.
- Take them in the bath. Or to various different places. Get some echo-location feedback. You need to hear your voice in realtime from the outside. Listen for those warming booms and rich tones. Eventually you can associate them with the richer internal sound in your ears.
- Be silly, fool around. I do one read-through as if I’m in slow-motion, elongate every vowel and sound every syllable. It takes three times as long and I sound imbecilic, but all the while my body is learning the poems.
- Do it ridiculously fast. See how quickly you can read whilst still annunciating every word. This doesn’t take so long. Particularly helpful is to experience the transition after full stops and line breaks, where we may naturally pause, as continuous flurries — it’s because these are the bits where we forget ourselves most often and it is useful to build unconscious links between them.
- Spend some time scanning down the end-of-line words in each of your poems, letting the visual impression sink in. I find I can often remember a whole line so long as I know the end. This is a quick way of forming, in your brain, a map of where the lines are. If you have a moment while the kettle boils or on the bus, when there isn’t time for a full read though, this is great practice.
- Try to recite from memory, even if patchy and especially if this is not how you intend to read at the actual show. Just do as much as you can. I do it aloud when I’m out walking the dog. If I forget a bit, I just move to where I can remember and carry on. Sometimes the middle bit comes back to me later. You’re making way-markers in your mind and that helps you find your place again on the page, if you lose it when reading. Go for a walk. Try not to mind if a cyclist surprises you and gives a knowing look. Probably a poet too.
- Spend some time on the last lines of your poems. Increase the volume instad of dropping it. Take a big breath before hand. This is what you will also do on the night. Read those lines by themselves until they become performances in themselves. This is the conclusion your audience needs.
- It may sound conceited, but think of short things to say between reading the poems, and have a go at saying them. Say them to the cat if you have to. It will sound awkward when you do, but that’s better than sounding awkward on the night. You don’t have to say it the same way every time. An audience should feel safe in your hands and if you are lost for words they will worry for you, feel sympathy. So have some stuff to say and say it often before hand. Then you’ve saved the listeners from having to root for you silently and they can just enjoy your reading instead.
- Time each poem, singly. Write the number of seconds it lasts in pencil on the page.
- Instead of putting pages in a heap and trusting them to pop out in order when needed, get a binder (I like the ones with clear plastic sleeves attached to a spine). Use this for your practice run-throughs. I’ve seen Imtiaz Dharkar turn fumbled papers into an act of sheer stagecraft, but no one else.
- Try your pages out under different lighting, they can look really unfamiliar under stage lights. Get a spotlight. Get candles.
- Work out one poem from your set you would leave out, if pressured into it, one over half-way through, preferably. This is your safety valve, any doubt whatsoever about timing, cut it confidently and relax your way to the end. Far better too short.
- Put another poem of less than one minute at the back of your folder, as spare.
- If you have the means to record yourself, play it back until you’re so bored of your own voice it doesn’t embarrass you any more. If you are not embarrassed any more, play it again. It helps. You can hear when you do The Poetry Voice this way.
Thanks to Ben Banyard for asking about the following:
If you have any more suggestions, please drop me a line. I’ll add them to the post above and credit you.