Friday, April 12, 2013

The Out Loud: Giving a Great Poetry Reading

Hi, folks! Let me introduce Michelle Hartman, a guest writer for PoettoPoet. An experienced reader and a frequent attendee to poetry events, Michelle is the perfect person to give us advice on performing our poetry. Enjoy her article, then check out her book!
A little about Michelle: A Pushcart nominee, Michelle Hartman's work can be found in Crannog, Poetry Quarterly, The Pedestal Magazine, Raleigh Review, San Pedro River Review, Pacific Review, Concho River Review, RiverSedge, Illya’s Honey, among others, and numerous anthologies. She is also editor of the award-winning journal, Red River Review,, as well as a past president of The Dallas Poets Community. Her first book, Disenchanted and Disgruntled, from Lamar University Press is available on Amazon here: Michelle's book of poems.

Giving a Great Poetry Reading

If you are like most people the last time you read anything out loud it was a Dick and Jane book. You were six and the other kids might have made fun of you. And now you’ve been invited to read your work in public. It’s Mrs. Edleman’s class all over again. But it does not have to be. There are simple tips and tricks to help you learn to read like Billy Collins.

If you are phobically shy or prone to panic attacks you might want to speak with your doctor first. But for the rest of us who were simply never trained to read in public, the following can get you ready to give a Frank Sinatra performance.

My first and best advice is, go to a poetry workshop. I belong to a free read-and-critique group called the Dallas Poets Community, with two workshops a month. You read your poem and then someone else reads it after so that you can hear it in another voice. This gives you the experience of reading in a small friendly group before launching out into the world.

Once a month, the DPC holds an Open Mic, inviting a professional to open, and then anyone who signs up reads later. This gives a poet a chance to see a pro and ask questions. Check us out in the Dallas area: But wherever you are, a workshop group can help. Or use your family as an audience, but practice, practice, practice. That way you are comfortable with the poem, itself.

Second, go to some readings and pay close attention to the way the poet reads. What do you like or dislike about the way the poet presents his or her work aloud? Maybe you like certain forms of delivery, but be sure it suits your work. Not all poems can be read the same way. Practicing articulation is even more important than slow speed. Avoid monotone delivery and sing-song delivery. You can record yourself on software like GarageBand and analyze your style. We are our own harshest critic. When you are comfortable with your work then you are doing your best.

Do have your poems ready - it is not fun to watch a poet flip through a book and mumble to himself. Breeeeeeeeeethe... and pause before you start. Take it s l o w l y, but make it short! If you feel you're rushing we won't hear you. Start with one poem and work up to a full routine.
Don't try! Simply hear yourself speak - if you're listening to thoughts about what you just said or are about to say then you're not 'PEARL': Presently Engaged And Really Listening'. Don't over explain – trust the reader and the listener. A short lead in such as 'My girlfriend once said -------- to me' then go into the poem. Or 'My ex-girlfriend used to do this' and go into the poem - just something to tease their expectations and FRAME the poem in their minds. Poems obviously should stand alone, in live performance the audience doesn't have unlimited time to check references, re-read lines, explore possibilities. It is a singular experience, so a little help is good.

Don't try anything too theatrical, but equally, allow yourself to feel the words and subject matter. There's nothing worse than watching a performer who seems indifferent to their own work - it makes the audience indifferent too. Match your material to your audience. Nothing will ever scare you as badly as showing up with a pile of erotic poems and learning most of your audience are evangelicals. Make sure you have sufficient material both in quality and quantity. Maintain eye contact with the audience whenever possible. If your eyes are looking down it is more difficult to build a relationship.

At the end of a poem, don't rush into the next one. A short pause will help the audience absorb the poem you've just read and prepare for the next one. I've seen many poets finish one poem, immediately say "and," then launch into the next piece, as if they were lumping the whole reading into a continuous poem. One thing I do is memorize the last lines of the poems. Then, when I am finishing a poem, I lower the paper even further and finish looking completely at the audience. This also gives them a cue that the poem is over, although it's pretty obvious when mine are done.

If your poems are on sheets of paper, make sure they're on a clipboard or something solid so the pages don't shake as you read--this can be both visually and aurally distracting. Avoid long, dangly earrings and bunches of bracelets (especially if you talk with your hands). I have actually seen poets who were drowned out by the sound of jangling jewelry. Also avoid wearing wild patterns; your clothes should not be putting on their own show. A corollary of this is comfortable clothes and hairdo so that you are not constantly fidgeting and adjusting. Deep poetry is not conducive to wardrobe malfunctions.

Finally, if you can project to the audience and the venue accommodates it (and your nerves permit it), don't stand behind the podium, unless your poetry needs the distancing it will provide. I believe that it's easier to connect with members of the audience if you stand directly before them. This requires more practice, more control of body language, and a bit more courage. But you will get there. Remember, we all started out exactly where you are, and I do not know a single poet who was harmed at a poetry reading.