(So there’s no ban on it)
Having just taken part last night in an Open Mik event and read some of my poems quite recently in two other different settings, I’ve been thinking a bit about what works and why.
There are technical things – having a clear voice and one that carries well (these are points on which I score well without trying much); knowing when to ignore an interruption and when to stop until it’s finished; not reading too fast or too slowly, in too melodramatic or too mundane a fashion (but this varies a lot depending on the nature of the poem) and knowing where to pause. A lot of this is helped by the same thing that’s crucial with public speakers – understanding how your audience will experience what you’re doing and being alert to signs of how they’re reacting while you’re talking/performing. Do they look a bit puzzled? Perhaps you should slow down a bit. Do they look entranced? You’re getting it just right: just keep the spell going.
Make the most of the sounds in the words you’ve used. That’s an important part of my own poetry, which helps.
But I always find selecting poems for public reading difficult. Outdoor venues with more distractions may mean a rather deep and obscure poem will miss the mark whereas indoor with 10-30 people it might have great impact. Humour is always difficult especially if you’re mixing it with very serious stuff. I tend to mix the more complex and murky poems (but not the MOST complex and murky) with comparatively simple and forceful stuff that might go down well at that noise-invaded outdoor venue.
Knowing something about your audience is important (including likely numbers – the atmosphere in a room of eight people is profoundly different to one with eighty, and if you expected one but got the other, that may throw you). However, I wonder if it isn’t AS important with poetry readings as with, say, political speeches. I’ve made tentative assumptions about audiences and then found them to be wrong: that many people there are fond of rather simple, upbeat popular poetry does not mean they won’t be able to handle something rather darker and less obvious; people who like rap may also like something slower and more contemplative and an audience of old people may react enthusiastically to a poem about coming to terms with death.
Finally, if you were moved to the difficult and sometimes painful act of producing your poetry, if the poetry means a lot to you, you should be able to speak it with PASSION. So do.