I posted some time ago about reading poetry aloud. I thought I’d return to that with many of the same points and a few new.
When I was a small kid, before we had a TV, there was a popular radio children’s series called “Larry the Lamb”, notable in a Britain that had not long stopped fighting the Germans for a sympathetic German character, Dennis the Dachshund, voiced with a strong German accent.
The third main character was an irritable old man called Mr Growser, whose regular plaint was “It ought not to be allowed!” Since his childish audience grew up to student protest, free love and flower power, maybe this biting satire had great effect.
Sorry, I had to explain that to explain the title. This is really about reading poetry aloud at Open Mics or other events. There was a long discussion about this on a LinkedIn group I belong to and here’s my tuppenyworth.
Think about the audience. Much of what you need to get right is the same as if you were giving a lesson in school or a talk to a group of inquisitive older people or a powerpoint presentation to work colleagues. What do you know about them? What might terminally turn them off? What might excite them? An audience of poets might enjoy some quite obscure poetry which would leave another audience puzzled. If you’re reading your poems in a place with strong historical connections, do you have a poem that fits that?
How many people are expected? If you imagine it’ll be a cosy group of ten or so in a small room, only to find a vast hall and a hundred people, you could be totally thrown. Ask the organisers! Get a feel for the venue – outdoors and noisy? Intimate? A big room that may be 90% empty? They’d all suggest a different approach.
Despite what I’ve said above, select a variety of poems. Audiences usually react well to variety. Besides, if something really doesn’t work for them, something different may work. Hesitate to risk something really long (after all, you’ve probably got only 15 minutes or so) and humour is really risky. Choose only your best poems, ideally ones you’re passionate about.
Express the passion! Share your fire and excitement, but don’t gabble. Don’t apologise. Most audiences will be very forgiving of people who are obviously nervous, but if you confide you aren’t at all sure you should be reading to them, they may agree with you.
Make sure you have their full attention before you start – or if you don’t, do something to get it. Try to remain aware of the audience as you speak: this again is a speaker’s trick, useful for politicians or lecturers, to pick up the little signs from body language and expressions of how people are reacting. If they look restive, something is wrong. Maybe you’re reading too fast? It’s a good idea to select more poems than you’ll have time for, so if you find poem A went down like a lead balloon and you’d selected also poem B which is similar, you have reserves. Believe me, if the audience becomes visibly enthralled or excited, that will fire you up so you read brilliantly. But if the response was disappointing, try to start the next poem with all the self-belief and passion you can muster.
Don’t speak to your toes, but to someone in the back row. But check out the front row from time to time: you can see them better.
Speak the poetry slowly and clearly but naturally. The lines of free verse are often how the poet indicates where the voice might pause – at the end of a line. But a long pause at the end of a rhymed line can overemphasise the rhyme, which can sound quite ridiculous especially if the end of the line is halfway through a sentence.
It’s a good idea to say a few words about poems before or after each poem, but keep it short.