Have you ever considered reading a poem at an open mic or at a luncheon, formal occasion or at church—poetry creates meaning from a sometimes meaningless world. You can either recite the poem or read it. Poetry can also inspire others to act and to change their minds—don’t we all want more of this? But traditional poetry (note I said traditional, not spoken word, which is the subject of a whole another article!) is an art form onto itself that looks different and FEELS different from typical prose you might in a newspaper, novel or magazine. It does take a bit of practice to get used its idiosyncrasies, but once you do the power of your poetry can be in your hands using these four tips:
Mark Up Your Poem—Figure out ahead of time where you want to emphasize juicy words; practice difficult words beforehand so you don’t stumble on them while you’re reading them in front of an audience. Note where you want to pause or speed up/slow down—but make it appropriate to the poem depending if the poem is situated in the real world/simple poem or if it’s a dramatic poem such as “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll.
Read Your Poem Slowly—Poetry and the words of your poem need time and distance to transmit and saturate your audience. Please don’t rush—if you don’t have a lot of time, eliminate some of your set list. Also, don’t speak so slowly so it sounds like you’re a parody of yourself.
Use Vocal Variety And Appropriate Pauses—Your poem is a small story with a beginning, middle and end, so be conscious of how you feel your way through the poem. Don’t pause at the end of every line, nor don’t chop off the end of your lines even if the poem’s sentence ends in the middle of a line. If your poem DOES end in the middle of a line, then you have encountered enjambment, which happens when you unnaturally break a line—it’s like someone has pushed you from the high dive and you weren’t expecting it. Here’s an amazing poem and example of enjambment:
The Pool Players, Seven at the Golden Shovel
by Gwendolyn Brooks
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Remember to read your poem slowly and clearly, like prose and without any dramatic or inflections. Give yourself enough pauses as you speak and go loud and soft at the appropriate moments—this means you must understand what your poem means and what all the words mean, like Sir Anthony Hopkins, who is an awesome poetry reader.
Use Natural Movement —Be natural and don’t gesture and every line! Keep your arms at your side (or one arm as you’re reading with the other one. Look up from your paper every now and then and make eye contact with your audience—try not looking at the floor or have a weird nervous laugh (I do this—stop judging me!)
Know Your Audience
If you’re an author giving any kind of reading, know your audience! This goes far beyond open mics. Is your audience familiar with your work or are they completely new to it? If they are new to it, warm them up by telling them why they’ll love your work and use humor (that you’ve practiced before)! If you’re the first reader, you won’t have a lot of material to riff about except complimentary stuff about the venue, the hosts and the crowd, but if you’re performing after others, talk up the folks who have gone before you and give them a little love. Doing so will endear you to your audience. If there are children present, no f-bombs—unless you’ve conferred with the parents of said children and they’ve said it’s okay. I’ve given my consent before and I really appreciate the performer asking me.
Prepare by reading your work beforehand so you know it’s 5 minutes or less, or whatever time the emcee has given you to read.
Most open mics have a 5-minute time limit. Rehearse your talk and material ahead of time—mark your pages if you’re reading from your book so you’re not thumbing randomly. Don’t think “channeling” your presentation is going to get you out of steadfast preparation. Check to see where you’re stumbling and adjust. Time your talk so you know if you’re going to be over or under on time. Practice beforehand and tab your pages so you’re not thumbing through your book.
You never want to overstay your welcome when you read. Read within your time and don’t go over so that your audience will want more from you and will buy your book. With that said your whole reading should be about a half hour with 15 to 20 minutes. Read something that’s appropriate to your audience and that is self-contained and doesn’t need a whole lot of set-up. Make sure you connect right away to your audience with a local current event, an anecdote or a joke. Try to look like you’re having some fun up there!
Prepare an intro in 14-point font (it’s easiest on the eyes) and email it to the correct person so your host can properly announce you to your audience. Be sure to have the point of view in third person and limit it to 200 words.
Bring your material on paper—don’t plan to read off of your laptop or other smart device, but if you do try to be as natural as you can about it!
Now practice and have fun with your words—that’s where the joy of poetry comes from!