Genre Feature

On Performing Poetry

Hello everyone! As we reach our final few days of poetry month, I would like to give some final words about a topic near and dear to my heart: preforming poetry. A large part of the genre as a whole, starting to preform one’s work usually marks a transition from beginner poet to a seasoned one. While not all poems are intended to be performed, nor is preforming poetry for all poets, the vocal expression of a poem can strengthen the overall message of a work in countless ways. Today I’ll be detailing my top three tips for preforming your own poetry. Quarantine means you’ve probably got a captive audience anyway, so what better time then now to present some of your work?

Curate Your Program

The first thing to keep in mind when preparing to present is the process of selecting poems to read. While most organized events will provide some sense of framework for how many poems to read/how long you have to read, most of the time it is still up to you to determine what poems you would like to read. While everyone has their own brand of poems, there are a few common guidelines to follow that should help sharpen your performance.

First, unless you are trying to demonstrate your ability to write in a wide variety of poetic styles, choose the focus of your presentation. This can be anything your poems have in common, whether it be length, tone, form, or even just style. It doesn’t matter really what is it, as long as you can draw some type of through line between your works. You don’t want to take the audience on an emotional roller coaster because you put a comical lyric right after your sonnet reflecting on trauma. Find a thread, even if loose, to justify which works you present and in what order you present them.

Second, know your audience. If the presentation is for your college poetry club’s end of year celebration, bring poems that are going to play towards the mood of the event. If the event is an open poetry night at your local bookstore, the tone is certainly more open, but bring poetry appropriate for public ears. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen poets bring tonally unaware poems to a gathering and make everyone there a bit uncomfortable, just because they wanted to share their very best work. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with sharing more specific messages, it’s important to know when it’s okay to do so.

Rehearse Your Cadence

So now that you’ve selected your work, it’s time to practice. While I’m sure you had some idea of cadence when writing the poem, now’s the time to iron it out. When practicing reading a poem, go line by line and figure out how you want your emotion and voice to ebb and flow with each word. Even through your words are the paint that makes up the picture, it is your voice that is your brush and actually does the painting. If something doesn’t sound correct then change it. Experiment with different styles and pronunciations until you’ve found the tones to match the emotions you’ve painted on the page.

In addition, don’t dismiss silence; it can be just as potent as words. In acting, the use of purposeful silence to emphasize a line or emotion is called a “beat”, and it’s a super useful strategy in poetry too. While it can sometimes be difficult to implement beats due to performance anxiety incentivizing many readers to rush through their work, beats have the potential to elevate poems even beyond what caesuras can do on the written page. If you find yourself with a couple of very specific lines you want to stick with your audience even after they leave, try pausing for just a couple seconds after reading it. You may be surprised how effective constructed silence can be.

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Quell Your Fears

Public speaking is not easy. More people fear it more than death itself. While I was lucky enough to have 7+ years of speech and debate knock most of that fear out of me, I still sometimes get nervous presenting my poetry just due to how many of my personal thoughts and feelings I have to share when reading one of my own works. In order to combat performance anxiety however, there’s a few things one can do to help the process go smoother.

  1. Practice for an audience. I’ve found the best way to get over my performance anxiety is simply to brute force the fear out of myself by routinely practicing. Whether it be for a close friend, some family members, or even a beloved pupper, any practice can help!
  2. Don’t forget to breathe! If you’re racing through a piece to get it over with it, there’s a good chance you will legitimately by gasping for air. If this happens, it’s totally okay to stop for a minute and catch your breath. Yes, it can be embarrassing to show that you’re nervous, but it’s 100% better to catch your self mid-performance than stumble and struggle through the rest of it.
  3. Make sure you’re prepared going in. Nothing makes me more nervous than when I have to present something, I just scrambled together ten minutes before I walked in the room. By taking the proper time before the performance to prepare, you’ll feel so much better walking in. The quality of your preparation will 100% be reflected in your reading.
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With that, we’ve reached the end of poetry month. It’s a bit hard to believe that the month seemed to fly by and drag on at the same time, but hopefully soon the world will once again be able to open up and find some sense of normalcy again. I hope that everyone continues to stay safe, find love to share with those in need, and that these articles have at least been an entertaining read over the past couple of weeks. I hope to see you all when we are once again able to open our doors (hopefully a little keener on poetry than you were before).

Thanks for reading! Ciao!

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