Maintaining an Audience When Performing

How do you keep an audience listening when performing? These are some simple techniques and preventable mistakes to help you hold the room.

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There is a difference between writing poetry for the page and writing to perform, and with each you can get away with some things that, for the other, are unacceptable. Ultimately you should aim to write the best poetry you can in either case, but if you are reading aloud or performing your poetry, there are a few things that just won’t stand in front of an audience.

Vocalising a poem puts it in your sole control. The listener has no decision in timing and stress, it’s all on you. Now this can be a good thing, as it means your words will be as you intended and nothing gets lost in translation, but, if your writing has faults, performance can reveal everything.

Abusing Rhymes

For a lot of us, raw free verse can be a daunting angle and there are plenty of poets who rhyme without becoming tedious. When you lean into a sound too much, it can grate on the audience’s ear and they’ll stop listening to the poem. Instead, they’ll just be focusing on how much they hate that rhyme now.

‘S’ sounds are particularly bad. They hiss right into the ear, despite the stress put on them. A couplet is fine or a well-constructed line that really crams them in but if you find yourself using the same rhymes over and over again, consider giving it an edit before taking it to the stage. Rhyming websites and thesauruses can help you brainstorm alternate approaches to the idea, leaving your meaning intact but the overall sound of a performance greatly improved.

The Robot Voice

We’ve all been guilty of this when starting out. The slow monotone as you try to read everything on the page exactly as it is, with no regard to sound or flow.

Rehearsing is the biggest tool to beat this. I find recording and playing back my work or getting the advice of a poet I know to be the best approach, as it lets me hear things from the audience’s position. If I think a part is too monotone, that means I need to either change my delivery or I need to add a new word or two in there.

I’d like to clarify, by ‘poet I know,’ I mean someone in real life. Messaging a random poet out of the blue with “Do you think this is good?” is a huge drain on time for the poet. Poets have real, private lives, despite what we put out on the page, and messaging someone randomly to ask for feedback can be a very unwelcome intrusion. Instead, use online forums or feedback groups, or go to a poetry critique group or local event which is designed to help you improve and offer that feedback that you crave. If you stick at poetry, in time you may befriend your heroes and they’ll offer their opinion but until then, work within your circle of friends.

World Rap Champion

This is the cousin of the robot voice. Sometimes, when performing, nerves can be a bit too much and you just want to get offstage and move along. It’s understandable, but when you spit out 300 syllables at warp speed, the audience just hears a blur.

It’s important to control the stage but what that really means is being okay with mistakes. Poetry audiences are a pretty forgiving bunch, if you can just do them the courtesy of trying. No one is going to boo you offstage unless you are really gung-ho on the racism/sexism/discrimination train. I know it’s vulnerable but the audience will be patient with you if you just give your words time to breath. Otherwise that buzz of words if just as dull as the robot voice because we can’t hear anything, it’s just a drone.

Line-by-Line

In poetry, flow is probably the most important factor. You can get away without rhyme or even sense, if it sounds right.

Now, remember this is about performing poetry, not the page. If all your lines are the same length and self-contained, it creates a flat tone.

Self-contained lines are fine but when every line can be taken out and said alone, the audience can drop off. Blur the edges of you sentences into the next line. It can be tricky, letting go of the rigid structure of normal formatting, but when lines intersect and run together, even when their rhymes are at the end of a line, it gives the audience something to think about and creates a uniform idea rather than a series of disconnected phrases.

Don’t Make Us Wait

I know, I said don’t blurt everything out and then run. This time I’m not talking about reading. Preambles! You get to introduce your poem and create the right mindset but that doesn’t mean you need to give us a lecture. If you have to spend five minutes delivering a sermon about the topic, perhaps the poem isn’t strong enough.

I’m guilty of rambling before poems, usually while I get used to being up on stage, so I make a concerted effort to throw in jokes. This doesn’t mean a full stand-up routine, I’ll just laugh at the mic stand being too low or something trivial. The audience aren’t there for a comedian, or a lecture on Middle-Egyptian agriculture, they’re at a poetry event for poetry, so give it to them.

So what should a preamble be? I think an acceptable preamble is:

“Hello, I’m Connor. I write poems about relationships that never happened so people think I’m cool, here’s one…”

It’s tells them who I am (even though the host may have already told them), what I’m about, and goes into a poem.

In Stefan Gambrell’s poem ‘No More’ he removes the time before the poem, launching into “So here we are, it’s time for the Neanderthal Bard,” as his first line. He doesn’t have to waste time giving a lengthy intro to his work—or any at all—so he lets the work speak for itself. Now I don’t believe everyone should do the same, but before you arrive onstage you should an idea of how you say hello and how you link your poems. It keeps the performance smooth and the preparation can help you from giving into nerves.

Don’t Be Rigid

One of the best things I have learned as a performer is this: the words on the page are not the poem, the poem is the words coming out of your mouth. If you’re reading from paper, like I usually do, it’s really tempting to just stick to that but the page is really just a guide to keep you on track. It’s a series of symbols that represent the poem but it is not the poem itself, and sometimes the performance can reveal how the poem should be.

A poem is never truly finished, so accept the little changes that your mouth might lead it to. I found a few lines of mine work better aloud with “that’s” instead of “it’s” so instead of tripping up and apologising I’ll just roll with that. If I miss a word or a line, so what? The audience aren’t lining up a print copy of your work and comparing it. It’s not a test of how well you read or memorise. A poetry performance is simply that, you performing a poem. So let your poem have life and let it make its own way out.

The worst thing you can do is say, “Oops, sorry, I missed a bit, let me just go back and do that again.”

That’s not to say you should wing everything. Dry runs of your work beforehand will help you get through much easier than if you focus solely on the page, and knowing where your poem is going will give you the freedom to play with your mannerisms onstage.

 

Remember that you are in control of everything when you are on stage. Reading or performing your words is a chance to share them as you want them to be. Practice, perform, and improve. Just don’t keep making the same mistakes.

Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.

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