Originally intended for vocal performance, poetry was first a form of spoken literature, and it has a strong performance tradition. The way a poem “sounds” remains important, and poetry readings bring poets into closer contact with their audiences than the printed word allows.
Your audience is not waiting for you to mess up – they’re hoping you’ll be spectacular, so keep that in mind when you read.
With the exception of spoken word poets, poets are not typically performers in the manner of stage or movie actors, but reading with spirit and communicating your enjoyment of poetry is important for a successful reading.
Prepare well before the reading. Select the poems you plan to read and “rehearse” them at least a few times. Start by reading the poems aloud to yourself. Follow the “guidelines” given by punctuation for pausing and stressing; listen to each poem's musicality and try to match your voice to it. If you have a video camera you can tape yourself during practice; alternatively, you can record just your voice to get an idea of how you sound. You can also stand in front of a mirror (full length is good) and “observe” yourself as you read (“mirror-practice” may sound silly but it can be very helpful, and the easy part is that you do it alone, no one sees but you!).
Time yourself while rehearsing to make sure your reading will fit the time allotted to you. Reading over-time is a lot like over-kill. You should always leave the audience wanting more.
Poets sometimes structure their readings around a theme. If you opt to do this (and it’s not required), try to pick poems that share some sort of thematic or emotional similarities. This can give your reading an added bit of interest.
Learning your poems by heart and delivering them “straight up” can have a powerful impact on your listeners. Memorization is typically expected of performance or spoken word poets, but it is not expected of all poets. It’s perfectly fine to read from a book, magazine, or printed page when you do a reading. What is important is making sure that you have some level of eye contact with your audience. Make a point of looking up as you read, especially during pauses in the text or at points in the poem where you want special emphasis.
Print your poem out in a large font so it is easily read. Marking the pauses, breath or stress points, using a highlighter will also help you remember what you rehearsed. The visual cues will help you stick to your reading plan when you get in front of the audience.
Often poetry readings don’t offer a microphone, but when they do, it’s important for you to know how to adjust the mic stand so that you’re not too close or too far away. Try to adjust the mic quickly and to get into your reading right after you’re introduced.
After you’re introduced, be sure to thank the person who introduced you, and then greet the audience.
You might be the most brilliant poet in the world, but if no one understands you they won’t listen. Read slowly and loudly (the latter particularly if there’s no microphone, see next item for volume). Allow each word its place in the poem. The inclination to rush is understandable, especially if you’re nervous. Relax as much as possible and consciously slow yourself down. Sometimes the proper pace seems ridiculously slow, but it’s really not. Concentrate on pronouncing each word as clearly and distinctly as possible. Above all, don’t mumble or let your voice fall away, especially at the end of a poem.
Volume is important. Try to project your voice to the back of the room. Look at a person seated in the last row or the furthest away, and speak directly to that person.
Work on making your voice interesting. Timbre (resonance, the quality of a sound independent of its pitch and volume) is important. Try using a fuller range than you would in normal conversation. Raise and lower your voice appropriately. But don’t go overboard and look foolish by emoting "all over the place." Don’t declaim. Don’t preach. Be as natural as possible – be real.
Think in terms of pace and power. Try to alter the speed at which you read the poem. If you want to sound angry or excited speed up a little and raise the pitch of your voice. When you want to sound more serious lower the pitch and slow down. A higher pitched voice can also be used when talking about things that are high up (stars, the sky, angels, tall buildings, etc.) and a lower pitch for lower things (soil, graves, underwater, etc.).
If you write lyrical or imagistic poems that don’t necessarily tell a story, be sure to offer your audience a few places to rest and think. That means reading slowly, pacing yourself, and giving the audiences small pauses in which to think, “Yes, I understand that.”
Never apologize for your work or say things like, “I just wrote this poem today,” “This is the first time I’m reading this poem,” “I’m trying this poem out on you tonight,” “I hope you’ll like this poem,” or “This is a draft of a poem I’m working on.” This suggests that you’re insecure about your work, that you want the audience to go easy on you because you don’t think your poem is up to speed, or you want to impress the audience by setting them up to think they’re not getting your best work when you really think it is. Apologies almost always reflect poorly on the person giving the reading.
Introductions for individual poems can be helpful, but be aware that you shouldn’t have to explain your poems – the poems should do that without any coaching from you. If you’d like to say a few words before each poem to invite the audience to share in it with you – that can be a good thing. Sharing a bit about a poem can “warm up” your relationship with the audience. Just be sure that you don’t talk too much. The audience is there to hear you read your poems, not to hear you explain them. I think we’ve all heard poets whose intros are longer than their poems. Practice introductions ahead of time, and you may even write them on the pages from which you read. Practice your introductions when you practice reading your poems. Listen to yourself until you feel comfortable and your words sound natural.
Suggestions for poem intros:
A. You can introduce a poem very briefly by saying something like
(1) “This is a poem about _____.”
(2) “I wrote this poem when _____.”
B. To help your audience feel at ease and to bring them into your “environment,”
you can ask a simple question to introduce a poem.
(1) “How many of you have been to ____?”
(2) “Have you ever experienced _____?”
Try to stand still unless you have a contextual reason for moving. Typically, moving around at the podium is a symptom of nervousness, and everyone in the audience will be aware of it. It’s a good idea to consciously plant your feet and straighten your spine. Don’t fidget while reading! Sometimes, punctuating certain lines with movement of your hands is effective, but be careful not to over-do that sort of thing.
If you trip on a word or flub a line, just keep going! There’s no need to apologize or say, “Excuse me,” “Sorry,” or “Oops.” Most of the time the audience won’t even notice a word-trip unless you call attention to it. If you lose your place while reading (and that does happen), don’t panic. Just pause, find your place, and get on with reading. If you memorize your poems and miss a line, just keep going – the audience won’t know that you’ve left something out.
You’ve performed a poem well if the audience knows when it’s time to applaud. Some audiences applaud after each poem, but some don’t. Either way, when you finish a poem you can signal that it’s over with a pause and a smile (or a small step back from the mic, podium, or stand) before moving on to the next piece. If the audience does applaud, be sure to say, “Thank you.” At the end of the reading, after the audience applauds, make a point of a final, gracious “thank you.” If appropriate, thank everyone for being a great audience.