Sunday, October 22, 2006

Performance Poetry

What is Performance Poetry?
Performance poetry as its name suggests is anything that is written especially with an audience in mind and to be ‘performed’ live
It is this word ‘performance’ that is the key here.

What is the difference between performance poetry and poetry that is spoken?

Generally poetry that is meant for the page and written with the idea of an audience that divides into many individual ‘silent’ readers and was not meant to be read out loud is read often as it appears on the page, i.e. it may follow poetic rules of rhythm, it may be delivered in what is called , ;’the poetic voice’ which enables listeners to capture every word but may not reflect natural speech patterns.

In general performance poetry tends to be more naturalistic, reflecting speech patterns and with some emphasis on entertainment.

Performance poetry then can be the way you read something rather than what you are reading.

That is not to say that Poetic devices such as Rhyme, Repetition, Assonance, Repetition, Meter , Rhythm and Repetition (arf , arf !), and all of the other arsenal of poetic weapons are not present in Performance Poetry. They are but they will be used for their sound value (how the audience hears it) rather than their value visually (how a reader reads it).

One of the more popular forms of Performance Poetry pieces that most poets have in their repertoire is called a ‘list’ poem. These usually employ repetition and may be humourous or not.

This leads us to the question Should Performance Poetry be funny?

Well, it doesn’t have to be. It might be angry, It might be polemic, It might be sad.
In fact it can do all of the things that poetry can do. It is more about attitude and delivery than a particular type of poem although humour is popular.

Why is humour popular?
I would say that humour is popular because it engages an audience on an emotional level. Which is exactly what good poetry should do!

What is the difference between Stand Up Comedy and Performance Poetry.
Comedy in this context has a certain amount of crossover and many performance poets because of the comedy that they use , go down well in comedy clubs. The difference I think is in the end product. A comedian wants us to laugh. We may also think about issues that are raised but he wants us to laugh. A poet on the other hand wants us to think, primarily even whilst making us laugh.
Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between a thoughtful comedian and a less thoughtful performance poet. The human emotions they play with are common ground. Sometimes the edges overlap.

What poems are best suited to performance?
Well you have to remember that the difference between a poet and a performance poet
Is that the performance poet is seeking to elicit an immediate response from the audience whereas a poet who is writing for the page can only elicit a delayed response. That is an audience may not have the time for prolonged reflection.

How do you find something funny to write about?

A tough question, but if you find it funny then the chances are that someone else will find it funny also.
Trial and error. Nothing is written in stone. Try your poems out at home read them aloud to friends, family. Note how they react naturally not what they say afterwards.
(They are after all your friends and family!)

Audiences are strange beasts and will laugh where you want them to and where they want to.

Ok let’s assume we have a poem to perform.
Before you go anywhere near a stage you must acquaint yourself with the tools of the stage. (You wouldn’t go and try to fix your car without the right tools so don’t do it with the stage).

What have we got?

A microphone, A microphone stand, A wire that leads to the P.A. from the microphone. Maybe a lectern, maybe not. Everything beyond this is not your concern. (unless it becomes your concern)

If you are going to be using a microphone at readings get your own and a little practice amp and get some practice in. Learn how to use the microphone. How it reacts to your own voice, how you can use it for effect.

There are basically two ways to use a microphone.

If the room is full and noisy you will need to speak in a stage voice into the microphone with the microphone within a few inches of your mouth.

If the room is quiet you can let the microphone pick up your voice and stand a more relaxed distance from the mike, but still you are not talking in a normal speaking voice volume wise.

Presuming we know how to use a microphone. Here are some pointers.

1) Understand how you come across to other people. It doesn’t matter if you are shy. You can control how you are perceived. If you look nervous and shy and ‘amateur’ the audience will dismiss you as such.
2) Choose your poems before you arrive at the reading. Having said that, be prepared for any eventuality. If someone starts a theme in the evening and you have a great poem on that theme, do it and the audience will remember the theme and associate it with you.
3) Between poems, try to become familiar with the audience, learn where the laughter spots are, watch for anyone who might heckle, (you can do this as you watch the crowd interact with other performers and as they arrive, learn the ‘feel’ of the room.) learn where the quiet spots are. Between poems instead of saying ‘and the next poem is’ think of a unrelated incident, an anecdote or an explanation of why you wrote the poem. Remember these don’t have to be true, they can be written beforehand but tell them as if you have just thought of them. It looks more spontaneous.

4) Eye contact. You don’t have to be looking at everyone . But if they think you are it helps the audience to feel a part of the proceedings. You all know what it feels like when you are talking to someone and they don’t look at you.

5) Looking like you own the stage area is important. If you look like you belong there . People will allow you to be there.

6) Never patronise your audience. They don’t want to be told every little obscure reference in your poem. If they want to know they might ask you later or buy a book!

7) The classic paper shuffle comes from insecurity. Three ways to over come it.

a) make it part of the act
b) Mark the poems in a reading copy of a book or only take the poems you want to read onstage.
c) Learn the poems by heart.

8) Don’t mumble or fidget. Speak Clearly and if you hand is shaking your papers
keep it away from the mike.


Ok you are reasonably happy with the poem and the microphone, you have overcome basic errors. What next.

At a poetry reading there are what’s called open mike or floorspots. Usually a new poet gets to do a couple of poems or maybe only one.(5 minutes) Choose a poem with the most impact if you are doing one. Choose two memorable poems if you get two.
If you are asked to do three poems and only have two good ones put the weaker poem in the middle. People will remember your opening and closing . A good opener can carry the goodwill of the audience through a weak next poem onto your stronger third poem. Try new poems in the middle and then make them stronger .

Say you are invited to do a 20 minute feature spot. Don’t be fooled into thinking that you can do about ten poems because you timed it at home. Look for six medium length poems and with introductions, interludes for anecdotes and audience interaction you will have you 20 minutes. If audiences are clapping between poems these will take up a couple of minutes per set of 20 minutes.

Use a watch to time most poetry readings and everyone over runs.
Leave them wanting more not wanting you to get off.
What I am also saying is don’t overstay your welcome, know when to get off.

About leaving the stage remember you are being observed as you leave the stage. Don’t break the spell by becoming a miserable sod straight away. Be approachable. Take the plaudits with grace and try not to let it go to your head.

After you have read don’t dash off immediately have the good manners to watch the other acts. You might learn something and you might get another reading.

hope this helps someone.

Kevin Cadwallender

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