Taking your poems from page to stage
Published: June 12, 2007
|When you're facing an audience, the last thing you want to do is think about what you're doing. By the time you're on the stage, you should be able to relax and have fun sharing your poems.|
One of the best allies you can have is a good plan. If you do even a small amount of homework before your reading, you won't have to think about what you're doing because you can simply segue into the fun part.
Knowing what you'll read ahead of time will save your own patience--and your listeners' as well. No one enjoys watching a poet flip through a book, trying to find a selection. I try to choose poems in keeping with the interests of the audience. If I'm speaking to a trade group, I assume there will be broad diversity. Therefore, I opt for poems that are readily accessible, often choosing sonnets because the sound created by rhythm and rhyme is so pleasing. A favorite of general interest groups is a poem I wrote about our cat. He was taking a nap--or pretending to. While a group of birds fed beneath trees in our backyard, our feline kept a watchful eye. He knew at some point, the feathered guard would drop, enabling him to pounce.
If I'm speaking to an arts group, or to college or advanced high school classes, I can be more daring. I can opt for poems that are less accessible and more complex.
I copy and paste each poem onto single sheets, printing them in 12-point bold type. That way, if the lighting is dim, my cheat sheet is legible. I fold each page so that excess right margin doesn't show. This makes it easier to hold. I arrange the poems in the order I'll read them, knowing I will probably change my mind at some point. I always select 3 to 4 more poems than I will actually need.
I strive for eye contact. This is one reason I use printed sheets instead of reading directly from my books. This is personal. When I listen to a poet read, I get a little restless if he or she keeps the book in front of the face. I do hold my book beneath the sheath of poems. Maybe it's a security blanket. My publisher constantly tells me, "Hold the book up." Naturally, he'd like as many people as possible to purchase one. I'm not a very good book hawker, so using the book to stabilize the sheets meets my publisher's mandate halfway.
It almost goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway. Dress comfortably. If your shoes hurt your feet and your clothes are too snug, your performance will be impeded. I have a couple of "poet" outfits--comfortable clothes that enable me to move around freely, clothes that I forget I'm wearing because they're not restrictive.
I never eat right before a reading. There's nothing like facing an audience if you have an Italian dressing stain on your jacket. I did a lot of freelance work for a business owner years ago, and he always said he did better with presentations when he was "lean and mean." You can always eat and celebrate after the reading.
Practice in front of a mirror. Work on being at ease. If you're tense, the audience will sense it. If you're new at reading before an audience, try videotaping your practice session. Self-critique has definite benefits.
Engage in calm activities before your event. Do the Zen thing.
Above all, don't ramble on and on with personal anecdotes. A little is good--Billy Collins does this so well. He interjects just enough commentary to ease the audience into his selections. If you do too much commentary, you're veering towards speechmaking rather than poetry presenting.
Finally, try to avoid self-indulgence. I've had the experience of listening to a man read a very long poem about his frightful divorce. When he finished, many audience members expressed condolences. Then we headed straight to the cash bar.
After a reading, one bookseller told me, "You're a natural." I don't think so. I've simply practiced and developed a style for sharing something I love.
Think of reading your poems as giving something of value to those who have taken time to attend. Projecting your thoughts towards others will take your focus away from your own interior where poetry and passion reside, and unfortunately, tension often dwells as well.
June 12, 2007
For an up-close look at different presentation styles, visit The U.S. Library of Congress Poetry Web casts: http://www.loc.gov/poetry/results.php
My June 26 Poetry Beat profiles Poets House, the literary center in New York where more than 45,000 volumes of modern poetry reside. Learn about the center's plans for a new facility, poetry programs and opportunities.
Poetry Beat home page: http://www.writermag.com/wrt/default.aspx?c=ss&id=142
--Posted June 12, 2007