Ten Steps to Giving a Reading

The live reading is where poets make a mark, win readers and sell books, says Martyn Crucefix. If this is the case, shouldn't we be paying more attention to the presentation, delivery and dynamics of the event? Here he offers his ten-point plan to giving a successful poetry reading.

1. Warm-up - surely no other professional performers plan to walk onto the stage without some kind of physical preparation? Do we seriously expect to do our own work justice if our voice is unable to be as flexible an instrument as we can possibly make it? Some kind of vocal warm-up is needed. I would suggest five to ten minutes of humming, vocalised vowel sounds, then consonants, chewing toffees, slapping your own cheeks and kissing the remotest wall you can find. Another thing to bear in mind is to ensure you are well-watered before going on. And I mean - water. The glass of water on stage is a mere prop, but if you are dehydrated while you perform, your concentration will be poor and your throat will dry up.


2. Prepare and organize.
I don't know any poet who improvises their readings. However spontaneous some may seem, it is an impression that is worked for. Whatever personality you project, ensure you know what you are going to read and in what order and have a clear idea of how you intend to introduce each piece. By organise, I mean have the texts you are going to read ready to hand - marked in a book, or in a prepared sequence of loose sheets. The endearingly shambolic poet leafing through his collected works for a particular haiku (however brilliant it turns out to be) is death to a live performance. Give your audience that much respect - they have probably paid to hear you read!


3. Your programme.
Philip Larkin reputedly said, about constructing a collection of poems, something like "make them laugh, make them cry, then bring on the dancing girls!". Variety and some sort of attention to overall dynamic of the reading - whether it's ten minutes or one hour - is important. Accessibility and humour are great to open with (assuming you have those sort of poems!). Once you've got an audience with you and relaxed, then you can get more serious if you want, then you can make more demands on them, but you've got to win their confidence first. It is all too easy to make a snap judgement that this poem or person is not worth listening to.


Don't read on over time so they're beginning to look at their watches for last orders or the last bus. And obviously, you need to know how long your reading is going to last. That means rehearsing it before you do it for real...


4. The Walk-on
Walk on as if you own the stage, rather than as if you are dodging sniper fire. Slow and confident. Don't start flicking through papers or beginning to talk before you have come to a stop and turned to the audience. You will be nervous, but you don't have to spell it out to them. Underlying this is a huge point. We must try to make the audience relaxed - this should be uppermost in our minds as we perform, not questions relating to our own nervousness. A tense and worried audience - worried that you're nervous, that you'll lose your place, croak. stumble and fall off the stage - will be simply unable to listen to your poems.


5. Eye contact
As you come to a stop on stage, look at the audience for longer than you think you can afford. Smiling is a good idea. Make them feel OK about you being up there. On-stage time is bafflingly much faster than audience time. Normal speed for the performer looks hurried and nervous to the audience. They'll get nervous for you.


6. Introduction, general
Something needs to be said before the poems begin to flow. It doesn't matter what because none of the audience will remember it. But they need a moment or two to tune in to you from whatever has preceded you. If you can blather effectively, then blather. If you can't then have something ready that will give the impression of blathering. Thank you for asking me to read I hope you can hear me at the back this is my first time in Pontypandy it's lovely to see so few people here tonight I met a man on the way here and he was a dog. Anything. Again, the point is to metaphorically shake the audience by the hand.


7. Introductions, specific - I mean to specific poems. Some poems need none. But as Lear said (King not Edward) we should not always have to "reason" the need. Introductions serve to give audiences space and breathing time and not only for clarification. That said, clarification is mostly what poets try to do when they introduce their work. There is a need for this often as live audiences hear a poem only once; they cannot return to it, or re-read lines they have failed to grasp. But there's a danger of over-explication. As a general rule, specific references ought to be clarified - Chaucer's Knight's Tale; the old tradition of swan-upping; the allusion to the lay-by just outside Pontypandy; this one is addressed to my left foot; this one spoken by Homer Simpson. Beyond this, my preference is to allow the audience to do the work as much as possible. Stories, jokes or incidents can be used, tangentially, to introduce the ideas of the poem to the audience, but anything that smacks of explication ("This poem is about..,") must be avoided. Most audiences are very keen to hear how the poem came about - the original impetus, incident, how connections were perceived, the process by which the finished piece was achieved but, again, avoid any desire to explain the meaning of the piece to them. We show disrespect in doing this. And we are always, in the process, boring.


8. No hurry. Don't hurry anything. But especially, don't rush from the end of one poem to the opening blurb of the next. Poems aren't, I hope, like TV advertisements. They need a moment or two - or three or four - of rest to let them sink in. People may well be deeply moved by what you have just read. It's just plain rude to force them by the nose to your next piece. Don't under-sell your own work.


9. The interims - in a longer reading, an audience will need breaks. Interim chat gives a free space for that to happen. Some will follow what you have to say; others will welcome the time to switch off, allowing them to come back to your next poem fresh. Like the general introduction, it doesn't matter what it is you say, though by this time you will have a good proportion of your audience listening carefully so it ought to be something that will interest them. Jokes are good. If they are even remotely related to the poems you have read/will read, so much the better. If you - like me - are not good at telling jokes, learn some. Script your off-hand spontaneity.


10. Don't change horses midway
I am probably something of a control freak. But it does seem good advice to those performing poems live, not to revise plans mid-way through a reading. There is often a temptation to do this. Some things, you feel, go down better than others and you want to play to that. But the risk is obvious - hunting for unprepared pieces, improvised introductions and so on. And anyway, more often than not, I have found that what I think is going well is not necessarily what the audience turn out to have enjoyed. If you have planned and shaped a reading, I'd stick with it, barring disasters and acts of God.


After all this, perhaps our dreams of effortless eloquence will be a little more focussed. Maybe not! But I wish you all luck with your virtual and real audiences whoever they may be.


Martyn Crucefix's most recent collection is A Madder Ghost (Enitharmon, 1997). He is a member of the performance group ShadoWork.

Poetry News, winter 2001-2

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