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Poets and Performance by Jacqueline Johnson

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Poets and Performance

Whether you are doing a performance of your poems or reading them – you the poet want to present your poems as best you can. Right? What does that mean?

Once a friend who was a jazz singer did a rehearsal of her performance. She arrived late, and sang looking out of a window- bored and distracted with her own performance. I posed a question to her – if you do not care about your performance why would an audience want to listen to you? Many poets treat the performance or reading of their poems as an after-thought, instead of treating performance with the same respect as the writing and creation of the work. Many throw themselves at the mic awkwardly sounding out their poems. Here are some aspects of performance to consider: timeliness, rehearsal, collaboration, use of the mic and use of improvisation.

If you are doing your own set then you have all the time to yourself. When reading with other poets it is important to stick to the time constraints. Consider if you read for thirty :30 minutes when you were given twenty :20 minutes – the potential exists for someone on a group program to be cheated of reading time. If several poets read over their allotted time this tends to make for a longer program than intended. So when it comes to readings arrive on time and stick to the time given – you and your fellow poets will be happier.

Give yourself time to rehearse and to plan a sequence of poems. There is nothing more distracting than the poet who comes to the stage playing around with papers or books looking for poems repeatedly. Searching for the poem takes time from the reading. One of the great things about rehearsing the poems out aloud is it will reveal words that are clunky or hard to pronounce. I consider rehearsal the final edit for a poem. You can use an audio recording device, camera or your phone to record your rehearsal. In this way you can solicit constructive critique.

Learn about different mics – body mics, hand held vs. stand alone or pedestal mics. Always take a few moments to make oneself comfortable on the stage. It seems like common sense but many poets just walk on stage and start reading. Adjust your mic to your height and if necessary seek assistance. Many poets speak either too close to the mic or sometimes create static by not knowing how to work with one. Some poets have big, resonant voices and can read without a mic. Poets who perform a lot or who work with musicians often have their own mics that work well with their voices. You don’t have to be an expert. Arriving an hour before a reading to be a part of a mic check will often ensure a much smoother performance especially when working with other artists or musicians. It also allows you to make a connection to the stage technician who may be your saving grace during a performance.

If you a novice reader, doing a poetry reading with a group is a great way to get started. Collaborating with another poet, musician, or dancer is a way to deepen the expression of the work and to have company on the stage. When working with musicians, I caution the poet to make sure your musicians don’t drown you out. You want to aim for a balanced performance in which each performer gets to shine and share their work.

You may find yourself incredibly nervous before a reading. Consider ways to ground yourself before you get on the stage. Some poets employ some form of physical movement, exercise or dance before they go onstage. Others use deep breathing exercises, singing or actor’s warm-up exercises. Others have notes written on the poems that function like stage directions as they read. Some poets want involvement and interaction with their audience and may have lines they give to the audience as a part of the performance.   Reading environments are not perfect and poets sometimes have to allow for the unexpected. Sometimes a mic goes out and there is no replacement. Or someone jumps onstage with you uninvited or you the poet realize you have missed an entire stanza of the poem. Just keep in mind, the more respect you give to every aspect of your performance, the greater the possibilities are for success.


Jacqueline JohnsonJacqueline Johnson, is an artist creating in writing and fiber arts. She is the author of A Woman’s Season, Main Street Rag Press and A Gathering of Mother Tongues, published by White Pine. She is a graduate of New York University and the City University of New York.

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