Sunday, February 23, 2014

How to Make a Reading a Performance

60º ~ sunny beauty ahead of another whack from another polar vortex headed our way later today through Wednesday..."uncle"!

As many of you know, I was on the road last weekend, giving readings with Jacar Press in North Carolina, and then, I had my Little Rock launch of The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths on Tuesday night. Despite winter storm Pax disrupting the beginning of my NC trip and causing us to have to cancel the reading at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, the rest of the readings were thrilling, with wonderful audiences and, in the case of NC, amazing co-readers.

During one of my readings, a poet-friend asked for advice on how to read well. I know that much of this has been said elsewhere, but here are my tips and tricks.

1. Think about the poetry reading you have enjoyed the least and analyze why. If it wasn't a matter of poetics and/or subject matter, it was probably a matter of performance. If it was a matter of performance, jot down all the things you would have done differently and implement that list the next time you read.

2. I want to be entertained at a reading. Yes, I know there is a difference between performance poetry (i.e. spoken word) and page poetry, but if folks are going to come out to hear me read, then I'm going to read like I mean it, and that means adopting some elements of performance, first and foremost, projection (of the voice). I'm a terrible actor, but I do remember the brief lessons in speaking from the diaphragm that I received in a college acting class. Those lessons have been priceless whenever I read.

3. If you are nervous about a venue, check it out in advance. The best option is to attend a poetry reading at the same venue before your own event so you can see the layout and watch how things run. In this past week I read at a coffee shop (espresso maker whirring, dish washer behind the bar chugging, chairs scraping, & etc.), at a restaurant with a stage (and a Southern debutante birthday party going on to my left as I read), and in the quiet cathedral of Richard Krawiec and Sylvia Freeman's home. In all three places, those who were there for poetry were amazing audiences. In the coffee shop and restaurant, it was my job to deliver for those who had shown up to support poetry and me. Here is where 'teacher voice' comes in handy in being heard over coffee machines and debutantes alike.

4. If you don't have experience using a mic, find a way to get some. Ask a friend who has access to a PA system let you practice. Ask the venue operator to let you come early for an event and do a sound check. Find out if there will be a podium or not. (I prefer not, but that's just me.) Be prepared to read with a mic and without, with a podium and without.

5. Know your poems. Know them backwards, forwards, and inside out. At every reading I did in the past week and a half, I flubbed one or two lines (in one case leaving out an entire line!) due to sound or movement distractions, but because I had the poems near-memorized I just kept going. I didn't have to fumble to find my place. When kids getting ready for music recitals are told to "just keep playing," there's a reason for that. Fumbling by the performer causes the audience to dis-engage, to check their text messages, to whisper to the people nearby, etc. Don't give them a chance!

6. Practice your performance. Just like an actor would mark up a script, I mark up the poems I will read. Yes, the enjambment and end-stops should be clear on the page, but when I'm in front of an audience, I don't want to have to guess, AND I don't want to have to scrutinize the page. I also make breath marks (sometimes a carrot mark, sometimes the abbreviation "br.")

7. Know the limits of your own eyesight. Many poetry books and journals use 10 point font. In the weird lighting of some venues, especially if a spot light is on you, there can be a shadow on the page. Do not hesitate to print your work out on regular paper in larger font. Even if you have a book, you can hold the book as a prop and as a publicity tool, then, just set it down and read from the larger font. I promise you, the audience will understand.

8. Acknowledge your audience. Try to make eye contact in between poems or in major pauses within a poem. The best trick for me is to locate one receptive person in the audience on my left, one in front of me, and one on my right, and read to them. These people might be friends or acquaintances; however, they are just as likely to be strangers. I pick them because of body language and their own eye contact with me. I use these folks as my thermometer to gauge audience reaction to certain poems and to tell me when the audience has had enough.

9. Let the audience know where you are in terms of your set list from time to time. For example, I might say, "I'm going to read two poems from my first book, and then focus on The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths."  Then, when I'm winding down, I will say, "I've got three more poems for you all." (Be sure to check the temperature of the audience and drop a few poems from your intended reading list if they seem restless.) As an audience member myself, this is reassuring and lets me know the poet is conscious of my presence in the audience. It will also give anyone pause if he/she is tempted to text or step out to use the wash room or the like.

10. Try to have fun. If you are tense, the audience will be tense. If you are calm and collected (or can fake it until you make it), then the audience will give you their trust.


Diane Lockward said...

Great list of tips! One thought I'd like to add to #9--If you say I have 3 poems left, be done after that third poem. Don't decide that the audience has been so receptive that surely they'd love to hear a few more poems. Don't overstay your welcome. Be done while it's still good.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Thanks, Diane! I completely agree. Always leave them wanting more.

Viking said...

Excellent advice for every writer! I've done hundreds or readings on three continents and they take work and dedication. Too many authors don't realize they *are* performances, which is why I've taught workshops on the subject and have written about it, too, in my advice book for writers:

Sandy Longhorn said...

Thanks for chiming in, Lev.

Kathleen said...

Great advice!

Sandy Longhorn said...

Thanks, K!

John Vanderslice said...

Great advice, Sandy. Having just experienced a whole week of readings at UCA, I can definitely attest to the value of your list. One thing I wished I could have shouted to some of our student authors was, "Slow down!" They read not as if they were trying to impart a pleasant experience but as if they were in a race against the clock. No eye contact, no inflection, no emphasis on this word or that one. Just get through it as quickly as possible. And as soon as one poem was down it was on to the next. No pause, no reflection on what they just read, no introductory comments on the poem they were about to read. It was like seeing someone participate in a speed-eating contest when you were hoping to take in a leisurely meal. The taste of anything gets lost when you are just shoveling it in. Or in this case, speaking it out.

And it wasn't just our students either!

Anonymous said...

When I step up to read, my eyes get blurry, I feel breathless -- if I didn't print the poems in a large font I wouldn't be able to see them on the page! Terrifically practical and helpful ideas, Sandy, thank you!

Sandy Longhorn said...

Thanks, John. I really like your analogy to eating a fine, leisurely meal.

Thanks, Marie. Yes, my glasses seem to always be on sideways when it comes time to step up and read. Give me the large font all day long and even larger at night!

Michelle said...

You did all of these things masterfully, Sandy. What a pleasure it was to be a member of your audience!

Sandy Longhorn said...

Thanks, Michelle! Having you in the audience made the whole night sing!