Top Tips for Performing Poetry

October 12, 2012

Ok, so this is a list I started writing recently in response to James‘s article about performing spoken word pieces, and Tim Clare‘s glorious deconstruction of the Apples & Snakes poetry tips that James links to in his piece.

Firstly, I’d just like to say (as no doubt I have before) that I’m not that into the term “Performance Poetry”, as if it was somehow some kind of sub-genre of actual poetry (like what you read about in books). Any poem can be a performance poem or a written down poem, although it’s true that you can get away with a bit more when you’re reading something out than when you’re presenting it in written form. I’ve often shuddered when re-reading something that worked really well live and seen all the repeated words and dodgy allusions.

Anyway, here’s my tips, anyway, to add to the no doubt burgeoning list of advice for would-be poets, or just actual poets.

1. Read poetry.

This is pretty much the most important one. You can write all the words you want to, and some of them may even like each other and get along famously, but if you don’t read poetry then it’s a bit rude to pretend that you can write it. I’m sure it’s possible to do so, but I’ve never met a poet whose work I respect (with one notable exception) who doesn’t regularly read poetry. I’m not suggesting you need to be conversant with the entire literary canon before you pick up your pen, but I don’t believe it’s possible to write good poetry without being aware of the weight of the dead poets on your back.

2. Don’t worry if you can’t remember the words

There’s a lot of ridiculous bravado in the performance poetry scene about memorising every single piece perfectly. Personally I reckon this is a) unnecessary, and b) a waste of time. Unless you’re a member of the leisured classes, or in the position where you can spend a vast amount of your spare time memorising every word, there’s no shame in bringing your notebook / lines on stage with you. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t practice performing a poem – it’s probably going to go better if you know what’s coming next and how you intend to say it, but don’t let the fact that you can’t remember the whole thing off by heart put you off reading it out.

That said, if you are going to read from paper on stage, be aware of where you are holding the paper. I’ve seen no end of poets (myself included) perform an entire set whilst holding a sheet of a4 in front of their face. It’s not a good look.

3. Don’t use lazy rhymes

There’s a possibly fallacious assumption amongst many poets that as long as the message you’re portraying is interesting and engaging, it doesn’t matter that you’re using really obvious rhymes and shoe-horning your message into a load of dubious four-line couplets. I’m not opposed to rhyming in the slightest, but if the audience can predict exactly how you’re going to finish off the next line then you’re not doing it right.

4. Learn how to use a microphone

With quite a lot of microphones, if you hold it in the traditional manner, you’ll end up with loud crackles and pops when you pronounce your ‘plosives’. If you remember, it’s good to hold the mic sideways on, which should reduce this a lot. It took me about four years to find this out and I really wish someone had told me this sooner.

5. Never apologise

This comes from James’s creative writing workshops, but should really go without saying. If you’re going to step on stage and introduce your piece with “I’m really sorry, this isn’t very good”, or worse, “Wow. That last poet was awesome. I’m sorry- this is going to sound super-dull in comparison.” then you’re not really setting the best mood for reading your beautiful words.

6. Don’t tell people what to think

You may have a really important message and a deep desire to make the world sit up and listen to you, but there are so many better ways to make your point than telling people what to do. I’m aware of the hideous irony of railing against didacticism in a blog post telling people my ideas about how to perform poetry, so I’m just going to put a fragment of doggerel that I wrote about didacticism here. With lazy rhymes and everything. I am large.

Dear traveller, may I advise
A simple measure for the wise
A starting gambit, an open play
For those who wish to join the fray

T’is GRAVITAS, a simple choice
It adds momentum to your voice
But if you pick this dark revue
Between the acts, it laughs at you

A microphone will raise the voice
Switched on, it doesn’t have the choice
(It makes the people listen too
But do not tell them what to do)
It means one needs not to shout
But give the benefit of the doubt…

7. Don’t think you’re getting into this to make money

Yes, some people do make money out of poetry. But they’re in a very very small minority. And most of them aren’t making their living from directly writing poetry, but doing things like poetry workshops and other parts of the poetry-service-industry. Plus, if you’re getting into poetry to make money then YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG.

8 – 11.

At this point I was running vaguely low on items, and also was slightly drunk. I can’t work out what the hell point 10 is supposed to be. So these last four points aren’t as precise as the last seven were.

– be relentlessly cheerful

Easier said than done.

– Drink

Really? Possibly. But not too much.

Who am I kidding?


Possibly true. Certainly incoherent.

– Don’t worry about no-one understanding what you’re talking about

In the end, you’re mostly writing for your own enjoyment. So don’t give up just because all your new poems are about property law or the 2006 Lib Dem leadership contest. Um. See point 7.

And that’s the lot. Good advice? Probably not. But I guess it’s worth thinking about. Any other suggestions?


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