I recently received an email from an ONS reader, with this question:
I’ve been really enjoying your articles on One Night Stanzas, and the poetry reading stuff has all been really helpful to me. I’m trying to build up the courage to get out there and read my stuff at the local open mics, so “I Want To Read My Poetry In Front of An Audience… But I’m Terrified!” was very useful! But I have got a question: in his guest post, Simon mentioned preambles, and I’m pretty clueless about what he means. Are these introductions to your poems? Should I be doing that… and how do I do it?! Please write a post to help me! Thank you… and keep up all your writing!
Well, worry not Naomi (and anyone else who might have been wondering)! I have the ultimate guide to preambling right here for your viewing pleasure!
What is a poetic preamble?
A preamble is basically a little introduction that you give to the audience before you read - you can either give one before you read the set, or a little one before each poem. They usually only last about 30 seconds, and generally just give a little bit of insight about the poem that your listeners might not otherwise have known.
What do you put in a preamble?
A preamble can be really, really useful. First and foremost, it settles the audience down and gets them listening - the more interesting and snappy your preamble is, the more curious your listeners will be about your poetry. If you’re reading a poem that works better on paper than aloud, or that has a foreign word or tricky-to-understand phrase in it, you can use your preamble to just say “by the way, that bit means X”. A lot of people use their preamble to give a little bit of context to their poem - to flesh it out a bit, as they say. You could tell your audience what led to the act of writing the poem, what inspired you. A little light-hearted introduction can also take the edge off a particularly sad or heavy poem.
What shouldn’t I put in a preamble?
Don’t “explain” your poem; let it do that itself. Don’t say “this poem is about my ex boyfriend and basically in it he and I break up and then I burn all his posessions,” for example, because then the audience will already know what’s coming and won’t be too bothered about listening to the poem. Better to say “I was in this relationship that ended and I decided to get my revenge - that’s what this poem’s about”… that way your audience will be thinking ‘what did she do?!’
OK. Anything else to avoid?
Yes: try not to make your preamble too long. The last thing you want is for it to overshadow your poem, or to have your listeners thinking “yeah yeah, get on with it!” Try to limit yourself to 30 seconds, or, say, three or four sentences. When you’re onstage and you’re nervous, it’s easy to start wittering: if you find yourself doing this, just stop and say “OK, sorry, I’ll just get on with the poem now!” It should get you a laugh from the audience and it’ll stop them from getting bored with you!
Should I practice my preamble?
I’d say yes. Some people like to deliver them off the cuff, but I reckon that that way lies disaster! Personally, when I get up to read I get so flooded with adrenaline (what can I say? I’m naturally nervy) that I often get off the stage and have no idea what I just said. For that reason, I always make sure I have a vague idea of what my little intros will be, and I stick to that… it avoids blushes, and it keeps your time down!
Just I just do one big preamble first, or a few little ones before each poem?
It depends on how you feel. I like to introduce each poem in turn, but it varies from person to person, and I’ve noticed a lot of people just introduce the set. I think if you’re reading more than five, little intros before each are a good idea to give the audience a bit of a break between poems… you have to remember that audiences are witless things, you need to give them time to keep up!
Do I have to preamble?
Nope, absolutely not. It’s just like reading from memory - some people advocate it, but there’s nothing wrong with reading from the page if that’s what you do. Similarly, if you want to just read your poems and get the hell out of there, no worries. Getting on stage to read your work is tricky enough, so just do what you feel comfortable with, that’s the most important thing!
Other stuff to read:
What’s the deal with poetry readings?
“I Want To Read My Poetry In Front Of An Audience… But I’m Terrified!”
Preparing for a poetry reading
Guest post: Which poems work best live?
Got any poetry reading tips? Or do you have a question like Naomi? It doesn’t have to be on this topic, any queries or suggestions are welcome. Get commenting!