I recently did my first reading for several months (after my “UK tour” earlier this year — at least one gig a week for three months — I’ve been having a rest), and it got me thinking, not for the first time, about the contentious issue of preambles. The two poets I was reading alongside were veterans of both page and stage — each had several books of poetry and prose and countless readings and appearances to their names. I was honoured to be reading with these literary heavyweights, and keen to see what I could learn from their performances.
Both poets read brilliantly. I came away wanting to find out more about both of them and their work, and several of the pieces I heard kept me pondering long after I got home that evening. However, I was surprised by one thing: neither poet really knew how to preamble.
The first of the two readers was far too concerned with explaining and contextualising the poems before he read them. This was partly understandable, as he read works in several different languages and immediately followed each poem with its English translation. However, I felt that I didn’t need the fuss of “and incidentally this is what X word and X word mean in English” before the poems started. The first reading of each piece was totally alien to me, obviously, but I actually really enjoy hearing poets read works in their native tongue, whether I understand it or not. Often just the sound of a piece is enough to give you a general idea of what’s going on, and when followed by an English translation anyway, there’s no need for anxiety over the understanding of “important keywords.”
The second poet just rambled. I’ve often wondered if this is a “famous poet” thing, because they’re often very guilty of it — Jackie Kay and Liz Lochhead both spring to mind as poets who talk for longer about their pieces than during them (example here). I wonder if well-known poets feel that audience expectations are higher, that people want more from them than just the words they could easily find on a page in one of their books? Whatever the reason, endless rambling is a common crime. At the reading in question, I found myself losing the thread of what was being said, and often when the poem finally arrived, wondering what all that mass of preamble really had to do with it anyway…
Don’t get me wrong, everyone’s different. Some people want preambles outlawed altogether, to allow the poems to speak for themselves. Others see the preamble as an essential part of the poem — an embellishment without which any reading would look decidedly shabby. When I was preparing for my very first ever poetry reading (which was only two years ago, unbelievably), I was fortunate enough to see the wonderful Sarah Quigley read, and after her stellar performance she offered me a few words of advice. She absolutely swore by preambles, in spite of the fact that many of her poems are very short indeed, and advocated a juxtaposition of upbeat and melancholy at all times. If she was going to read a particularly heavy or moving poem, her preamble would be funny and upbeat, and vice-versa. The audience needs to be kept on their toes, she said, or they lose interest. However, she also noted the need for slight pauses between poems, so the audience also “has chance to breathe.”
Sarah’s advice has stood me in good stead at the dozens of poetry readings and events I’ve performed at since. However, I’ve also taken a lot of inspiration just from watching other poets and seeing how they approach their readings. I was very interested in an experiment performed by my friend Dave Coates when he read at Poetry at the GRV. Instead of a preamble, he began with the poem and then gave a “postamble”, so people could listen to the piece and come to their own conclusions, and only hear what Dave thought the poem was all about thereafter. I’ve also observed interesting experiments with numbers performed by Read This‘ own Chris Lindores and fellow Edinburgh poet Mairi Sharratt — allocating a number to each poem and asking the audience to shout out numbers to determine the order in which the pieces will be read. Mairi even goes as far as keeping no track of the numbers that have already been called… if the same poem’s number is called twice, she will read that poem twice.
However, I think I’ve taken the majority of my preamble inspiration from musicians. Because music is something I love but not something I create myself, I’m able to look more objectively at the behaviour of musicians than the behaviour of poets. I’ve realised that I like some preamble between songs, but that moderation is a very good thing. I’ve also found myself feeling deflated after hearing a musician “explain” a song that previously meant a lot to me — finding out that the songwriter’s interpretation is different to your own, that you’d essentially “misunderstood”, can be disappointing. And I’ve learned that often “this is a song about [insert major theme here], and it’s called [insert title]” is really good preamble fallback when you can’t think of anything else to say. I’m very much in the “preamble is good” camp, but if you’d paid to see a band who then proceeded to ramble on for longer than they actually played, you’d want your money back. I reckon the same goes for poetry — if the ratio of preamble:poem is too high, something needs to be done. To cut a long post short I think mainly my advice would be: pay attention. Listen to yourself. And listen to the audience. If you hear yawning, it’s time to shut up.
Are you anti-preamble or pro-ramble? Do you have a snappy one-liner you always bring out at readings? Any tips for terrified first-timers? You know where the comments box is…
(Photo by Elko Weaver)