Poetry readings: prepare to preamble!

I recently received an email from an ONS reader, with this question:

“Hi Claire,
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!
x Naomi.”

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!

(Photo by Olivia Bee)

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10 Responses to “Poetry readings: prepare to preamble!”

  1. Pages tagged "poetry reading" Says:

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  2. Chris Lindores Says:

    Hmm, during my first reading, I had no preambles to anything, probably confusing some of the audience given some of the stuff I read; I only had the weird Burroughs cut-up method of the audience choosing the order of my poems. I thought afterwards (not that night, but the next week or so) that it was better without preambles and letting the audience think for themselves, but with my second reading coming up, I’m not so sure. I’ll see what I choose to read and then decide from there. (I’m sure this was going somewhere, but I have got lost and forgotten what I was going to say.)

  3. Mystic Fitzgerald Says:

    Truth is when you first start out, what you write will not need the addrerss of solomon about it. the worst thing ppl do and it proves they are a tosser when doing it, is talk for ten minutes about summat, about how:

    “well i sort of wrote it because i find the spaces between uncertainty and doubt, fascinationg, and i was studying at play-group as a four yr old trainee bore, and nigel had just taken my crayons, - nigel is now actually working for a very smug arsehoe - and the light came in and as it did, i thought, society today, it seems so, so enriched with meaning and then i began to compose and on doing so found out i was shite.”

    any intro that lasts longer than the poem, proves the person boring us should leave the stage to ppl with less bullshit and more poetry.

    if you are new to it, trust me, no one is interested in the backstory, just effin read it, dead simple, forget practicing in the mirror with a bog brush…*and then jonathan said, tulips, a ha ha ha!!*

    just read it. if you feel you have to attempt to play the mystic with yr prose, keep it very very short, as there is nothing worse for the audience than listening to someone who is not very good, detaining us longer than the minimum we want them to be on for, with full blown slow monotone deliveries about a load of wank, for summat that when we hear it, is even more pointless.

    ok, sorry to rant, but keep it short, concise, slick, and no more than a few seconds, trust me most ppl at poetry do’s are other poets who will hate yr guts, unless there are actgually ppl there who are normal and have nowt to do with the biz.

    if your audience is fellow bores, they will all be hoping you are crap, and if the night is full of duffers, why not be the star, by just relying ion yr poems, and not a ten minute ramble for a thrity second epic that on hearing your audience will hate you even more for, for conning them.

    i speak as someone with seven yrs live, first three was about once a month, next two and a half, once a week in Dublin with the toughest crew yiz ever meet, as the quality here is just on average fifty times better than anywhere else. ppl who come here from abroad, everyone of them who comes the open mic, are humbled in the sense it does them good, as i remeber my first time here, you think your good coz you are with a load of am-drammers say, and little whoever is the star in that pool, then they come here and die on hteir arse as it dawns on them, oops, this the compo, these the duffers, the real bluffers, and go home learning stuff, often very very happy as their is summat they put in the water, the air, the land the sea and rock, Live, living cultural force of poetry, due to the gaelic culture that ran for 2000 yrs and was run by poets, as in they were the lawyers, so poetry here aint cravats and pip pip porscha darlings, but live, real, magic diddle dee

  4. Mandy Motion Says:

    sorry, rant-patrol, you may wish to edit or remove and if so, please do.

    fanx for being good sports.



  5. Mandy Motion Says:

    actually take no notice of the short advice, truth is you are in the moment, so whatever feels right, yeah, eff off fitz yer tzzer, chris and Claire, whatever feels natural, so if it’s an epic intro, forgive me i am a dickhead, just do what feels right and be happy..

  6. Philippa Says:

    My view on premables is that less is more, always. Let the poems speak for themselves, and if people want to know more, they’ll come and ask you afterwards, which is always really cool!!

  7. Simon Freedman Says:

    one thing I notice is that some people deliver their preambles in a such a dramatic, oratorial way (dramatic pauses and all) that it’s hard to tell where the preamble stops and the poem starts….makes my teeth itch, that does

  8. Claire Says:

    Philippa - personally, I agree. If a poem needs a huge long preamble then it doesn’t do its job properly; it doesn’t stand alone. & sometimes a huge preamble can, as I say, bore the audience to the point where they’re no longer listening once the poem starts — I think that ties into your point too, Simon!

  9. One Night Stanzas » Blog Archive » Some tips on reading your poetry aloud. Says:

    [...] the fact that people have shown up and are sitting (hopefully) in silence listening to your work. Preambles are always a good way to get the audience involved and interested in what you’re saying, or [...]

  10. One Night Stanzas » Blog Archive » In search of the perfect preamble. Says:

    [...] 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 [...]