What I’ve learned about poetry readings.
I’ve written a lot about reading your work in public here in the two years (I missed my own second blog-birthday around the middle of August) since ONS began, but I have a confession to make: with some of the earlier posts, I didn’t have a huge amount of first hand experience. If I’m honest, I was going mainly off what I’d seen other poets do (this just as often teaches you how not to approach reading in public, by the way), and drawing from only a small handful of readings I’d been invited to give.
I don’t know how many of you will bother to go skulking off into the archives to see what I said — probably no one. But fortunately, it’s all reasonably sensible advice, lack of experience notwithstanding. However, these days I feel like a proper seasoned performer — someone should have said to me back in 2008, hey, when you’ve done two Edinburgh Festivals, two London Poetry Festivals and the Edinburgh International Book Festival, then you can come and advise young poets about reading, OK?
So OK, here I am. I’ve actually come to write this post because I came across this one over at White Hot Truth (new favourite blog, in case you hadn’t noticed). I decided it was time to update my thoughts on reading, tell you what I’ve learned, and hear what you guys do when faced with the prospect of getting off the page and onto the stage. So here goes.
Danielle’s first point is “gratitude is always the best place to begin.” I’m shocked to find that I never mentioned this in any previous posts. YES OBVIOUSLY. Always, always begin your set by saying thank you. Thank the organiser for inviting you. Thank the person who tipped you off about the open mic. Thank your fellow readers, if you think they deserve it, for sharing the stage with you. Whatever. Above all, thank the audience. These people have actively made the effort to come and support poetry, for goodness sakes. They might actually have paid. They might even have fought their way through horrible weather, across the city, across the country, to come and see you. Say thank you.
Be prepared, says Danielle, and I agree. First of all, have a damn set list already. I think it’s considered cool at the moment to rock up at a reading without (or apparently without) any idea of what you’re going to do when you get to the mic… but honestly? I hate that. There’s nothing more annoying than a poet with a massive stack of A4 paper, rustling around going ‘oh, what should I read next?’ while the audience twiddles their thumbs (the same applies to leafing back and forth through your dog-eared first collection, though admittedly it’s less noisy and you’re less likely to drop paper all over the front row). I’m also wary of poets who read from memory, but spend a couple of minutes between each poem looking skyward as if seeking divine inspiration. If the poems are all there in your head (I wish I had your fabulous memory, folks), then surely there’s also space for a vague set-list to form? And if you’re one of those paper-shufflers… get organised. You have lots of poems, we get it. We’ll take five or six good ones, please, and skip the suspense.
Secondly, do a run-through. This I have said before… but before I always advocated this as a helping hand for you, the poet. Now I say: run through beforehand for the sake of the audience. Remember, they might have actually paid money to see you rock the mic. If you were in a play showing to a ticket-paying crowd would you skip the dress rehearsal? Yes, doing a run through means reading poems to imaginary people in your bedroom and makes you feel like a bit of an idiot, but it’s all good practice. It is a truth universally acknowledged that the more you read your poems aloud, the better your poems get, after all.
A lot of people say you should open your set with your best poem, but I’d dispute this. I think I agree more with Rob Gordon, who says “you’ve got to kick it off with a killer, to grab attention, but then you’ve got to take it up a notch. But you don’t want to blow your wad, so then you’ve got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules.” Sure, he’s talking about making a mixtape (Rob’s rules utterly work, by the way. And I make a lot of mixtapes), but this makes sense. Don’t start and end with brilliant poems but read average stuff in between. Mix it up and keep people listening (audiences aren’t that understanding — they will drift off if you don’t keep them in line). My only rule would be: end on a killer. And I don’t just mean a strong last poem, but a strong last line. I firmly believe that it’s the last two — maybe four — lines you read that really make or break what the crowd think of you. My favourite poem to finish a set on ends “if you don’t want to be a in a poem / don’t fuck a poet.” People always come and recite that back to me afterwards.
Also on the topic of finishing your set: finish your poem and then get the hell out of there. Don’t be one of these twits who stands on the stage til all the applause has died down, for example (a student of mine did this at a reading not too long ago. Awkward). Also, do your thanks, plugging of books and preamble etc at the beginning of your set. Deliver your killer last line(s), then leave. Leave people thinking about your poems, not your “oh hey, and by the way, thanks for having me!” awkwardness.
Lastly: a lot of people ask me about dealing with getting heckled. This is not something I’ve ever written about here before, but it is something I seem to be experiencing with increasing regularity. Some poets get heckled a lot, others have never experienced it. I think you’re only so heckle-able — chances are it’s more to do with your venue and how late into the evening it is (particularly if you’re reading at an event where drink is flowing freely). However, I’ve discovered that being a six foot redhead who dresses like a scruffy hippie and reads poems about BOYS doesn’t always make for a, er, particularly respectful crowd. My personal approach to hecklers — and a lot of people would disagree, I’m sure — is to kick their asses. Usually. Sometimes you’ll get a heckler who wants to offer something useful or genuinely cool and funny — I once got heckled in Klingon while reading my now-old-favourite Star Trek poem, and that was so awesome that I now routinely invite closet Klingon speakers to interject if they feel the need. But often hecklers are just idiots who are too many red wines past their bedtime. Those guys — the “oi darlin’!” brigade, as I like to call them — need and deserve to feel your wrath. I mean, they’re not just disturbing your set, they’re disturbing everyone else’s enjoyment (hopefully) of it as well. Maybe it’s just the teacher in me, I don’t know. But “quit heckling and have the balls to come up and talk to me afterwards, please” usually works pretty well. But I must admit that my all-time favourite response to a heckler came from legendary Edinburgh performance poet Bram Gieben, aka Texture of the Chemical Poets. After politely ducking a few comments from one particularly persistent drunken commentator, he resorted to “hey man, how about you shut the fuck up and get the fuck out of my gig?” That line got the biggest round of applause of the night.
OK guys, what are your golden poetry reading rules? I’d love to hear your take on hecklers, too… you know where the comments box is.