Some tips on reading your poetry aloud.

While I was at StAnza this past weekend, I went to some great readings and heard loads of brilliant poems. However, all too often great poems were spoiled by poor reading — sometimes from poets who’ve been around long enough to know better! It got me thinking, and I decided to put together some tips to help those of you with reading troubles (or those of you who just aren’t sure what makes a “good reading”). Check them out… hope they help!

1. Be loud enough.
Seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it, but I’m always surprised by the number of poets I see who don’t seem able to recognise or master the importance and art of voice-projection! Not being able to hear everything you say can really make or break other people’s enjoyment of your poems… and if they miss a vital line, it might even affect their understanding of what you’re trying to do and say with a piece. Yes, getting up in front of people to read your work is daunting, but the more confidently you deliver, the better it will go. And don’t go assuming that just because you have a mic in front of you, people can hear you. Audiences are annoyingly polite, and often won’t make it obvious if you’re not loud enough. There’s nothing wrong with taking a minute at the beginning to do a quick soundcheck — just do a spot of preamble or begin with a short poem, and then ask the audience if they can all hear OK. If you see any shaking heads, speak up a bit.

2. Sound interested!
Again, it seems obvious, but for goodness sakes, sound interested in your own stuff! I heard some really great, dynamic poets at StAnza, but not all of them convinced me with their readings — some of them just sounded plain bored with the words they were saying. I’m not sure if this is a “style” right now, but I promise, it doesn’t work! If you read in a monotone, disinterested way, your audience will find it really hard not to drift off — they might also not see the true quality of your work. You don’t have to crack a joke every other line or go into slam-performance mode… just remember that if you make your words sound interesting, your audience will want to listen instinctively. If you’ve been reading the same poems for so long that you can’t help but sound bored with them, find some new ones to read. If you’ve got into the habit of reading your poems in a monotone way, practice by reading someone else’s poems aloud to yourself — inhabiting other voices and rhythms can really make a difference. And if you’re not sure how to read your poems in the first place, get out there and listen to other poets. Note what they do well, and what they do badly. Apply this learning.

3. Don’t put on “a poetry voice.”
OK, I’ll just contradict myself for a second here — everyone has a special voice they reserve for reading their own work. Apart from anything else, this is essentially public speaking, so you’re not going to use the same voice as you would if you were ordering a pizza (probably). However, far too often, you’ll hear poets (often inexperienced ones, because somewhere along the line they hear that this is what you’re supposed to do!) reading in an obviously put-on way. Elongated vowels and exaggerated consonants (particularly ’s’!), overlong pauses and lines going up at the end are common things. And OK, sometimes this can sound alright, but all too often it sounds unnatural and sometimes just downright funny. Basically, you should find a way of reading that you feel comfortable with, but you should also make sure that it doesn’t put your audience off, or make you sound daft! If in doubt, try your reading voice out on a brutally honest friend.

4. Involve your audience.
This is a bit tricky, admittedly… but when reading, it helps to try and “involve” the audience to some extent. I don’t mean panto-style audience participation or anything — you just need to acknowledge 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 you can do a quick “thanks for listening” either right at the beginning or right at the end of your set. It’s a good idea not to get too engrossed in whatever you’re reading off, too… let the audience know that you remember they’re there by looking up at them every so often. This might seem daunting but you should get used to doing it sooner rather than later — if all else fails, focus on a friend every time you look up, or look at the back wall or some other spot just above and behind the audience. Try not to look at your feet or the ceiling! If you’re new to the whole poetry reading thing, it might seem like a good idea to just get onto the stage, reel off your poems and then get the heck out of there as fast as possible, but the more you acknowledge the people listening to you, the more likely they are to acknowledge you — that means enjoying your stuff, remembering it, coming up to you afterwards to offer tips and encouragement, and possibly even spreading the word about your work.

5. Know when to stop.
Particularly when you’re reading with other poets, you need to stick to the amount of time you’ve been given — and if you haven’t been given a specific amount of time, pay attention to the audience and try to stop as soon as (or preferably just before!) you realise they might be flagging. This isn’t just out of consideration for your fellow readers, it’s also out of consideration for your listeners. If you get all the first four of these points down, but end up talking the audience into a coma, all your good work will be undone! Know when it’s time to go, and get out of there!

Questions? Suggestions? Drop me a line to!

(Photo by Mr-traraw)

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5 Responses to “Some tips on reading your poetry aloud.”

  1. Crafty Green Poet Says:

    excellent advice, I particualrly dislike those ‘poetry voices’ too. The monotone thing is a style / fashion thing at the minute unfortunately I think. I think an extra bit of good advice is to warm up your voice beforehand. I think that’s what i need to do, to make sure my voice doesn’t crack with nerves next time I’m on stage.

  2. Christian Ward Says:

    Some good advice here, Claire.

    I once read my work at a university event and went to a workshop on practising reading techniques. One of the things I remember most from it was learning to breathe.

    This can help to relax before an event and get rid of the ‘giggles’ you may have in you, making you more focused.

  3. Amanda Says:

    I shared this with all of the kids on the slam team I coach, as well as tried to take it in as good advice for myself! Ironically (?) I have, quite possibly, the world’s most terrible and ridiculous stage fright.

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