An earlier version of this post appeared at One Night Stanzas in September 2008
If you’ve read What’s The Deal With Poetry Readings?, then you know that I encourage people to read their poetry aloud at every possible opportunity (audience or no audience)! But I also appreciate that getting up in front of a load of strangers and reading your poetic creations can be pretty nerve-wracking, so I have a few words of advice to anyone who’s thinking about embarking on their first ever reading…
1. Say yes.
If you spot a poster advertising a local open mic, or if someone approaches you to read at their event, grab the opportunity with both hands! As I’ve already explained in What’s The Deal With Poetry Readings?, you should aim to begin reading your poetry as soon as you feel even semi-confident, because it’s such a helpful and empowering exercise. Of course, if the idea petrifies you, the urge to say “I can’t, I’m busy that night,” or “I think I’ll just go along and watch” will be very strong… but you have to fight your fears! Make yourself say yes! Commit yourself, and don’t back out. You’ll be glad you kept your nerve afterwards.
2. Be prepared.
Please don’t get onto the stage with your notebook and then just turn to a random page. While this can work for more established readers, it’s not a good idea for a first-time gig! Find a handful of poems you love. Practice on your own, then in front of your parents/siblings/partner/someone you trust, then in front of a bigger group of family or friends. Get really familiar with the stuff you want to read — this will make mistakes and blushes much less likely!
3. Put yourself first.
Negotiate with the event organiser, if you can, about where you go in the line-up. I would actually advise you to try for an early spot — first, even, if you can bear it. OK, so opening the show might be your worst nightmare, but think: you get the audience at its best, before they’ve had time to get tired, bored or drunk, and before they’ve started thinking about going out for a cigarette or nipping to the loo. You have their full attention, and they have no expectations of you — plus, if you go first, everyone will think you’re incredibly brave and be in awe!
4. Enjoy yourself.
You’ll be surprised: reading your work to an audience is actually a really, really fun experience. Acknowledge that! Don’t get up on stage with a frown and spend the whole time panicking about the slight quiver in your voice. If your knees are knocking or you’re blushing furiously, crack a joke about first-time nerves and just carry on. Getting a reaction from the audience is incredibly rewarding, so make sure you perform for them — don’t just hide behind the mic or stare at your feet the whole time. Make eye contact — I normally pick out my friends in the audience and glance up at them from time to time, or focus on the bar staff or the guys at the sound desk (they’re normally far too busy to see you looking at them!). And smile! Flash the audience a big smile whenever they react to you, and you’ll be guaranteed a huge round of applause at the end.
5. Love your audience.
No matter what your irrational brain thinks, your audience is not the enemy. They are not there to laugh, throw rotten tomatoes or judge you harshly — people who go to poetry readings are generally people who really like poetry! Your audience will know how hard it is to a) write a poem and b) get up and read it to strangers, so chances are they will admire you for what you‘re doing. You really should love and appreciate your audience. In some cases, they’ve paid money to see you (money which may well come back to you at the end of the night!) and they’ll often come up to you after the reading to offer advice and encouragement. Don’t be afraid to chat to your audience members; their reactions can be really helpful, and I guarantee that no one will come up and say “you were rubbish, give up,” or anything along those lines. They may say things like “I couldn’t hear you very well,” or “that one poem was a bit long,” but don’t be disheartened by these comments! They can be really useful, and they’re almost always accompanied by something like “but it didn’t matter, because you were awesome!”
6. Look forward.
Everyone is nervous before their first ever reading — but I have good news for you! No other reading you do in the future will be anywhere near as nerve-wracking as the first. Many people told me this as I was preparing for my first reading — that every reading thereafter is a piece of cake — and in my freaked-out state of mind I thought, “yeah right!” However, when I got onto the stage at my second ever reading, all the problems that had plagued me at my first reading — blushing, quivering voice, being unable to make eye-contact with my audience — disappeared. I was playing to a much bigger crowd second time around, but none of it fazed me — I loved every second. So look forward! The thought of your first reading may keep you awake at night, but it’s a big milestone, and once you pass it, it’s plain sailing.
Any seasoned readers want to offer any other pointers? Tell me about your first ever poetry-reading experience. How did it go?
Check out the other articles in the Dear Poetry Newbies… series!
You can also visit Read This Press for more poetry (and typewriter paraphernalia!). Alternatively, check out Edinburgh Vintage, our sister site. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!