by Ami Mattison
I shared my poetry with an audience for the first time at an old-fashioned “poetry reading.”
It was 1991, and there were four of us. We took turns standing behind a music stand where our poems were laid out, and we proceeded to read in our best “serious poet” voices. You know the voice I’m talking about—the one where every line ends in an upward tone and sounds almost like a question?
Wow, have things changed since those days!
Now, in addition to the mainstay of the literary poetry reading, there are raucous open mics and poetry slams all over the country, where people don’t simply read, they “perform.”
They spit, they slam, they rap, they rant. In other words, they use their bodies and voices to give life to their words beyond the written page.
Now, almost twenty years after my first poetry reading, I earn a modest income from touring and performing my poetry to live audiences. No more serious poet voice for me.
Instead, I give expression to my poetry through dramatic and (what I hope are) well-crafted performances.
IT’S ALL POETRY
There’s long been a rift between the “academic,” or literary poetry scene and the spoken word scene. Academic poets often dismiss the quality of spoken word poetry, while spoken word aficionados think academic poetry is boring. But, in the final instance, it’s all poetry.
Regardless of what a poem is about or how it’s written, it can be performed in a way that entertains, inspires, or moves audiences.
WHAT I MEAN BY “PERFORMANCE”
When I say “perform,” I don’t mean memorizing your poem and then screaming it at audiences, though there are certainly enough spoken word performers who do that. Rather, when I say “perform,” I mean finding creative ways to emote through language in order to engage one’s listener.
Performance is an emotional interpretation of your poem.
It is simply using your voice, your body, and your breath to convey not only your words but the layered emotions beneath them.
In other articles, I’ve suggested that memorizing your poetry offers an excellent way to experience it, either alone or in front of audiences.
But you don’t need to memorize your poetry in order to offer a great performance. Reading your poetry can also provide an opportunity to convey it in your own personal and unique way.
And ultimately, the key to a great poetry performance is finding your own voice and your own style of sharing your poetry.
After all, it’s your poetry. And who better to perform it than you?
WHY YOU SHOULD PERFORM
Many poets who have published works read their poetry as a way to sell and promote their books, and that’s a great reason to perform or read. But you don’t need something to sell in order to perform your poetry. All you need are some poems you want to share and a venue to share them in.
Besides selling your books, there are several reasons to perform your poetry. Here a few of the reasons why I perform:
To connect and share with others. For me, sharing my poetry and connecting with others are the primary motivators for performing. When you share your poetry by performing or reading it, you’re in a unique position to connect with others. Connecting with others through my poetry and performance is fulfilling. It makes me feel that I belong to something bigger than myself; it makes me feel like an active participant in social communities, culture and history, and the creative universe. That feeling is totally awesome, and it’s the main reason why I encourage others to read or perform their poetry to live audiences—because it feels good to connect with others. And for poets, who usually work in solitude, it’s good for us to connect—good for our health and good for our poetry.
To “work” on poems. When I perform or read my poetry to audiences, I hear it quite differently than I do when I’m writing it or when I simply read it aloud in the privacy of my study. When there’s an audience, I’m able to hear it from their point of view. And by doing so, I’m more likely to catch those places that simply don’t work, don’t make sense, sound clichéd, or are more telling than showing. This aspect of performance is invaluable to my creative process, and it’s one that I simply cannot gain from working on my poetry in solitude.
To get immediate feedback. Related to being able to work through your poetry is the immediate feedback you get from a live audience. For instance, it’s rewarding to hear an audience laugh at the funny parts of my poetry. When they do, I know I’ve done something right—both on the page and in my performance. Getting applause is great and a wonderful indicator that your poetry and your performance of it are successful. But sometimes when an audience chooses not to applaud it’s because they are profoundly moved by your poem, and that silence feels sacred. Also, those who are moved, inspired, or entertained by your poetry will sometimes tell you as much after your performance. It is often that one shy person who finds the courage to tell me that they were inspired by my performance that gives meaning to the sweat I’ve put into writing and performing.
To have an amazing experience. Performing or reading your poetry to audiences is fun, and oftentimes, it can be an utterly amazing experience. Even those who sweat at the notion of public speaking can find ways to enjoy reading their poetry to others. And if you’re very shy, then sharing your poetry to a live audience may be the very challenge you most need to up your game as a poet. I’m not precisely shy, but I’m introverted in many ways, and performing gives me an opportunity to challenge myself and to take some social and creative risks for the sake of my poetry. To those more extroverted, trust me, you’ll absolutely love performing. There’s nothing quite like reaching out and touching an audience with your words and getting that bit of social attention that extroverts enjoy.
JUST DO IT
Have I convinced you yet? If so, then do a bit of research and scouting before you perform. All over the country, there are open mics that happen on a regular basis. In large cities, there are sometimes dozens of open mic venues, but you can find them in small towns as well.
Finding an open mic in your area is simply a matter of checking your local listings and asking around.
When you do find an open mic, then check it out first so you can decide if it’s a place where you’ll feel safe performing. But DO take your poetry with you. You might be surprised how infectious it is to hear other poets reading and performing their poetry.
Many poets go to an open mic intending only to listen and before the night is through they’ve totally rocked the mic.
When you’re at an open mic, don’t let the poetry of others turn you off to sharing your own poetry.
It’s common for open mic newbies to feel that their poetry won’t fit in or it’s not good enough.
But check your inner critic. You may be sitting on a poem that could potentially blow someone else away. More importantly, sharing your poetry is a gift to yourself, to others, and to the creative universe. And you’re worth that gift.
Also, check out some spoken word videos on the internet to get a sense of what other poets are doing. If you’re interested, you can see some footage of me in action by visiting my Youtube page.
If you’re not sure about how to “perform” your poetry and how to find your own unique voice, then read this article on developing your poetry for performance. Finally, for a more in-depth discussion of how to perform for audiences, consider this article on tips for spoken word beginners.
Performing your poetry is, in the final instance, a very simple act. But it offers great rewards. So, try it out.
Perform your poetry!
What are your questions about performing or reading your poetry to an audience? Have doubts or worries? Feel free to ask me anything related to the performance experience. I’m here to help.