I’ve seen it a hundred times. A newer poet takes the mic, prepares themselves to read their work and utters the fateful words “This probably isn’t any good.”
At this moment a handful of things happen. Firstly, the audience switch off and begin talking with their friends or checking their Facebook. Secondly, the host gets a little irritable, wondering why you’re taking mic time if your material isn’t good, and lastly, I, in the back of the room, wince.
People think they’re being humble when they say “this isn’t very good” or self deprecating when they say “this is really depressing” but the truth is by building these low expectations into your set, you give the audience the right to ignore you. Why would people want to listen to bad poetry?
To be a performance poet, you need to have a little bit of an ego. Nothing too crass but enough to justify standing on a stage and saying “these are my feelings and you should listen.” Even if you don’t feel like a rockstar, you have been given that time behind the microphone to wow a room. It’s okay to not rush into performance, to hold back work while you edit and make it better or to only perform when you have new work ready but you should never apologise. There is a validity in everyone’s poetry, including yours.
Another negative point about telling the audience your poem will be bad, you are telling them what to think. The poem, upon leaving the mouth of the poet, becomes that of the audiences. It is there’s to make of it what they wish, to find the notes that resonate with their own lives and the particular wordplay that appeal to them. Not every poem will be for everyone and that’s okay. Even if you connect with one person in the room, you have accomplished something wonderful.
We apologise before a poem because that’s when we are at our most nervous. Some go the other way and deliver long monologues before their pieces exploring the themes and inspirations behind everything. Once this has been done, is there really any reason to hear the poem?
This is done so one can acclimatise to the stage and the audience but it robs a performance of it’s power. Introducing poetry is hard, you don’t want to give too much away but you’re also compelled to show people what you’ve done and why.
Before beginning a poetry performance, I take a second to look out at the audience. I will adjust the microphone properly and then I will say hello. Nothing grand, just a simple hello. The audience is here to share an intimate moment with you and should be treated like a friend. This is all you need, those few moment of comfortable stillness.
Your introduction should be planned before hand. No more than two or three sentences. You are here to perform poetry, not to monologue. The simplest introduction is “This is a poem called…” and it works. The poem should speak for itself. You can say “this is about…” and give away the broad theme. The important thing is to not dwell on specifics and to have a clear idea of what you’re about to say before you say. This is where planning your set is absolutely vital. As you become more confident as a performer, you can start improvising but only once you’ve built that back catalogue of pre-amble and developed your confidence as a performer.
I often tell people the performance poet should be 1/5th a standup comedian. This doesn’t mean you need to be a wacky madman behind the mike, it just means as poets we can draw up the same confidence, story-telling and presence you see in comedians. We’re not given as many performances inspirations as poets outside of those we see live and on the internet. Stand-up comedy, provided you fully analyse the differences between the genre and poetry, is the closest we will usually see in our everyday lives.
Once you have taken the time to intro your piece, clear your throat. Step away from the microphone, give a little cough or sip of your drink and have another micropause. You’re about to switch from one gear to another, and like a car, you can get the engine jammed. Taking that time to refocus your headspace can make the difference between a flawless set and one with a coughing fit in the middle.
Step back to the microphone, take your final breath and begin. You’ve set them up, now knock them dead.