For the performance poet, nothing is more rewarding than pulling off a great set, when everything seems to flow right, everyone picks up the vibes at the right moments and, if you’re lucky, you hear a few clicks at some of your snappier lines.
But what are the components that make a good set? How can you refine these elements to produce a great set? Can anyone produce a great set?
I am a firm believer that the ultimate power of poetry lies in performance. The difference between good poetry and a good poetry performance is astronomical. Poor performance is the killer of even the best poetry.
Right up front, a poet should have a clear, well-rehearsed intro that sets the tone for the performance. This first impression can be a plug for all the cool stuff you do, it could be how long you’ve been a poet, why you write or just a greeting to the audience. Whatever you say, the way you say it and what you do while saying it are critical factors is informing the relationship you and your audience will share.
Movement is an often-underutilised tool of poets. Mostly we are static performers, occupying one spot on the stage. Some people overperform, transitioning to full-blown acting, which robs the nuance of a poetry performance. Good movement is built around a good stance, not too far away from the microphone but with ample room to move one’s hands (a study on TED talks found that viral speakers used about twice as many hand motions as the least popular).
A good performer knows how to use eye contact. Avoiding meeting people’s eyes can give you a sense of vulnerability and make people ill at ease, perfect for pieces on mental health and sensitive subjects, while a confident poem, maybe one that relies on humour, will need direct eye contact. Human beings can accurately read emotion from just the positioning of one’s eyelids, everything else is an extra tool we use but eye contact is our most basic method of communication. People who seek eye contact while speaking are regarded not only as exceptionally well-disposed by their targets, but also as more believable and earnest.
The poems you select should form a coherent emotional narrative. It’s no use pulling out random poems with no connection if you want to deliver the most impact. For a ten-minute set, I like to use three poems to tell a small story, with a beginning, middle and end. This can be falling in love, being in love, and then falling out of love; birth, life, and death; or anything you can imagine. Some poems will take the place of two of those steps but as long as the narrative is there, your audience will find the connections. I usually like to add one, off-topic, funny poem, just to leave the audience in a good place.
Between each poem, you have your links. While some people like to fill this with improvised banter, this is a risky endeavour and probably more for the experienced performers. Most of us should rely on pre-rehearsed links. If you are a lighter poet, having a few stand-alone jokes is a great crowd pleaser, or if you deal with a heavier subject-matter, your stories should be concise but set the stage for your poem. Remember, your poetry should be doing the heavy lifting.
Finally, if you’re looking to tour it’s wise to have a go-to set. Your regular, home nights can be used for your new, experimental material, but if you’re aiming to visit other events then having a set you can rely on to bring the house down is essential. I have poems I’m reasonably certain I can recite while asleep, heavily drunk or nervous as hell. I have poems I recite while doing the dishes. Everything is rehearsal time, so when I go out in front of a new audience, I have an absolute command of my set. This enables me to change what I’m doing based on the will of the audience. The ability to be receptive to what the audience likes is a key skill that every poet should learn but this comes from experience and rehearsal.