One of the oldest forms of performance is oral interpretation. At one time poetry was “spoken”. It has been a more recent development for poetry to be words on a page. Some of our greatest literature originated as performances that were handed down by word of mouth. Unfortunately, this tradition has become a lost art. In today’s world the word “performance” often means “slam poetry” that is integrated with improvisation, and music as a performing art. However, the writer who has an opportunity to perform his or her writing wants to share the poems he or she has written in the best possible way. Any opportunity an author gets to share their work should be a polished performance, not just reading it.
All the prose techniques that I have discussed in the previous blogs, also apply to the poetry performance. So what’s the difference? Well, consider the following items:
— A poem brimming with imagery must be read with special attention to every single detail, even if it means coloring by varying, and emphasizing every word in some way that help to create images in the audiences’ minds. The performer must give them time to picture, and to think about what the poet has written. The best presentation of poetry allows the audience to understand, and experience everything. The performer must allow the audience to understand and experience every meaning, every sound, every feeling, every rhythm and every image.
— All poetry has rhythm even though it may not have a rhyme scheme. Some poetry may have multiple rhythms that need to surface. However, if the performer chooses to let the multiple rhythms surface, remember that these rhythmic changes must be justified by the ideas and emotions in the literature. There are many quality contemporary poems that are written in conversational, narrative free verse form. A close analysis of such poetry would reveal many poetic techniques that may escape the listener on first hearing if the performer has not carefully considered the best way to perform the work so that the audience accepts it as a form of poetry rather that dismiss it as prose.
—Most traditional poetry employs rhyme and predictable rhythm patterns. The performance of this poetry should exhibit on the interpreter’s part the ability to accentuate the rhyme when appropriate (usually in humorous literature), and to avoid it when not (most often in serious literature.)
— Your poetry performance may consist of several poems that are thematically related. You should use transitions from one poem to the next so that your audience can follow you easily.
Transitions in the Poetry
If you will be performing multiple selections, then internal transitions that are smooth must be provided to show how each poem is logically linked to the next. Suppose, for example, that someone wants to present a poetry program on LOVE—specifically, how love has evolved from love for a parent, to love for a child, and then to love for a spouse. The performer would introduce the concept of love, leading the description into the title of the poems about the many types of love that are experienced in life. He or she would then read the poem about love for a parent. Before beginning the next poem, the performer would provide an internal transition connecting this love the love for a child, explaining how the relationship changes as roles are switched introducing the title of the next poem. Finally, the performer would create a transition to the final poem leading the audience into the next experience and introducing the title of it. There are a couple of ways that the performance can be ended. One is to simply close the book, binder or whatever the performer is using for the script, break eye contact with the audience, pause for a few seconds and sit down. Another way is to end with a closing statement that reflects the overall concept of the work the performer has just shared.
The suggestions below are anyone who must occasionally read their works in public, and the essential message is practice, practice, practice. I always tell my students that the three “P’s” are essential.
Some Suggestions that I give my students, and can be found almost anywhere how-to present information can be found:
1. Learn the basics of the actor's trade: relaxation, breath control, articulation, voice projection and modulation. Do this as a positive daily workout if you are performing your poetry regularly, not as a chore left to the night before.
2. Rehearse the performance so thoroughly that the actual reading seems habitual and natural.
3. Entertain. Be genuinely friendly to the audience. Address them directly. Secure attention. Play to their responses.
4. Memorize the pieces sufficiently so that only the odd glance at the script is necessary.
5. Leave nothing to chance. Check lectern, microphone, space on the stage, how you make your entrance, place your script, etc.
6. Know where you are on the evening's list of readers, and arrange your pieces accordingly. You'll feel easier, and so will they.
7. Anticipate interjections and problems; prepare handy responses.
8. Enjoy yourself. Have a good time, and the audience will too.