How to Rehearse for a Poetry Reading
I'm reading at a women's poetry event at a literature festival tomorrow, where 100 women are reading 100 different poems of their choice. My preparation has already started, because that can make the difference between walking off stage on a cloud of exhilaration, and that annoying feeling of knowing you could have done better, which usually equates with wishing you'd prepared more.
If you are planning on reading a poem at an event, or gathering of any kind, whether a literary happening, a wedding, or even at a writing group, then I really recommend some preparations. Especially if you're not used to reading out loud to people, it's really worth scheduling the following into your plans.
1. Start with plenty of time to prepare.
Assuming that you've already been sent, or have chosen, the poem you are going to read, in my experience the best results come from starting your prep at the latest two days before your reading, and a week is not too early.
Some things in life can be better done on a knife-edge, and on the hoof. Unless you're a very experienced reader or performer indeed, then I don't think reading poetry out well is one of them. I've tried to tell myself this once or twice when about to read, but in truth, it has only ever been an excuse for not doing enough prep.
2. Stand up and be heard!
Most readings will be done standing up, and so that's the best way to practise. Standing up gives the force of our voice a clearer passage through our upper bodies. It's interesting to try the difference between reading sitting down, and standing up, just to illustrate this point.
If you're not able to stand up comfortably, for whatever reason, sit up as straight as you can, and be aware of needing to take deep breaths - in the way that would come more naturally to you if you were standing.
3. Get to know your poem.
I don't mean get to know the poem off by heart, but you do need to get to know it. If it's unfamiliar to us, the first practise readings are simply about finding your way around the poem. From your first cold readings, you'll inevitably find that you'll be reading some of the lines with the wrong emphasis, and wanting to start them from the beginning. You can imagine that this is not something you would want to happen too often (and preferably not at all!) when you're in front of your audience. This of course is what rehearsal is all about.
I don't think I've got the most advanced vocabulary in the world, and it's good to look up words that you're unsure of. If you don't know the meaning, it's almost impossible to know how to emphasise the word correctly for the poem. You need to be able to read it with confidence. Your comprehension of each word of the poem (even if its overall meaning happens to be lost on you!) will come through to the audience, and the correct cadence will help them to understand what you are saying.
4. Get used to the sound of your own voice.
If you feel self-conscious reading aloud to yourself in a room, then you're actually on the right track with your rehearsals, by doing exactly this. "Feel the fear and do it anyway". Are you reading out in a strangled, under-your-breath voice? Is this how you're in danger of reading to an audience? Take a deep breath, and speak up. Imagine the room is two or three times the size, and that everyone wants to hear you, and you want them to hear. Read through your poem like this at least two or three times every day in the lead-up to your performance. If you've not read to an audience before, then it's good to start a week beforehand. What you are aiming for, is to get used to the sound of your own voice out loud, and preferably, to get comfortable with it.
The reason this is important, is that when reading to an audience, when we're not used to it, pretty much all of us get self-conscious. We wonder how we're sounding. And so we start to listen to the sound of our own voice. Outside of this situation, it's not a usual thing to do. When talking to friends, family, customers, or colleagues, in a normal one to one conversation, do we ever ask ourselves "I wonder how I'm sounding?" And then start listening to ourselves, to work out how we're doing? Distracting ourselves from what we're saying and who we're saying it to at the same time? If we do this during a reading, it in turns adds to the sensation that we are going through a foreign experience, and that we're on the spot here. In a reading, we're also listening to the sound of our voice critically, which is hardly going to make us feel better or more sure of ourselves. Which is why it's really important to get used to the sound of your own voice - whatever the nature of your voice is - if you're going to sound your best at your reading.
Even if it doesn't kick in until just before your performance, it's inevitable that you'll be nervous about reading, to a greater or lesser degree. But you'll have a real head start if the sound of your voice does not in itself make you nervous. If you do find yourself listening to yourself for a moment, it should only be that moment, it should all sound okay, and you're back concentrating on your poem.
5. Look at your audience.
If you've been to many readings, you'll know that one of the things that makes it most difficult to enjoy a poem, is if the reader has their eyes constantly on their book or sheet, without looking up. It makes you feel like the reader doesn't even need you to be there - you're unacknowledged. As the reader, a good balance is glancing down at the book as soon and as often as you need to, and while you've got the phrase in your brain, looking back up at your audience. Where do you look? It works well to make eye contact briefly with people in the crowd. Spread your attention around. If you look at someone in the front row during a few words, and then need to glance at your book, look at someone in the middle or back next. It's just a flicker of contact. But it's quite difficult to look generally at a crowd, without your eyes glazing over.
So you need to rehearse this too. A good way is to practise reading to yourself in a mirror. You're getting used to moving your eyes up from the book intermittently, while keeping the flow of your poem going. As you get better at this, you'll find you can start doing it in your living room to an imaginary audience too. And now that you're hopefully getting less self-conscious, it's great of course to have a friend or family member to practise reading to.
6. Give your reading some weight. Literally.
Nothing shakes more than a single sheet of paper in the hand of a nervous reader. If you're reading from a book of poetry, preferably a fairly hefty one, that will be steadier. Whatever you are reading from, it will help to hold it with both hands.
The first time I was reading to larger audiences, I was reading from sheets, but put them in a clear polypropylene folder, with a couple of layers of cardboard in there to give it weight and stability in my hands. Another trick is to take a large, hardback notebook, and slip your sheet of paper in there to read from (or even copy it out).
I've never read out loud from a Kindle or iPad, but this would be a very modern take on poetry readings.
Reading preparation checklist.
- Start rehearsing early.
- Practise reading standing up.
- Get really familiar with the poem.
- Get used to the sound of your own voice.
- Practise reading to your reflection in a mirror.
- Read from something weighty to help with hand shake.
What's the worst that can happen?
We all have good days and bad days, especially where performance or public speaking is concerned. No-one is immune from it. You might feel like you want the ground to swallow you for a moment if you go wrong, but it really, truly, is not the end of the world. The thing to know, is that everyone in the audience admires you already, just for the guts you had to step up to speak in the first place. You can't go wrong really.
Experienced readers don't prepare less than inexperienced readers. They tend to prepare more, because they know what a difference it makes. These are the people who when you leave a reading, you think "Oh, weren't they good". You can be pretty sure it didn't come entirely naturally to them. They were the ones who prepared the most. Even if you've never read to an audience before, you can be a good reader first time, with the right preparation.