Performing a poem is about communicating how that poem affects you personally, so you get to add your own interpretation on top of the author’s (if you didn’t write it yourself). Here are instructions for each of the many steps to a poetry performance, from choosing a style that fits the poem to staying calm on stage.
Preparing in Advance
Know the rules of the performance. If you are attending a poetry slam, following a class assignment, or entering a poetry performance competition, you should read all the rules carefully. You may be required to pick a poem or multiple poems from a certain time period, or a poem related to a certain topic. Often, you’ll be required to perform your poem within a certain amount of time.
Select a poem you enjoy. Performing a poem lets you show the audience how the poem affects your emotions and ideas. Try to find a poem that causes you to react in some way, and that you want to share with other people. Unless you’re participating in a poetry performance with a specific theme, you can pick any type of poem: silly, dramatic, serious, or simple. Don’t try to pick a famous or serious poem if you don’t enjoy it; any type of poetry can be performed.
If you don’t know any poems you like, flip through poetry collections at the library, or search online for poems about a topic you enjoy.
If you want to write your own poem, you can find advice in the article How to Write a Poem.
If you’re performing for a poetry competition, read the rules to see if you will be judged on the poem you picked. In some competitions, you’ll score more points for picking poems with complex ideas, changes in emotion, and variations in style.
Learn how to say and understand any difficult words. If you’re not sure how to pronounce all the words in the poem, find a video of the poem being performed and listen carefully. You can also search for “how is ___ pronounced” and usually find a written or video explanation. Look up the definition of words you’re not 100% certain about. Poets often refer to two meanings of the same word, so learning a new definition might teach you a whole new interpretation of a line.
If your poem was written in a non-standard dialect, or more than 100 years ago, many of the words will be pronounced differently than in a modern pronunciation guide. Try to find a video of these poems being performed, or poems by the same author.
Listen to videos or audio recordings of people performing poetry (optional). It doesn’t matter if you look up famous actors reciting Shakespeare or ordinary people recording their own poem. It will help if the poem being performed is the one you picked, or has a similar style (loud and dramatic, a realistic description, etc.). You should be able to tell within a minute or two whether you like a performance. Keep looking until you find someone you like, and study the performances they have recorded. Think about why you enjoy it, and write down the answer so you can follow the good example. Do you enjoy poems read slowly and steadily, or performances that speed up and slow down to emphasize different moods?
Do you like performers who exaggerate the tone of voice and gesture dramatically, or ones who sound more natural and realistic?
This is especially useful if you’re trying to get better at poetry performance. Listening to people you admire frequently will teach you how to improve.
Take notes directly on the poem to mark how you’ll read it. Print or write out at least one copy of your poem. Make notes directly onto it to tell yourself when to pause, slow down, gesture, or change your tone of voice. This is called scoring the poem, and you might have to experiment with several different styles before you find one you like. Guess at what might sound best, then read it aloud to see if you’re right.
If you listened to other examples of poetry, you should have a few ideas about how much you want to change speed, pause, or change your tone of voice.
There’s no one way to write down these notes. Use any symbols or words that make sense to you, or highlight the words you want to emphasize.
Think about what suits the poem. A dramatic poem like The Jabberwocky can be performed with big gestures and extreme changes in facial expression. A poem about a quiet view of a meadow should be read slowly, in a calm voice.
Practice reading the poem more slowly than you want to. When you’re in front of a crowd, it’s easy for nerves and adrenaline to cause you to speed up. Even for a poem you want to read quickly, practice starting out quite slow, then speeding up as it gets more exciting or tense. (More rarely, a poem will start out excited and calm down, in which case you can practice slowing down instead.) Pause where it sounds natural so the performance sounds smoother. Don’t pause at the end of every line, unless you really think it sounds better that way. If your poem has punctuation, save your long pauses for the end of sentences, and shorter ones for commas, parentheses, and other punctuation marks.
Time yourself if there’s a limit to how long the performance can go on. Generally, a poem performance only takes a few minutes. If your performance goes on too long, try to select one or two verses of the poem that make sense by themselves, or pick a different poem. Don’t try to read super quickly to get under the time limit; this won’t sound pleasant.
Focus on the words more than the acting. Even a dramatic poem should be mostly about the poem itself, not the gestures and voices you’re making. You can be more exaggerated than normal life if you think it suits the poem’s style, but don’t distract people from the actual meaning of the words. Try to speak every word clearly. Do not “swallow” the end of your sentence, making it unclear or quiet.
If you’re not sure what gestures are appropriate, keep your elbows loose near your side and put one hand on top of the other, in front of you. From this position you can make small gestures that seem natural, or stay still without looking too stiff.
Occasionally, it’s fine to break this rule. If you’re performing in front of young kids, they love big, exaggerated movements and sounds. Some experimental poetry might instruct you to make nonsense noises or include other unusual actions in your performance.
Practice, practice, practice. Once you’ve decided when you want to pause and which gestures to make, you’ll still need to practice many times if you want to give the performance your best shot. Try to memorize the poem even if you’re not required to, since you’ll sound more confident and look more natural if you aren’t reading from a piece of paper.
Practicing in front of a mirror is a great way to get an idea of the audience’s perspective. You could also record a video of your performance and look at it afterward to get ideas about what looks natural and what doesn’t work.
Practice in front of a friendly audience if you can. Even one or two people will help you adapt to the idea of performing in public. Ask them for advice afterward and try to consider every suggestion, even if you don’t end up following it.
Performing the Poem
Dress nicely but comfortably. Wear clothes you enjoy wearing, but make an effort to keep them tidy and clean. You should also pay attention to personal hygiene. The goal is to stay comfortable and relaxed, but also present a confident, prepared look to the audience.
If you’re at a poetry slam or other place with lighting on the performer or people taking photos, avoid wearing white. Bright lights on white clothing make you hard to see clearly.
Learn how to handle stage fright. Most people get nervous before the actual performance, so have a plan for how to deal with it. Plenty of practice will make you more confident, but there are also plenty of ways you can calm down the day of the performance:
Go somewhere quiet and relaxing. If you know how to Meditate or want to learn how, try it. Otherwise, just sit still and try to look at your surroundings instead of thinking of the performance.
Drink and eat as you would on a regular day. Eat familiar food, and only drink caffeinated drinks if they’re a daily habit. Drink only water right before the performance to avoid drying out your throat.
Calm yourself down directly before the performance by stretching all your muscles, walking around, and humming a little to relax your voice.
Take several deep breaths before you begin to perform. This will improve your sound as well as calm your nerves.
Stand up straight. Good posture has many benefits during a performance. Besides making you look confident and prepared in front of the audience, standing up straight will help you speak loudly and clearly, so everyone can hear you.
Make eye contact with the audience. While you’re performing, you should be looking into the eyes of your audience members. Move between them frequently, rather than staring at one person for too long, but pause long enough to look into their eyes. This will get the audience’s attention and make your performance look more natural.
If you’re at a competition, don’t focus only on the judges if there are other people present. Pay attention to the entire audience, and make eye contact with non-judges as well.
Make your voice carry over the whole audience. There are ways to make your voice sound louder and clearer without shouting. Keep your chin slightly raised, your shoulders pulled back, and your back straight. Try to speak from low in your chest, not your mouth and throat.
Pronouncing every word distinctly will also help your audience understand you.
Take deep breaths during your performance so you don’t run out of air. Bring a glass of water on stage to refresh your voice if the performance is longer than a minute or two.
Learn how to speak into a microphone (if this applies). Keep the microphone a few centimeters (about two inches) away from your mouth and slightly below it. You should speak across the top of the microphone, not directly into it. Before you begin performing, test the volume by introducing yourself or asking whether the audience can hear you.
If you’re wearing a microphone attached to your shirt front or collar, you don’t need to speak into it. Talk as though you were speaking to a small group. Don’t turn your head too far or too quickly, or you could rip off the microphone.
If you are having problems with the mike, ask the person running the audio or the person in charge of the show for assistance. The performer does not need to fix problems with the sound system.
Recovering from Mistakes and Other Issues
Keep going if you make a minor wording mistake. If you say “which” instead of “what” or make a similar mistake that doesn’t change the meaning or the rhythm, don’t panic. Just keep the performance going without interruption.
If you make a bigger mistake, pause and repeat the last line or two. The audience has either noticed or is getting confused, so don’t try to fool them by rushing past. You don’t need to overreact: just pause and go back to the beginning of the line, or wherever you think makes the most sense. “Bigger mistakes” include saying the lines out of order, forgetting the next line, or messing up the words enough that the meaning or rhythm is affected.
Take a deep breath and start from the beginning if you completely forget the next line. Sometimes, your own anxiety can get in the way of your memory. If you’ve backtracked a couple lines and still can’t remember how the poem continues, go back to the beginning. The rhythm of reciting your memorized lines can often carry you through the part you thought you’d forgotten. For especially long poems, go back a few verses, or about 10 lines.
Keep a copy of the poem in your pocket in case you still can’t remember the next line.
If you don’t have a copy of the poem and still can’t remember the next line, skip to a line you do know. If you forget the rest of the poem, calmly thank the audience as though you reached the end.
If someone tries to talk over you, stop until the interruption is dealt with. The audience at a poetry performance is there to listen to one person perform, not an argument. Anyone who tries to interrupt you should be dealt with quickly by the audience or by the people in charge.
Depending on how close you are to the beginning of the poem, you could start again or just go back to a natural starting point a few lines ago.
Realize the mistake wasn’t as big a disaster as you thought. Making mistakes on stage can actually make you a more confident performer in the long run. The dread of messing up is almost always worse than what actually happens. Look back on it once you’ve calmed down and realize that people will forget the incident sooner than you think.
If you’re interested in performing more poems, try to find out what the audience thought of you.
Be confident and calm, but not arrogant. Don’t assume you’ll get a standing ovation, or you’ll feel disappointed even by an above average response.
Sources and Citations
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