Honing your Skills
‘Getting the gig’
If you’ve just published a book of poetry of fiction with an independent or commercial publisher, the chances are that you won’t have to actively lobby for readings yourself. You publisher will promote you and your work to interested parties, including bookshops and organisers of literary festivals, and will themselves very often organise events featuring their authors. If you’ve received good notices in newspapers or literary journals, or have been longlisted or shortlisted for a prestigious award, you can expect to attract some significant interest. Organisers of events in Wales - both large and small - are constantly on the look out for quality, fresh names to headline events. For these, you’ll get a fee - and your travel and accommodation expenses paid if necessary.
But even if you’re a published writer you will still need to make the most of the opportunities that the digital age affords to promote yourself and your work. If you’re a self-published writer you will find that the offers will not come to you – you’ll have to actively seek them out. Advances in technology mean that you don’t have to set up an expensive website to connect with audiences and fellow artists. To find out more about promoting yourself using social networking and blogs click here.
But what about promoting yourself for readings before you’ve even been published? Well, there are no shortcuts to it. And patience and considerable commitment is key. First things first, you’ll need to become a familiar and friendly face on the scene. Become part of an audience before you seek one out for yourself. Simply by attending live literature events of all kinds you’ll find that over time you’ll begin to get to know the organisers who keep this important scene alive - and make contact with them. The live literature scene in Wales is intimate and informal. Being keen without being pushy can enable both you and your work. Many organisers are on the look out for fresh new faces to provide short sets. A good short set might lead to a longer one again. News travels fast about good new writers and performers in Wales. Open mike nights offer a great opportunity to show people what you’ve got and if you’re a performance poet, in particular, you’ll have to put in a great deal of effort into getting out there and networking - and demonstrate both great enthusiasm and talent in equal measure. Many well established writers groups also organise their own events that showcase the work of their participants, often alongside an established name. Becoming part of a writers group can be a good way to accelerate your skills on both the page and offer opportunities to gain practical experience in performance.
Techniques for good performance
Poetry Reading – How To Do It
Reading verse in public needs a little practice. Start by listening to how others manage it. Attend local events, listen to recording of the greats. Tapes of Dylan Thomas, the archetypal declaimer who affected a whole generation, are widely available. You might also like to listen to Ted Hughes, Wendy Cope, Simon Armitage, and Roger McGough. Not everyone approaches readings the same way. The performers - Joolz, Ifor Thomas, Ifor ap Glyn, John Cooper Clarke, John Hegley - sound full of confidence. The old guard - Dannie Abse, Seamus Heaney, Gillian Clarke, Tony Curtis - sound as cool as they ever did. Check Betty Mulcahy’s How To Speak A Poem (Autolycus Press) for advice on the formal approach to declaiming. Ted Hughes’s anthology By Heart: 101 Poems To Remember (Faber) offers tips on committing verse to heart (should you want to use this approach) along with a fine selection of examples to practice on.
Actually getting invited to give a reading is another matter. You need a reputation before the big ones will ask you. But local events open to new writers are common enough. Check with your local local library. Read the listings in the Academi’s magazine A470. Look at the on-line database on the Academi’s web site. Attend and listen to how things go and then ask if you can perform.
Once on the platform and facing your audience there are a few things to remember which will make things go well:
1. Prepare your selection in advance. Do not leave things to chance and attempt to decide what to read next on the spot.
2. Have some idea before you get up of the things you’ll say to introduce each piece and make these sharp. Audiences are often as interested in what you say between poems as they are in the verses themselves.
3. Know how long you’ll take. Do not ramble endlessly. Always leave them wanting more.
4. If you’ve a book for sale then tell them and after you’ve told them then tell them again.
5. Sink your shoulders, move your head back onto the top of your spine and read to a spot at the back of the room. The audience will all imagine you are reading just to them.
6. Do not wear dark glasses, eye contact is vital.
7. Try not to fumble with your papers (or drop them). Use a table or a lectern if you think your hands will shake.
8. Take a deep breath and blow.
The poetry reading circuit is full of small audiences, amateur organisers, botched promotions and conflicting events. Once on it be prepared for most things imaginable to go wrong. If you are asked to read and offered a fee always get it in writing. You want to know where, when, with whom, for how long and how much. Check what expenses you’ll be paid and where you’ll be staying. Find out in advance, leave as little as possible to chance.
An earlier version of this advice appeared in Peter Finch’s How To Publish Your Poetry (Allison & Busby).