Poetry in Performance

Writing Magazine October 2023

Could performance boost your poetry business? Simon Whaley chats to three poets who regularly take to the stage.

The first Thursday in October is National Poetry Day. It’s an opportunity for poets to celebrate their art form and share it with friends, family, and the wider community.

And poetry is important. In 2020, the National Literary Trust discovered that 66.5% of the children and young people they surveyed felt better during lockdown when they were writing poetry.

But there can be more to poetry than writing it. Performance poetry takes the form to a different arena, where the poet considers how their words are delivered and how their audience may experience it. So, could performance poetry help you develop your writing business further?

Performance Principles
Mel Wardle Woodend (www.dreamwellwriting.simplesite.com) was Staffordshire’s Poet Laureate from 2019 to 2022 and has written several poetry collections, including Just A Thought. For her, performance poetry is about bringing the art form to a wider audience.

‘Performance poetry, for me, is a really accessible way to share poetry and make it for everyone,’ she explains. ‘It can often be a fun and lively experience for everyone involved. It is also a way to connect with people and share words in quite a personal and intimate way, sometimes creating solidarity because the performance is a shared experience between poet and audience.’

Gary Carr (www.gary-carr.me.uk) has had over sixty pieces published in literary magazines and anthologies, has organised poetry events for over a decade, and published his poetry collection, In A Town in 2021. For him, a poetry performance is all about the delivery.

‘Performance poetry is the entertainment end of the poetry spectrum. At its best, it is a dazzling display of words woven together by presence and immaculate timing.’

It’s similar, too, for Emilie Lauren-Jones (www.emilielaurenjones.co.uk), who’s been Coventry’s poet laureate since 2021. 

‘I used to pay lots of attention to the writing of a poem and then just turn up and read them aloud. Now, I dedicate an equal amount of attention to how a poem can be presented and performed. I play around with different ideas and rehearse. It is only fair to the audience that I have given a good amount of time and thought to this because it makes it a much better experience for everyone.’

Performance Pleasure
While it may be nerve-wracking for anyone who hasn’t performed a poem before, all three poets enjoy the performance and the extra dimension this offers.

‘Performance poetry is theatre,’ says Gary. ‘It can be a jab in the ear with sharpened words, or a considered sequence that builds into an edifice of immense proportions. It is very diverse in every sense; gender, sexuality, race, beliefs, neurodiversity and (dis)ability.’

For Mel, it’s about interacting with the audience. ‘I love being able to engage with an audience and watch their faces and reactions as they watch and listen to a poem. It is such a delight to know people are enjoying something I have created. I also love the adrenaline—knowing you have only one shot to get your words across successfully and make it an engaging experience for the audience.’

Emilie enjoys the audience’s reaction while she’s performing. ‘I love exploring how a poem can be performed, for example, where the pauses should be, points which can be directed in a more conversational way, and how to use gestures to bring the poem to life. It’s one of the best feelings when a poem lands well when you’re performing in front of an audience—when you hear hums during the thought-provoking parts or laughter where you intended people to find it amusing.’

Performance Profession
Performance poetry is also a brilliant form of marketing. Typically, events include several poets, so it exposes audiences to a variety of styles, subjects, and performances. If they like what they hear, they’re more likely to seek a poet’s existing work.

Not only that, but attending these events offers the opportunity to network with other writers and poets.

Gary Carr’s performances help him sell his poetry collection, and have also led to other work. 

‘Performing poetry and going to performance events, or open mics, introduced me to a community of writers and performers that has, in turn, brought opportunities in poetry. Many of the sales of my book, In a Town, have been at performance events. One of my first poems published in a magazine was heard by the editor at an event. I have been offered work judging poetry slams, organising poetry at festivals, MCing or headlining poetry nights, all as a result of reading my poetry.’

When an audience member sees and hears a poet, it helps create a bond, which Mel believes encourages them to buy more of her work. And, just like Gary, she appreciates that you never know who might be in the audience.

‘I think when people see and hear a poet perform their work, it brings a sort of closeness as they have seen and engaged with the person behind the poem. I feel this sometimes encourages people to buy my work. It has also led to lots of different opportunities, as quite often there is someone in the audience who may like what they hear and invite me to their school, group, or organisation to deliver a talk, performance, or workshop.’

Emilie loves the diverse opportunities that have arisen because of someone attended one of her performances. Working with other art forms allows her to share her poetry with a wider audience.

‘I’ve had teachers attend workshops or my show and then book me for a school visit. It’s also led me to have some wonderful experiences. I currently collaborate with pianist Mikael Petersson, and we are taking our show Musical Metaphors back on tour from October 2023.’

Musical Metaphors is a mix of Emilie’s poetry, accompanied by Mikael’s melodies, and interspersed with some of his piano solos. Her poetry performances have also led to a chance to work on a film.

‘I also had the opportunity to work with Rural Media and Sky Arts to create a poetry film called On These Streets We Shine as part of their Unlocked Series, which has just been nominated for a Broadcast Digital Award. A lot of what I end up doing comes as a surprise—I didn’t set out to write a short film or to put together a music and poetry show, but the opportunities arose and I love trying new things!’

Performance Plunge
If the thought of performing your work in front of an audience appeals, do some research first. Attend a couple of events to get a feel for how they operate and how other writers use these opportunities.

‘Look for poetry open mic events near you,’ suggests Gary. ‘Go along without performing and see if the feel of the event is good for you. When you decide to perform, know the length of your poems and introductions, ensure that you don’t go over the allocated time. Try not to be nervous. People are very supportive of beginners.’

Gary also recommends listening to some of the best in this genre and learning from them. And thanks to Zoom, it’s possible to experience an event from the comfort of your own home. 

‘Go and see some of the best performers online or in person, such as Kae Tempest, Luke Wright, Attila the Stockbroker, Poets Prattlers and Pandemonialists, Holly McNish, Ash Dickinson, and Lydia Towsey. There are too many to mention individually, but observing the combination of well-honed poetry and performance skills is a great way to learn.’

Mel agrees that being an audience member first is an ideal way of getting a feel for the discipline.

‘Look at how the audience reacts when someone is performing and you will see what works and what doesn’t! Don’t try to imitate someone else’s style though—be yourself, because it is your authorial voice behind your writing, and this is your chance to get your poetry across exactly as you intend.’

It’s only natural to feel nervous when performing at your first event, but Mel believes nerves are good, if harnessed correctly.

‘Although it can be really nerve-wracking at first, any nerves can be part of the adrenaline that makes your performance sing. Allow yourself to feel the adrenaline and enjoy the experience because it most certainly is an exciting and adrenaline-inducing one.’

While live events often offer the best research, Emilie suggests checking out social media platforms can also be a good way to pick up tips and ideas.

‘See live poetry where possible and look up performance poets on YouTube. There are plenty of organisations that have YouTube channels and share performances from their poets. I can recommend speakeasynyc, Apples and Snakes, Button Poetry, and Roundhouse.’

The Poetry Society maintains a database of stanza groups (https://poetrysociety.org.uk/membership/poetry-society-stanzas/), where poets can either meet face-to-face or online. Some offer critiques on works in progress, others read poetry, while some occasionally organise open mic events.

Could this year’s National Poetry Day be the motivation you need to perform your poetry? The business benefits of engaging with audiences, performing your work, and networking with other poets could lead to a whole new world of creative opportunities.

Business Directory—Where I’m Performing On National Poetry Day
What are you doing on National Poetry Day 2023 ?

Mel Wardle Woodend: ‘I am currently studying a PhD in Applied Linguistics, researching poetry and wellbeing at Aston University. I co-organise/co-host our new university poetry society, so I am very much looking forward to our first National Poetry Day event at Aston this year!’

Gary Carr: ‘I am running a Burton Runaway Writers’ Group meeting on the evening, but I’m hoping to organise an afternoon of “request” poetry in the local arts centre, with a big pile of books for people to select poetry from.’

Emilie Lauren Jones: ‘I have an almost full week of school bookings in Hampshire and Essex. I’m looking forward to running workshop sessions with the students. I am always left feeling inspired!’

© Simon Whaley