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Performance Poetry Guide

Journalist: Do you think of yourself primarily as a singer or a poet?
Bob Dylan: Oh, I think of myself more as a song and dance man, y' know.

What is performance poetry?
Performance poetry means reading or declaiming poetry in a way that acknowledges the presence of an audience. This can be anything from a bit of eye-contact to fully blown histrionics. That is it, basically. There are no rules.

Whatever your motives for becoming a performance poet, remember that you are first and foremost providing a service for an audience. As such, they should be treated with the consideration they deserve – especially once you start doing featured slots and they have specifically paid to see you.

Being a performance poet - open mics
Open mics are the bedrock of the poetry scene. Without them, none of us would be here. They are the launch-pad for stellar careers; they are the testing-ground for thrilling new material - sometimes. They can also be truly dire and seem as if they will never, ever end. But this is the nature of the beast, and I am sure we wouldn’t want them any other way. Here are a few pointers:

•    Be mindful of how long the slots are meant to be, and stay within this. One poet’s overrunning can lead to another poet not getting a slot at all. Let ‘less is more’ be your watchword. A frequently heard slice of audience feedback is ‘I liked him at first, but then he just went on too long.’ Remember that any introductory chat is part of your time-slot, so factor it in when you rehearse.
•    Get to recognise the compere’s sign-language. There is the ‘one more’ sign (a raised index finger) and the ‘just a little one’ sign (the ‘this much talent’ gesture from Spinal Tap, basically). A ‘little one’ is a poem of around thirty seconds. Whatever you do, don’t save your longest piece till last.
•    Many open mics do not book their slots in advance. This is what makes them open. You just have to turn up on the night – sometimes at least an hour before the advertised start-time. However, if the publicity includes an email address or phone number, there is no harm in making contact just to be clear on the sign-up policy.
•    Open mics are great for road-testing new material. They can still fulfil this function when you are an established act.
•    Be open to criticism. At open mics, the audience are largely performers themselves, and any feedback they proffer is likely to be given in a spirit of poet-to-poet solidarity.
•    Whilst audience reaction is one of the best ways of assessing new work, do not give up on a poem if it dies on its first outing. Every audience is different, and you may well deliver the same piece the following week and bring the house down.
•    Open mics are also useful for seeing other people’s poetry. This can be as educational as testing out your own material.
•    Don’t worry about nerves (trembling hands, etc). They are natural. With a little concentration, nervous energy can be used to fuel your performance.

Choosing your material
Open mics are the speed-dating of the poetry world: you have minimal time in which to make a good impression. Therefore select your material wisely;

•    Some poems are largely about getting things off your chest. We refer to these as ‘he/she dumped me’ poems (or ‘open heart poetry’). Ask yourself whether such things are of any aesthetic worth or interest to the audience.
•    If some of your material is ‘edgy’, in a political-correctness-is-so-1990s kind of way, be aware that it may contravene the promoter’s equal opportunities policy. If in doubt, check in advance. Worst-case scenario is that you may not be welcomed back with open arms.
•    Despite appearances to the contrary at some shows, it is not obligatory for humorous poetry to be written in rhyming couplets.

Memorising your work
Memorising your work is not a prerequisite of performance poetry. Reading off the page is fine, and many performance poets have built a successful career on doing just that. But if you do, you’ve got no excuse for stumbling over your material.

The jury is still out over reading poems off your phone. The size of the text, of course, makes it harder to read than the printed page. It also looks rather silly. Sometimes the reason given for reading from a phone or a notebook is that the poem was written on the way to the show. If this is the case, bear in mind that, not having been edited, it may not be the best thing to read anyway.

If you completely corpse during one of your poems, don’t over-apologise. Once is enough. Remain in control and, if your mind remains blank, move smoothly on to your next piece. The audience will not mind, as poetry audiences always want to like the performers. Some artists, such as John Hegley, are very good at riffing off their mistakes and turning them into wonders of improvisation.

Don’t be one of those poets who stand about three feet away from the mic, as though it is going to bite you. If you feel that you can be heard well enough without it, don’t even go through the pretence of using it. But if there is a mic, it’s usually for a reason.

If in doubt, ask if you can have a sound check before the show. For us poets, this only takes about ten seconds (unlike musicians’ sound checks, which can last half an hour).

One point in favour of not using a mic is that it frees you up to rove around with both hands free. In larger venues, this can also be achieved with a lapel-mic, of course. If a venue has a mic, it should be on a stand. If it isn’t, complain. A mic in one hand and your collected works in the other can get rather unwieldy. (What happens when you need to turn the page?)

Learn how to adjust a mic stand with minimum faff. The previous poet may have been much shorter or taller than you. An unadjusted stand makes you look strange and hinders your performance. (Clue: it’s the thing halfway up, at about groin height). 

Approaching promoters
After you have done the rounds of the open mics for a while, a promoter will hopefully snap you up to do a featured set at his or her night. Indeed, some poets claim that they never approach promoters – they wait for the promoters to come to them. All I can say is that they are lucky, lucky people; most of us need, from time to time, to be proactive in our search for bookings.

•    Try and be sure that your style of work is suitable for the events you approach. If the event is local, go along and get a sense of the atmosphere. If it’s not local, just do what research you can. One good yardstick is to see who their previous guest poets have been.
•    Drop the promoter a line and ascertain the format in which they like to see samples of poets’ work. These can include online video footage or sound files; CDs and DVDs; books or Word documents.
•    Be prepared to wait. Don’t bombard the promoter with emails. Give it a month, say, before following up your initial enquiry.
•    If a promoter resists your overtures and does not immediately book you, do not get on their case. To do so will scupper any plans they may have had to book you in the future. Secondly, if you are committed enough and talented enough, you should have no time to worry about Promoter A, because you will be so busy with the gigs that Promoters B, C and D are giving you. And if Promoters B, C and D are giving you lots of work, Promoter A will soon realise that he or she is missing something and will follow suit.
•    Programming a show is like doing a jigsaw, and it often takes a long time to assemble the right combination of acts. If a promoter offers you a date and you can’t do it, don’t be surprised if they don’t automatically offer you a date the following month instead. They will contact you when they have assembled another bill that’s the right one for you.

Marketing yourself
By far the best way to market yourself is by networking with other poets, supporting as many poetry events as possible, and making yourself generally amenable. Bolster it with some of the following:

•    It is wise to have your own website, but make sure it is a good one, i.e.: user-friendly and well designed. If this is alien territory to you, Wordpress is a good place to start. A blog could be part of your site, and could act as useful content to add to your Twitter and facebook stream.
•    Make use of Youtube or Vimeo, and have a DVD that you can send out. (Note that anybody filming you is required by law to secure your permission first. Poor-quality online footage will do you no favours).
•    Sound files (embedded on your website from such sites as Soundcloud and Audiboo) and CDs are also handy.
•    Keep people informed about your gigs and other activities. If this is done by email, once a month should suffice. If you have a long list of contacts, it is better to use an emailing list service like MailChimp or Constant Contact, as these are more likely to avoid spam folders and people can subscribe or unsubscribe. You will need to get their permission before adding them to the list, though.
•    facebook and Twitter, by their very nature, allow for more frequent bulletins. The important thing with any social networking site, however, is to not disseminate news solely about yourself; let people know what other artists are doing, and share interesting links. You may want to consider creating a facebook ‘page’ for your artistic activities, over and above your personal profile. Upload plenty of photos and video to make the content of the page stimulating.
•    Have an up-to-date biography and hi-res publicity photo to hand. Make sure that each of these represents you in an appropriate light. The artists’ biogs on the Apples and Snakes website, for example, are designed to be informative to clients and therefore strive to present the poets as reliable and professional. There is a strong argument for having a selection of differing biogs and photos, tailored to suit different markets.
•    You will occasionally be asked for a CV. If you wish to compile one, keep it concise and don’t list every little gig you’ve ever done.
•    If you are appearing in a show, make sure that the promoter has listed it on all the relevant listings sites, e.g.: Write Out Loud, Poetry Library, Poetry Kapow, as well as local sites. Also, if there are flyers for the show, get hold of some and distribute them at other gigs and as widely as possible.
•    It can be worthwhile to have merchandise to sell at your gigs, such as books, cdsand dvds. In addition to being a potential source of revenue, this can also raise your profile by increasing the circulation of your work.
•    Consider working with a filmmaker to create a specially shot poetry-film. These are increasingly being shown at live events and have the potential to go viral online. They also make impressive content for your website or facebook page.
•    A business card is useful. Try www.moo.com

Some poets have agents. Often this is simply a friend (or partner!) who has agreed to relieve the poet of the wearisome burden of administration.

If you are considering having an agent, be clear about your motivation and be careful about whom you approach. There are very few professional agencies that work specifically with poets. Those dealing primarily with musicians, for example, tend not to have a proper understanding of the spoken-word scene, nor will they have a relevant roster of contacts.

Planning a twenty-minute set
Your first paid slot may just be a ten-minuter, but when you are more established, twenty minutes is fairly standard;

•    Bear in mind that a twenty-minute set is not just four open-mic slots tacked together. There needs to be a sense overall shape to the set – an ebb and flow. This is usually a matter of including poems of contrasting moods and of different rhythms. Varying length and pace is another good idea. It is about keeping the audience on their toes. The additional time gives you more opportunity to engage with them between poems. You are inviting the audience into your world. Treat your first poem as an act of wooing.
•    Up to a point, you should be adaptable. Few poets’ sets are engraved in stone. Allow some leeway for gauging the mood of the audience, and select your material accordingly. Having said that, don’t betray any sense that you’re making it up on the spot. (Worst possible thing to say: ‘Now then, what shall I do next?’).
•    If some of your pieces contain adult material, there will be instances when it’s inappropriate to perform them. The ‘I’m an artist, I just do what I do’ approach is all very laudable, but you are likely to get more bookings if you display some degree of flexibility.
•    Beware the scheduling: if you are reading at your local borough arts day, you may have to follow police dogs or line-dancing, and the audience will be in little mood for poetry. Even at a dedicated poetry event, try to catch the other acts. If a previous artist has done a poem on an identical theme to one of yours, for instance, it might be wise to temporarily drop that one from your set.
•    Remain in control. Barracking the audience is never a good idea, however badly things are going. Heckling is not accepted on the live poetry scene, but if it happens, it’s the job of the promoter or compere to deal with it.
•    Ensure that the compere is going to introduce you in a manner that you are happy with. For one thing, this makes their job easier.

If you have received a contract for a gig, please read what says, as some of the information (such as arrival time) is quite important.

Although it raises no eyebrows on other circuits (e.g.: comedy), it is generally frowned upon if you always leave a poetry show directly after your own slot. Unless you are on last, of course. It does not square well with the ‘support your scene’ ethos. Whilst we all do it occasionally, and all have lives, it’s not something to make a habit of.

•    Be clear on where you see your act in five years’ time. Be focused and ambitious, but don’t try to leapfrog various essential stages of development, such as open mics and twenty-minute sets. There’s little point, for example, in trying to interest promoters in your one-hour solo show until you have spent a few years accruing some sort of reputation on the circuit.
•    Keep an eye on the opportunities being streamed on sites like Write Out Loud, as well as those cropping up in Apples and Snakes’ monthly newsletters and in literary magazines such as MsLexia. There are numerous other organizations that offer such things as training and awards (Spread The Word, Writers’ Centre Norwich, etc). Residencies and commissions are relatively well-paid openings that come up every so often.
•    Think laterally in terms of developing your act. Is it a question of working with artists from another discipline, maybe? The realm of cross-arts collaboration – with musicians or filmmakers, for instance – is still in its infancy.
•    If you have a specific project in mind, consider applying for an Arts Council grant. This can simply be for R&D (research and development).
•    Bear in mind that media other than the live stage – radio, for example – can provide a niche for performance poetry.
•    Don’t limit yourself geographically. Although everywhere has its own localised scene, the internet has led to an increasing sense of there being a national scene, too. Be part of it.

One area that causes a bit of a dilemma when you are starting out is how much to charge for a performance. Note that, whilst you should not expect to get paid for an open mic appearance (on the contrary, you’ll generally have to pay to get in), you should always be paid if a promoter has specifically asked you to perform at his or her show.

Fees vary wildly: Apples and Snakes has its own sliding scale of fees, which are determined by set-length and other factors. Our aim is to help establish decent performance fees across the whole poetry circuit. There is, however, still some way to go in achieving this. Bear in mind that a great many poetry events are not funded, and the individuals who run them derive no income from their endeavours. Without funding, the performers may simply be looking at a split of the door money. Some promoters who are particularly committed (or just plain daft) will sometimes supplement this from their own pocket.

What this boils down to is that fees are sometimes fairly nominal. At worst, they may just about cover your bus fare. The important thing is to be clear on the monetary situation before you accept an offer. That way, nobody is having the wool pulled over their eyes (poetry promoters being, by and large, honourable people).

So is a low-paid gig worth doing? The main question to ask yourself is whether you want to do it enough. Sometimes, indeed, that’s the only question. Remember that the value of a gig is not wholly financial, because every performance is a chance to advertise yourself, and every show a networking opportunity. You never know who may be in the audience, and what subsequent opportunities may thereby come your way. So, as long as you’re not left out of pocket, then why not? Choosiness is a prerogative that comes with a growing reputation.

Sometimes there’s a chicken-and-egg situation, in which a promoter will ask how much you charge. Consider whether they receive funding or not, and pitch your quote accordingly. Often you may need to negotiate. Once again, your flexibility in this will be determined by how much you actually want the booking. A very rough guideline for a twenty-minute set might be £100 from a funded body, £50 from an unfunded one. A shorter set will warrant a smaller fee. If you are travelling to a different city or town, you can ask for travel expenses on top. If you are so far from home that you require overnight accommodation, this should also be covered by – or actually provided by – the promoter. Over the years, you will get to see a lot of spare bedrooms.

The present author recently did a performance for four jars of chutney (as payment rather than audience). It was a great show, it threw up some excellent contacts, and the chutney was splendid. A good deal all round, in fact.

Running your own show
•    If you feel there is a gap in the market for a new poetry night, consider setting one up. Nearly all the long-running, successful nights were initiated by poets who wanted to put their own stamp on the scene.
•    If, through such a venture, you discover that you are also a gifted compere, you will have another valuable string to your bow. There are far fewer decent comperes around than decent poets. Apples and Snakes hires comperes in the same way that it hires poets.
•    Consider taking a show to a fringe festival. As well as Edinburgh (see separate section), there are numerous other fringes dotted around the UK: Camden, Brighton, Buxton, Oxfringe – the list is endless. Fringe shows are chiefly about widening your experience and exposure; they seldom make any money.

That’s about it. If you have any queries that aren’t covered here, drop us a line. Till then – happy performing.

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Dean Atta

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