Poetry and Performance: Overcoming Stage Fright in Readings

When I first decided poetry was my chosen path with writing, I’d gone into it assuming poets were the reclusive ones. As far as I was concerned, it was the novelists who did the big readings and were thrust into the spotlight; poets were quiet creatures, letting the lines in their verse do the talking.

So when I went to Swansea University and received the Creative Writing Course Handbook from my lecturer, I was a little taken aback to hear him recommend strongly that we attend local poetry open mic events to share our work and publicise it as widely as possible.

Read my poems? At a microphone? In front of an actual audience?

I decided there and then that I would rather twist out my sciatic nerve with a teaspoon and proceeded to the student union bar to forget about it.

The First Spoken Word Reading

During that year, I joined an eclective range of university societies – most of which I would never actually attend (I still to this day do not know why I put my name down for the Archery society when I have all the aim of a drunken bloke, ten pints in, taking a piss in an child-sized urinal). 

One of the societies I did attend however, was the Dead Poets’ Society (which, ironically, died only one year later. RIP).

Being too shy to even attend the first ‘Meet and Greet’ event, I came home one evening from uni and decided that I was going to make an effort to attend that night’s event. However, upon checking the events page, the event in question was in fact an open mic night at the old Mozart’s venue in Uplands, Swansea.

Was I ready to read out my work that publicly? I’d spent my school years bullied relentlessly and called ‘mute’ because I was too afraid to speak in class. How was I going to stand up and read my work, ready to be torn to shreds by the audience?

Yet something within me just kept saying: “You’re not that girl anymore. Do it.

So I decided: yes I would! Then, ten minutes later: no, I wouldn’t!

And then changed my mind again over and over. I’d watched in awe as writers at book launches have stood up, fuelled only by a glass of water, and delivered their words to an intently listening audience. As I’d wished then that one day I would write poems that were good enough for someone to even consider publishing, I’d slowly come to learn that success in competitions and writing must be accompanied by a dose of obligatory public speaking. At the Hippocrates’ Prizegiving in that year of 2012, I remember breathing a sigh of utmost relief when I found out only the top three winners had to read their work aloud. Hooray for being commended and not an actual winner.

I eventually had to ask myself:how badly did I want to make a success of my writing? Poetry, historically, was meant to be recited aloud. There’s a whole other world beyond ink and paper – and it was something I was going to have to get comfortable with.

By the time I got to Mozart’s I’d already had most of a bottle of cava whilst shakily applying my eyeliner. Then, when asked if I wanted to read, I calmly put my name upon the page as though signing a death warrant. I took my seat and waited for the inevitable moment when I’d have to go onstage, shake embarrassingly and then no doubt be pelted by tomatoes.

However, this is not what happened.

What actually happened was that I stood up, felt a comfort in my own familiar words and, even though I was shaking a little and couldn’t look up from the page, was pleasantly surprised to find everyone listening intently before giving me a round of applause.

I’d never felt so proud of conquering such an intense fear of public speaking. 

Consequently, afterwards, I’d also never been so drunk in celebration. Take that, anxiety.

Tips and Tricks for Public Speaking Anxiety

These days, reading feels more natural to me. I no longer need a dose of Dutch courage or a huge pep talk before I step in front of the microphone. 

However, this doesn’t mean I’m immune to stage fright now and then. There are still times where the anxiety and low self-confidence take hold – and it’s something that I noticed with dismay in the last few readings I did before lockdown. 

This is exactly why I started filming my own poetry performances as a way of analysing how I was speaking and presenting myself, and to really improve on my delivery. 

Gripped by stage fright and public speaking anxiety too? Or are you totally new to readings and don’t know where to start? Try these tips.

1. Film Yourself Performing

I know, I know. This one filled me with dread too, which is why it’s taken a whole 8 years before I actually bit the bullet and did it. I hate the way I look and sound on camera, but I really did have to “get over myself” and get on with it (shoutout to Jayne Davids for her excellent resources for doing this).

By vowing that I’d upload the videos publicly, it meant that I absolutely had to get it right. Each poem I film can take about an hour to record until I have successfully memorised the words and am able to get ‘lost’ in the reading and delivery and it feels natural.

Pour yourself a glass of wine if it helps. Keep your videos just for yourself initially if the thought of posting it on Twitter is unbearable. But please, just give it a go, no matter how uncomfortable it feels in the beginning.

Like reading at any event, it will soon begin to feel less terrifying and more natural. People will usually appreciate you sharing your words – by reading them aloud, you’re already making your work more accessible.

Be your own audience and own it.

2. Attend Open Mic Events

If this is your first foray into open mic events, I’d suggest that you simply go along and watch (of course, you are spoilt for choice for virtual events at the moment, so you can even attend one with the camera off if you wish). 

You’ll quickly realise that readers range from beginner to spoken word pro. However, you’ll note that every single one of them receives the same amount of encouragement and applause, no matter where they’re at in their writing journey. Spoken word nights are some of the most inclusive, supportive and encouraging events you can choose to participate in.

Once you realise this, you’ll soon find that putting your name on that open mic page feels a hundred times less daunting and that everybody really does have your back.

3. Pick a Spoken Word Hero. Then Raise Your Ambition

For me, that hero is Kate Tempest. What people sometimes fail to note is that spoken word is a different craft to page poetry, and it’s one she does phenomenally well – to simply read her work from the page does not do her craft full justice. Check out ‘People’s Faces’, which I’ve played on repeat during lockdown:

The girl’s got energy and real passion, right?

When I listen to her work and watch her perform, I notice how she completely and utterly immerses herself in those words. She exemplifies the fact that reading your poetry aloud is not a one-way activity: spoken word is the conversation you have with your audience. The best spoken word artists and poets know how to truly connect

It’s all in the voice, the pace, the words, the gestures and the eye contact.

Watch recordings of your favourite spoken word artists (or, even better, attend their gigs) and observe how they use their hands and their voices. Note the techniques they employ to draw people in: whether that’s a perfectly-timed pause, engaging eye contact or the way they use their voice, they have mastered the art of making poetry performance a collective experience.

Then use their success to fuel your ambition. 

I may not be anywhere near the standard of those whom I admire on the spoken word scene, but I can keep enjoying the learning process to improve myself. No matter where you’re at in your writing journey, there will always be another person, or another piece of writing, waiting to burst onto the scene and surprise us.

And that is a wonderful thing.

Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway

“Feel the fear and do it anyway” is a phrase I have long used to help myself get over that critical voice in my head. Live by this phrase and use it to empower yourself to do the things that scare you – and to knock down those barriers that stem from self-criticism.

Go to that spoken word event. Learn from those whom you admire. Reach out to others for advice. Practice into a hairbrush if you have to (when I came runner up in the 2019 Swansea Poetry Slam, practicing into a hairbrush with a sheet of printed paper in front of the cat was the only practice I’d had in preparation).

It’s never too late to ditch the ‘shy’ label and develop your confidence. The writing community is largely a supportive one and nobody wants to see you fall.

The world wants to hear your voice. Chest out and speak up.

Photo credit: Iqbal Malik and Simon Jones

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