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Reading (performing) poetry

This Wednesday (tomorrow!) I've been invited to read at Canterbury Poet's Collective (CPC) alongside one of my favourite writers, Emma Neale, editor of Landfall (I might be name's dropping in my pant-pant excitement!), and local poet, Rodney Foster.

Before I get into my tips for reading poetry, I want to tell you about CPC. It's a series of readings held every spring in Christchurch, featuring some of the best poets in the land. Seriously. In this small lecture theatre at Ara in Christchurch, I've listened to readings by Fiona Farrell, C.K Stead, Tusiata Avia, Alison Glenny, Sue Wootton, David Eggleton, Michelle Leggot and Lynley Edmeades – and that's only to name a few over the last two seasons – how cool is that? The first half of the evening is Open Mic and the second hour is dedicated to the Guest Readers, two locals and one out-of-town guest. Most of the guest readers comment on the quality of poetry in the Open Mic. And no, I'm not on the committee and doing a plug; I'm just a big fan and grateful to the committee for running these evenings. So if you're into poetry and anywhere near Christchurch on a Wednesday evening in spring, check it out!

So how am I going to cope reading my five or so poems without fainting onto the foot of the podium when I look out into that sea of wildly expectant and discerning faces?

I've had a bit of practice lately. If you have a book published, it's a good idea to get out there and spread the word. I've learnt a couple of things along the way. Well, since birth really. My mum was into Toastmasters and us kids had the benefit of her tips. My two sisters and I took out the Junior, Intemediate and Senior school speech competitions one year! One of the things we learned here was to open our mouths. Yes, E-NUN-CI-ATE the words. And practice.

Mum made us read our speeches multiple times so we knew what was coming before we read /performed them. Some readers -– and slam poets – learn their words off by heart. I envy these people and have fantasies about shouting 'Fire!' as they perform, but sadly, no matter how much I practice, I can't do it. There's a major forgetting tendency – as well as that fainting thing - in the face of nerves. I need the comfort of the written word in front of me. But that piece of paper (or screen if you're hip) in front of you is only for comfort. This brings me to what I've learned all over again in recent times. The practice of reading out loud before the performance helps you to connect to your words and, more importantly, what they mean to you. Let me say that again. You develop the emotional connection to the inspiration that lead you to write those words through PRACTICE, which enables your listener to more readily connect to your work on an emotional level. That is what you want. The connection between you and your work and the audience.

I kind of knew this but had to experience it again to understand it, and as a result, I'm feeling more confident about creating that connection in an aware way. I was invited to read at the Pleasant Point Ladies' dinner club earlier this year. Yay, a chance to sell some of my books! But oooo, quite a tough crowd, considering they were farmers and I was reading fairly experimental poetry. I chose some poems around the theme of the land and ones from my book, and duly read to them. But it wasn't until the last one "I cannot write a poem about Christchurch" that I felt I had really touched them. The poem was written as a personal response to the mosque attacks on Christchurch (I've written about this here) and I'd only read it once before, for RNZ. I had invested much emotional energy to read it and I knew I had to do that again for this group. I summoned up that same emotional energy and let them have it. 'Wow.' 'That was good.' I heard such comments ripple around the room. Thinking later about this response, I realised I had to summon up that same connection with all my poems and communicate it. And I have been trying to do so ever since.

Tusiata Avia

I also wanted to add a couple of tips on how to connect to your poem on the night. One fantastic piece of advice came from an afternoon spent many years ago at a talk by Tusiata Avia on how to perform poetry. The thing I remember most that she told us: 'Plant your two feet firmly on the ground and own that poem.' That's right - OWN IT. (Sorry, excuse the shouting - I'm over 50.) It's the same thing as making a connection to your work that I've been talking about but a physical way into it – plant your feet, take a deep breath and say to yourself 'This is me. I'm good enough to be here. My poetry is good enough.' Acknowledge that to yourself before you open your mouth (to enunciate your words, thank you, Mum).

And a final word – the difference between reading a poem and performing it. I've added 'performing' to my title because, in a way, you are. You're summoning up the essence of the poem to communicate it to your audience. That's like a performance in that it takes the same energy. Also you're on stage, as it were, with an audience. But reading a poem is different that acting a poem. And, from my observations, reading a poem is different from what most slam poets do, who seem to be united in the rhythms and tonality of their work.

Rather, I think, the tone, loudness and pitch of your words will match your emotional understanding of your words and phrases. And your body language, likewise. Actors throw their arms around, stamp their feet, sway and flick their hair. These sort of things probably will distract rather than enhance your POETRY READING. We're here to listen to the words, not see your face contort. Remember, keep those feet planted. And don't wiggle too much.

And wish me luck for tomorrow.

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