Three nights ago, I did something for the second time in two years. I performed a reading aloud online with not one, not two, but four poems I wrote to an audience of fellow writers.
‘Performing’ is nothing new for me. I’ve been a lecturer and tutor for over 20 years. But that night’s spoken word poetry reading still felt fresh and new. So yes, that meant I did have some butterflies in my stomach.
It brought to mind my past, and how things I did long ago prepared me for reading in public.
Spoken Word Poetry
I first discovered what spoken word poetry was in 2013, when I chanced upon an 18-minute video of 23-year-old Sarah Kay, performing it. Originally from New York, Sarah’s a published poet who taught and performed spoken word poetry regularly. In her words, spoken word poetry is…
“… the art of performance poetry…it involves creating poetry that doesn’t just want to sit on paper…that something about it demands it be heard out loud or witnessed in person.” (Sarah Kay, TED Talk, 2011 March)
[For more background on Sarah, check out a post I wrote about her two years ago]
My discovery came via a Youtube video of Sarah’s stellar speech and performance in March 2011 on no less a grand stage than TED! She was so good, the 1,000-strong audience (comprising many experts and professionals more than three times her age) gave her not one but two standing ovations.
While I would never dream I could be on so grand a stage as TED (not without dissolving into a puddle), my professional work as an adjunct lecturer does mean I’m in front of an audience more often than most ordinary folks. So on most days, public speaking doesn’t faze me.
And if it’s done via a Zoom call to an audience of no more than seven, then what transpired three nights ago was really just the public-speaking equivalent of a stroll in the park.
Reading aloud without sounding like a razor
Now I think most of us have attended a live concert at least once in our lifetime. The atmosphere, adrenaline, and most of all the act on stage combine to afford a time of enchantment for avid audiences, with songs and serenades in all kinds of music genres.
But as you pause to consider the lyrics of the songs you hear at a concert, you inevitably reach the conclusion that songs are essentially poems put to music With spoken word poetry however, there isn’t any musical accompaniment. It’s just the reader and a microphone.
To read aloud and perform on a stage, you have to read a poem differently than a grocery list. It had to sound hummable, carrying its own tune so to speak. No audience is going to voluntarily watch someone read lines in a deadpan manner. And definitely not in a voice that sounds about as exciting as an electric razor. But even if you were deadpan, the live audience would at least be forgiving if you wore spiffy clothes and used appropriate body language.
But when the spoken word performance is done online, without the living, breathing connection uniquely found through in-person attendance, the burden to engage the audience becomes even greater.
Knowing all that meant I had to pull out all the stops to hold my online audience’s attention from start to finish as I presented all four poems. Which I did, three nights ago.
For that, I had my past to thank.
Singing. Dancing. Acting. And yes, reading. I’ve done them all.
The first time I performed before an audience I was somewhere between eight and ten years of age.
It was a school story-telling contest with prizes for the three most engaging kids on stage reading stories aloud. I don’t recall how I got involved nor if I came in first, second, or third place in the final tally. But I do remember receiving a book prize, so I must have made it to the top three! (In those days, unlike now, prizes were reserved only for winners rather than every participant).
In the next decade, unfortunately, the chance to repeat that feat never came. I retreated into my introverted self while dealing with the awkward years of acne, pimples, and requisite teen angst.
But, in my early 20s, I started to seek out performing opportunities again. For most of my four years in university, I sang in a band, danced with a troupe, and acted in a musical. I even choreographed a dance to this tune by Tracie Spencer for one batch of freshmen during their orientation in 1992.
It felt like I was on a “revenge tour” for the barren decade before!
Now I wasn’t always great in my delivery, but each time I performed, I felt great. Not the “great” that’s based on the audience’s approval and applause. But the feeling of exhilaration that comes from the performance itself. That, after long hours of rehearsals, I could deliver a line or a dance with some panache. Enough at the very least to make me feel great.
It might even explain why years after graduating, I went into teaching.
Reading aloud before an audience helps boost self-confidence
Earlier I mentioned it was my second time reading online to an audience. The first happened early last year when I took up my very first online spoken word poetry course.
In that short six-week program, comprising one two-and-a-half-hour session every Wednesday evening, participants both wrote and delivered their poems on Zoom. We took turns to read aloud to one another. It felt slightly surreal. Though there were witnesses (my coach and coursemates), I felt rather alone and it took a lot of effort to read without feeling like I was doing a soliloquy.
This time around though, it was decidedly different.
Firstly, I was more familiar with my audience as they were fellow participants in a memoir writing course that was into its eighth week. At the same time, I studied under the same coach in an earlier online writing course (also eight weeks), and one of my coursemates there also joined this course along with me.
Secondly, the prompt from our coach was that we were not to deliver our lines as writers but as actors. In the instant he said that, I knew right away I was going to share poetry in spoken-word style, though the coach was expecting us to read past essays we wrote during our weekly sessions. For me, however, I just couldn’t imagine any other writing that would allow my inner actor to, well, act out!
And it worked.
My coach and coursemates applauded enthusiastically after my four-set. But more importantly, I gave it my all, even standing up to deliver the reading despite the fact we were on Zoom, and everyone else when their turn came, did it seated. Something about spoken word poetry just demands we stand and deliver.
And, I delivered. And it was a great self-confidence booster.
Here’s hoping the next time I perform a reading, I will get to do so in person, and with a live audience before my eyes.
Now that will really complete my performing repertoire and hopefully boost my confidence even further.