Poetry Alive: Performing Your Poems for an Audience

Aug 11, 2022 | Black Voices, Poetry

I recently read an article that said roughly 75% of humans have a fear of public speaking.

Years ago, there was a survey where public speaking rated the highest among things people were scared of, more than death. The esteemed comedian, Jerry Seinfeld, made reference to this in a stand-up special saying, “If you have to be at a funeral, you’d rather be in the casket than delivering the eulogy.”

If there’s one thing a poet/author will most likely be asked to do, especially when they get published, is speak in front of the audience–preferably also reading their work.

One of the ways authors supplement their income is by doing author visits to schools. I happen to be one of those people. I’ve learned from experience that it’s one thing to read a poem from a book for an audience, it’s another to act it out–something changes in the air, molecules get shifted in one’s soul, and an audience feels like it’s part of something different, a happening.

As a professional actor, a life-changing thing happened to me when in 2003 I was hired by a touring company based out of Asheville, NC called Poetry Alive! One of my jobs was to act out poems–by heart–in a format akin to a sketch comedy with audience participation, a two-person theatrical drama, and a poetic secular revivalist service all in one.

I saw middle schoolers across the country, in wealthy, middle class, lower middle class, and underserved communities weeping over my Poetry Alive! touring colleague, Anita Ross, when she performed the poem “Elena” by Pat Mora about an immigrant trying to find dignity and hope in a new land. I performed and witnessed high schoolers in the same socio-economic demographics in stone cold silence witnessing the poem “We” by Lee Bennett Hopkins about a father who fractures his family by deserting them. On the flip side, in the poem “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod” by Eugene Field, one time the audience laughed so loud at one of the audience participants, a teacher, playing the role of Nod and pretending to snore every time his character’s name was mentioned, that we had to wait for the laughter to die down multiple times before continuing.

These reactions are a microcosm of the reception to the over 200 different poems I performed with Poetry Alive! One of the things that is most true in life was summed up by Pulitzer Prize winner and former Poet Laureate, Rita Dove, who said, “Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.”

Without the consistency of performing that many diversified poems, for audiences in almost 40 states, I wouldn’t be a poet/author today.

One of my other jobs with Poetry Alive! was teaching poetry performance classes. I’ve taken some of what I learned from that experience in acting out a poem: character, setting, actions, and feelings and some things I’ve learned in different acting classes throughout the years, including a learning-by-heart/scripting and scoring technique that will help attendees at our upcoming Highlights Foundation retreat learn some of their own poems in a quicker way.

That’s right! Besides working on the craft of writing poetry for young people during Poetry For Kids: A World of Publishing Possibilities, one of the breakout sessions for the attendees will be acting out at least one their own poems for their fellow retreaters in a poetry jamboree. They won’t have to act out long, lyrical, sidewinding poems–although that would be something special–instead, it can be 10 lines or less. Nothing overwhelming.

To those potential attendees who might be nervous about this facet of our workshop, we ask to please keep an open mind, know that you’re going to enter a welcoming and encouraging space, and to keep in your thoughts something I’ve also learned throughout the years, “trust the poetry.”

I’ve had some interesting things happen to me while performing, I’ve forgotten my lines, I had someone interrupt the show, I even split my pants at an elementary school during a super physical poem. The audience couldn’t tell, thank goodness, but I soldiered on and guess what? The sky didn’t fall, I didn’t start growing green hair on the spot, I didn’t melt into a puddle of embarrassment. I kept going and each attendee can do the same. I believe in you, and so does Irene. Join us!

Thank you to our faculty for this Guest Post!

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