By Jeremiah Blue
It is the final round of the Phoenix Slam Poetry Championship, and the winner will go on to represent the city at the Individual World Poetry Slam. Two of my poems have already gone over well with the judges, so I step to the mic with confidence. I begin reciting a poem I have memorized, and it feels perfect.
But when I look through the lights, some in the audience strain forward, while others whisper to their friends. Finally, someone hollers out, “We can’t hear you!”
I pause, look down at the mic, and notice the switch has been turned off. An entire thirty seconds of my one-minute piece has been read on a mic that wasn’t even powered on.
What’s worse? I could have avoided the whole thing.
We may book our first university gig or a big theater stage, find an open mic friendly to prose readings, take our new poem or short story to a slam, or meet the public in a bookstore on our first book tour. Whatever level we are on, writers need a place to read our writing to an audience.
This post is about how to best create an environment that lets your audience go from being readers to being listeners, as if they were guests in your own home. The main point: Eliminate as many distractions between yourself, your material, and the audience as possible.
In other words: Know your stage.
Knowing yourself, your material, and how to communicate it are all invaluable tools we will not cover in this post. Knowing your stage includes a lot: sound (volume and range of monitors/speakers), microphones, stands and podiums (or nothing at all), lighting, the host (yes, the human hosting the show), and much more we won’t be able to cover in this piece.
As a single individual on a microphone, your sound needs are less complicated than, say, a forty-piece orchestra. You are likely not to move much on stage or have many dramatic vocal/volume changes, which means that most sound systems should accommodate your needs. It is still helpful to have a basic understanding of how these systems function for you.
First, do a mic test to understand how “hot” the microphone is. Know how far your mouth can or cannot be from the mic, in order to not merely be heard but heard well. If an audience member has to strain to listen, it becomes a distraction.
Ideally, make sure you test the mic long before your performance. If this option doesn’t exist, pay attention to those who go on the mic before you. When you take the stage, test the mic with a short introduction, or by snapping your fingers in front of it. Does it pick up your snap from three or six inches away, or do you have to be right on it? There is no point in reading if no one can hear you. Asking for the volume to be lowered or raised is a small request that can make the difference between being heard or not.
Understand whether there are “dead spots,” areas in the room outside the range of the speakers/monitors, or “hot spots,” areas in which you can be heard through the speakers most clearly. You can have these adjusted prior to your reading, or encourage the audience to move to more suitable areas. Another option is putting extra effort into reaching those areas outside the comfortable hearing range. If you are not reading with a mic or speakers, these principles still apply: Can people hear you in the back of the audience, or on the sides?
Know your mic stand, in addition to the volume and range of your mic. Maybe a guitar player used the boom stand prior to you, and it’s still waist high. Know how to quickly readjust even the squirrelliest of mic stands to fit your own posture. I have watched FAR more people choose to read into a microphone more than a foot above or below their mouths (we want to hear your voice, not your heartbeat!), rather than just learn how to properly adjust a mic stand.
Check the other stage props. Is there a podium, a sheet stand, or nothing at all? If you have to read at an immobile podium, can you be seen over its height? How far back can the audience see you? If you have a sheet stand, is it wobbly? Can that wobble be corrected? If there is no stand, where do you plan to put your pages or a beverage? As an audience member, if I can hear readers’ voices but not see them, it’s a distraction. It’s important to have answers to these questions prior to getting on stage.
Know your lighting. It is almost always safest not to wear a hat on stage. Anything blocking your face from the audience is a distraction. If your lighting is directly overhead, the rim on a hat will cast a shadow on your face, making you less accessible to connect from a distance, or even up close. With your face exposed, the nuances of your emoting can be seen. (If you are lit from below, go ahead and grab a 10-gallon cowboy hat and give your reading a go; otherwise, run a comb through your hair like you’re going out for the night, ‘cause you are!)
Communicate with your host. The time you have been offered on stage is your time. You represent yourself, your work, and perhaps those who represent your work (an agent, publisher, or editor). It is okay to ask the host if you can provide them with information for your intro, such as accomplishments from your CV, or titles of your other work. Granted, being introduced by a host will vary by venue and circumstance, but when a host is available, communicate with that person. I often bring a short list of main points I would like the hosts to mention if they can.
In the end, it’s one thing to understand you need to get out of your own way, and it’s something else entirely to know how to get out of your own way. If I had snapped my fingers in front of the mic at the Phoenix Slam Championship, I would have known it was turned off. If I had known my stage like it was my best friend, it wouldn’t have become my worst enemy.
A Phoenix resident and current M.A. Mesa Weekender student, Jeremiah Blue won the 2015 Arizona Slam Poetry Championship and has been the Phoenix Poetry Slam Champion three times, representing the city at two National Poetry Slams and the Individual World Poetry Slam. His nonfiction won the 2016 Etruscan Prize, and his poetry has been published by TEDx, incorporated into college coursework, and featured in radio shows, museums, and venues throughout the country.