Part 1 of Sarah’s Reaching Your Audience blog can be found here
Readings & Performance
These days, if you consider yourself a ‘page poet’ (I use the term loosely) and/or an
introvert, the thought of connecting with your audience through a live reading may feel daunting.
Having decided to face the fear and try it anyway, you may find that you actually love it. In any case, there are a range of techniques that might make the experience easier, as well as other alternatives to live readings.
For example, I’ve found distancing techniques can sometimes be helpful – so that when I read, the person up there performing or reading isn’t me, it’s a donned reading/performing poet persona. Another ‘trick’ might be to think very carefully about what type of setting you’re most comfortable reading in and only do those that work for you. Considerations here might include the ideal size of event (and audience) to the potentially very different atmosphere of reading at a highbrow literary festival compared to a local open mic or a small reading staged for friends and family rather than the general public. Smaller audience events may mean you’d need to do more of them to potentially reach the same size audience, but better a good reading that you enjoy than a larger reading at which you’re uncomfortable and therefore don’t engage with the audience. And choosing select events rather than reading at everything may help make your readings special and encourage people to attend, as it may be a while before they get the chance to hear you again.
For some people, arriving early to allow time to chat to people before the evening starts might help turn that event from a reading in front of strangers to a reading for new friends. Many audiences, particularly perhaps at open mics, tend to appreciate and respond more after the warmth of laughter. If, like me, you rarely write humorous poems, there are other ways round this. The first is to have the few or only humorous poem with you as a back-up. The second is to build humour into the short introductions or spiel between sharing your actual poems.
If you’re still nervous, then, on top of these possibilities, there are other ways of playing to your strengths/bypassing your weaknesses. If you’re reluctant to read your work but don’t mind talking about it, there might be opportunities for taking a more Q & A style event to local writers/readers group or interest groups, if you’re writing on a particular theme. Alternatively, instead of live performance, perhaps try some recorded audio, a podcast or video performance. This could even become a collaborative project with a filmmaker.
Or perhaps there’s an element to your work that would make it interesting to a local acting group or someone who likes performing or entertaining. When I originally sat down to turn my poetry collection The Magnetic Diaries into a solo poetry show, I envisaged it as a festival-length reading with a narrative thread. Having turned it into a script, and submitted it to the Write On Festival at Hereford’s The Courtyard (awareness of an opportunity!), I eventually ended up with a director and actress willing to take it on as a full piece of poetry theatre (taking it on an ACE-funded tour and two-week run at Edinburgh Festival Fringe)!
So, the internet…
I’ve spent a lot of words so far on poetry and performance. But the same considerations of audience size, the atmosphere/environment that you’re most comfortable in, and finding ways of adapting yourself to that environment or potentially that environment to you are also relevant when it comes to exploring the web and how different internet sites and options might work for you in reaching your audience. Likewise also with finding extra ways of catching your audience’s eye. I’ve already mentioned audio and video as options for engaging with an audience beyond the page. Combining images with words is another possibility that can work well on the web – whether the artwork is yours or something produced in collaboration with another artist.
The theory behind trying things for yourself and playing to your strengths is that a) these things can be very personal (and a two-way relationship between the individual writer and their audience members) so there is no black and white ‘this is the way to do it’; b) life is too short for doing too many things that you don’t really enjoy unless you absolutely have to. The second is that I know it can take me ages (and be very draining) to get round to doing things that I don’t want to do, whereas I have almost unlimited energy, motivation and focus for the things that I enjoy doing. This makes them much easier to sustain and fills them with a natural genuineness and enthusiasm.
Thinking even further out of the box
I love writing. I started as a journalist, moved into writing short fiction (2000-8000) words, then poetry, my poetry-play, The Magnetic Diaries, flash fiction and finally a novella, Kaleidoscope, due out early 2017. In audience terms, this might also be considered hedging my bets!
Like audio, video or combining words with pictures, trying a different genre can be rewarding as a writer, as well as potentially engaging further with your existing audience or finding new audiences for your work.
But if trying a different kind of writing doesn’t appeal, you know where you are with performance and the internet, then why not look at more unusual ways of bringing your work to people.Where does your audience go in their spare time? Can you reach them in routine places, even the most mundane from bus/train station to office to supermarket noticeboard?
Over the years my poems have featured on buses, poetry trails, phone apps, screen savers, poetry films, a café mural and in the Blackpool Illuminations. Of these, I can only truly claim the phone app as my own idea. The rest all came about either as opportunities discovered or opportunities offered to me through being part of online and real-life writing communities.
Other more unusual projects that I’ve heard of include poems in pub windows, guerilla posted on lamp-posts and trees, or turned into beer mats. Innovative and fun ways to reach audiences can also be found at festivals, such as poems written on demand for take-away or in portable sheds. Meanwhile, the Emergency Poet, Deb Alma, (https://emergencypoet.com/) brings other people’s poetry to new audiences by making poetry prescriptions for passers-by stopping for a consultation in her 1970’s ambulance. What other interests drive you besides writing? And can you combine the two to create a striking and fun way to reach your audience?
Sarah James is an award-winning poet, fiction writer and journalist, with five published poetry collections, a touring play and a novella out next year. Her poems have featured on buses, poetry trails, phone apps, screensavers, poetry films, a café mural, at Edinburgh Festival Fringe and in the Blackpool Illuminations. Her latest books are Lampshade & Glass Rivers (Loughborough University Overton Poetry Prize winner 2015) and plenty-fish (Nine Arches Press). She also runs V. Press poetry and flash fiction imprint.