Friday, 17 December 2010

Open Mic Disasters #4: Forgetting the Words

By Frank Burton

Forgetting the words can of course be disastrous for any performer, but for the performance poet it can literally mean the end of the show. If you fluff your lines as an actor in the theatre, you've usually got other people on stage to help you blag your way through it. If you're a singer, you've got the music to fall back on. Poets just have uncomfortable silence.

This doesn't mean you can't recover. If you make a joke out of it as you scramble around for the notebook in your pocket, you can almost make the cock-up seem deliberate.

Or you can improvise. The audience doesn't know what you're going to say, so why not talk bollocks into the microphone, adding a few meaningful pauses here and there? (A lot of poets just do that anyway.)

Personally, I think reciting from memory is the best way of delivering poetry to a live audience. Every poet should give it a go, even the ones who say "I could never do that." But you need to be fully prepared. You need to be able to let the lines flow right out of you without having to stop and think. (It doesn't always work. If nerves get the better of you, you'll see all those faces staring back at you and the whole thing disappears. That's when the notebook in your pocket comes in handy.)

I just have one piece of advice for anyone thinking of performing their poetry from memory at an open mic for the first time: don't have a drink. You may think it cures your stage fright, and maybe it does, but it doesn't do the memory any good. I went to Poetry Unplugged in London a year or so ago, and planned to perform a couple of poems I'd recited elsewhere several times before, so didn't take the time to rehearse anything in my head, had a few drinks and stepped up to the microphone, where I immediately forgot who I was, what I was doing - everything. Luckily about ten seconds later, I managed to pull myself together, but it was an uncomfortable ten seconds. I may have said "OK, what am I doing?" a couple of times but hopefully this was assumed to be part of the routine.

I suppose the reason why a lot of poets prefer to read from the page rather than deliver from memory is that if you get the words wrong, the poem won't be as good. There's a simple solution to that: don't get the words wrong. If you're properly prepared, hopefully that's not going to happen. And if you slip up, it's not the end of the world. The worst thing that could happen is that you'll look like a bit of a dick.

I don't know about you, but that happens to me all the time.

1 comment:

  1. It happens to all of us...

    Back in college a few of my friends were DJ's. They used to perform at a local club and had a weekly show called "Eargasm." People from the crowd would step up and freestyle rap. It was a competition thing, kind of like what they showed in that Eminem movie 8 Mile. It wasn't really my scene, but I used to help out because friends were involved. Usually this involved helping set up the sound system, working the door, and in return, I was usually paid with a couple free drinks.

    One night, after a few too many free drinks, the crowd encouraged me to get onstage. There were uncomfortable silences and even more uncomfortable moments when I tried to think of something to say. Understand, I'm not even a fan of rap. I was bassist in a few punk and metal bands at the time and sometimes sang grungy folk ballads with an acoustic guitar. I am no Eminem. Luckily, the crowd had a lot of friends in it, so I received a few good-natured boos and laughs and came offstage mostly unharmed. My ego wasn't even all that bruised. It was something completely outside my comfort zone and element. But still, despite being embarassed it was ... kind of fun ... in a way. And I took three lessons about performing away from it:

    1) Like you said: Don't drink. (At least not too much -- I find a couple drinks can loosen the vocal chords if I'm going to be singing.)

    2) Know your audience. Know their expectations. If you don't fit in with that audience, you're going to have to be something extraordinary to win the crowd over. For example, a somewhat nerdy white country boy who likes to play guitars might not find his best target audience at an inner-city hip hop competition. Geddy Lee from Rush is more hip-hop than me. ;)

    3) Be prepared. As embarassing as the situation was, if I took the time to understand hip hop and had taken the time to work out some lyrics beforehand that, you know, actually rhymed, I probably could have faked my way through a three minute performance. I may not have been best in show (I know I wouldn't have been), but I might have been less likely to embarass myself.

    4) Don't sweat it. Performing, for most of us, should be about having fun. If you don't find enjoyment in it, don't do it. This is why I still will perform with guitars/vocals, but will most likely not rap again. Rapping, while informative, was not really an enjoyable experience for me. But I do enjoy singing and playing guitar. It's always fun and rarely embarassing (I kind of know what I'm doing ... most of the time, anyway).