Poetry Out Loud: Performance Primer

For teachers and students preparing for performance

The following video clips have been annotated with the POL rubric in mind to help students and teachers preparing for competitions. The video clips include student performances and teaching artist Matthew Conley discussing important aspects of performance.

Physical Presence

Teaching artist Matthew Conley stresses the importance of subtle dress, how to use movement during a performance, and how to channel nervousness into performance energy.


Teaching artist Matthew Conley demonstrates Appearance and Presence

Student Allegra Breedlove recites "Mrs. Caldera's House of Things" by Gregory Djanikian

Watch how Allegra poises herself before she begins speaking. Notice that her clothes are non-distracting solid colors. She is very sure of herself, confident, and she pauses before she begins reciting the poem. (Notice, too, how her "announcing-the-poem" voice is different than the recitation voice.) While reciting, she goes at her own pace, speeding up and slowing down as she sees fit; she controls the words, instead of being controlled by them. She demands all of our attention with eye contact, an authoritative tone, and engaged facial expressions. Her movements are subtle and controlled; her gestures are never huge or tacked on, and she is not illustrating the poem play by play. Instead, she keeps her hands folded in front of her, moving them subtly in a conversational way (which matches the tone of the poem) and smoothly changing positions to recapture audience attention when she wants to highlight her tonal shifts.

Recitation vs. Speech

Conley recites "The More Loving One" by W.H. Auden and discusses meter and how to break out of it when speaking in order to bring a poem to life using unexpected phrasing and dynamics. Conley states, "Speech is not patterned; it moves around and is unpredictable. If you use dynamics to thwart the audience's expectations, it signals that you have internalized the poem."


Teaching artist Matthew Conley demonstrates Recitation vs. Speech

Student Otto Ochanda recites "Dance Russe" by William Carlos Williams

Otto is dressed in nondescript colors. His hand gestures are subtle. He takes his time with the poem, doesn't let the rhyme or meter rush him. He pauses where he feels a pause in the meaning of the poem, not where the text dictates it. His demeanor is so convincing that we listeners believe he is married with children, if only for the length of the poem. It is hard for a high school student to pull off a poem in the voice of an old man, but Otto achieves this voice through pacing and pauses, posture, and body language.

Student Allegra Breedlove recites "War Is Kind" by Stephen Crane

Notice how Allegra throws in a little unexpected emphasis and pause on the second syllable of "lover." If our attention was wandering, it is recaptured here in this moment. "These men were born to drill and die" is an iambic line, but notice how Allegra throws in a sizable pause after "drill." This pause allows her to accent both of the words that follow, "and die" which makes the audience aware of the emotional weight that line contains. If the line were spoken in simple iambs, we likely would miss the gravity of the situation. Notice too, her voice inflection—she is loudest on drill, and even though she is accenting "and die," her voice also gets quieter, too, which tonally matches the emotional weight of the words. See if you can pick out other ways Allegra disrupts the expected meter and brings this poem to life!

Pacing, Accent, Volume

Conley discusses how to use speed and add stress to certain words to emphasize their importance, and how to make choices about using volume to affect the poem.


Teaching artist Matthew Conley demonstrates Pacing, Accent, Volume

Student Leslie Shonhorst recites "Memory as a Hearing Aid" by Tony Hoagland

Leslie begins slowly, like the elderly voice in the poem might if it were speaking aloud. Once she approaches the crazy memories of 1970, her voice gets louder and faster and we race through those memories the way we might have if we had been there. Then, her voice slows and gets quieter during the line, "when we weren't sure our lives were worth surviving." These choices emphasize what follows, "I'm here to tell you that they were," spoken slowly, yet firmly, and a little louder than the line before. This line, instead of getting buried mid-stanza, is lifted up by Leslie's choices and stays with the reader for the rest of the recitation as the most important line in the poem.

Student Otto Ochanda recites "A Negro Speaks of Rivers" by Langston Hughes

Otto opens the poem slowly, with emphasis on the word "known" in the line, "I have known rivers." The line repeats and Otto's emphasis and volume on the word "known" the second time around is much bigger, as it is with the next two words, "rivers" and "ancient." Because of the choice in pacing, accent, and volume, the audience intuitively knows that there is great importance and wisdom in what is being said. The poem picks up speed through "as the" and emphasizes "world," the speed is maintained through "older than the flow of human" and then Otto pauses. The following word, "blood" stands out. Then Otto pauses again between "human" and "veins." These pauses make us consider the words "human," "blood" and "veins" in a way we wouldn't if Otto hadn't highlight them; by emphasizing these words, Otto is giving us a chance to infer the larger implications of the poem. See if you can find other examples of how Otto uses volume, speed and pauses to emphasize other parts of this poem.

Watch all Poetry Out Loud Showcase Performances on the Poetry Center's YouTube Channel!

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