in for a penny

It took a while, but I’ve finally plunged into the world of live online poetry gigs. After weeks of dithering about, last Sunday I did three – yes, three! – gigs via Zoom with fellow pandemonialist and Wolverhampton poet laureate Emma Purshouse. And I really enjoyed them. Seeing as all the evidence points to it being a good while before we go back to live poetry gigs in a pub/club/theatre, online events like these may end up playing an increasing role in keeping ‘live’ performance going. So, what did I learn from my gigs? And might any of it be useful to you?

Let’s find out….

In advance of the gig, check your image (by going into ‘settings’ in Zoom and clicking on ‘video’) so you know you’re central on the screen, that you haven’t got spinach caught in your teeth, or food spilled down your front, and that Michael Gove poster blu-tacked to your wall isn’t in shot.

Get the lighting right. A ceiling light behind you won’t illuminate your face. When you go to a gig, the lighting is key (unless you’re Henry Rollins). At the least, try for additional lighting from the side to help you stand out from what’s behind you. Experiment till you find what works best.

Know your material. Always.

During the gig, we used the ‘waiting room’ facility. This meant we could control when folk joining late (because there will always be folk joining late) were admitted to the gig. Letting them in between poems seemed the best approach.

The ‘mute all’ option was invaluable. This stopped the feedback loop we’ve heard at other gigs. And yes, we did explain to the audience that we were doing it, and why. OK, so it means performing to silence (here I’m avoiding the temptation to make a joke about poets being used to that) but you can see folk clapping, or encourage them to use the little applause icon, or post their appreciation in chat between poems. At the end of each set, we asked people to unmute themselves so we could hear the thunderous applause/ whoops and cheers/ polite ripple of appreciation/ muttered curses.

Leave a space between the poems. Don’t be tempted to rush into poem two because of the silence at the end of poem one. Allow a few seconds of empty air so your audience can absorb what they’ve heard, and get ready for the next one. Pace yourself. Not too fast, and not too slow. Like Goldilock’s porridge, if it was a poet on a Zoom gig.

Speaking as a performance poet, a Zoom gig is not the same as a live gig with the audience in the room. Rather than making eye contact with audience members, reading the room, and immersing myself in the moment, I was attempting to deliver my poems – with the same focus and intensity – to the camera in my laptop. That takes a certain amount of getting used to. Yes, many of the skills you’ve learned over the years are transferable, but there’s also a slightly different dynamic between performer and audience. Trust yourself.Performing to a screen is, possibly, more exhausting than a ‘real’ gig. The post-gig buzz is very much the same.

Will I do more Zoom gigs? Absolutely. Emma and I each did 20-minute sets, allowed time for a Q&A at the end of the show, and did completely different sets in each gig. For me, this meant digging out some poems which had once been a staple part of my set but hadn’t been read to an audience for years, trying out some new poems which had never been aired before, and putting favourite poems in a fresh context.

It was a blast. Watch this space for news of more.