People often say that you shouldn’t allow yourself to be buoyed or destroyed by what the audience thought of your poetry, that you should just do your own thing and judge yourself by your own standards, not theirs. Trouble is, I’m very bad at assessing how my own performance is going, except in terms of audience response. And I know I’m a very inconsistent performer. I’ve lost count of the number of times when I’ve performed the same set at two different events, only weeks or even days apart, and I’ve felt like I’ve performed it equally well on both occasions, but at one I get a rapturous reception and at the other the same material has gone down like a lead balloon.
Of course, sometimes this is because of circumstances beyond my control. A middle-aged provincial audience,for example, is probably going to respond differently from a young urban audience, and I can’t control who is in the audience. An audience who prefers comedy isn’t going to respond well to serious poetry, no matter how well it is performed, and vice versa. In theory, this should be less of a problem for me than most poets, as I do both funny and non-funny poems and should be able to adapt, but in practice I seem to have an unerring instinct to do exactly the kind of poetry that an audience doesn’t like, whereas someone who only does comedy is going to get it right at least some of the time.
The running order and who else is in it is also key to how I go down. If I’m headlining, the audience is probably going to be warmer and more receptive than if I’m on first. However, the downside of headlining is that more is expected of a headliner than a bottom-of-the-bill featured artist, and if the person on just before me was absolutely brilliant, then even my best performance will disappoint. Also, if the person on just before me has just done a harrowing poem about how their best friend died of a long, lingering disease and made the audience cry, then a silly poem about biscuits which might have made the audience laugh on another night will seem trite and wholly inappropriate.
Even taking all that into account, though, I know (because I’ve seen the videos of myself performing shockingly badly on YouTube or because a very blunt friend who was at both events tells me I wasn’t very good at one) that sometimes the reason for my going down worse was because I did actually perform much worse. The problem is that, at the time, I didn’t actually feel like I was doing anything different from or worse than the successful occasion – the only clue was the audience’s sluggish response.
I’m not quite sure why this happens. I possibly do perform worse when I’m tired (and juggling spoken word with a demanding day job and a thyroid disorder means I often am crushingly tired), but one of my best gigs ever was one where I was so tired I barely even remember being there, so that’s not the only explanation. I definitely need to rehearse more than I do, but I’ve often bombed out on a poem that I did OK a few days earlier when I was even less rehearsed. And we all know that material can be overrehearsed, too – a poem you’ve done too much can go very stale and stop having the effect on an audience it used to have. The effects of (a) nerves and (b) alcohol also play a part. I freely admit I’m heavily reliant on (b) to counteract (a) and it’s a delicate balancing act drinking enough to quell the nerves, but not so much that I start slurring my words or forgetting lines.
But, anyway, I do take the audience’s reaction very much to heart, because I have no intrinsic way of judging how well I did. And I probably should do more work on my performance skills (maybe with the assistance of a director?)