How to Perform a Poem: Tips from Author & Actor Charles Waters

Header Image: How to Perform a Poem - Tips from Can I Touch Your Hair? Author Charles Waters

By Carol Hinz, Editorial Director of Millbrook Press and Carolrhoda Books

Happy National Poetry Month! Poetry is wonderful, but sometimes it’s also intimidating—especially if you’re reading a poem aloud to a group of people. So I asked poet and actor Charles Waters to give all of us non-actors a little advice.

Without any further ado, here’s Charles.

Charles Waters on how to perform a poem

When I toured many years ago with Poetry Alive!a touring company based in Asheville, NC, I got my first taste of poetry.

I was 29 years old.

Poetry hadn’t been taught to me at any point in my education. My guess is that’s because my teachers felt intimated by it. I daresay I would have become a reader of this life-changing art form much earlier if I had been introduced to it as a child or teenager. This is one reason I’m so passionate about reading, writing, and performing poetry.

Watch the video above to see Charles perform three poems from Can I Touch Your Hair?

Here are my tips for how to perform a poem.

1. What should I do with my body?

Confident stancefeet shoulder width apart, hands at your sides, behind your back, or on your hips. Never in your pocket unless the poem calls for it. When your feet are firmly planted, you have a base from which you’ll look more confident, even if you don’t feel that way in the moment.

Eventually, with practice and a number of performances, my guess is most—if not all—of the nerves will wash away. Maybe it won’t happen every time you perform. I still get nervous before every show or workshop I do. Nerves are good; they show you care, so harness that nervous energy to reach your maximum potential as the poetic superhuman you are!

2. What should I do with my voice?

Project—pretend there’s a big ear on the wall that’s facing you and project your voice to that wall. That way, the whole audience can hear you. Use your diaphragm. The diaphragm is a muscle located at the top of your abdomen. When you take a deep breath and you’re using your diaphragm, chances are you won’t strain your vocal cords when talking loudly.

3. Should I stand still?

Use your space—no point in standing around the whole time! Use your space on stage as the poem dictates (it’s all in the words of the poem).  For example, look up the poem “Things” by Eloise Greenfield.

You can use your space horizontally (on the ground) and vertically (in the air). I sometimes use chairs when I perform, so you could try doing that as well. No props needed! Imagination for the win.

4. How should I read the poem?

The clues for how to read a poem are in the poem itself. If someone in the poem is happy, there’s your clue, if someone’s sad, there’s your clue. If someone’s angry, etc.

5. What kind of practice can I do beforehand?

Get comfortable with the poem! A professor/director/actress named Sally Wood, who directed me in the title role of Othello, recommended that I learn lines by saying them out loud to myself or having someone go over the lines with me. This is better than listening to a recording. By running lines out loud, you can come up with new ways to say a line and you can play with what sort of inflection to use. I memorize all the poems I perform, but even if you don’t need to perform a poem from memory, this is still a great way to practice.

6. Where should I look when I’m reading or performing a poem by heart for an audience?

If you’re nervous, find a point just above the audience’s heads to focus on. If you’re feeling confident, look at each audience member’s face. You’ll be delighted at the connection because the audience becomes more engaged.

how to perform a poem: Charles Waters performing poetry
Charles performs poetry for students with Can I Touch Your Hair? co-author Irene Latham

7. I’m still nervous! Do you have other tips?

Revert back to the confident stance. That’s your base. Also, breathe! Shake those nerves off like water when coming out of the pool.

8. What do I do if I make a mistake?

YOU KEEP GOING.  I promise it will be okay in the end. I speak from personal experience. The sky won’t fall. Your teeth won’t turn green. Your life will not be ruined. If anything, it will be enriched because at some point in your life, you’ll have to speak in front of people. In front of your employees or co-workers or employers, for a public speaking class, or maybe you’ll give the wedding toast as your friend’s nuptials. So better prepare for it now!

And here’s the cool thing: poetry doesn’t judge. It will never let you down. It’s a constant in your life whether you know it or not because it’s all around you. All you have to do is believe in yourself and keep going.

9. What are a few of your favorite poems to perform?

“Ode to a Toe” by Kalli Dakos, “The New Kid on the Block” by Jack Prelutsky, and “Class Bully” by Nikki Grimes are three poems I love.

Learn more about Can I Touch Your Hair? 


To see more clips of Charles performing poems, check out him on YouTube.

Can I Touch Your Hair? is available through lernerbooks.comBarnes & NobleAmazonIndieBound, and all major distributors. Download a free teaching guide here.

You can read the Can I Touch Your Hair? authors’ and illustrators’ notes here and more about Charles’s and Irene’s writing process here. Plus, read fellow Lerner author Nina Crews’s conversation with Can I Touch Your Hair? illustrators Sean Qualls and Selina Alko, and listen to Irene Latham and Charles Waters’s episode of The Yarn podcast.

Looking for more tips about teaching poetry? Check out some advice Laura Purdie Salas gave Colby Sharp in this video!

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