It could happen in a sculpture park, blurt out in a bookshop, or manifest in front of paintings in a gallery. It could be screamed into the windy forecourt of a Tesco superstore, or delivered for your ears only from a plywood stall in a shopping mall.  It is, of course, the event programmer’s low-cost, low-fi friend – Pop-Up Poetry!!

It’s been a very up-popping year for me and some of the poets I work with, going back as far as the inaugural Contains Strong Language festival in Hull 2017. One of the works I commissioned for that weekend was MisGuided, a surreal tour of historical sites unreliably narrated in poetry and prose by Richard Tyrone Jones. In many ways the piece captured the essence of Pop-Up. Content was scripted but anarchic, and delivered at multiple sites, none of which were venues in any traditional sense, all of which were public, open-air, un-amplified, and suited to walk-through audiences who were definitely not expecting it.

It’s the sense of incongruity that makes Pop-Up so much fun. People should be surprised to hear poetry being spoken at that place, at that time. They should be a free-range audience, making their way through an ordinary day. Since CSL festival I’ve taken cohorts of our women’s collective, the TWP, to pop up in a local crafts market and at a communities fair. I’ve travelled the Metro system in Newcastle with a troupe of poets and a portable amp to busk the commuter crowds for National Poetry Day – and this is what I’ve learned…

Pop-Up is one of the most demanding things to do as a performance poet, a bit like High Interval Training. Depending on your location and how transient your audience, you may only have to perform a very small number of poems, but you must do them over and over again at Max Energy Output.

Max Energy Output is essential because there is absolutely nothing else signal boosting your performance – sometimes not even an amp. There is no attentive crowd who have paid to listen to your every word in an acoustically adequate room with lighting that enhances your every expression. No! They are Going Somewhere! So to catch them you must be bigger, funnier, more physical, a clown, an improviser, an all-round entertainer who actively encourages eye contact. Your choice of poem must be quickly understood, with arresting yet family-friendly language, drama and/or humour. Strong rhyme or rhythm are your friends for this crowd.

You must also have huge reserves of self-confidence, because ego-stroking will be at an all-time low. Even a fleeting smile over a rapidly departing shoulder should be taken as a massive win.

If someone loiters in your peripheral vision? Victory!! There will be no applause, or very little, and every speck of audience response should be nurtured like a seedling. Smiles must be returned, laughter played up to, questions asked pantomime-style. In one location we had radio mics, which would have been an amazing opportunity to go out among the crowd and ham it up had we only had the courage. Next time.

Lastly, as with all difficult yet fun things, you’ll get a massive buzz out of it, and then probably a massive crash. Do Pop-Up with a crew who build each other up and find it easy to laugh. Work together, be each other’s best audiences, jump on the mic when your teammate’s energy flags, keep the water and snacks coming, and take lots of photos to prove you were even ever there…