I could probably tell you a lot about why I wanted to be a “true” street poet. But that’s not the point I think. If you want to be what I consider a street poet you have your own reasons. I will try to go directly to how, as far as I know.
You want a costume that interests and reassures the public. Show them you are serious about performing in the street. Give yourself a trademark, a signature. Make a choice that you are comfortable with, but that also makes you stand out. A poem shape visible in the city.
THE COLLECTION BOWL
There are different options for the collection bowl. One is that you use a hat, whether you wear it or not. Another is a bowl or basket. You may leave it out. Or you may pass it around at the end of performances.
It should be wide enough so that getting money into it is easy, and deep enough so that it can hold a lot, and paper bills won’t fall out or blow away. A cup is no good.
If you are performing for only one person, they can ask where the payment goes, or they can hand it over to you. For groups, it’s a good idea to introduce them to the bowl.
Thank you for your attention! And if there are any among you who find yourselves overburdened with loose cash, may I offer this receptacle for your convenience.
Make clear to everyone that you are doing this for money, but no one has to pay if they don’t want to. Even though your sign says so in words of one syllable, most people will need this explained, often more than once. If you can get a huge crowd, more will pay and each will pay a greater amount. But any time you recite a poem for even one person and are paid any amount, you have moved in a good direction. You must never resent people who pay nothing. Remember that while you are reciting for one who doesn’t pay, others will be drawn in to listen.
Make it easy for people to pay. Ask for it in a thought-out way. A prepared routine protects you from your own reluctance under difficult circumstances. If you collect money in a bowl, you may want to transfer what you have to your pockets frequently, or other people will try to take it. Some performers like to leave a few dollars in the bowl to get things started, but New Yorkers generally aren’t impressed by this sort of cheap trick.
Go where other street performers are.
Look for a natural frame, a proscenium for the show, or at least a backdrop. A doorway of a closed store will frame you, back you, and convey between the lines that what you offer is also a doorway.
Set up near the bars and restaurants that water and feed theater audiences in your city.
Set your sign up at an angle so it doesn’t block the sidewalk so much and can be read as pedestrians approach. It’s better to get people as they are leaving the restaurant or theater, not on their way there.
Find a place where you are welcome, where local businesses do not fear and hate you. If they complain to the police, your experience with the First Amendment is likely to prove as helpful and nauseating as chemotherapy is to a cancer patient. A last resort to be avoided your whole life if possible. A courtroom is a poor place to look for a happy ending.
Keep returning as much as possible to the same place. Have a second place to go if the police tell you to move on.
If your audience gets to where it is blocking the sidewalk, try moving your setup away from the building into the middle of the sidewalk. This leaves a path for people to go by behind you. Once you have an audience of this size, the audience itself becomes your theater. If some of your audience is standing in the street, invite them to come forward; drop the volume of your voice. Their closeness shuts out surrounding sound. No other art form can be so intimate as a poem recited aloud.