Druid ritual frequently includes an eisteddfod (pronounced eye-steth-fod, I think). The word is Welsh in origin. The Welsh cultural eisteddfod celebrates Welsh language and culture, and tends to include bardic chairs. I am not entirely certain of the history, but my impression is that the Welsh eisteddfod and the druidic ones have their roots in the same cultural movement, emphasising non-English identities in the UK and reaching back to a Celtic past.
Not all eisteddfod feature a bardic chair contest, although some do. Bardic chairs often exist as entities in their own right, often based in a city, and attracting both druids and non-druids. There’s an excellent Kevan Manwaring book – The Book of the Bardic Chair, which I heartily recommend. (It’s on amazon).
While an eisteddfod can be competitive, many of them aren’t. They tend to happen after the bread and mead have been shared in ritual, and may well be accompanied by additional cake. The Welsh variant focuses very much on Welsh language, and therefore poetry. Druid gatherings range much more widely, including story telling, songs, tunes, jokes, and riddles. I’ve been at a couple of rituals where people danced, or performed Stav moves (it’s a bit like Tai Chi, only based on runes, as far as I can make out.) People bring art sometimes as well, or craft items they have made. It’s an opportunity to show off creativity, support the creativity of others, and share inspiration. As such, it’s a very important part of what druids do.
Finding suitable material to share in ritual can be a bit of a challenge. I tend to take appropriate seasonal material from the folk tradition, and I nick things Damh the Bard has written. We’re blessed with a composer in my gorsedd and he sometimes brings instruments and improvises, which is brilliant. When a person is new to public performance, it can be easier to bring someone else’s work – material you love and have confidence in – because the strength of the work can help carry a less experienced performer. It often takes time to build sufficient confidence to take your own creations out in public. Brendan Myers most recent book – A Pagan Testament – offers some interesting material to work with.
I think the most important thing is to find work that inspires you. I’d also recommend going along and listening the first time – unless you are a confident performer already. It’s easier to spend a ritual getting a feel for how the group works and what the space is like to perform in, and then have a go the next time. There’s a lot to be said for taking poetry – singing outside is hard work (gorsedd tend to happen outside), and a short poem is easy enough to commit to memory, or to read from paper. It’s a good place to start, building confidence and performance experience on the way to more ambitious things. Poetry can be read to good effect, but it can also be recited and performed.
Speaking in ritual is also an opportunity for poetry. Some groups work with scripts planned in advance, but it is also possible to improvise poetic speech in the moment. The Celts valued good speech as a virtue, and it’s well worth exploring.