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We Are Poetry Nation – And on Writing to Perform

I never considered how much performance was involving in writing.


I never wrote any of my fiction or poems to perform out loud, but I’ve ended up doing it anyway. I think my first live reading was years back at a Cthulhu-themed event at Southcart Books in Walsall, but this was in a friendly room of other writers – the safest of spaces.


In the years since, I’ve read other writers works for Christmas events, and in the last year or so, I’ve been reading my poems aloud at our excellent monthly Coventry poetry night (“Fire and Dust”).


But still, I write stuff to be read, not to be spoken and performed. And especially not (other than when I’m feeling particularly brave) read by me.


I used to be infinitely more confident than I find myself now. I genuinely don’t know what happened, but something knocked the stuffing out of me – and now I can’t even remember when that was. It never used to be the case (I used to snarl my way around comic conventions dressed as a fascist cop, after all), but now I’m regularly hit by crippling shyness.


That said, I’ve been getting into voice acting the last couple of months, first getting involved with it thanks to Robin Johnson who took a chance on me with his Untrue Stories project– and then later on with the Midnight Pals podcast (which is currently being funded – pop a couple of quid in and you may well hear me voice a cenobite and sing).  Having had such fun doing this, I’ve been auditioning and got a few  roles on CCC (Casting Call Club) – including my first major part earlier in this week in a forthcoming medieval comedy.


This is well within my comfort zone for a few reasons; namely, I can do it on my own time and in my own space – and secondly, and this is the critical part, I don’t have to remember any lines. The script is in front of me, and I simply read from it. And if I screw it up (and I do – sometimes it’s me with a cough or mispronounced word, sometimes it is out of my control – like with the puppy barking, which she does a lot), I can do it again – as many times as I like. I can edit the audio so it’s free from background noise, crisp, clear – perfect.  And it’s this performance which goes out into the open world – tweaked within a decibel of its life.



A few months back, I received an email invite. I’m friends with Emilie Lauren Jones (Coventry’s first Poet Laureate) and Alison Manning (another writer of considerable skill and repute) who I know from the Coventry Writer’s Group. I’d been invited to join a poetry collection for a performance at the Springboard Festival, a weeklong arts festival held by an excellent local independent theatre - The Criterion. It had been done the year before to great success.


Because I’m often at the folly of looking before I leap, I said yes – only later on considering the weight of that decision. I’d have to perform in front of strangers – and not just that; paying strangers. There’s an unwritten law that paying strangers are allowed to – if not entirely fulfilled by the entertainers – throw fruit at performers (tomatoes are common, I believe) and noisily demand their money back. Flaming pitchforks may also get involved – it’s a whole messy business, and one I’d be better out of.


That said, I attended the first rehearsal. The theme was mortality, and I’ve got two pieces on that theme. That said, this one – however much it makes an audience gasp – probably wouldn’t have been the best choice. I picked “OMG Bollard”, a relatively new piece (and yes, the title is a pun on J.G. Ballard; there’s a “Crash” connection).

 

The flowers, they just hung there, dead from ennui,

Too dry to be identified, too wet for Pot-Pourri,

A weeping biro label proudly bore your name,

A Blotched sentiment that without you, life would never be the same.

 

They’re wrapped around a bollard, next to a dented tree –

“The last thing that went through your mind,” we thought, sarcastically.

The police tape hangs down from one branch, colours bleached to white,

And fake flowers sprout perennially on this traffic island site.

 

Telegraph poles are ubiquitous, electrical cathedral spires,

Our minds oblivious to their jumbled labyrinth of wires.

Your kerbside grave is just the same, kicked into the past,

A Florist’s bonus marks the spot just where you breathed your last.

 

If I should have an accident, and chance to crash my car,

Dress me as a traffic cone, all draped in lavender,

Which may as preparation seem laborious and drastic,

But will make my impending tributes both ironic and sarcastic.


During the first rehearsal (with Alison and Andrew Sharpe, the festivals producer), it was positively encouraged for us to memorise our piece, if possible. Just sixteen lines – some of the other poets knew their poems five times that length off by heart.


Easy, right?


My memory is, frankly, shot. A combination of years of anxiety and antidepressant medication make my brain a clouded fog at the best of times, unable to focus on anything which my mind doesn’t consider critical. (On which note, my wife keeps nagging at me to get an ADHD/autism diagnosis, but the waiting list is obscene if you don’t want to pay to do it privately).


I can only remember one poem of mine off by heart, and that’s because it’s only four lines long.


Memorising it was never going to be an option. I’d have it written down and read from that. I wouldn’t even try to remember it – it’d be a pointless act (as would be my actual performance if I didn’t have an aide memoire).


One of the fascinating things about the collection – eventually brilliantly named “We are Poetry Nation” – was quite how diverse the participants and contents were. The theme of mortality is a broad church indeed – it could be argued that it includes the entire gamut of human experience, after all – and I was surrounded by a brilliant and talented bunch of poets all with unique and distinctive voices.

Flier - Click to enlarge

Martin (Maxi Di Poet) spoke of the parallels of creativity and sport (with a phenomenal line about his big brain with a masterful pause for effect), with Justin Wong delivering an eloquent and thoughtful work on the legacy of communism. Amy Rugg told a heartfelt and equally heartbreaking tale of bread rolls and the Blitzkrieg immolation of Coventry Cathedral (with wonderful use of the verb ‘bearded’, which really stuck with me), and Wendy Barzetovic delivered a thought-provoking and witty contemplation of existence.  Christy Ng waxed lyrical about the nature of reality and the heart, and Olugbemi Moronfulu gave an impassioned delivery of her unique recipe of Soup for the Soul.


Intimidating company – I’m relatively new to this poetry game, after all – but a lovely group of people equally as inspiring and welcoming. Impostor Syndrome is a powerful thing, but it’s important to remember that you were chosen for a reason – you wouldn’t have been in that room if somebody didn’t consider your voice worth hearing. Repetition was the key; performing our pieces in front of each other as long as rehearsal time would allow – and it’s a technique that really works, for reasons I’ll go into later. And like with all such things, the deadline of the performance seemed so long away it was pointless to even worry about it yet.


Time flies, doesn’t it?


Because I’d considered memorising the piece a futile act, I frankly hadn’t bothered. All my rehearsals in my own time had been with the book, so convinced was I of my own lack of ability. But then, on one quiet day from work, I thought I’d try it anyway – see what I could remember without the need to read it from the page.


And I was surprised by how much I could remember. The rehearsals had instilled some kind of muscle memory – I guess the tongue is a series of muscles, anyway – and I was remembering the words through the rhythm I’d gleaned from the repetition. It wasn’t perfect, but I could recall the bulk of it through the ebb and flow and the tempo.


Lewis joined the group a little later on (who performs as Spoken2Life) and it didn’t help that his performance was delivered with such utter conviction, professionalism and confidence – a wonderful poet, but a daunting act to follow indeed.


Sadly, I missed one week of rehearsals – one where Emelie talked about delivery techniques and warm-ups – but Andrew was kind enough to donate his time to giving those who missed it a catch-up at the next session.


My one issue now was that I could remember every line of the work when on my own (I spent many a dog walk clearly looking insane reading my poem aloud to myself, or staring at myself in the mirror) but stick me in front of a room of people – even these fellow poets who I was familiar with now – and phrases and sentences would magically vanish from my memory.


I’d have a back-up. A gimmicky one (I got some police tape from eBay) but a back-up, nonetheless. Something to refer to in a panic, rather than subject an audience to a minute of awkward silence with me growing as red as one of the aforementioned tomatoes.


And then the evening approached. I’d practiced a few times reading the piece in front of friends, and I think my wife was frankly sick of me just blurting it out at random times, just to prove to myself that I could still recall it. Even on the walk up to the Theatre on that balmy Wednesday evening had me reciting it half a dozen times to myself. It was odd – I’d not being wanted the evening to arrive, but now it had, I wanted it out of the way; the last half hour wait was the worst – as though if we lingered any longer, every word of the piece would slip out of my subconscious never to return.


We were the first act on, already in the room when the sold-out crowd walked in – most of them blissfully unaware that the poets were already there. At 7:30 Emelie and Alison introduced us all, giving us a chance to give our epithets to introduce ourselves;

 

David Court, glad to have not been christened Dennis,

David, a dad-joking, pun-slinging menace,

Reading aloud as you suffer in silence,

Forgot to renew his poetic license.

 

It got laughs – that was good (and somewhat invigorating, and as equally somewhat of a relief). I read my piece third, my book already open, ready to be glanced at if need be.


We’re very critical of ourselves, aren’t we? I know I stumbled on the very first line, but I think I delivered the piece slowly enough that said stumble wasn’t noticed. There were a few chuckles as I went along – which buoyed me on, to be honest – and I got through the entire piece without looking at the book once.  It was well received and got some good laughs at the end, and I sat down.


There was a weird deflation, coming from the adrenal high that’s come and gone. It was done, and I’d managed something I never thought I could achieve. It wasn’t just the rehearsals – although they were key – but the presence of the other poets. We all wanted each other to do well, which is an incredibly motivating factor – you don’t want to be the one who disappoints or who lets the others down.


Everybody was phenomenal. Maxi’s “big… brain” pause nearly brought the house down – excellent (and always hilarious) during rehearsals, but comic timing perfection on the night. Wendy leaning in close to an audience member to deliver a line got a huge laugh, and you could have heard a pin drop during Amy’s piece – everybody was utterly captivated. It’s unfair to single out individual performances though, because we were all, frankly, great.


A great thank you to Emelie, Alison and Andrew for putting this all together – this weird symbiosis of different voices was way more than the sum of its parts, and came together perfectly on the night. I’m proud of myself, proud to have been a part of it, and proud of the people I’ve come to know over the past few months.


In the words of Andrew; "The audience loved it. Crucially they gave their energy back, which empowered all of you. That doesn’t always happen, but when it does it’s glorious, that grinding creak of minds opening as the audience locks in communion with the performer. That’s the why of theatre, why we sit in freezing rehearsal rooms in the dead of winter. That’s theatre. That’s why."


If I never have to hear “OMG Bollard” for the next six months though, I’ll be a happy man. I just need to stop repeating it to myself in my dreams now - and get over my lack of confidence for an impending book launch!


We are Poetry Nation.


We are Poetry Nation - L to R; Justin, Amy, Wendy, Emelie, Maxi Di Poet, Spoken2Life, Alison, Olugbemi, Me, Christy



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