I think it was in February that Miki first raised the idea that the In Your Own Words Poetry Group would read at the Cheltenham poetry festival. I know it seemed sufficiently far away to contemplate calmly. So I put my name on the list.
I didn’t exactly forget, in the intervening months, I was just too busy to think about it. Then, for last month’s poetry group, Miki asked us to bring three poems so that we could have a read through. That was, I realised, a make or break moment – the time when I could gracefully back out.
There was no pressure, only plenty of encouragement. Read slowly, was Miki’s advice. Make time to read to the mirror, several times. Practice is the key.
I spend a lot of time advising other writers to step forward and speak up, extolling the advantages of sharing our writing. What, after all, was there to be afraid of? I had three poems that I was ready to share, and it’s not often that the opportunity to read at a festival is offered. The choice, I realised had already been made.
So, yesterday afternoon I arrived at The Playhouse Lounge half an hour early, clutching my three poems, washed, pressed and polished for my debut poetry-reading performance. Time did that elastic-band trick it sometimes plays, stretching so, so slowly, then springing forward faster than it should, so that before I knew it I was being called to read.
What me? Are you sure?
I held my pages up high, and read…slowly. I forgot the audience was there, and then I remembered them, and that I was supposed to glance around, include them. I took a quick scan across the tops of heads, back down to the page…where was my line? There, got it. No way was I going to risk repeating that. I’d look again when I swopped poems.
How could so much be going on in my head while I was reading? I don’t know. I seemed to absorb everything. The quality of the sunlight coming through the rather lovely old stained glass window, the dry air, my legs feeling as if they had run a marathon, and my voice, pacing the words, hearing them as if for the first time. It was an experience I still cannot define, or pin down.
As I reached the last four lines of my third poem, disaster. My throat dried, and the words were forced out over a parched larynx. As Ray later said, the frog from my second poem, hadn’t actually left.
The one thing I had not anticipated, was the importance of those sips of water I’ve noticed public speakers pausing for at events. As I coughed, and swallowed, I had a sudden image of the final scenes from that old John Mills favourite, Ice Cold In Alex.
Somehow, the final words were spoken, though. It was over, and I was glad to have done it. Despite the strangled ending, I got through. I could sit back and enjoy the other readings. I think we were all a little nervous, but we did it, all ten of us.
Miki took the stage to round our hour off. With enviable sangfroid, she chatted with the audience, putting the group into context, introduced her poems and then performed them. Her pages, it seemed, were only a prop, not her lifebelt.