At the Cheltenham Poetry festival

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.

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.

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On Leaving School

He grew strong on the farm.
Was handy shovelling on the right side
or the left.
‘Worth a bonus, that,’ old Fred said,
as they emptied the pigsty,
‘if we were navies.’

Best of all he liked tractor work,
sitting in the cab with a fag
and the radio.

His world was the turning of turf,
a shiny plough-share slicing a neat row
from hedge to ditch.

Years disappeared that way.

I belong to a poetry group

Does that sound like a confession?  Maybe it is.

If I don’t make every meeting it’s because sometimes I’ve not caught up with myself.  Otherwise, one evening per month should be achievable, and it’s etched not only in my diary, but into my memory.

miki-byrneI look forward to my two hours with Miki Byrne, and the gathering of local poets she hosts.  Some are published, some are not.  It doesn’t matter which any of us are.  One of the best things about the various writing groups I’ve been to is that our interest in writing creates a common ground, and a safe space to experiment in.

I think of myself as a prose-writer, but I do love poetry.  There are poems that I go back to over and over, at critical moments, or for reflection, mood, and inspiration.  Want to write with economy, depth and precision?  Here’s a  form of literature that demonstrates some of the most intriguing and exciting ways it can be done.

In the poetry group we share the risk of words.

And I do mean risk.  My adrenalin flows.

I go to be challenged.  A topic is introduced.  I start with nothing, but a warm-up writing exercise soon provides ideas.  As the exercise progresses, I untangle the threads of my thoughts, take up one of them and follow it.  I don’t know where it’s going, or what I’m going to say, but along with everyone else, I’m writing myself into a scenario.  Images are forming, building, becoming something I’m intrigued by, linking into ideas that matter to me.

We’re all in the same boat, with the same supplies, yet we each produce something individual.  Yes, these pieces are rough, but they’re first, or at most, second drafts.

We read them out, half-made as they are.  That’s not about bravery, it’s a chance to get some instant feedback.  This is not the time for in-depth critiques (that happens at a later stage), the audience and I are hearing my words, as I will hear theirs, for the first time.

Sharing gives us some ideas about important questions, such as:

  • Does it flow?
  • Does it say something?
  • What did I like about it?
  • Which part caught their attention?
  • Where might I expand it?

Everyone reads, maybe initially that’s because everyone else reads.  But ultimately, in my observation, they read because not to read is to miss-out on a vital part of the process.

The poetry group is giving me a portfolio of ideas to work on, ideas that I might not have stumbled on, drifting along on my own. Some may not go anywhere: but I go back to most of them, sooner of later.

Reading aloud? Encouraged!

In the beginning, there’s just you, the pen and the paper – or the keyboard – and your inspiration.  Words spill out, and if you hold onto that privacy of setting yourself on the page, you can write anything.  That’s how I believe the best writing takes place.

Leonid_Pasternak_-_The_Passion_of_creationThe page is a space of freedom to explore ideas, to experiment with form and content, to imagine; to re-imagine: to remember.  You can chose when and with whom to share it.  Will you though?

That’s a big step, for most of us.  Even handing out a finished hard copy so that someone else can read it, can be nerve-racking, and hopefully we will have chosen our ideal reader carefully.

So what happens if you’re asked to read it aloud?  There are a few competitions around now where the chosen texts are expected to be delivered to an audience, by the author. Do you avoid submitting your work, in case you get picked?  That would be a shame.  Your work might be perfectly suited to ‘telling’.

It’s been a source of discussion in my creative writing group, where we encourage each other to read our homework tasks to the group.  Some people are confident about this, they’re natural story-tellers who know how to pace, and dramatise.  For most of the rest of us though, it’s a steep learning curve.

Between us, we’ve shared a range of approaches, so I thought I’d try gathering them into a list.

  1. Read poems or stories that you like aloud.
    • You can do this on your own, or to a willing and sympathetic guinea-pig, who may then help you to change your style.
  2. If you’ve small children in your life, read to them.
    • Put your mind to making the text entertaining, don’t just deliver the words dryly.
    • Children love silly voices, pauses and dramatic interpretations.
      • Just because you read dramatically with them, doesn’t mean you need to employ those techniques to an adult audience, but knowing that you can loosen up will help your confidence.
  3. Read your work aloud to yourself several times.
    • This will help you to practice timing, and see if there are difficult phrases, or changes needed in the punctuation, so you’re winning on two levels.
  4. Go along to some readings and open-mic events.
    • Don’t just chose the big-name venues, opt for local, room-in-a-pub groups.
    • Enjoy listening, but at the same time, notice how varied the styles of reading are.  Some people are performers, but lots more are good readers.
  5. Try a public speaking coach.  They’ll have a wide range of strategies and approaches to help you overcome nerves and develop your delivery style.

What I find, is that confidence comes through practice.  Nerves are natural, so my list starts small and builds.

miki byrne1

Miki Byrne, performance poet.

 

This week I’ve had enthusiastic emails from two of my regular group who went along to Miki’s poetry workshop & open mic in the bar of The Roses, one of our local theatres.  ‘Poetry night was great,’ said one, ‘we really enjoyed it,’ said the other.

There’s a big writing world out there, and it’s ours, if we just dare…

What else are we going to do with our writing, if we don’t share it?