I used to do lots of poetry readings. I’ve read to hundreds of people, and I’ve read to less people than I can fit round my kitchen table. I’ve had some great times performing and I’ve had some miserable times when reading poems out loud has felt like the most archaic thing you can do short of going to live in a cave. (I imagine my audiences’ experiences have varied similarly.)
Last week I did one of my rare readings. (Although I am still writing, it’s been a while since I’ve had anything substantial published other than in anthologies such as last year’s ‘A Balkan Exchange’, the output of a collaboration with some friends in Bulgaria and North East England.) Thanks to an invite from the kind folks at Richmond’s Georgian Theatre Royal I was the guest at their monthly reading. After my performance, there was an ‘open floor’ slot for other people there. (I was going to write ‘audience’ but the roles moved around during the evening.)
No less than three people said they were reading a poem out in public for the first time. It was clearly a big step for all of them, a brave, exposing and emotional moment, and something everyone there responded to. As the guest poet and ‘MC’ I felt nervous and responsible for the atmosphere. I was reminded of the huge commitment it takes to ‘participate’, one we who work in the arts can sometimes take for granted. That first time experience is a really crucial one: do we make it as safe as we can for people to take that risk?
Some years ago I edited Words Out Loud, a book of essays on ‘the poetry reading’ and what might be going on in one. I was reminded last week of something Keith Jafrate said in his essay: ‘All those life-changing moments can’t be sold, to ‘the audience’, to other promoters or to the arts quangos. That is to say, a faith cannot be sold.’ The book is now out of print but you can probably pick one up second-hand, and I have a few left if anyone’s especially keen.