Friday, 9 August 2019

The Fluffiness of Poetry Bunnies

There are a few drawbacks to having been on the London poetry circuit for nearly twenty years. The idea that if you're not highly successful by now you're probably rubbish/ damaged goods, to give one example. Social media networkers-come-poets half your age approaching you with well-meaning but unsolicited and useless advice, to offer another. This sort of thing is, if nothing else, at least slightly understandable. The one recurring downside I've never got my head around, however, is the assumption that everyone who is a long-term performer must be a supremely confident human being.

Hyper-Confident? Are you kidding me? Confident? Listen, there are moments where my stage persona appears very assured, but that's just because I know nobody will give any poet a fair hearing if they're shuffling around mumbling apologetically. 

In reality, I've met and watched some fantastic performers over the years, many of whom not only clearly - while in that moment - believed in their work so much it bordered on arrogance, but could charm the audience into forging a bond with them too. Off-stage, though? That energy and charisma quickly dissipates into neurosis and finger-biting in the bar area. Niall O'Sullivan tweeted something very perceptive only a week ago: "Many assume that all performers are extroverts but it’s often the opposite. Introverts can be attracted to performance because it’s a social situation where they have more control than usual while shying away from other forms of human contact."

On the general scale of things I'm probably midway between an extrovert and an introvert. Perfectly friendly and approachable most of the time, but not so chummy that having a complete stranger hugging me after a gig doesn't make me a little bit uncomfortable. And of course, those strangers notice this, and tend to think that I'm being stand-offish or rude rather than just slightly nervous or awkward. After all, I seemed pretty cocksure beforehand.

And no matter how long poets have been going on stages or behind lecterns or microphones for, or how successful we are, the following gives most of us a horrible, creeping dread:

1. Reading new work for the first time.

I'm probably a fairly extreme example, but I have such a pathological hatred of this that I've been known to put off doing it for years, using the "six months in the drawer, then reassess the work" method as a crutch and an excuse rather than a tool, employing it for every single re-write. In some cases, this fear has cost me in ways I would never have previously anticipated. I wrote a tribute to Jazzman John Clarke on the way to his funeral, then lost my nerve and failed to read it at his wake, worrying that it was too inappropriately jokey and frivolous in places. Of course, it wasn't, and would never have been taken that way. There's some heavy irony in this situation given that he was one of the best spontaneous poets I've ever come across and had the least self-conscious approach of anyone I've met - me making an exception and allowing for nerves and self-doubt, just that once, would have shown that I'd learned some lessons from the man.

If work has already been read or performed to approval or applause, you know that something about it is appreciated by at least some people, it works to at least an extent, and even if it gets an uncertain reception the next time, its moment will come around again. Putting your personal views, thoughts and emotions on the line for the very first time feels unnerving however long you've been writing poetry for. If it's sentimental rubbish or poorly constructed, the audience might switch off believing that the rest of your work is of an equal quality. And if it's supposed to be a wry, ironic or satirical take on the world and is so poorly written that it ends up getting taken at face value, you're in real trouble.

I actually read a brand new poem, only a few hours old at Poetry Unplugged on Tuesday and even doing that, in an open mic space where scratchy draft work-in-progress is tolerated, took a lot out of me. I slumped back into my chair with a big sigh of relief afterwards, then felt a bit pathetic for needing to do so.

2. Catching the eye of somebody who clearly doesn't enjoy what you're doing.

And then, worse still, having to stand behind them in the queue for drinks in the interval, with both of you pretending that nothing has happened - even though one of you has been reading poems at the other for the last fifteen minutes, which is hardly an everyday occurrence.

I've had gigs where the audience has been almost completely on my side, but the people I can usually remember most - years down the line - are the ones who behaved in a critical way. The one who folded his arms and refused to applaud as I walked off the stage, only catching my eye and giving me a sideways look that clearly said "Hear that applause? You don't deserve it, pal" (middle aged, tubby, bearded). The one who got visibly annoyed halfway through "Starstuck" and slung her bag under her arm and stormed out of the venue (slim, dyed blonde hair, mid-twenties). The one who came up to me after a successful gig and said "I don't understand what planet you're on or what you think you're trying to achieve" (curt young male, glasses, short, French).

Why do I remember these people and their appearance and characteristics much more than anyone else? Because like most writers, I'm a sensitive bunny, that's why. In the early days I used to actually try to return my gaze to people who clearly weren't enjoying my work five minutes, ten minutes, and fifteen minutes later just to see if the situation had improved and they'd somehow changed their minds, but you quickly learn that such self-obsessed and pathetic behaviour can crash an entire gig if you're not careful.

This cuts both ways. Once, I wasn't enjoying someone else's gig. He arrived onstage late on a Friday night, read the room incredibly well and noticed that half the audience were drunk, and included a bit of raucous doggerel about the joys of alcohol into his set to get them on-side. It went down a storm with everyone apart from me - I was relatively sober. I had no idea that my facial expressions were visible from where he was performing, but he later approached me with the words "Here you go, here's a flyer for my next gig, you're bound to be there since I could see you enjoying my performance tonight SO much!" then stomped off. So obviously they were.

There will be moments in his life - perhaps when he's trying to drift off to sleep or just enjoying a bowl of Cinnamon Grahams in the morning - when my face will come into his mind and he'll think "Oh, that bastard. Why did he have to be there and ruin a perfectly good evening?" But there will always be 'that bastard'. If it's not me, it will be someone else.

3. Having a well-known writer you really respect in the room. 

A double whammy of opportunity and threat. Of course, you've always wanted to meet them, but you probably wouldn't have chosen these circumstances. If the gig bombs, you've humiliated yourself in front of one of your heroes. Even if it goes well, that might be because you've pulled out your most obvious, popular work and the writer might not understand that your talent - which, obviously, is multi-faceted and deeply experimental in places, actually - is far more rounded than that.

On the other hand, if it goes brilliantly and they love it, you've potentially impressed your literary God; but who would chance those odds?

At one of my earliest full-length gigs Bob Cobbing was present, who was a big influence on my work at that point. I couldn't meet his eye and a friend reassured me that he did "vigorously applaud" two of my poems. This might have been a lie to help me sleep sounder that night. I'll never really know. All I do know is that Bob Cobbing, if he were still alive, would probably seriously dislike most of my current material and that would still bother me.

4. "The wits in the back row". 

Every performer before they take the mic, whatever their business is there - whether it's to perform comedy, monologues, poetry or even after-dinner speaking - has a finely tuned nerve alarm that goes off as soon as they notice that there's a slightly drunk hipster in the crowd being loud and over-confident. These drunken fops have always been with us, with or without the drugs that embolden them. The playwright William Wycherley makes a vague reference to a "wits row" in a theatre in the play "The Country Wife", produced in 1672, where presumably these flamboyant idiots typically quaffed and bothered Wycherley so much that he started satirising them in his own plays.

The occurrence of hecklers at poetry nights is relatively rare, but one glimpse of a drunken brat behaving in a raucous way before an event has begun puts the chills into a poet's bones - and the host and promoter's, for that matter - and makes them think that they might be about to witness one of the infrequent occasions. And coming up with a half-arsed retort to a heckle mid-way through a poem is even harder than doing it in the middle of a comedy routine. Poets always feel a bit more content when an audience isn't seen to be enjoying themselves too much before a gig.


And there you have it. Proof, if proof were really needed, that poets tend to be pathetic, insecure, egotistical people who only really want the approval of their audience and heroes. Everything you were assured they weren't when a broadsheet paper once informed you they were, in fact, the new, rebellious rock stars. Who ever would have thought the press would lie?

(Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay)

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