Here at The Hospital Club, we've shown our love for the spoken word with the hugely popular OneTaste events, but what does it entail? Writing a poem...and performing one are vastly different experiences. Lucy Furlong is learning the ropes with or without eyeliner.
I stumbled lonely as a cloud that stutters and blushes and bashes the mic stand. And dares to hope for a moment that makes it all worthwhile. In the darkness of daring-do that is standing up and baring your soul in the name of poetry.
I still feel like a novice at performing poetry. I have dipped a toe into the wordy water and am now hoping to wade in and not get attacked by jellyfish. In another lifetime I sang in a band and showed myself up at enough gigs to know what it’s like to get up on a stage and sing in front of an audience. But that was with backup, reverb and eyeliner as a defence mechanism.
And poetry is different – it is immediate, with nothing else to get in its way- apart from the ego of the poet. I think of it mostly in relation to visual art, as articulated in Frank O’Hara’s poem “Why I am not a painter”. And like visual art there are rules that are made to be broken and all that jazz (quite a lot of jazz). You have to know by some dint of osmosis or cool that you have broken the right rule, walked the right side of the edge, not jumped off the ledge or disappeared up your own fundament(al) need to be exposed and express yourself.
There is a difference between reading a poem and performing it. The boundary is blurred but for me the definition is that performance is about embodying the words to the point where the words take their own shape, the poet sounds their meaning and they become visual. Some poets take it further, for example, Francesca Beard using music and actions while performing “Fluffy”, or when A F Harrald performs “Cats are better than fish” he uses movement , sounds and singing to drive the words.
I’m not quite at this stage but I do not rule it out. So far, each time I have performed a poem in front of an audience it has changed the way I write, and given me a different perspective on what is already there. If I can raise a laugh, for the intended reason, and get to the end without becoming paralysed with nerves, I give myself permission to sign up and have another go. I have a feeling as I keep turning up at open mic spots I will let my poems do what they need to do with my body to make themselves communicated. When this will happen, and which poems will do it I cannot foretell.
Many poetry nights have open mic spots, you get there early and sign up, or sometimes you have to contact the organiser in advance. Generally you will be limited to reading two poems, or each floor spot will be assigned five minutes. It’s a great way to earn your dues, experiment with performing and try out new material. They normally fall between the billed acts, a mixture of poets, spoken word artists, who could be using music, visuals or... reading from a book...who knows what will happen next? That is part of the fun.
Poetry nights, like the proverbial ‘57 varieties’ come in all flavours, shapes and sizes. For example Jawdance has poetry films, and also artists who illustrate the event as it happens, adding a strong visual dimension to the night. Loose Muse at the Poetry Cafe is London’s only women-only performers’ poetry night, and if you are a shy, female poet, it’s a great place to start with open mic. It’s where I started and was a gentle but no less stimulating introduction to the scene.
The ingredients vary but each night will offer you at least one flavoursome morsel to savour and chew over on the way home. They are inclined to get you chewing the fat, with whoever goes along with you, or whoever you meet there. I have heard much of the aggressive, competitive poetry night where only the hardened wordsmith parry but I have yet to encounter it myself.
As an audience member you will laugh, possibly cry (if you’re like me), get frustrated, wonder what the hell is going on, have a Eureka! Moment, a ‘I must remember that line’ moment and a ‘They let all sorts in here don’t they’ moment. You are likely to leave feeling cheerful, invigorated, inebriated and with synapses firing and laughing muscles given a full work out. Be ready to participate – you may be asked to join in with a refrain, or to have an opinion.
You may even find yourself there early one night, signing up to stumble lonely as a cloud...