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Friday, 3 May 2013

A Rhyme, a Rhyme, and Just in Time.

I don't remember when I wrote my first poem, but it was a long time ago. Relatively confident of future success, I started a collection of juvenilia. I fully expect Poems of Yesterdays (sic) Heart to feature on all respectable English Literature degree courses by 2025.

Nice handwriting, shame about the missing apostrophe.
As you may be able to predict, this collection contains some utterly atrocious poetry. Have a look at this particularly tasty example:


The less said about that the better.

I changed my career ambitions several times during my childhood. Initially, I intended to be a world famous ballerina. Then I decided that being a Hollywood A-lister was more my speed. I later had a moment of sanity when a career as a barrister seemed appealing, before finally settling on 'bestselling novellist' as my ideal job title. Watch this space. I am so on it. My Gothic fairy tale about killer crows is totally going to be the next big thing. I just need to add a couple of chapters of mummy porn. And a wizard.

Throughout all these twists and turns, poetry has been a constant. When I'm down, when I'm happy, when I'm amused, when I'm alone; poetry always finds a place. I learn poems by heart. They help me sleep. They get me though long nostalgic bike rides. I buy big chunky poetry anthologies and obscure little poetry pamphlets. And of course, despite an early lack of promise, I still write the stuff. I mostly write a lot of terrible tosh, but I do write the odd thing that is really not too bad, such as this piece that I wrote for my gorgeous godson.

I once had the immense privilege of studying with Gerard Benson, an original member of the Barrow Poets and co-founder of the magnificent Poems on the Underground scheme. The week I spent on his course in Buckinghamshire was probably one of the happiest of my life. He taught me so much about form and subtlety. One lunchtime, Gerard fell in to step with me on the way to the sandwich shop. "You know you have a gift?" He asked. I have no idea what completely inadequate reply I gave, but I can tell you for certain that his words will stay with me until the day I die. He made me believe that I might have a voice worth hearing.

Speaking of inspiration. It was seeing Scroobius Pip at an Amanda Palmer gig that turned me on to the idea of spoken word. Previously, I had imagined live poetry to be awash with cigarette smoke, beards and berets. Scroobius Pip made live poetry feel vibrant and truly accessible. I saw the glint of a possibility. My early career ambitions signpost a love of performing, and that's something that I have really been missing over the last few years. I have accepted that I'm probably too late to start training as a world famous ballerina, but my soul hasn't quite caught up with the idea that I will spend the rest of my days out of the limelight. It still yearns to show off.

So I popped 'poetry slam' on my Thirty@30 list and figured it would take care of itself.

Three weeks before my final deadline, with four challenges still to go, I discovered that it hadn't taken care of itself. Pesky poetry. So, in something of a panic, I printed out four random poems that I thought were quite good and took them along to my Monday night writers' group for a trial run. Turns out they weren't quite good at all. I could feel them bombing as I read them aloud.

My friend and fellow writer Alex sensibly and tactfully suggested that instead of signing up to Poetry Unplugged at the Poetry Café the following day, as planned, I just go along and scope the territory. He also said that if I could wait another week, he'd be able to come along for moral support. Actually, I think his words were "If you do it next week, I can come and throw stuff." At this juncture, two other members of the group: the extraordinarily wise and wonderful Caroline Swain, and Published Author Robin Bayley, piped up with their willingness and availability to come and throw things at me, too. Suddenly, things were taking care of themselves. I had a week, a plan, and an audience.

Off I went to scope out Poetry Unplugged. In many ways, it wasn't too far from the beards and berets I had imagined. There were some very earnest poets, and some very terrible poems. But there was also joy, exuberance, support, laughter. Clever, startling, original creativity. And at least three people who had recently escaped from a local institute for the irretrievably insane. I thought it was great, and I knew I could do it too.



The problem was the material. The poems I had chosen were written to be read from the page. I could feel instinctively that they didn't work as performance pieces. I needed something with rhythm and rhyme, even if the rhyme was pretty basic. At home I racked my brain, and thumbed through the notebook I'd used during Gerard Benson's course. There was some decent material in there, and definitely a few candidates for my next award-winning collection, but nothing that seemed right for unplugged. I flopped down, defeated, in front of the TV. I flipped the channels, feeling my brain start to drip out of my ears, as it often does when I allow the telly to work its catatonic magic. I'm stuck, I thought.

And, as if by magic, the poem came.

Me and Alex, waiting for the night to begin. Note the manic fear in my eyes.

On Tuesday, April 30th 2013, there were probably 60+ people packed into the Poetry Café's tiny basement. My dad and his girlfriend couldn't get a seat and had to watch from the stairs. Alex, Robin and Caroline were all there. I waited and waited for my spot, my heart skipping a beat every time the compere, poet Niall O'Sullivan, announced "the next poetry unplugged virgin." 

The standard and the energy were significantly higher than they had been the week before. Having felt relatively confident that I'd be amongst the better offerings of the evening, I was suddenly full of doubt. When at last it was my turn for ceremonial deflowering, I was trembling almost uncontrollably. But there was a swell of support from the room. Even if everyone secretly hopes that they're going to be the best, no one wants anyone else to fail. This is a gathering of people who love poetry. Even the irretrievably insane get a wild round of applause, beginning and end. Kind of like this...




Looking back on the video, there are loads of things I would do differently. I'd give myself some sort of vocal surgery, for starters. How anyone can put up with the sound of me talking I may never know. I'd also work on my rhythm and actions, and learn the whole thing by heart, which I would have done if I hadn't written it the day before. Oh, and I might also try to remember to breathe next time. But all things considered, it wasn't bad for a virgin. And what a tremendous buzz. What a feeling, not only to be back on stage, but to offer people a little bit of myself, and to hear them laugh where I wanted them to laugh. Fall silent when I needed them to be silent. I loved it. Here's a text message my dad sent me afterwards:


Darling that was great. 
Your eyes were alive for the first time in months. 
More of that and you will be right up there.

I think he hit the nail on the head there. To feel alive I need to write poetry and I need to perform. If I keep putting the two together, I might one day get half good at it. At the very lest, I'll probably have a lot of fun trying. Now then, someone pass me my beret.

Twenty-eight down, two to go...