In part one I mentioned that the seed of inspiration for these blog posts was the quickly approaching tenth anniversary of my first poetry performance. Since then, I have read at open mics, poetry slams, and exhibitions, but my love for performing poetry began at Shrewsbury Museum in 2012. This post is going to look at the different types of poetry performance, while also paying tribute to some of my favourite memories and people.
The ‘Impressions’ event in 2012 was a call for poems inspired by the exhibitions on display at Shrewsbury Museum in Shropshire. I stumbled into this quite by accident, when my sixth-form history class took a trip to the museum for a workshop. Someone, either myself or a classmate, mentioned to the workshop leader that I wrote. She, in turn, mentioned her colleague, Adrian Perks, who was putting together an exhibition called ‘Impression’. She put the pair of us in touch. Call it fate, destiny, or sheer dumb luck, but I ended up getting involved with the exhibition and meeting Adrian who I still count as one of my favourite people. I almost missed the launch night reading event, however, after I mistook ‘Shawbury’ for ‘Shrewsbury’ on an old-fashioned road sign and drove the wrong way for twenty minutes. It was fine. I got to the event and got to read my poem ‘The Boats’.
My history lies in roots and hand
ones that servers, moulds, and mans
fells might and age to my brothers’ floor
where tools bite, bark, and saw
hollow out my chest of oak
to fill with saplings, young folk
then return to where my roots remain
and let only my rings now hold your name.
I don’t write much rhyming poetry anymore, but poetry and rhyme are going to be part four of this series, so I’ll avoid that rabbit hole for now.
After the event, Adrian and I stayed in touch. He was lovely enough to send me invites to various Shrewsbury based writing events and through him, I met the poet Liz Lefroy who coordinates the Shrewsbury Poetry Nights on the first Thursday of each month. I vividly remember being introduced to Liz. I think it was in Ludlow, at a poetry night where Adrian may or may not have been reading and I was dressed in a pair of faux-leather leggings with lace inserts down the outside of the legs, and a black top with an enormous number of ruffles around the neckline. I mention those things, because I also spent the night chatting with another young poet who was phenomenal, and I cannot remember their name for the life of me, which is terrible. Especially as I’m certain that he then invited me to read at an open mic he was organising for Stafford Arts Festival. (Jack! Jack Edwards. I searched Stafford in my emails as his name came up.) Anyway, back to this introduction. The event took place in a pub garden, inside a marquee. Adrian introduced me to Liz and mentioned that I wrote flash-fiction but was also a brilliant poet. I think that it may be my self-doubt that has my memory-Liz-Lefroy looking at me unconvinced.
I started attending the Shrewsbury Poetry nights on a semi-regular basis, and it still follows much the same formulas. At the start of the evening, those who would like to read in the open-mic section put their names down. The compere will introduce each poet, and often make a small comment on their poem or poems once they were done. The in-person events would have a break mid-way and a bit of a mingle session at the end, but the online ones tend to run through. Now and again, there would be a ‘feature poet’ who came along to read from their newest collection. The regulars from Shrewsbury have seen my poetry grow over the last ten years, and their support over the years has been invaluable. Because of Liz, and the other Shrewsbury poets, I had the confidence to seek out the poetry groups in Crewe and Nantwich when I moved. I know that I’ve made progress because I’ve been lucky enough to have those friends in the poetry community tell me just have much I’ve grown as a poet.
For new poets, open mics are an invaluable resource. All the ones I’ve come across, are encouraging and friendly, and the slots are small, so you don’t have to worry about bringing loads of material to fill the time. Some open mics want poets to attend a few events before signing up, but I’ve only come across a few of these. You can also find mixed-media events that incorporate contributions from all sorts of writers, musicians, artists, and any sort of performer you could think of. Before covid, there was a bi-monthly meeting in Crewe called ArtSwarm which took place in Wistaston Memorial Hall. There were no rules for what your ‘art’ had to be. Whatever it was, you had around ten minutes to showcase it.
These sort of small, community events will often have a door fee to cover the room rental. You can use them to practice performing and if you want to, you can have someone else in the room record your performances to post online. (Bear in mind the first publishing rights if you are performing anything not already available in the public domain. See my post on submitting and publishing for more details.) I hate recording myself and find it difficult to perform for a camera. Having someone in a crowd record a performance makes it easier for me to forget that they are there and focus on the poems. You have less control over background noise, and only one take to get it right, but I still prefer this method over setting up a tripod in my living room. I have done both as current online open mics can be live on zoom or pre-recorded. Covid has meant I’ve had the pleasure of trying to film my poems on a few occasions. Wednesday Night Poetry is a long-running open mic in America and to continue through lockdown they posted videos from the open mic participants on Facebook. Their following is much larger than any other open mic I have performed at, but you do not get the same atmosphere as the in-person events.
Shall we talk about slams? Poetry slams differ from poetry open mics because there is a competitive element. Similar to how I got involved in my first poetry event, I fell into my first poetry slam by knowing someone who knew someone involved. (I say first like I’ve done loads; I’ve taken part in two. It should have been three, but I got a migraine on the day of the third and had to drop out at the last minute.) The Wolverhampton Poetry Slam is run by Poets, Prattlers, and Pandemonialists as part of The Wolverhampton Literary Festival. A friend of mine who knew Emma Purshouse shared her call for interested poets to take part in the 2018 slam. I had never done one, and wouldn’t have considered myself a slam poet, but for some reason, I still put myself forward. Names were drawn out of a hat, and by luck, I ended up listed for the slam.
There were… twelve poets, I think, in the first round. (Just checked, there were fifteen poets, with five heats of three poets in each.) You were scored on the quality of the poem, your performance, and the reaction of the audience. Marks could be deducted for exceeding the three-minute time limit. Winners from the first round went through to the second, and three poets from the second round made the final.
I discovered very quickly, that while performing at an open mic does not phase me one bit, taking part in a slam makes me nervous enough to nearly send me from the room screaming. The other poets were so supportive, and I managed to relax a little after chatting to the poet, Clive Oseman, seated on my left. He’d taken part in a few slams before but never managed to make it past the first round. That particular slam was the first time he made it to a second round, and since then he’s gone on to win slams and publish his collection ‘It Could Be Verse’.
Trembling, I stumbled my way through my poem, trying to remember the advice that I’d been given in the ladies’ loos by Brenda Read-Brown (an exception poet who went on to win the slam). Almost all the poets had their poems memorised. I did not. Brenda’s advice was to try and memorise the first and last lines so that I could look to the audience for those parts. I didn’t win my heat, but afterwards, she (and a few other people) came up to compliment the poem. Later, I learned just how well known she was in the poetry world, and how impressive her poetry resume is. If I hadn’t gone into that slam blind, I don’t think I would have found the nerve to perform at all. My last attempt at a slam, this time the Audlum Poetry Slam, was met with similar crippling nerves. It’s enough to make you wonder what sort of madwoman even considers putting her name forward for the Ledbury Slam after repeatedly telling myself that I was not sign up for another. I am, as it turns out, amazingly stubborn when it comes to poetry.
Poetry events vary in size. They can be in coffee shops, auditoriums, or even out in the open air. The ‘Impressions’ launch night took place in one of the rooms at the Shrewsbury museum and was for the writers who had submitted work. I was reading to a room of like-minded people who wanted to chat about the work afterwards. This is not always the case, though I have to admit my next example is in the world of flash fiction rather than poetry performance.
In 2016 I entered the WOWfest flash fiction competition. I didn’t win a prize, but as an entrant, I was offered the chance to read my piece at the Liverpool Exhibition Centre as part of an event Writing On The Wall put on. What I didn’t know at the time, was that this literary event was taking place in the middle of a business expo. The stage and seating area was surrounded by booths filled with tech companies, and the readings took place between speakers on economics and commerce. (Or something like that.) The organiser of the flash-fiction readings had spent the morning attempting to get ‘business types’ to write poetry on post-its, with varying levels of success. By the time I got to read my story, the only audience members were the three other writers who’d agreed to read and my sister who I’d dragged along. I read I listen to the other three, and then my sister and I left. It was my sister who reminded me on the train home, that the importance isn’t the size of the audience, it’s the getting up and reading.
The last time I read for a live audience was at some point between January and March 2020 at one of the various Nantwich open mics. Everything since then has been virtual, and while that is great in some ways (especially as I have a six-month-old and I can mute the microphone if she cries), I miss the connection of live events. Slowly, they are returning, albeit cautiously. It was easy to take them for granted before the pandemic, and I’ve lost some momentum over the various lockdowns, but once I’ve finally got in front of an audience, I’ve no doubt I’ll be itching for the next. Knowing the value of these meetings, I’ve moved into helping to organise and promote poetry in my community. I’ve got no doubt that if you want to find an open mic or a poetry slam, there will be one in your area, but if not, there is no reason you can’t set up your own. The flash-fiction reading at a business expo was ridiculous but looking back it was also brilliant. It was someone trying to share that joy of creativity and taking whatever opportunity they could to give writers a stage. Failure only comes into the equation, when we don’t bother trying. So really, what harm is there in getting behind a microphone, and just giving it a go?