The authority to say anything at all

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When I was a Catholic teenager, I was an altar server and reader at my parish church. Our parish priest was forward-thinking. At one Easter Vigil Mass, I played the Voice of God, speaking His lines into a microphone from the balcony, over the heads of the congregation. My young, female voice was chosen for the role because of its sexless quality—the parishioners were not to imagine a white-bearded man God, nor a troubling maternal deity. On another occasion, I participated in a meeting, with parishioners of all ages, about the proposed new parish hall. They grouped us churchy young folk together to discuss what the youth wanted and needed from their local church, and I was chosen as the group’s spokesperson. This was to be a less successful episode in my personal history of performance. When I stood at the mic to say my piece, on behalf of all the young people of the parish, I got stuck. I could not speak. I was caught on a pronoun: should I, speaking about ‘young people’, say I, we, or they? Unable to decide, I stood there, dumb, until someone took the crook of my arm and helped me to sit down again. The boy I was in love with whispered—the cruelty!—“well done.”

Not long after that, I went to my first ever poetry reading. It was the launch of an early issue of the Dublin magazine, The Stinging Fly, in which my Mum had placed a short story. She read her story, fluently, into the mic. There was wine. What I most clearly recall of that first foray into the literary world is an intoxicated member of the audience who was moved enough to repeatedly roar “fuck Seamus Heaney!” until he was ejected.

Around the same time, presumably galvanized by my inability to express myself in public and/or the passion of that one wild-eyed audience member at the only poetry reading I’d ever attended, I began to publish my own poems. The rest is (tortured, slow-going, uncertain) history. Years later, I quite like some of the poems I write. I’m keen to share them. I give as many poetry readings as I can. So far, I’ve never actually got stuck—I always manage to speak the words into the mic in the end—but that’s about the best I can say about it all.

There’s been one exception to the general rule of just scraping by at poetry readings. The most successful poetry reading I ever gave, my husband and I agree, was in my twenties, upstairs at the Poetry Café in London circa 2007. My husband and I agree, furthermore, that I’ll never give a better one. What was so great about that peak poetry reading of mine? Well, for all I actually know, it was terrible. My husband isn’t a reliable witness: he wasn’t my husband then, he’d never heard me read my poems all in a row before, what does he know about poems anyway, he’d had a couple of pints, he was in love with me. Pay no heed to him. No, the reason why I’ve held that poetry reading dear to my heart for a decade is the one middle-aged man in the audience who made all the right noises. He laughed, he hummed, he sighed; in my highly unreliable memory of the night, he even gasped. With each noise he made, I read with fiercer intensity. (Denise Levertov once said that the audience was there to make her “read the next one better.”) I thought the whole audience—there were probably five or six people in it—was hemming and zutting and alorsing and shedding fat tears. It was only after the reading that I realized all the sound effects had come from that one man—a man who, for all I know, always over-reacts at poetry readings, maybe from time to time even shouting, “fuck Seamus Heaney!” During the reading, though, I had felt I had the whole audience—the whole world—with me, under my sway, eating up my every word, transfigured by my poetry.

I once read that the photographer Ansel Adams was forever trying to journey back to his earliest photography—that he strove to achieve in his latest photographs the purity and grace of his earliest. I’m always trying to beat my way back to 2007, to that one night on Betterton Street, suffused in the perfecting glow of recollection and real ale, when I gave a decent poetry reading.

More than once, while giving a poetry reading, I’ve begun to hate the audience. I don’t know where this sudden temper comes from. Perhaps I’ve caught, in the corner of my eye, an audience member napping or looking cross. Perhaps my unconscious response has been: “I never meant to end up here either, mate.” There is a strong possibility that I hate poetry readings.

If you and I were to talk about some of the worst things about poetry readings, you might say, “poets who go on for too long.” And I might say, “poets who ask if there’s time for another poem or two.” And you might say, “poets whose poems repeat exactly what they said in the descriptions of the poems.” And I might say, “audience members who are afraid to laugh because it’s a poetry reading.” And you might say, “audience members who make little sighing noises after particularly moving poems.” And I might say, “I do that.”

As an audience member, rather than a poet, I don’t always hate poetry readings. Recently, I saw the poets Tara Bergin and Elaine Feinstein read in Manchester. Neither poet did anything particularly unexpected. Each poet was introduced, got up, stood behind a podium, and read us some poems. Sometimes they made remarks between the poems, in a manner that was informal but evidently somewhat planned, perhaps even rehearsed. Afterwards, members of the audience agreed that both poets were wonderful readers of wonderful poems, and went off to dinner. I enjoyed every minute of it.

Although there was nothing startlingly unconventional in either poet’s approach, Bergin and Feinstein gave two readings that were markedly different from each other. It’s easy to talk about that difference, up to a point. Feinstein’s reading was a kind of life writing. Her poems were linked together by a rough narrative of her own life, and in various ways she engaged the audience in a winning intimacy—making jokes about the electronic device she was reading from, addressing specific audience members, meeting our eyes. She told us how tough childhood had been for her children, having a mother who’d sneak off to a dark corner at any opportunity to write. That was a joke; but it was also a confession. Bergin’s was a more theatrical performance, her poems more baffling, her onstage persona more explicitly a persona, her patter arch. She was a couple of poems in before she addressed us at all, and what she said was more blatantly delivered: here was the hook, there was the punchline. She told us how, a few years earlier, she’d got a job, and was today still reeling from that trauma. That was a joke; but was it also a confession?

I’d like to be able to say with more precision what made Bergin’s and Feinstein’s performances strong, beyond natural talent and—presumably—practice. Just as with the writing of a poem, each of these poets had made numerous creative decisions about performance, some conscious and some by means of a trained intuition. Just as with the writing of a poem, we seem unable to fully articulate how they did it. Since the 1950’s, as Peter Middleton recounts in Distant Reading (2005), the poetry reading has become increasingly central to what poets actually do. But we’re short of a fully-developed language to talk about what it is poets are doing when they stand up in front of us at events like these—and, perhaps more importantly, what they could do, the choices they might make and why. What those choices signify.

As a poet coming up through the ranks, but also as a newly-fledged creative writing teacher, I’ve been surprised by the lack of attention given—in discussion, research and resources—to making poetry readings as reflective, self-aware and intelligent as poetry aspires to be. People have lined up, in print and real life, to tell me how poetry should be written; but far fewer want to tell me how it should be performed. What if we did have a language to speak about the poetry reading, and spoke it? Could poetry readings become a site for reflecting on and exploring the poetry reading as a form, and all its possibilities? Could each poet’s reading possess its own, fully-considered poetics?

In a way, the importance of poetry readings to poetry is a no-brainer. Sound making is at the heart of the poet’s work. In a lyric poem, as Susan Stewart writes, “sound making is always in tension with sense making”—and therefore vice versa. We can’t produce any sense in lyric poetry at all without placing sense in tension with sound. And we can’t communicate any sense—if that’s what we’re after—without producing interesting sound: it’s by means of sound that we catch the mind’s ear and thus take on the authority, before the reader, of a poet. The authority to say anything at all. For plenty of people, though, it’s not obvious that the poetry reading might be an artistic endeavor in its own right. It comes after the poem. It’s promotion or celebration. At most, it’s a testing ground, an opportunity to gauge the poem’s effect on an audience.

The word “claptrap” is a stage term from the 1700’s. It means, of course, a trick to “catch” applause: hence, by the 1800’s, “cheap, showy language”; hence, later still, nonsense, rubbish. Poetry shouldn’t spend too much time trapping claps. Perhaps it’s only right that poetry should have a fraught or standoffish relationship with performance.

And yet, if you believe, as I sometimes think I do, that “the act of poetry is a rebel act”—that participating in the making of poems is, if quietly so, political and utopian—then the poetry reading might be crucial, might be key. In his essay “Close Listening,” Charles Bernstein describes the poetry reading as “an oasis of low technology that is among the least spectaclized events in our public culture.” The reading, he tells us, is a form of “poor theatre”: its lack of resources is important to what it does. In general, poetry readings are not like opera. Nobody takes our tickets and shows us to our seats, there’s no orchestra, no curtains, no lights. Peter Middleton notes that one result of this lack of resources is a kind of messiness—poetry venues are not well-regulated, they’re usually not designed for poetry, they tend to be full of distractions and interruptions, the sounds of coffee machines or drinks orders, traffic from the open windows, remarks from the drunk guy in the back row who’s wandered in to see what’s happening. (“Fuck Seamus Heaney!”) For Middleton, these messy interruptions and distractions are the stage villains of the poetry reading: they are the outside world trying to come in, and they allow for the drama of poetry seizing its moment away from everyday noise. The poetry reading thus allows us to enact a fantasy of concentration, of deep thought and deep connection with one other through language. The poetry reading imagines—if only for the few moments in which we all manage to stop thinking about dinner, Netflix or bed— an alternative version of life together before we return to hubbub.

The other great importance the poetry reading might have to poetry is as what Bernstein calls a “public tuning.” Bernstein notes that, historically, the poetry reading becomes important just as there’s an explosion of poets developing their own forms and their own poetics. By standing up and enacting a reading of their own poetry, by interpreting it through approach and emphasis and inflection, the poet teaches the audience how to take their work on: they’re tuning the mind’s ear, so that the reader can then hear the poetry on the page. More generally, many poets tend to model a way of reading that is active. They don’t take on a persona and act the poem out, but read as though encountering the text for the first time again, and interpreting it each time anew. Bernstein sees this as a way of teaching the audience that they, too, should read poems in this way, that the poem is not finished but can be endlessly apprehended. This idea is sometimes echoed by things poets say about poetry readings: Holly Pester has said that she tries in some sense to “forget” the poem between readings, so that it will be new each time; Alice Oswald has said that she doesn’t want to be recorded reading because she sees it as important that each performance is contingent and singular.

Julia Novak’s book, Live Poetry (2011), which comes the closest yet to developing a language to talk about poetry readings, draws widely on other disciplines to teach us how to think and talk about poetry in performance. She pulls concepts and terminology not only from literary studies, but also paralinguistics, musicology, kinesics, theatre and performance studies and folklore studies. Her focus is on analysis and on performance poetry, so her work offers a somewhat limited conception of what poetry is and does. But she offers a brilliant starting point for a theorizing the poetry reading more thoroughly. It remains for scholars to take her up on her challenge to produce close readings of poetry in performance that are as insightful and useful as close readings of poetry on the page.

One of the few practical resources that exist, in Britain at least, for poets looking for ways to develop their performance skills, is the annual Linklater voice coaching workshop run by the Ledbury Festival and led by Francoise Walot, in which I participated this year. The Linklater method was developed in the 1970s for actors, particularly actors who find themselves struggling with voice problems. Linklater’s premise is that, in order to speak with your “natural voice,” you must locate or relocate the desire to speak; in this case, the desire you felt when you first wrote the poem. The method cultivates a mindfulness of the here and now in performance, particularly a mindfulness of the presence of real people in the audience, to whom you really do want to communicate the particular words of your poem.

On the Linklater workshop, Walot encouraged us to notice the tensions we’d built up in our bodies over many years, tensions which were obstacles to our speaking freely. For some of us, a noticeable alteration was wrought upon our performing voices by the workshop, and the notion that this alteration corresponded to the freeing up of our “natural voices” is an attractive one. In Freeing the Natural Voice (1976), Linklater defines the natural voice as “a voice in direct contact with the emotional impulse, shaped by the intellect, but not inhibited by it.” As Diana Looser describes in a fascinating MA thesis on the topic, which explores the use of “unnatural” voices in performance art, Linklater “promotes the natural voice as a more authentic form of communication, a more accurate expression of our inner being that has been hidden, inhibited and distorted by harmful and repressive societal influences.” Looser points out that Linklater’s work is inextricable from the history of second-wave feminism, arising as it does from an assumption that freeing some authentic voice will empower the woman who until now has been barred from speaking truth.

We were all women on that voice training workshop, and we did wonder aloud why that might be. (We had a couple of theories about it, perhaps too unkind to repeat here.) Voice-work is body-centred. I found the Linklater sessions physically exhausting: the only other time I had ever paid such close attention to my body was in very late pregnancy. The work was as phenomenological as lyric writing can be. I discovered I breathed more slowly than the other women in the room. I noticed, in striking detail, where my breath actually goes when it enters me. I learned that if I methodically think about what’s beside me, above me and beneath me, beyond the room I’m in, my breathing slows further again. I spent hours plucking single words from poems I’d written months or years previously, and noticing the associations I had with those words, the images and the inflections they conjured. I felt, upon completing the workshop, that I’d been doing something quite mad and quite brilliant.

Can I share Looser’s suspicion that the notion of a “natural” or “authentic” voice is a questionable one, and yet still be persuaded of the implication of the Linklater method: that my body—or rather, everything I’ve been taught socially about my body—is the obstacle to my voice? Despite having an infamously poor memory, I can remember most of the outfits I’ve worn to give poetry readings, because I can remember the agonies I went through to choose them. I was pleased with the skirt I chose to launch an issue of The Wolf I had a poem in. I can’t remember which poem it was, but I remember every detail of the skirt. Then, in the bathroom just before the reading, a friend of mine said dubiously, “isn’t that a very sexy skirt?” To launch my first pamphlet, with an angry reading about Ireland, I wore a pretty white dress. To launch my first book, I wore a pretty purple dress from J.C. Penney, and an esteemed gay novelist offered to marry me. Since Ledbury I’ve been thinking of doing all future poetry readings barefoot, in a leotard. If only I could be a disembodied, sexless voice, the Voice of God, I might be saved so much time and trouble. It’s a useless desire, of course. That’s Kant: “The light dove, cleaving the air in her free flight, and feeling its resistance, might imagine that its flight would be still easier in empty space.”

One limitation of the Linklater method with regards to poetry is its emphasis on communication. The drift of much recent lyric theory is that very little of what lyric poems actually do is about communication; on the contrary, what Northrop Frye called the “babble” and “doodle” of a lyric poem—the sound patterning and visual patterning—may work precisely to disrupt or undermine the communication of meaning. Johannes Göransson wrote recently, “In Defence of Strangeness,” about poetry’s “intense meadows and ecstatic riddles.” A poem may do all sorts of things that are more about experience than message. It may, just for a start, riddle, mesmerize, seduce, baffle, flirt, disgust, resist, trick, comfort, lie, infantilize, insist, pass over, circle, deflect, disrupt, invoke, evoke, provoke, re-enact, parody, burlesque, contradict itself. These are all valid aesthetic choices in poetry, with their own politics and their own significance. A poetics of the poetry reading will need to be able to comprehend and discuss a full range of these aesthetic possibilities for poetry in performance.

For the last year, I’ve been involved in organizing a reading series called the Cardiff Poetry Experiment, which brings innovative poets of many different flavors to Wales. I’ve enjoyed seeing the range of different approaches to performance. For me, the most memorable yet has been Peter Meilleur’s performance, under the guise of Childe Roland. Meilleur performed with an assistant, who made music behind the backs of the audience, extending the performance space. He had the audience speak the refrain of one poem, louder and louder. He read, with his assistant, an extract from Ham & Jam:

– What are your plans for the future of the planet my Lord Hamlet, what are your plans?
– Vans, prams, trams, tandems, charabans and tar macadams.

Meilleur is very ill, and his body caused him difficulties throughout the reading. He shook and struggled with it. It put up a fight. Watching him, I supposed I should take his example as hopeful: a poet who might reasonably settle into a comfortable retirement somewhere, struggling on instead at this bizarre and thankless practice, the poetry reading.

At one point Meilleur gave us all paper and pencils. He told us to color in small rounds of pencil, about the size of a thumbprint but circular, and rub the rounds with our thumbs until they were blurred and silvery, like pearls. And there you go. These pearls are for you, to take home. There were audience members baffled or enraged by this activity, folding their arms across their chests and silently refusing to use their pencils to make pearls. There were audience members entranced, taking photographs of their pearls to share or folding them tenderly between the pages of books for safe-keeping.

Practical advice. I seek it out. The performance artist Patrick Coyle tells me to eat an apple before going onstage, to wet my mouth without making me want to pee. The father of a friend of mine, a teacher, tells me to trust the text. The Simpsons tell me to imagine the audience in their underpants. My friend Ethan, an academic, tells me to develop new tics to replace the tics I already have. Francoise Walot, the Linklater coach, tells me to change what I do incrementally from one poem to the next, to wake up the audience members who have unavoidably been lulled to sleep. My friend Amir tells me to stop making eye contact at the end of every line. My friend Marty tells me if I’m too scared to make eye contact, look at people’s foreheads instead. My Mum tells me to stand up straight. My Mum tells to me slow right down. My husband tells me to remember my poems are better than everybody else’s. My son tells me he hates poems. I tell myself to enjoy myself. I tell myself to just speak the damn word, into the mic. I tell myself to breathe.

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About Ailbhe Darcy

Ailbhe Darcy lectures at Cardiff University. Subcritical Tests, in collaboration with S.J. Fowler, is available from Gorse Editions. Insistence is forthcoming from Bloodaxe.