Does My Poetry Look Big in This

With the Vale Royal Writing Group Winter Wordfest behind us, and without a willing volunteer to write the February blog, I thought I’d squeeze some thoughts together to make a hasty piece on a relevant topic which has really been inspired by listening to you all read over the years.

I’m sure you’ve noticed how much difference there is between reading a piece off the paper in the quiet little reading room of your mind, and reading it aloud. There are those among us that can be quite content to commit something to the page and expect it to spend the rest of its life there, and there are those that consider the paper to be nothing more than a convenient resting place.

You will have been entertained by those among us that have a real talent for adding something in the performance to an already great piece of work, but I don’t think we all have that skill. Sure, we can all read (unless there are some among us that can write but haven’t learned to read yet?) but we can’t all perform and that’s what it needs if it’s going to be shared out loud for entertainment purposes.

For me, the voice coming out of my mouth should always match the voice in my head so accent plays a big part in this (for me at least). As long as I write in my own voice then I can perform what I write, but I should never stray outside of my language or it sounds wrong to me. In my very first creative writing class I had the good fortune of listening to somebody read their poem in what would conveniently be described as Estuary English. The most interesting observation of this was that his accent allowed him to rhyme some words that I wouldn’t have been able to pull off with my quick, Scouse, machine gun patter. I don’t remember what those words were but I was reminded of the occasion when listening to the radio somewhere on the M6 when a record by Sophie Ellis-Bextor came on, and in one of the lines she rhymes the word “First” with “Last” and there’s no way I could do that without changing my accent (they came out as “farst” and “larst” for those of you wondering). The same thought popped into my head again when David read his short story in this week’s meeting– I could easily have read it off the page and enjoyed it, but reading out loud David’s words in my voice would have given you all less than you deserve.

And there’s a difference in why we read out loud. Reading in the VRWG meeting is not expected to gain style points, it’s just a convenient way of getting the content to the group in order to get feedback. The members understand this and focus on the work. Winter Wordfest however is a different kettle of fish.

The thing you need for this is confidence. Sometimes all it takes is to stand up and start reading, but for some it’s a massive undertaking to even read in our close-knit group of writers in a private room on the first Monday of the month, never mind to stand before a group of strangers – which include professional performers – and all under the spotlight of expectation. I can well understand why people choose not to read but it’s a shame we don’t get to hear their work performed.

In 2015 when we performed at the Wirral Festival of Firsts I got my first real indicator of how good our readers are when I heard them in comparison to others reading at the event. I think our honest, creative feedback can sometimes help, but when the microphone is switched on it’s all down to them.

You might be lucky and have the beautiful reading voice of Richard Burton and the performance skills of Roger McGough or Fucking-John-Fucking-Cooper-Fucking-Clarke (sorry, but I always think of him as that – it’s done with affection honestly!), but if you don’t have the confidence in your piece then that’s the best reason for not reading it out.

I’ve seen how much effort other people put into their work – even committing the words to memory in some cases. I’ve found saying it out loud at home is a great editing tool for getting things to work in your own voice, but committing it to memory is too much for me – a step I currently don’t plan to make. For those that take the trouble though, the rewards are most obvious as these are often the most satisfying performances as they’ve learned the ebb and flow of the piece. They have the rhythm. They clip words in the right place and they inflect, suggest and tease with the changing cadence of their voice and the length of a line. This is also why poetry comes across better than prose in readings as poetry is closer to music in its structure and often lends itself better to performance.

On the other hand, my reading in the meeting of “The Rain in Wales” was off the cuff and I can’t even remember the tempo of it now, just that it needed to be read quickly with as few breaths at possible, without pausing during a stanza. I have no idea if it’ll sound the same the next time I do it. I guess we’ll have to wait and see. But between now and the next time, perhaps you could try reading you work out loud to see if you can get something else out of it, and maybe one day you’ll decide you want us to hear it too.