There’s a group of ageing Hollywood actors who appear to have given up learning their craft. They might have been a hot ticket in town 30 years ago, but now they turn up in forgettable films, probably thinking only of the paycheck.
For as long as I write and perform spoken word, I never want to slip into this mentality. I always want to be able to look at other poets – and folks in other creative fields – and take something from their work that hadn’t occurred to me.
To chart my progress so far, I need to go back to the Millennium, years before I began writing. This was when I first heard the Gil Scott Heron track The Revolution Will Not Be Televised on the radio.
I’d never heard anything like it, this relentless and repetitive stream of consciousness with cultural and political references I only half understood. It opened my eyes to what can be done with words. I eventually bought the whole album on vinyl, and it’s of an equally high standard.
Another early influence was Original Pirate Material, the debut album by The Streets, and its follow-up A Grand Don’t Come for Free. I was at university at this time and whenever I listen to these, I’m transported back there.
Looking back, I can now spot weak points in the lyrics, but I particularly admire the concept album structure of the latter. There are two other major releases by The Streets that followed these, but I’ve never liked them as much as the first two.
These days, I continue to be influenced by those I’ve seen and heard: the humour of John Cooper Clarke, the forthrightness of Andrea Gibson, the politics of Alan Bissett.
I recently attended two performances by my friend Gemma Connell, who’s a dancer. But as well as movements, she made prolonged eye contact and even brief physical contact with members of the audience. And last week, I once again saw Luke Wright, who gave an energetic performance of What I Learned from Johnny Bevan. I’m now asking myself how can I make an audience feel the same way as I did, but using my own words.
Of course, there comes a point where I can have too much creative input and I think I’ve reached that stage now. So I’m going to let it settle, then start writing my own original pirate material.
I haven’t had much time to pull this entry together, but working quickly has very much been the theme of this weekend.
I attended a workshop run by poets Jenny Lindsay and Rachel McCrum at the Scottish Storytelling Centre (SSC), aimed at those who have a spoken word show either already written or at the draft stage.
On the Saturday, we discussed such topics as: how the show might be mapped out, technical considerations, and how to attract funding. We were also invited to try a number of physical movement exercises and experiment with using the space.
The next day, the group put together a show from scratch, making sure the running order flowed, discussing lighting requirements with a technician, and ultimately performing our best pieces in the custom-built Netherbow Theatre at the SSC.
I found the group a joy to work with. Jenny and Rachel pointed out there were no ‘egos’ and that we all took each others’ ideas on board. The final show went incredibly well. I usually find among a group of writers that I like many of the others but there’s one whose work I especially admire. This weekend, I found that person and let them know.
As I begin the week, I’m excited to take my project to the next stage, and I’m looking forward to keeping up with some of the other participants.
Every so often, I’ll hear about a show and instantly feel compelled to go along. Much of the time, is because I’ve heard great word-of-mouth; sometimes it’s because I like an actor or musician involved in the project.
On the odd occasion, I go because I find the concept utterly arresting, and that’s why I bought a ticket for Fat Kid Running at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on Friday. The poster warned that Katherine McMahon’s debut show is not an inspiring before-and-after picture, but an honest insight into her body image issues. As I’ve been overweight all my life, I wanted to hear from someone in a similar position.
In the interests of full disclosure, I’ve met and spoken to McMahon before, but we’re not otherwise acquainted.
The show opens with a mock bleep-test, a theme revisited at the climax of the piece. We’re taken on an autobiographical trip through bullies in the school changing rooms, via health checks at the GP surgery, and how she built up to running several kilometres without stopping. Sometimes the narrative is poignant but always peppered with a sense of humour that lifts the audience at just the right moment.
Although the poetic prose was compelling in itself, what shone through for me was how genuinely she appeared to accept and love her body with no excuses and no delusions. There are two costume changes, both done in view of the audience, and she makes direct reference to her unshaven armpits and ‘boyish’ figure.
Even after seeing Fat Kid Running, McMahon and I still differ in one respect: I’m still committed to losing weight while she’s determined not to lose any. Yet it’s allowed me to understand the other point of view for the first time, and sends a message that a healthy body is not necessarily a slim body.
This performance, presented by Flint & Pitch, was the only one to date. But I’d love to see it go on tour, along with the support acts.
Calum Rodger was the first act to take the stage with a narrative called Rock, Star, North centred around the landscape of the Grand Theft Auto series. He takes a fresh look at what millions of players see but never study, and creates a rapid-fire homage.
Secondly, a musical group. Belle Jones, Audrey Tait and Lauren Gilmour presented Closed Doors, a story told mostly in rap verse about an unfolding major incident that forces racist neighbours out of their flats to mix with each other. The current ending was left too open for my liking, but I’m assured that it’s a work in progress.
I’m watching the acclaimed TV series The West Wing at the moment. The characters frequently have to change their plans or meet earlier deadlines at short notice. Similarly, I’ve recently had to make tough decisions about what to tell an audience.
A week ago, I attended a poetry event called Interconnected Issues jointly run by the University of Dundee’s LGBT+ Society, Feminist Society, and Mental Health Society. I expected simply to be a punter watching a line-up of poets, but the organiser called on people to stand up and read. Regular readers know I’m a big fan of performing my work, so I didn’t wish to pass up the opportunity. On the other hand, I hadn’t prepared anything, plus I’d already finished a red wine and my first rule is never to drink before a performance.
With encouragement from my friend Ana Hine, I stood up to read Sir Madam. Although it fitted the theme of the evening, I was scared to read this one because it tells the life story of a character who is either intersex or transgender – it isn’t made explicit. As I’m neither of these, I was worried that an LGBT audience might take offence at my portrayal.
However, I’d tested it out at last year’s Dundee Literary Festival where it received a positive response from the general public. If there was any anger at Interconnected Issues, I didn’t hear it. Encouraged by this, I cobbled together three other pieces that were not as risky to be read later that evening. One was from memory, one was a draft from a notebook, and one was read hipster-like from a phone screen.
As I’d already broken my no-alcohol rule, I decided to order another wine. This led to me peppering the rest of my performance with a little more personal detail than I intended, albeit related to the content of the poems. Yet it’s also rewarding to leave yourself figuratively exposed on stage and let it be infused into your work. I’ve heard it described as making the personal into the political.
The first time I heard that phrase was at a weekend poetry workshop in Edinburgh. On the final day, I climbed Arthur’s Seat to watch the sunrise and came down with the idea for a short poem about a character on a cliff who intends to jump but changes their plans when they’re captivated by the sunrise.
I was looking for a title and I’d just heard about the suicide prevention charity The Semicolon Project, so it was named Semicolon. In a poignant parallel, it was reported last week that its founder Amy Bleuel had died.
I have no mental health conditions myself, but Semicolon is one of a few pieces where I’ve found the subject creeping into the narrative, particularly where I’m looking in from the outside. In February, for instance, I took part in a Q&A with Dundee Contemporary Arts after making a poetic response to one of the artworks on display.
My piece, called Surprise Attack, had already been written. The artwork was a pastiche of the Commando comic books but with Army mental health policy in place of the dialogue. Studying the pastiche helped me to finalise my poemafter well over a year of redrafting.
I’m finally pleased with Surprise Attack, while I believe Sir Madam needs more testing, Yet both pieces have shown me that a little personal exposure can bring a rich reward.
For a few years now, I’ve been going to the StAnza poetry festival in St Andrews. On Saturday, I was invited to compete in the Slam, hosted by Paula Varjack. Although I’d applied some time ago, I was only told that week I’d been granted a place.
There are a few simple rules:
The running order is drawn from a hat.
In round one, everyone is allowed to read a poem for up to two minutes. You’ll be stopped if you run over.
In round two, after the interval, the top four scorers from round one are given 2½ minutes each to read another poem.
The 2017 Slam Champion is crowned.
The first poem was always going to be Crossing the Road, published last year; it’s punchy and takes less than a minute to perform. The strength of this Slam is that there’s no ‘house style’, so the contenders spoke on subjects as diverse as ageing, love, insomnia and contemporary politics. Just about everyone put in a sterling performance, including the other first-timers, and I thought I made a good job of mine.
The exact number of points given by the judges were not revealed, but five people progressed to round 2 because two contenders had scored exactly the same, none of which where me. The ultimate victor was Kevin Mclean, who goes on to compete in the Scottish Slam.
I’m not disheartened by my placing. I’m accustomed to performing in front of large audiences, but not with a competitive element. So what I want to do now is sharpen my skills even more by studying what other poets do and how they appeal to the audience.
Elsewhere at the festival, I witnessed excellent performances from Jackie Kay and Sarah Howe, and I chatted to the latter for a while. I also bought Paula Varjack’s book, and filmed performances from poets inspired by looking around St Andrews.
Tonight I’m hosting a spoken-word evening called Hotchpotch. This is an informal monthly event where writers and poets can read out their own work without judgement or criticism. In recent months, we’ve seen many new faces, a trend we would like to maintain.
To keep our events at the forefront of people’s minds, I’ve made it a priority to communicate with members regularly, also to cross-promote other literary events and the venues we use. I send a bulletin every couple of weeks on Facebook and Twitter, and by e-mail.
The last time, though, there were some problems with the reminders, and it was up to me to fix them.
A lot of our regulars subscribe to the Hotchpotch Facebook page. This is the easiest update to make: it can be done on a PC or a phone, subscribers are notified immediately when a new post appears, and there’s a facility to tag the pages of related literary groups. The posts can also be edited, and people can ask questions in the comments.
On Facebook pages, administrators have the option to post under their own name or to post under the name of the page. The last time, I forgot to change the option and posted as myself. People could still see the message if they happened to look at the page, but they wouldn’t be individually notified.
The post had been up for a few hours before I noticed. Fortunately, all I had to do was copy it, make sure the related events were correctly tagged, and repost it in the correct mode.
After posting on Facebook, I send out the link on Twitter using HootSuite software. This can calculate the times of day that people are most likely to see your updates; in our case, it typically posts at 9am the following day.
Shortly after I’d corrected the Facebook error discussed above, I saw our Twitter post had a spacing error which meant the venue wasn’t properly credited. To add to the problem, the message had already been retweeted by two followers and later a third. One of these is the Scottish Poetry Library, which has an extensive audience and is great exposure for us.
The question was how to correct this error in the least disruptive manner. I didn’t want to leave the post as it was because it looked unprofessional, yet I didn’t want to take it down because users had already engaged with us. I’ve learnt a few things from managing literary groups, and one of them is to admit when you’ve made a mistake.
I posted a corrected version with the venue properly credited. I then sent private messages to the three users explaining what had happened and asking whether they would do me a favour and retweet the correct version. And they did. This move ended up working in our favour, as more Library followers engaged with our new message than the original.
A significant proportion of our members don’t use Facebook or Twitter, so we also maintain a mailing list.
The bulletin I’m most worried about is this one; once an e-mail has been sent, it’s not usually possible to recall or amend it. So when I send Hotchpotch updates, I’ve set up a 30-second delay so it can be cancelled if necessary before it leaves my outbox. Gmail users can find this feature in the Settings.
But despite the problems with the Facebook and Twitter pages, the e-mail was sent without any mistakes.
I spoke a little about my upcoming gigs in the last entry. This week, I want to pass on some of the advice I’ve picked up in the years I’ve been performing.
A live performance is a great way to introduce yourself to a new audience, and to add extra enjoyment for your existing fans. So it’s crucial to make a solid effort. The advice below should be treated not as strictly unbreakable rules, but as guidelines to make your event flows as smoothly as possible. Some of the points were made in a 2015 entry, but have been updated as I’ve gained more experience.
Think about your introduction.
Check with the organisers what content you need. Sometimes you need to give an introduction; other times, you’ll be asked only to read the piece. If you do need to introduce your work, it’s worth making brief notes, such as:
Give your name
Thank Tracey Jones for organising
Story is called On the River Tay
Taken from collection The Pie Seller
Published by Law Hill Books
Brought copies, happy to sign
Then on the night, you might say, “Good evening, my name’s Mary Walker. I’d like to thank Tracey Jones for inviting me to read tonight, and the piece I’ve chosen is called On the River Tay. It’s taken from my collection The PieSeller, and that’s published by Law Hill Books. I’ve brought some copies and I’ll be happy to sign them afterwards.”
Explain if you need to, but don’t apologise.
Some pieces do require an explanation. Perhaps the work is unfinished; perhaps it’s an extract from a longer work and needs context. But whatever you have to explain, keep it as brief as you can and certainly don’t apologise. If you feel an apology is necessary, ask yourself whether the piece is ready to be heard in public.
Before reading to someone, read to no-one.
The best way to identify any weak parts in a piece is to read it aloud – and that’s the last thing you want to happen in public. So find a space on your own and read it out when nobody can hear you. Are there any long sentences that need to be broken up? Are there words that are difficult to say clearly when grouped together? Can you add or take away any alliteration or rhyme?
If you don’t have the luxury of solitude, the next best method is to use text-to-speech software and listen to your words through headphones. There is plenty of suitable software available online, and some programs allow you to adjust the speed and the type of voice.
Make sure you also time yourself and keep it within the constraints laid down by the organiser. This might mean writing a longer introduction to expand a short piece, or reading out only a section to reduce it.
Practice your page turns.
Unlike a rock star, the great thing about being a writer is that you’re often allowed to take your notes on stage. When reading from a book or from sheets of paper, it’s a good idea to turn up the corner slightly or stick a post-it note to the back to help turn it more easily. When using an e-reader or tablet computer, practice tapping the correct area of the screen to turn the page. Make sure to account for any delay, as not all devices instantly show the next page.
Make sure everyone can hear you.
In my experience, smaller readings tend not to use a microphone, so you need to project. Avoid tilting your head down to read the piece; instead, hold your manuscript higher and off to one side so it doesn’t muffle your words, or look down only with your eyes. Always speak slowly than you would in normal conversation.
If you do have a microphone, ask the sound engineer if you can test it out beforehand, especially if you’re unfamiliar with using one.
Most microphones collect sound from the top, but some designs mean you need to speak into the side, like mine (pictured). Either way, make sure you know which one has been given to you. One of the biggest distractions for an audience is a sound level that vastly increases and decreases, especially at random. Whether the microphone is handheld or on a stand, keep it at the same distance from your mouth.
Avoid too much alcohol or a heavy meal before the gig.
I fully understand why many people need Dutch courage before going on stage. But a drunk speaker rarely makes a good impression, especially during a paid gig, so strictly control your alcohol intake. It takes some concentration to perform, and too much booze impairs that concentration.
My rule is not to take alcohol before speaking, only coffee. Afterwards, however, I sometimes enjoy a red wine. It’s also a good idea not to eat too much in the hours before the performance, as a heavy meal can also slow down your thought process.
Decide where in the room to look.
I know one poet who deliberately looks at individual audience members and delivers a few lines before moving on to the next person. However, this is not what most people do because it can be unnerving to make eye contact. Fortunately, there are some techniques to make this easier. One of my favourite methods is look between two people, so the person on the right assumes I’m looking at the one on the left, and vice versa. Another way, which is particularly good for a theatre setting, is to look beyond the back row. This has the advantage of keeping your posture correct.
Sometimesthe audience reacts wrongly.
I’ve had experiences where an audience didn’t laugh when I’d expected, or chuckled at a serious point. You have no control over this. Should it happen to you, don’t point out the anomaly or repeat it. Wait for the laughter to die down if there is any, then move on without comment. But if you find different audiences keep reacting in the wrong way to the same part, you might consider revising it or editing it out in future performances.
If there’s a cock-up, keep going.
In a live event, something is likely to go wrong. Perhaps the microphone fails, perhaps you forget the words, perhaps somebody walks out. The best course of action is to keep going. The audience will easily forget a slipup if they’re engaged with your narrative. Conversely, they’ll remember the person who stopped the show early, and they’ll remember for the wrong reasons. It’s true that there is no easy way to recover from forgetting your words, other than picking up from the last section you remember, but keep saying something.
Two years ago, I was invited to read at Dundee University Students Association. I was debuting a poem called Housekeeping. I now know this piece back to front, but if you’ll excuse the terrible picture quality, here was my first attempt at memorising the words:
Signalthat you’ve finished.
At the end of a piece, the audience doesn’t necessarily know whether you’re finished or simply pausing for dramatic effect. But an audience can pick up on your gestures. You can lower your manuscript, step backwards slightly, or say, “Thank you,” whereupon they’ll take the hint and applaud.
Do it again.
It’s an eye-rolling cliche, but the more you stand up and speak in public, the easier it becomes. Over time, you’ll learn little nuggets like which techniques work or don’t work for you, which pieces always or never provoke a reaction, &c. Ultimately, a good performance can sell more books.