One Poem, Three Audiences

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to a fundraising event featuring open-mike slots. I’d gone along under the assumption that the stage was reserved solely for musicians, and there were a number of talented ones there. But after a chat with the organisers, I discovered it was open to anybody.

If you know me, you’ll know I’m always willing to perform. This, however, would be a tough crowd because a music audience is different from a poetry audience.

Your average pub rock group expects to encounter some external noise, like audience chatter or the noise of the till, but three or four instruments with amplification can easily compete against that. By contrast, a poetry audience knows to be silent because the performer has only words to convey; even with amplification, it can be hard to talk over a noisy audience.

I drew upon my experience to pick two suitable poems, and they received a better response than I could have hoped for, even with a lot of background chat. One of the poems was a humorous and surreal piece about personified biscuits; I’d picked it because it seems to appeal equally to poets and non-poets.

The following night, I performed the biscuit poem at a dedicated poetry night with an open-mike element. While the audience did hold a respectful silence, they were harder to excite than the pub group crowd, perhaps because many of them had heard it before.

While drafting this entry about the two aforementioned evenings, I was then unexpectedly invited to perform at another gig.

I sing in the church choir on a Sunday, and the organist was organising the music to entertain their Wednesday Club. Most of the choir performed solo songs, but I was asked to perform a couple of poems. I turned again to – you guessed it – the biscuits.

This time, I was uncertain how it would be received. I knew the audience would lend me their silence, but not whether they would consider it appropriate for the event. But I needn’t have worried, as I heard some great feedback both on the night and at the next Sunday performance.

There is no foolproof way to tell how an audience will react. However, by performing often enough, it’s possible to gauge which pieces to perform – and sometimes it pays off incredibly well.

Where We Go from Here

Further to last week’s entry about our Hotchpotch venue, I’m pleased to report we’ve at least found a stopgap venue for July. I was out of Dundee at the time, so a big thanks go to our core group of regulars for helping me to take swift action.

As we look to August, we need to find somewhere that’s quiet enough to hear unaccompanied speech and that can host the group in the long term. Our old venue allowed us to use the basement every month on a Monday as it pulled in customers on what is traditionally a quiet day in the licensed trade.

The other consideration is whether to start charging members. Until now, entry has been free because our venues have let us have the space in exchange for buying food and drink. We attract around 30 people, sometimes more, per event and a charge of – say – £2 apiece would cover a £50 hire charge.

Whatever happens, I’m keen to make sure the evening sticks to the same principles: to give people a platform for their work with no judgement and no criticism.

Performances and Housekeeping.

On Monday of last week, I debuted a new poem at Hotchpotch. This is a local open-mike night for writers. While I’m far more of a prose writer than a poet, I thought this particular piece would go down well.

I’ve been to enough live events to know the standard housekeeping message that’s given before the performance. This poem was a version of the announcement that made it sound as though the speaker was having a mental breakdown. It did indeed attract a positive response, while a second poem and a short story were also well-received.

At last month’s Hotchpotch, I had a picture taken of me. I didn’t particularly like it because my neck was too far forward reading the piece. This time I was sure to stand up straighter and look up at the audience from time to time. I’m not saying my pieces came across better because of it, but I certainly felt better by paying attention to these factors.

I’m an advocate of people reading out their work in public, and of course in private while proofreading. If you know of a nearby group, go along and support it. There are actually two such groups around here, but I didn’t take to the other one since the focus there is mainly on folk tales, whereas Hotchpotch has a more literary flavour. Some groups even allow you simply to listen without contributing for the first meeting.

But what if there isn’t a group, or it’s not the right style for you? Have you ever thought about starting your own? There’s no reason why you should wait for someone else to do it, as it probably won’t happen.

The meeting place doesn’t have to be anywhere with a stage. We meet on the upper floor of a café, and we create an informal Poets’ Corner near the top of the stairs. Some pubs and coffee shops are happy to donate their space provided the participants are putting money in the till, so we hold at least one break during each evening. Just bear in mind that the venue could back out or change their terms at any time. A pub we used to use free of charge suddenly wanted £50 a session, even though we probably spent double that in drinks alone.

The other element you need to decide is the ethos. Should the audience offer constructive criticism to the readers, or is it solely for writers to try out new material? At Hotchpotch, the latter approach is taken, although there’s nothing to stop people giving feedback to each other privately afterwards.

But above all, it’s for writers to meet and talk to each other. Every time we meet up, I usually hear about an upcoming event or two that I wouldn’t otherwise have known about. The actual writing process is generally a solitary pursuit, but we all still need that connection.