There have been so many poetry readings over the last few months that it would have been just about impossible for one person to get to them all. I managed to get to quite a few over the summer, and they got me thinking about the purpose of a ‘reading’. For me it adds to my understanding of a poet’s work; to hear them read, to hear where they put the inflections, the pauses, the emphasis. I go back to the poems on the page with the poet’s voice still in my head. Hearing Miriam Gamble, Anne-Marie Fyfe and Theo Dorgan read from their new collections has made me feel as if I have been given a key to the books themselves, making entry to the work easier. On another level, it can be the pure pleasure of just listening, letting the words enter through the ears rather than the eyes.
Hearing Myra Vennard read at the On Home Ground Festival in Magherafelt was one of the joys of my summer. The tone of the event was set by Damian Smyth, who seemed to channel the spirit of Heaney into the room, holding the atmosphere despite noise from outside and other distractions. Myra’s poetry flowed into and around the audience like a spiritual balm. I felt as if I was listening, not to a poet read, but to poetry itself. The event finished with the wonderful voice of singer songwriter Ciara O’Neil and I could feel the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. The music and poetry complimented each other perfectly.
Another outstanding reading for me was that of Damian Smyth during Aspects Festival. I have been at readings where, when the poet announces that he/she is reading two more poems, you can almost hear the collective sigh of relief from the audience that the end is in sight; but this was the opposite. I was at a table with a number of other poets, Jean Bleakney , Paul Maddern and Jonathan Hicks and we all agreed that we could have listened for hours. For me it was like the pleasure I had as a child listening to my mother read me the next chapter from whatever book we were on.
I always appreciate the opportunity to read my own work to an audience and I hope people enjoy hearing me read my poetry. I’m always inclined to the view that ‘less is more’ when I read at events. I’m terrified of boring everyone! Different readings can have very different feels to them for the poet standing up there. I’m always nervous beforehand. I usually pick a range of poems to read and adjust the list according to the ‘feel’ I’m getting from the audience. It can depend on so many factors, but sometimes I feel as if my words are toppling off a cliff and other times I can feel the warmth, interest and engagement. Like most poets I have poems that I know work at a reading and others that I seldom read in public. It’s not that one is ‘better’ than the other, some poems just work well spoken aloud and some suit the solitude between the reader and the page. It’s always a bit nerve wracking giving a new poem its first spoken outing.
All of this pondering meant I was very interested to be asked to attend a Poetry Slam as a ‘judge’. It was good fun, though I did feel slightly uneasy at the idea of poetry as competition. It allowed me to reflect on the difference between ‘performance poetry’ at a slam, and a more conventional reading. My conclusion was that good poetry shines through in either setting.