Rather like one of those people with jumpers who’ve just discovered a new brand of coffee maker at John Lewis, I’m one of those over bouncy evangelists for the spoken word. So it’s hard to pin down what to talk about. Which means this will probably end up bouncing from one place to another like Ronnie Corbett’s anecdotes.
The thing about reading your work to a live audience is that you are tapping into a direct line that goes right back to the very first time a story was told. And you feel every step of that connection. It takes you to a place I honestly don’t think you can reach if you write only for the page, and you come back changed.
OK, it would be easy to put that down to peyote or something else William Burroughs would proselytize about, but the fact is, save for the occasional pudding wine and a once a year pint, I’m teetotal.
So what is it about the spoken word, and how does it change the way you write?
Well, the main thing I guess is its directness. And I don’t mean people coming up to you after you’ve read something and telling you that you moved them. That’s incredible (utterly, fantabulously incredible). But if you ran into someone who’d read your book at a party and they said the same thing, or you had an e-mail, you’d feel the same way. No, it’s something much more direct than that. Something that has nothing to do with words and everything to do with the primal connection between you and another human mind.
Let me give two examples before you report me to Who Hired the Hippy.
Last year I was lucky enough to read at Literary Death Match, which is sort of part talent show part literary event.
I was reading a short story, The Last Fluffer in La La Land. It’s a story that goes through a mix of dark humour and, let’s face it, plain old filth, until the last hundred words or so when it suddenly goes lights-out black. The lighting on stage was slightly dim (for ambience, dahling) which made reading a little tricky but meant I got to see the audience properly (hmm, it was Shoreditch so they probably correctly figured that the audience would be more beautiful than the performers). Watching their faces as the story took them on an emotional ride is something I won’t forget. From the smiles (nay, giggles) as the, er, ins and outs of the porn industry are pruriently described, to the open jaws as the, um, climax hits them, I have never been so aware of the impact a story can make. We can be told in e-mails, or in reviews, but, to use a cliché, this was being shown. A reminder of what storytelling is all about – taking people with you on a journey and bringing them back changed.
The second point is similar. It’s also about the immediacy, the directness. Nothing can tell you what works and what doesn’t quite so accurately as a live audience. I’ll qualify that, of course. Many forms of poetry only really “work” on the page. Many stories have nuances and cross-referencing that better suits the solitary reader of the written word. But if, say, you’re not sure about a piece of dialogue…you know that thing people say about reading it out loud to see how it sounds? Well, try reading it out loud in front of 40 people who’ve paid to listen! And it’s not just dialogue. You can sense each shift, each fidget, and on the positive side each gasp, each craning of the head to get closer to the action.
Like I say, this isn’t true for all forms of writing, but it’s true for more than you would think. I’d wager that one reading to a crowd will do more for a piece than 10 edits on the page (you might want to get it to a certain level first…). But most of all, nothing is so great a reminder of what storytelling is all about. And no matter how nervous you feel before I bet nothing will give you such a buzz after.
If you fancy giving it a try, many towns have an open mic session on a regular basis. Just look at your local listings site/paper. And if you live in the home counties, bookmark poetrykapow on your computer – they have the most extensive calendar (not exclusively for poetry) I’ve come across.
Dan Holloway is the author of several novels and a collection of performance pieces, (life:) razorblades included. He runs the literary project eight cuts gallery, whose latest exhibition, What There Is Instead of Rainbows, has just opened and can be viewed on the site. You can catch him live on November 18th at 8pm at The Albion Beatnik Bookstore in Oxford at the launch of Oxford University Poetry Society’s magazine Ash, in which he has an entry; on November 23rd at 7.30 at the Royal Standard of England in Beaconsfield, and on December 13th at 8pm at The Jam Factory, Oxford, where he will be slamming at Hammer and Tongue, the UK’s premier poetry slam.