Give it up for – Dan Holloway!

Posted: November 18, 2011 in Friday Guest

Let’s Talk About This

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.

  1. jake barton says:

    I’ve met Dan. Seen him perform a couple of times. There may be cleverer people out there. There may be people I admire more. Trust me, there ‘aint that many!

  2. marc nash says:

    Having shared many a stage with Dan I can commend both everything he says and his live performance. save one thing. Dan, do you really feel connected to the Icelandic bard who spun his epic tale around the campfire x thousand years ago?

    marc x

    • danholloway says:

      Thank you for having me, Sue!

      Not at any time other than when I’m on stage. Then, yes, I think so in some weird way – there are a hundred and one things one experiences in a non-cognitive way and that, I’m fairly sure, is one. The moment I finish burbling the bubble’s broken – which is, I think, one reason why performing is so addictive (I remember talking to Anna Hobson about this – after being really reluctant to perform the first time, at one point she was clucking for a microphone like performing was crack!)

  3. Rebecca Emin says:

    This is an interesting read. Dan, I’ve got to be honest I don’t think I’d have the nerve to do what you do. I must come along and see you in action at some point. All the best.

    • danholloway says:

      It would be lovely to see you (I’m holding a steampunk Christmas at The Albion Beatnik on December 9th, which may be right up your street) and we always have a little wriggle room so if you get into the swing there will always be space for you.

      I always get pretty much petrified. In part because I’ll have fed my cravings for caffeine drinks too much which gives me the jitters (toptip: drink lots of green tea first, and not a six pack of Red Bull); in part because I’m usually running the event and there’s always someone late plus the audience in Oxford always show up half an hour after advertised timings so there’s that “I’m the only one at my party” moment; and in part because I don’t want to let the audience down. But that goes the minute i start – and crowds are so so friendly.

  4. Jim Hartzell says:

    I’ve always thought about reading aloud to a live audience; something like a one-person play, except with no set acts. A never ending play, with breaks.

    I’ve also always considered it unrealistic and never had the faintest idea how to go about it. I still don’t, but this interview made me think. Any ideas, Dan? Should someone start with a video-clip or demo, or just wade into a sea of people? Should it be more like a story recital, or can it be more like a play. How do you get booked as a ‘reader’? Do you have to submit something in advance? Seems like that would defeat the purpose to some extent.

    I’m not at all sure that I’ll ever do it, but I’d like to hear how you did it.

    Do you have to be an actor?

  5. Dan Holloway says:

    Hmm, very interesting questions. I’ll try and be as helpful as I can.

    “Do you have to be an actor?”
    No, absolutely not. BUT, there are lots of things acting lessons could help with (I’m very lucky – one of the members of my writing collective is a professional actress, and my wife studied music for many years, so I’ve had some excellent coaching on breathing/posture). I write a column for Words With Jam ( – the pdfs are free, and several of the issues late last year/earlier this year gave speciifc acting tips – just daft things like thinking about what to do with your spare hand (!)

    One of the writers I publish, Stuart Estell, does excellent prolonged readings from his short novel Verruca Music, which is in effect an extended monologue. He has musical interludes (but he’s a professional musician) though he’s such a good performer it would work as well without. I think by and large it’s very difficult to hold an audience’s attention with spoken word and no accompaniment for longer than 8 minutes, no matter how good the material.

    Getting “booked” is another thing some of the WWJ pieces have a lot of detail on. I started by going into my local independent bookstore (OK, I’m *very* lucky – this is my local store – – it’s a cultural hub in Oxford, though I had no idea when I went in) and spoke to the owner. We ended up talking for ages, and he agreed to stock my book and to let me put on a launch. I only realised later just how many opportunities there are to read. Looking in your local listings magazine/newspaper/website fro open mic sessions is probably best – looking through Oxford’s listings site, there are 5 or 6 this week alone. Or get to know people at local writers’ groups or venues that host readings. For open mic nights you just sign up on the night. The more you do the more people you meet, and it doesn’t take long before people start asking you to be part of more formal shows.

    As for format – it can be anything you want. Different regular nights will have different audiences, but by and large just do whatever you’re most comfortable doing. But what makes good written material doesn’t always make the best performance. Certainly until you’ve done it many times, it works better to have something that goes through a full arc, and takes people through a whole swathe of emotions – which makes short stories or self-contained pieces work better than novel extracts. Also avoid too much dialogue – you end up either putting on strange accents or doing strange things with rhythm to separate the speakers.

  6. Thanks for that, Dan. Very interesting and useful. I’ll be keeping an eye on your website.

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