The poetry reading is in Beeston: a gentle, respectable, cosy suburb of Nottingham which is popular with academics from the nearby university. Some distance away from the city centre, Beeston has its own shops, its own big supermarket, its own mainline railway station, a few decent places to eat, and an extensive selection of much-better-than-average pubs. It’s a calm, self-contained part of town, where nothing out of the ordinary is ever likely to happen. Nice people live here. Nice people with pleasant, balanced, ordered-yet-active lives. People who have resolved their conflicts, set their priorities, vanquished their demons.
Yes, Beeston gives me the creeps all right.
Over the years, several friends have moved out here, each announcing their departure with “I know it’s a bit boring, but the house has got the space we need” shrugs and tight little smiles which hover midway between jokey self-deprecation, submerged regret and quiet, steely resolve. And then we never hear from them again. Ring them up to arrange an outing, and they’ll say: “But why would we ever want to leave Beeston? Beeston has everything we need. Our lives are here now. We have no need of Outside. Come to us. Join us. Never leave.”
Yes, Beeston even scares me a little. Travelling back into town from the cottage on Monday mornings, I can feel its pull – can hear its siren whispers wafting over the central verge from the other side of the A52. “Join us. Join us in Beeston. There’s a life for you here. A good life. Why resist?”
Driving around in search of the venue, one of my companions explains that poetry readings are held here every week. “Perhaps we could start coming here regularly?“, she suggests, brightly.
The voices – again the voices, swirling around in the dusk. First they’ll take our Tuesday evenings – then they’ll take our very souls. Resist! Resist!
I haven’t been to a poetry reading for maybe seven or eight years, maybe longer. Indeed – like opera, classical ballet, and nu-metal – I barely even touch the stuff. Or if I do, then I prefer to read it out loud, on my own, savouring the rhythms as much as the meaning. For despite my disassociation from the genre, I have a voice which is curiously suited for this. Instinctively picking up on the musicality of the language, I am somehow able to give a clear, measured, suitably understated yet broadly empathetic delivery. Even when I am still barely able to grasp the subject matter. I find this slightly baffling.
I found it particularly baffling one Sunday afternoon at a post-club chill-out in someone’s flat in Wimbledon, or somewhere like that, about five years ago, with a bunch of complete strangers I had met upstairs in Trade. Our host revealed that he wrote poetry in his spare time. A couple of sheets of A4 were duly passed around the group. Even before I knew what I was doing, I found myself reading one of them out loud.
As I progressed down the page, I entered a strange, split-level state of consciousness. My rational brain (or what was left of it) was aware that it had not even the faintest idea of the literal meaning of the poem – nor even whether it was good, bad or indifferent. Nevertheless, my instinctive brain could still, somehow, pick up on an overriding mood, or flow, or structure – or something – despite the fact that my sensually perceptive brain was by now so comprehensively battered that every letter on the page appeared to be in a different colour. At the end of my recitation, which had been received in total silence, there was a brief, respectful pause, followed by a flutter of soft, almost post-coital murmurings: “Oh…wow“, and “You read so beautifully“, and – from the host himself – “Thank you so much for doing that”. I felt simultaneously like a a gifted lyrical interpreter and a big fat fraud.
We arrive late. The first poet is already in the middle of a lengthy “song cycle”, and has to pause between “cantos” to let us in. Standing room only at the back. Am I in anybody’s way? Can my friends see anything at all? Dare I take my puffa jacket off, or will the rustling break everybody’s concentration? Oh God, everybody is really concentrating here, aren’t they? Look at them all. They look rapt. Is that how you’re supposed to look? Shall I try to look rapt as well?
OK, how does that look? No, it looks fake, doesn’t it? The poet will be able to see right through me. Hang on – nobody’s looking at me anyway. Egocentric fool. It doesn’t matter what expression you adopt. Now, concentrate. Focus on what he’s saying. Come on. Come out of yourself. Engage. Cross that line.
No, it’s no good. I can’t pick up the threads at all. The language is too dense, the meaning is too tightly packed, there are all these classical allusions which I don’t get. Would it be better if I looked straight at the poet instead of staring round the room? Would that be too intense?
OK, watch the mouth. Blimey – fancy wearing a jacket over a hooded top over a shirt and tie. Particularly a skinny little early-80s retro tie like that, in bright orange. Actually, it’s quite a good look. Sort of funky-academical. Come on, back to the mouth. Good clear diction he’s got, and a nice even delivery. The words sound good, even if I can’t crawl inside them. But really, this is the sort of thing that I’d prefer to read several times over, in my own time.
So, is the problem just with me, or is this stuff just not suited to a live reading like this? I don’t remember having this sort of problem when I used to go and hear Dymbellina read, back in the day. But then, I had always read her stuff several times over in advance. Nevertheless, surely there was a palpable, direct communication going on at her readings? Not like here, then. This is all a bit Poetry In Crowd, isn’t it? A bit up-its-own-arse? Or am I just retreating into the sidelines, in that protectively sneery way of mine?
I need to get over the feeling of “Gosh, so this is what a poetry reading is like, then.” I need to stop observing, and start participating. When did my concentration span get this bad, anyway? Maybe it’s because I’m spending too much time on my own in the office, hopping about from web page to web page, never having to devote appreciable periods of time to any one person, or thought, or task.
Oh look – over the road, one storey up – they’ve got their curtains open and the telly on, and he has come to the window and is staring over the road and down at us, because this sort of thing clearly doesn’t usually happen on his street on a Tuesday night, and now he’s calling her over to the window, and now they’re both looking at us, and I wonder what they’re thinking, and…stop, look away, come back into the room, this is a new poem, maybe you’ll get further with it this time…
The first poet writes a lot about gay sex, and likes his classical allusions, and is frequently funny. I know this because I received a signed copy of his new book for my birthday, which is essentially why I’m here. There’s not so much of the sexy stuff or the funny stuff here tonight, which is a slight shame if you ask me.
The second poet is from the States, and is part of the whole Poets Against The War thing, and so most of the poems she reads are about that. She has a way of looking sharply over the top of her glasses while talking at you, which reminds me of Germaine Greer on Newsnight Review. When she starts to read, her whole voice rises in pitch as she adopts a kind of “performance” style. This is not something I am used to, and I don’t know how I feel about it. She sounds altogether quite cross. She also plays the Gender Politics card full square: this is a man’s war, and you’d think that there was only one sex fighting it, she says. One poem takes the form of an open letter to George Dubya. It is as oratorical as it is epistolary, and so it works well, and I even manage to concentrate all the way through it. We are on the very brink of “war” tonight, and here I am listening to a visiting American poet of some repute expressing her anger and bewilderment and fear and scorn about it, and it all feels awfully Significant, and of Historical Import in some way, and there’s some part of me inside that is rather enjoying that.
(Incidentally: I’m not going to call it a “war” any longer. I’m not going to call it a “pre-emptive strike”, either. Like the letter-writer in today’s Guardian says: it’s not a “war” – it’s an invasion.)
The third poet is vague and dithery, and she doesn’t know what she’s going to read us yet, and she keeps losing her bookmarks and apologising, and she is just not quite of this world. In fact, she quite cheerfully confesses this to us. However, once she starts to read, her voice snaps into focus – into “performance mode” once again. There is a whimsicality here, and a sense of detached, amused observation by a slightly baffled outsider. But really: do people still think like that about the television set, in this day and age? These are the sort of thoughts my grandfather might have had fifty years ago, and he was something of an anachronistic fuddy-duddy even then. There is a lighter, funnier piece about a summer spent in a French chateau with a bunch of crashing snobs, which everyone enjoys – followed by an interminable, seemingly directionless piece about Hildegard Of Bingen which has everybody fidgeting and tapping their fingers. It is so long that the first poet only has time for one more poem before time is called.
Is this where I’m supposed to draw a pithy conclusion? Well, I guess I don’t have one. I can only conclude that poetry just ain’t my bag. So I’m going to end with a link instead. (On a weblog, you can always legitimately cop out like this. It’s a wonderful medium.)
The Clock’s Loneliness: a poem a day, weblog-stylee. The one-stop shop for all your daily lyrical needs.
Maybe that’s how I need to get started. One day at a time, sweet Jesus…