“Don’t burp. Don’t fall over.”

On Thursday night, I took part in a poetry open mic night for the first time.

Three pertinent facts:

–          I’ve been to poetry readings and poetry open mic nights before. You don’t get through a creative writing degree without attending a few of these things. But I never had the nerve to stand up and actually read anything out.

–          I’ve been writing poetry for years, on and off. I have notepads full of dreadful ‘you don’t understand me’ teen angst lines, which taper off into slightly better, less self-obsessed stuff from university. Then I shifted from poetry to lyrics for a while. Now I’m back working on poetry and have four or five things written this year that I’m happy with. But I’m better at stories, I think.

–          I have terrible, terrible stage fright. I’ve mentioned a few times that I’m shy in a crowd. The stage fright thing is different. In the way I didn’t used to be scared of heights but now freak out when I’m more than 3m off the ground, I also didn’t used to be scared of the stage. If anything, I was a proper little show off. But by the time I left school I had lost a lot of that confidence, and by the time I finished uni I was in a place where I can barely ask a question as an audience member. It sort of stretched and got worse from there. So every time I’ve said ‘one day I’ll do an open mic night [for music]!’, it’s been with a bellyful of fear. Weirdly, because I used to be just fine with both heights and being the star of the show, it never occurs to me to list either of these things as phobias when that subject comes up, but that is basically what they are.

The only reason I managed to do this is because I didn’t see the poster advertising the night until Tuesday evening, when I unexpectedly ended up at my local library. I made the decision to go at Thursday lunchtime, and made the decision to read about an hour after that. Then I announced it on facebook so that I couldn’t back out at the last minute.

That I planned this in a 48-hour window is crucial. If I’d had any longer to think, I would have backed out. If any friends had come to watch – and several offered to come and were asked not to – I would have backed out. If there hadn’t been the flexibility of reading either your own work or a favourite poem, I would have backed out. If I didn’t share a commute with Newbie, who mocked me relentlessly all the way there and abandoned me at the train station with the parting words: “I should probably give you a pep talk now… Don’t burp. Don’t fall over.” I would have backed out. If the people at this particular evening hadn’t been the most welcoming, least pretentious and most enthusiastic group of people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet in one go, I would have backed out.

The reading was part of Southwark Libraries’ Rhyme and Reason Poetry Festival, which has been taking place over the week. Organised by the amazing Sandra Agard, it’s on its fifth year now. It takes place across a few of the Southwark libraries, which is where Sandra works and several of the people attending the reading also work at them. Sandra runs writing groups, and again, several of the people that showed up attend those, so they knew each other.

This is my local library. It's a bit beautiful, isn't it?
This is my local library. It’s a bit beautiful, isn’t it?

This was absolutely not a cliquey crowd, though. When I walked in, I met Fatima first, because she introduced herself straight off and offered me crackers from her handbag. I told her she was my new favourite person, because I was starving. Sandra introduced herself shortly afterwards, taking names for who was going to read. I put my name down – added that I was nervous, I’d never read before. Sandra beamed and told me she was really pleased I’d picked my local library for it. Fatima introduced me to Florence, a lovely Chinese lady who also attends the writing group. More people drifted in. Mike – who made all the posters for the festival, introduced Sandra and Sandra introduced the festival, reading a poem about dreams (frustratingly, I can’t remember who by). And then we were off.

I love the area I live in for many reasons, but one of them is because of the sheer range of countries and cultures that mingle across Southwark. This has never been more obvious than at the reading. The folks attended came from around the world, and the poetry was not limited to English language. Some of it was poetry from childhood, some of it about childhood.

Florence read about coming to England and learning English, and in the second half a beautiful poem (both spoken, and the pattern on the paper) called The Sea and Mr Chan, about her great uncle’s immigration to America. A lady from Zimbabwe read her poems in her native language, which is one of the most musical languages I’ve ever heard, and translated them for us afterwards. One was based around a legend, the other around her son.  Abu introduced us to poetry by a Sierra Leonean poet named Abraham Lincoln (I’m not sure I’ve spelt that correctly). Charles (who has a poetry blog over at http://charliegingerpoems.wordpress.com/) got up and recited his poems, moving around the stage – so rhythmic, with humour and anger both. A gentleman whose name I also forget (sorry – I’m pretty bad with names) stood up and explained that he’s only just started calling his poems poems, because he still feels a bit out of place, being working class and never having studied it, but he’s been going to open mic nights across London and getting stuck in. Three poems by Maya Angelou were read out, but Ogechi, 17, gets special mention because her poise and delivery were just incredible. I wish I could have been, and could be, half so confident and incredible. Fatima was theatrical – props and scene set-ups and again, amazing delivery.

I’ve not mentioned everyone – and there were a lot more people, and they all deserve to be mentioned as much as the people I already have – because I’m trying not to waffle on for too long, but suffice to say that the performances were brilliant. I wished I had brought friends along to see – because although people were supportive and wished me luck, there were also a lot of jokes about pretentious poets and whatnot. Poetry is still very much considered to be elitist or boring, and something that should be hard to understand. But it’s not. It’s images in words. It’s another way to write or speak. It’s not supposed to exclude people; it’s not supposed to be serious all the time. The sheer enthusiasm and loveliness of everyone there brought that home – the range of poetry topics, the breadth of backgrounds. It was an evening of remarkable energy.

I got lucky – as I grew up I had parents who bought and read us Roald Dahl’s poems, and we had anthologies and books of kids poetry, and we could recite Allan Ahlberg’s stuff endlessly (‘Please Mrs Butler, this boy Derek Drew / keeps copying my work, Miss / What shall I do?’) Poetry was never made to seem like something silly or out of reach, or only for people in berets and black turtlenecks. When I was a kid, we barely registered that it was different from stories, and I’m only now appreciating that.

Yeah, so my reading. Well, I did it! Twice! It was actually something of a close call. Just before the readings started I’d become twitchy, knotted myself into a pretzel, making notes on the paper and wondering whether I could back out – and Sandra walked over to me, gave me a hug and said “Stop worrying, you’re among friends.” And I almost cried. That’s how stressed I was.

When I got up to read, Sandra put the lectern thing in front of me – and I’m relieved, because I needed something between me and the people in the chairs. Also, I had started to shake so badly that if I hadn’t had somewhere to put my bit of paper, I don’t think I would have been able to focus on the page. I put my hands in the back pockets of my jeans, because I knew it would force my shoulder’s back, and also I was trying to stop the shaking. I’d been telling myself to relax, smile, look people in the eye, but I looked up once and freaked out, so I just stared at my bit of paper, managed to say “Hi,” and get on with reading. I think I scowled the whole way through. I rushed the reading, though I tried not to, but the poem came out okay, read aloud.

My voice was also shaking by the end, though, and my left leg had started to jitter at the knee, so I was having difficulty staying upright (despite Newbie’s advice). Honestly, I couldn’t believe I made it to the end. I tried to smile, went to rush back to my seat, and was called back by Sandra who announced that it was my first time, and people clapped and yelled harder (and thank you all so much for that). I was still shaking quite badly. I got weepy, I had to sit in my seat and let my eyes leak for a little while. Sandra asked me if I write a lot and asked me to talk to her at the end. In the break a few people came up to chat to me. I was grinning like an idiot – relief, and also pride. It was a great evening.


I was supposed to be going to Five Lives – the last evening of the festival – last night, but instead I was wiped out by the worst migraine I’ve had in a while. So, I hope to hear from Sandra about writing groups, because I’d like to see everyone again. Also, I’ll be carrying on, I think, with this open mic lark, in bits and pieces. It would be a shame to stop now.

4 thoughts on ““Don’t burp. Don’t fall over.”

  1. Wonderful! So happy you managed to survive. And yes, agreed about the perception of poetry as elitist/boring being completely alien to us. It’s everywhere! From Banjo Patterson to Michael Rosen (birfdy!) to the albergs, to Tennyson… We are incredibly lucky to have had this literary life and I too am just beginning to appreciate that.
    Yay for welcoming people!
    My legs do that too. Propranolol helps. It stops me from fainting. There’s a performance aid mind trick, it refers to your Shadow. I’ll see if I can find a link for you.

    Poetry should be shared.
    Get up, speak up, emote, connect.
    love you.


  2. Please do share the mind trick thing, it’d be very handy. Yeah, we got very lucky indeed. Did I tell you I found a beautiful book of Banjo Patterson’s work recentlyish?
    I’m going to keep trying without beta-blockers for now 🙂 Love you too G x


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