Only connect

One of the best things about running an open mic is when people who have never read in public before arrive with a poem and, after a little encouragement, walk to the front of the room and launch it for the first time. The look on their faces as they get to the last couple of lines and realise they’ve not only done it, they’ve nailed it, is marvellous; a mixture of delight and relief that spreads to everyone present, if the explosion of applause that follows is anything to go by.

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It’s a long time since I first got to my feet in Bristol Central Library, the then home of Silver Street predecessor, Can Openers, to read a poem about my great-great-grandmother, Mary Block of Christmas Steps. I was so nervous I managed to flick the black Bic I was holding (I’ve no idea why) right across the floor and into the listeners. Yet when I reached the end, I was amazed by how much I’d enjoyed the experience.

Since then I’ve learnt various techniques to improve my performance. (All page poets who read their poems in public are also performance poets.) Chief amongst these is preparation of my set – I time everything so I never have to ask ‘Am I doing all right for time?’ and I rehearse not just the poems but how I plan to introduce them too. I leave nothing to chance.

Until last Thursday evening, that is, when I read at Lyrical at Trowbridge Town Hall, along with Dawn Gorman, Anna-May Laugher, Shauna Darling Robertson, Chaucer Cameron and Helen Dewbery. Together with Pey Oh (who wasn’t able to be there on this occasion) we’ve formed a group called Strange Cargo, and have recently been discussing the possibility of improvised readings – ie taking poems on a loose theme to a poetry guest slot and then riffing off each other’s work, with no running order, no introductions, no safety net. Letting the poems echo and connect with each other, which is altogether scarier than a planned reading.

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Our theme on Thursday was walls and windows, and nerves were slightly calmed when we saw that our poems would have the perfect setting. And once we’d started, we realised it was nowhere near as terrifying an experience as we’d anticipated. We found ourselves tuning in to each other’s body language, so that the poems flowed well and there were no awkward pauses. If anything, perhaps we followed each other a little too eagerly.

The aspect that struck me most was the enhanced quality of listening this format requires. Usually at open mics or in more planned group readings, I find it quite hard to focus on the readings that come before my turn because half my mind is worrying away at my poem, intent on getting it right. We had no such luxury on Thursday; we had to concentrate on the other poems as they were being read so that we could find the best responses to them.

By the end we were brimming with ideas for improving the experience: for instance, managing the pauses better, so that they act in the same way the space around a poem on the page enhances the poem; and looking at whether even poem titles are necessary. What interested me the most, however, was the possibility of including the audience in the actual reading itself, rather than having separate open mic sessions. I would love the other poets present to be part of the process, and to take that involvement away with them so that they too can experience a different way of reading and listening to poetry.

Tracy K Smith at the Bristol Festival of Ideas

In these days of sweeping funding cuts, the chance to see top poets reading locally come along only a couple of times a year, yet I can think of no more valuable a way for poets to learn and be inspired than to listen to the best of their peers reading their work in person. So when I learnt that Tracy K Smith, the US poet laureate, was coming to Waterstones in Bristol as part of the Festival of Ideas, I seized the opportunity of seeing her.

Tracy K Smith

Most poets tend to write about a corner of their own experience or a particular interest – for example, you might think of yourself as  an eco-poet, or someone who is especially good at capturing what it means to be a survivor, or a poet suited to political declamation. Smith herself is known for poems about the body, focusing on intimacy, love, and sexuality, but her work also encompasses, apparently effortlessly, political poems of enormous sensibility and empathy, such as the sequence she read from her second collection, ‘Duende’, which gives voice to Ugandan women kidnapped by rebel commanders, and such vast subjects as … well, the universe.

‘I don’t have a great brain for science,’ she claimed, to a frankly disbelieving audience during her reading of her sequence ‘My God, it’s full of stars’ from her 2011 Pulitzer-prize winning collection, ‘Life on Mars’. But in case you’re starting to think her work might be altogether too rarified, the quote about stars is from Arthur C Clarke’s novel, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, proving that Tracy isn’t afraid to tangle with pop culture either. She even writes affectingly about that ultimate starman, David Bowie.

And as you wing out across the universe of Tracy’s poems, you are being lifted on the most perfectly pitched reading of them. I would urge any poet who wants to improve their delivery of their work to listen to her read. There are lots of videos on line, or you can buy a CD of Duende. Better still, go and hear her read in the flesh … though now her book tour has ended, you might have to fly to America for that.

 

The new venue for Silver Street Poetry

With just ten days to go before the first meeting of Silver Street Poetry in its new home, it feels timely to share our photos of our visit there today and remind our poets of its location.

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We parked in the Galleries – although Trenchard Street car park is nearer, of course – and took the scenic route to get there, via Christmas Steps. (Other, less precipitous approaches – for instance, walking up Colston Street from the Centre – are available.)

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Hours is at 10 Colston Yard, which is reached from Colston Street. What fascinates me about it is that although the entrance is at ground level and therefore fully accessible, it is built into the side of the hill, and the views are amazing. I’d only been there in the dark before, so I was quite excited to get a new perspective on a familiar area.

We checked and it’s fine for poets to bring their own refreshments from nearby cafes, of which there are many.

We returned to Broadmead via Johnny Ball Lane, which passes below Hours and the other buildings of Colson Yard. Here they are, perched atop this magnificent Victorian wall.

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Just time for a quick coffee in Revive Cafe at the top of Corn Street.

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See you on Friday 7th June at our original time of midday and at our new venue of Hours, for hours – well, an hour and a half – of poems shared with friends.

 

Silver Street is on the move

SILVER STREET POETRY

Big changes down Silver Street this month, with the news that we are on the move!

Unfortunately the dance studio we’ve been using at the Station is no longer available, so from next month, Friday 7th June, we’ll be holding our popular open mic in the attractive, modern space that is Hours, situated in Colston Yard, off Colston Street. The room we are using is on the ground floor and fully accessible, as is the WC.

The full address is 10 Colston Yard, Bristol, BS1 5BD, and the nearest affordable car parks are at Trenchard Street (0.2 miles) and the Galleries in Broadmead (0.5 miles). It is 0.4 miles from the bus station.

Please note also that we are reverting to our original, earlier time of 12 to 1.30pm.

Hours

If you aren’t sure of the exact location of Colston’s Yard is, fear not: here is a map.

Hours space map

The entrance to the Yard is pictured below.

Colston Yard

June’s guest poet at Hours will be Ross Cogan, the Creative Director of Cheltenham Poetry Festival, whose third collection, Bragr, is published by Seren. Don’t forget to bring a poem of your own or someone else’s to share. Entry fee is £3.

 

‘Memory is my editor’

The question and answer session following the recent reading by Alice Oswald at the Bristol Poetry Institute, during which she read from memory for the best part of an hour, provided inspiration for a recent Friday morning poetry group homework assignment.

When asked how much the poem is shaped by the effort of memorising it, Oswald answered that her memory is her editor, adding that if she finds she can’t memorise a section, she abandons it.

Colin’s challenge, therefore, was this:

Write a poem and memorise it as you go. As you go through the process of memorising your poem, listen to yourselves speaking the poem and assess how it feels. If the rhythm feels wrong, change it; if there’s a word or phrase or verse that doesn’t feel quite right, change it. If there’s a part of the poem you’re having trouble memorising, cut that part and write something you can memorise. 

When you bring your poem to the group, make copies for everyone as usual … but you’re going to be speaking the poem by heart, without benefit or distraction of a written copy. If you do forget a word or a line on the day, be prepared to improvise a line – don’t panic, get hung up, stop or give up. Don’t be nervous or intimidated; it’s only a workshop with supportive friends. 

It’s the process itself that’s important. It’s something to try.

Your poem must be at least 12 lines long.

Initially, I felt this assignment was going to be easy. Although I’ve never had the self-assurance to stand up and speak my poems from memory, I read them aloud so often in their almost-finished state that I do effectively learn them by heart, and I felt sure I could handle the assignment. The reality, however, was different. What I hadn’t taken into account was that I would be memorising from a far earlier point in the poem’s creation, and because it was still in a state of flux, I was effectively commiting consecutive drafts to memory. Again and again, I would fall back on something I’d changed at a much earlier stage and change it back, or stumble over the perfect combination of words I’d finally settled on, only to discover that according to my new editor, they weren’t that successful after all. But what I was left with was defnitely different from what would have been the finished poem, had I started reading it aloud at a later stage.

The other drawback I discovered is that the memory – or rather, the sneaky, hooded-and-cloaked brain behind it – tends to be an unreliable editor. Several times mine would substitute what I’d written for something rather more predictable and dull. Cliché really does trip more readily to the tongue.

On the day, before the scrutiny of my suddenly-rather-more-scary-than-usual peers, I managed to dredge up my poem with only one minor stumble, which was pleasing, but I don’t think I’ll be in a hurry to do it again, and I certainly won’t be rising to the challenge of doing a public reading from memory. Alice Oswald is a consummate poet and performer, with a background in drama, and she has acquired specific skills over years to pull off her prodigious feats. I find that remembering to assume my poetry reading persona (which is slightly different from the poetry-writing me), and to drop my voice a little, and engage with the audience, and make it sound as if I’m talking with them rather than reading at them, is quite enough to hold in my head at once, so I’ll definitely still be turning up at readings, clutching my file of poems to my ever so slightly nervously beating heart.

acoustic night