Tuesday, 10 September 2013

I don’t enjoy poetry readings

That sounds like an arrogant generalisation, and it’s true there have been exceptions (though the only one that comes immediately to mind is Brodsky reading in Russian – no, reciting – at the ICA some decades back, when Nicky Singer – author, incidentally, of a woefully underselling CBe book – was running the events programme there), but on the whole it holds good. I become impatient with even the short readings that are often a feature of book launches: they’re the necessary bit of suffering I must endure in order to enjoy all the more the drink and the chat. To look, listen and get a fix on the words, all at the same time, I find impossible. I much prefer the printed page, where the roles are clear: the writer writes and I read, at my own pace.

Given that perfomance poetry and public readings of page poetry are far more prominent features of the poetry scene than they used to be, and that it’s generally accepted that for a poetry book to sell the poet needs to do readings, then as a publisher my lack of interest in readings would seem to be a disadvantage. Availability for readings hasn’t, I now notice, been a factor in choosing who to publish. Of the twelve poets published by CBe, three are both dead and foreign; three are based in the US; one is aged 92; one will read in public if pressed but is hardly keen; one not only refuses all invitations to read but won’t even be photographed.* That leaves Alba Arikha, who may or not read at the party for her book at Daunts in Holland Park next Tuesday, the 17th; Nancy Gaffield, who will be reading in Canterbury next Saturday; and J. O. Morgan.

Morgan reads well, I’m told by those who’ve heard him. But not often: the only readings I know of were at the West Port festival in Edinburgh, in Bridlington, and at Aldeburgh (his Natural Mechanical won the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize). (I actually set off to hear him read at Aldeburgh myself, but got distracted by a Bonfire Night party en route.) CBe is about to publish Morgan’s new book, At Maldon, a version/account/reinterpretation of the surviving fragment of the Anglo-Saxon poem known as ‘The Battle of Maldon’. There’ll be an event for the book at the Looking Glass bookshop in Edinburgh on 8 October, and for that occasion he’s planning to put on, with an actor, ‘a shared reading, or voiced performance, or staged split-narration, or whatever it is; that idea came out during composition, due to how the narrative lines would often seem to vie with each other’. I’m intrigued; I’ll be going up to Edinburgh myself for this.

Kevin Crossley-Holland, offering a generous recommendation for At Maldon, referred to Christopher Logue. I know Morgan admires Logue’s renderings (in War Music and other books) of Homer, and it’s possible that At Maldon wouldn’t have been written as it is without Logue having written as he did, but Morgan is entirely his own man: the book is very far from being sub-Logue. And now of course I remember one more poetry reading that I did enjoy: Logue reading from Kings with the actor Alan Howard.

Logue and Howard performed War Music and Kings around fifty times. The spell of their ‘readings’ was cast not just by the words but by contrast of their voices and temperaments. This morning I found a fine piece on the net in which they talk about each other. Howard on Logue: ‘Christopher really hates moving; he’s happy sitting behind the table. But he can never understand why I should be nervous. I say, all actors are nervous. He's very good if I lose the lines, which sometimes I’ve been known to do – I knit away in the same rhythm until I get back on line again. Christopher follows the text in his book. But sometimes he gets so caught up in it that he loses his way and forgets what page he’s on. I notice sometimes he has to knit as well, even though it's his own text … He has this amazing ebulliance and is quite loud – which I like because it can free me up a bit. His enthusiasm is very catching, but he can get terribly down as well. He has a mercurial temperament: he goes wild very quickly if he decides something is wrong and can be extremely rebarbative. But he’s also got that rare quality of being able to be extremely rude, coruscatingly rude, without an ounce of malice. I find it funny. And if he’s proven wrong, he’ll always write letters of apology to everybody.’ Logue on Howard: ‘Mild disagreements have occurred all the time – if they didn't there would be something wrong. I always want the untheatrical thing, the news-reporter-weather-forecaster voice; Alan’s tendency is to give it the rhetorical Shakespearian voice. He gets rather nervous about putting over another point of view. He starts to pace around, lighting cigarettes. Or else he’ll insist upon something completely irrelevant, like a certain kind of coat he must have on.’ I think I might have enjoyed the rehearsals even more than the actual performance.

* This Bartleby-ishness has been, I think, a bar to sales. Reviews: a few paragraphs in a group review in Poetry London, and an online review promised in the Boston Review (US). One short poem (odd choice) among the ‘Highly Commended Poems’ in the about-to-be-published Forward Book of Poetry 2014. But I’m still deeply pleased to have published Andrew Elliott’s Mortality Rate, and I’ll defend to the limits of CBe’s overdraft the poet’s right to remain invisible.


Adele Ward said...

This is such an interesting post for me, as I suffered for many years with such bad stage fright that I couldn't perform and consequently didn't try to get published or submit to competitions as I knew a reading would be necessary in order to help the publisher or to go to any prize awards.

I'm over the stage fright now but I'm sure people forget that I'm an author because I don't give readings, even though I organise a lot of events.

I do enjoy poetry readings, but not all, and I'm glad they're not as angsty as they used to be. I'm interested to hear you think there are more readings now - I suppose I also feel there are far more poetry events and it's much easier to get involved now, which is good.

Is there an alternative to giving poetry readings, apart from total invisibility? The sociable nature of the poetry world is one of it's advantages, I'd say.

charles said...

I'll qualify the baldness of 'not enjoy'. There are more good-readers-in-public now than there used to be. I've learned things from readings (I only really 'got' Paul Muldoon after I first heard him read; in contrast, I liked Peter Redgove’s poetry less after hearing him read than before). There are some poets' speaking voices I wouldn't be without. But for the kind of poetry I go for, I don’t assume that the poets have any skill at or appetite for reading in public. If they do have these things, they're an add-on, a bonus; they're not requirements.

Susannah Herbert said...

Alice Oswald is a mesmerising reader. She doesn't read, though. She speaks from memory. The technical term for this is "recites", but it's a word with unfortunate connotations. (Feet in first position, aarf-a-leeg, aarf-a-leeg, aarf-a-leeg)

Patricia said...

At its heart poetry is an oral art.
The word for poem and song is the same in several languages. I count reading poetry out loud with members of my family among my happiest memories. My father's love of poetry was engendered by a wonderful sixth grade teacher who taught choral reading to all of her students, circa 1935. That said, oral recitations miss the poem's form on the page, line breaks, and the whole genre of concrete poetry, and of course there is the issue of poets who mumble and stumble through their work. However, if I hear a poem that touches me, I always want to see it on the page. I guess that's why readings are good marketing tools for publishers.

Anonymous said...

It's the dreary, unmusical, portentous drone which poets often adopt for their readings which puts me off. They talk nicely and normally at first about the poem, and then put on a deep Serious voice for the actual reading.

I think it's different hearing actors read, though. And I quite like the Tom O'Bedlam readings on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/user/SpokenVerse?feature=watch.

It's not all bad, though. The poetry archive has some interesting voices (Jacob Polley, for one - though he does the Drone too).