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Naked In The Spotlight

Reading your poetry aloud in public

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

The first time I read my poems in public it was 1969 and I was still at school. I’d had three poems published in The Scotsman, having won the ‘best poet’ award in their school magazine awards. The poet Pete Morgan read them after a friend of his stopped him in the street and told him: ‘That’s poetry!’ So he invited me to take part in an afternoon reading in the Traverse Theatre bar, where he and Alan Jackson read regularly and provided a platform for many others to read. I remember that before the reading started, just as the readers were taking their seats on the stage (well, it was more of a slightly raised area of the bar really), a very pretty girl from the audience approached me and asked me if I was Brian Patten. Unfortunately I wasn’t. I was quite terrified at the idea of getting up in front of an audience, and when I did I was literally shaking with nerves, my jelly legs threatening to give way under me at any moment, not to mention my bladder. I felt naked in the spotlight. After the first stammered poem I remember that Pete Morgan actually rose from his seat to pat me on the back, encouraging me to go on. When the ordeal was over I sat down, relief flooding over me but also a tremendous sense of achievement: I had done it and that applause was for me! It was my first heady taste of the magical feeling of communicating my poems directly by reading them aloud to an audience, and the buzz that this gave me was like nothing I had ever experienced.

Thereafter I took part in those afternoon readings at the Traverse regularly. It was a kind of education for me, with Pete Morgan as my mentor. Aside from reading myself, I was learning from others: from Pete first and foremost, whose poems were emphatically staccato in their rhythms, some with the simplicity of songs. He looked at the audience askance as he read, as if shocked by the words he himself was speaking. The poems probed questions of personal identity – he had been in the army and had worked in advertising as a copywriter – and sounded like jingles set to the beat of a punishing afternoon on the drill ground. They dramatized the struggle to get free of imposed restrictions set by others, parents and other figures of authority, but also the insidious influence of one’s peers, and the struggle to come to terms with the self:

I change my colour for my company —
a purple knight sees purple in my cloth
a yellow knight sees yellow
blue knight blue
the blackest knights I raise my visor to.
                (from ‘The Rainbow Knight’s Confession’)

Alan Jackson also made a big impression on me as a performer. He was a Merlinesque character, witty and droll, and his work questioned everything — about society, about Scotland, about religion, about himself. He revelled in being on stage and talking to the audience directly. Some of his earliest poems were pointed, acid comments on deeply rooted Calvinist restrictions in the Scottish psyche:


the old grim man
            with the chin
eats an apple on the bus
he hides it in his pocket between bites
            for fear of the animal
            for fear of the people.

What impressed me most in his work was the sense that Western consciousness was changing radically and that poetry was part of that change, but what gave the work its real charge was that this change was also something deeply personal, and that any examination of Scotland or Scottish religion and morality, say, was also Alan’s way of looking in the mirror. His poems were very witty and they sometimes made audiences roar with laughter, but they were also deadly serious. He showed me that you could make people think and question their own preconceptions at the same time that you made them laugh.

Edwin Morgan also struck me from the first as an extraordinary reader of his work — but the work was uppermost, not the person or any kind of stage persona. The person had, somewhere along the line, become sacrificed to the work — or so it seemed to me then. When you heard him read, it was as if the poem itself was speaking through this unlikely medium in a suit and tie and sideburns.

I heard most of the older Scottish poets read their work aloud before I read them on the page – Tom Leonard, Edwin Morgan, Robert Garioch, Hamish Henderson, Norman MacCaig, Sorley MacLean and Hugh MacDiarmid – and they were all tremendously exciting readers of their work, each with his own individual style of delivery. During the festival, other poets took part in the Traverse readings such as Adrian Henri, Brian Patten, Roger McGough and Pete Brown. It was the beginning of what could be called a reading scene in Edinburgh.

For me, it was more important to read my poems aloud to an audience than to see them published in a magazine. There was something transforming about the act. It transformed me from a shy teenager to someone with a presence, but the poem was also transformed. The sounds of the words together, when uttered aloud, became a living, rhythmic creature, somehow more alive and vibrant than the words on the page.

I think if poetry slams had existed at the time I would have probably taken part in them. They didn’t, but there was an emphasis on performance which led me, for a short time, to push that side of things further and don various costumes for readings, like an actor playing a part on stage. I sometimes appeared as old father time, or a court jester. I remember Norman MacCaig taking me aside after a reading and telling me that it was all very well to make people laugh, but the poems also had to work on the page. Another thing I learnt early on was that the pre-reading nerves are an essential part of it; you need them to get the adrenaline flowing, and you need the adrenaline to make those few words on the page in front of you come alive as a living, aural being.

When I became a student at Edinburgh University, a poetry entrepreneur called John Schofield organized large-scale, three-day poetry events featuring poets from all over Britain and sometimes beyond. These included readings by students and I came into contact with the poets Liz Lochhead, Andrew Greig and Ron Butlin. We were all around the same age and keen on taking part in readings and we became friends. Later, we decided to form a group and called ourselves The Lost Poets. The group had its impetus not in any ideological concurrence between its players, but in a practical need to stage readings in Edinburgh. We staged monthly events at various venues such as the Theatre Workshop, applied for funding to the Scottish Arts Council to pay a more established poet to read with us and provided a platform for writers who were younger or even less established than us.

There was a band led by Jim Hutcheson whose personnel changed from gig to gig, as did its name. We did shows on the Fringe and split the door money, though sometimes the girl we paid to issue the tickets made more money out of it than we did. It was all part of growing up as writers and learning to negotiate an audience while at the same time absorbing the influence of others and developing our own voice as writers. I believe that those readings really helped to shape us in that way. It’s good to see that other poets in Scotland since then have done something similar, such as The Shore Poets and Neu! Reekie!, who stage regular readings in Edinburgh, reading their own work alongside that of invited guest readers.

Over time I learnt that reading one’s work to an audience isn’t just about entertaining. When you’ve done it for a while, you develop antennae which pick up on the audience response, even when they are silent. You can sense when they are really listening and when you might be losing them. When it isn’t working, it’s as if you can feel an invisible bubble forming around you and you are reading into a void, but when it is working there’s nothing quite like it, and there is something tremendously exciting about giving a poem its first airing to a live audience and discovering that, yes, they really do enjoy and understand it and that such direct communication is possible as a poet. That’s the best thing, that buzz you feel when you read something fresh and discover that it actually works.

Brian McCabe grew up in a small mining town near Edinburgh. He studied Philosophy and English Literature at Edinburgh University. He is a lecturer in Creative Writing at Lancaster University. His most recent collection of poetry is Zero (2009).

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