For one reason or another, something has arisen on the last Saturday of the month – every month – for well over a year. And that’s a real shame, because Spoken Word is on at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal on those last Saturdays, and I’ve therefore missed well over a dozen of my local literature night. Yesterday, however – at last – I was able to make it across town to the Brew, and I read at the open mic.
This won’t mean anything to anyone but me, but Spoken Word was also the place of my first ever live reading, more than three years ago. That’s why this post is called Take Two. It was curiously satisfying to take to the stage again and remember how I was shredded with nerves back then. And another first for me, this time round – I’ve never read without Monica in the audience. I missed her. It’s much easier to perform knowing at least one person out there is absolutely rooting for you.
I was first to sign up to the open mic, so I was first onstage after excellent compere Ann the Poet had introduced the night and read a couple of her poems. I always enjoy Ann’s work – it’s witty, it’s wise, it has energy, and her poems tell stories about people. For me, that’s what all this is about. She’s also a very funny host. She looks like this:
It was weird being the first reader onstage. There hadn’t been a chance to gauge the audience, and so I didn’t know entirely how to pitch my work. With a five-minute slot to play with, I read The Lion Tamer’s Daughter and Circle Stone. I didn’t exactly pick up where I left my last reading in terms of confidence, but I tried to invest a little more faith in my stories. They seemed to go down quite well, and Circle Stone found a bigger laugh than at Spotlight.
The other open mic readers were brilliant – I especially enjoyed poet Kate Davies. She had polio as a child, and her second piece was a stunning juxtaposition of that experience with a car maintenance manual; the more of an automaton she made the child, the more human she became. It was mesmerising.
After the break, Luke Brown read two of his short stories. He’s a young writer of great reputation round Cumbria, so I was really excited to see him live – and he didn’t disappoint. His work was engrossing, and both his stories had killer, killer pay-offs. I really hope I can see him again. I haven’t found a website for him yet, but if I do, I’ll update the blog.
Second headliner Louise Mary Martin topped out the bill. I’ve come across her work before – she’s the singer in South Lakes reggae group Righteous Bees, and my brother-in-law Ben Metsers has used her vocals in some of his work. Last night she played four songs – two bluesy Americana/alt.country covers, played with guitar, and two extraordinary songs in which she used live loops of her vocals in dense layers, beautifully timed to create a stunning collage of sound. I’ve seen it before from Adam Stafford:
…but it was quite something else to watch live. The focus and the timing required is amazing. Just astonishing stuff.
It was a great night, with one slight downer. During the interlude, while I was chatting with Kate Davies, a man I didn’t know joined us. He was perfectly friendly, but our conversation left me feeling strange. He told me that the trouble with my story was the moment he knew it was about lion tamers (i.e., from the title), he thought of a news article from the 1960s about a lion tamer who was attacked by his own lion – and he thought of that instead of my piece. Which I guess is fine, but I don’t know how any writer can future-proof their work against audience association. Indeed, writers need audiences to bring their own associations with them; it’s a reader’s empathy that brings a story to life. Anything less would be exposition. The man also thought I was self-conscious during my reading. Maybe I was, a little, but I was a goddamn powerhouse compared to a year ago. That was a bit of a funny one to leave me with.
I wanted to talk to Luke Brown afterwards and congratulate him on such a great show, but he was swamped with other people wishing him well, and I had to go. I walked home through Kendal listening to a playlist I’m making for Monica. As I headed out of town, taking the back road to Burneside, the last streetlight made a giant of my shadow, casting it far up the road into the night. The further I went, the dimmer the streetlamp, until my shadow and I were absorbed entirely by the darkness. It was a clear night, but there was no moon. My eyes adjusted to the gloom and I walked a mile or so lit only by stars, pinpricks of light lifting the path half a shade above the vegetation.
I thought a lot about my reading, and about what the man said. By the time I reached my house, my mind was clear. Different opinions are how we know ourselves as individuals, and I’m sure I’ll hear much worse when The Visitors hits the shelves. I can’t do anything about an audience’s associations, and nor would I want to. And if I seemed self-conscious, then that’s partly because I am, and it’s something I need to keep working on. I do want to improve my performance even further, to be bolder, to be more technically confident in how I speak into a microphone, to relax into my stories, to try different voices. And I’ve another date in the diary to aim towards, now: Ann has asked me back to read as one of the guest slots for February’s Spoken Word. I feel deeply honoured to have that as something to work towards. I’ll go back to the open mic whenever I can, too, and I’ll keep trying new stories. Because I have to.