Greenbelt Festival, Friday 23rd August
Outside, it is a very warm 28º. Inside our tented venue the canvass and stage lights have heated it nearer to 32º. The top of my head feels as though it is melting. I had plans to read in my tidy jeans and one of my special flowery shirts. But, no. I stand exposed in shorts and T-shirt, a million sweaty miles away from the ‘literary’ persona I have persuaded myself to try and project.
Most of the people in the audience are known to me, either by name or by sight, and I suddenly realise that this has made me extremely nervous. And thirsty. I still do not know these poems. That is to say, I know them inside out, but I do not know how they sound in front of anyone but me. That line of Zadie Smith, about discovering the best time to edit your book being in the green room at the Hay Festival. Hay, this isn’t. But my being-known-ness to my audience has made me afraid. Some of my oldest and best friends are here. People who have supported me. People who even bought my first book. I realise I have no idea what I am doing. Not only my shorts are making me feel exposed. Some of them are going to congratulate me afterwards with words that I will carry with me forever. I want the moment to pass. To go straight to the next thing. The thing after reading out loud, the
Riptide launch reading, 8th November, and ExeLit reading with John Wedgwood Clarke, 10th November, Exeter
On the plus side, there are some very old friends here as well. People I see once a century. People who know what I am about and who show up anyway. (A wise man once said to me ‘Buy each other’s art’. I am not always consistent in returning the favour.) It’s a Friday in the slot that comes after work and before eating. There is wine, chatter, music. Sally Flint and Ginny Bailey, our editors, host graciously and generously. Poets I already adore read their work, and poets who are new to me knock my socks off. Is there more you could want?
Invited to read first, I realise I am going to have to walk into the space of grief that I have created in poems about my mother. I would rather not do it. Once again, I realise I am afraid. Life is not a stroll across a field, Pasternak said.
Between this and the next reading in the same venue two days later, life will intervene in unimaginable ways, to people I love and care about. John and I toss a coin, the outcome of which means I will read second. Friends are here again, some new, some old. I love listening to John’s slow, lyric gift unfold around me. But I am also in shock. I read as though standing on the other side of a glass partition, hearing nothing and seeing everything. Towards the end of my set list I find myself deciding to read more about my mother than I had planned. I surge into the grief, my body reeling, stock still, in the tremor.
31st October, Uncut Poets, Exeter, and 7th December, Trowbridge Stanza
These readings, it occurs to me, are like church. Everyone knows each other. There is ritual. An order of service. And you come away changed.
In Exeter I am (yet again) struck by the generosity and acute listening of Alasdair Paterson, the way he gives everyone (even me) a mention, feedback we might call it, from detailed notes made during each reading. There is the bonus, completely unexpected, of hearing one of my favourite poets, Rose Cook, read her work. I didn’t even know she had a new book out. Church can be good.
In Trowbridge I don’t read to, I read with. We are a mere handful. I have the privilege of reading with Dawn Gorman. This is a conversation, not a recital. We sit in a close circle, almost at touching distance.
Arriving at the venue early, I have a good catch up with Josephine Corcoran, our host. A bit of gossip, nothing much. Mostly it’s who we’re reading, what we’re up to, what might be next. She reminds me she found my blog because she was googling Michael Laskey.
Later we do the same with the Stanza group. We get on to notebooks, pens, the whole thing. We are poets, and poetry is our church.
Somewhere on the drive home I come back to myself. The usual worries plague me. Should have I said less about […] and more about […]? Did I go on too long? Why didn’t I read more about […]? And then suddenly
it all goes. The chatter, the catching up, the whole social framework.
It’s just me and the radio and the dark road.
I am going to have to learn to love this all over again if there is going to be anything like Book No 6.
I catch myself hoping that somewhere between August and December I have stood in service of the silence.