I’m reading some of my work at the Winchester Poetry Festival later this week and I am terrified. My work in marketing means I have plenty of practice in public speaking and it never really phases me. However, the idea of standing in front of a discerning poetry audience - on stage with what I consider to be the real grown-ups - I am scared I’ll get laughed at, found out or perhaps struck with a case of situational Tourettes Syndrome. Intellectually, I know they are unfounded fears but in my heart, there remains a nagging terror that I can’t quite excise.
The circumstance reminds me of the time I read a poem at the wedding of one of my best friends. Although the work wasn’t mine, I felt such pressure to get it right. I was confident in the poem I’d chosen but still, to stand in front of the congregation immediately after the fateful pronouncement of “husband and wife” seemed like a monumental task. I practised until I could recite the work without the words in front of me (I practised so much, in fact, that ten years later I still can) and until I knew how the poem worked. Reading my own work, then, I should be at an advantage – I already know all the workings, how it moves and breathes across the page.
In the end, the reading at the wedding went very well and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. That is mostly down to the situation – I can’t imagine there has ever been a heckler during a reading at a wedding – but it is also because words have their own power and magic when spoken out loud. As a child, I was lucky enough to be read to by parents who also loved language and reading. No one could deliver a zany Roger McGough poem quite like my Dad, and no one ever will. He trusted in the writing, leaning into the humour of the situation and expressing the music in the language. My Dad died two years ago and it forms a little crack in my heart when I think of how he can’t be in Winchester to support me. In some way, he is the person I’m reading for at this festival; I want to honour all those bedtime stories delivered so impeccably. I want it to be perfectly clear that I did listen and it made all the difference in the world to me.
What does this mean for the reading at Winchester Poetry Festival? I can put a big tick next to column labelled practice, and although the situation is not as personal as a wedding or a child’s bedtime story, I’ll be reading in a creative, positive atmosphere so that’s another tick. Have I reasoned myself out of my fear?
Not quite - there is a third element and I think that might be the one where my fear resides. What the wedding reading and my Dad’s bedtime stories have in common are that they were carried out in love. At the wedding, I put my heart into what I was saying and when he read to me at night, Dad would make up the voices and accentuate the rhythms of the writing that would seem daft to the outside world but showed how much he, too, cared about the bedtime story. I know that at every good reading, the speaker lets the love pour out of them and that’s a vulnerable position to be in. Do I dare to stand on a stage and let all the love pour out of my mouth? Do I dare risk looking like a fool to share what’s truly in my heart and in my mind?
I am my father’s daughter – I have to.