A brief history of how I feel about reading my own poetry

My background is in theatre. I came to the UK as a teenager because of theatre, and while I eventually chose to pursue poetry over theatre, it is part of my make-up. I’ve been on a stage since I was 2. If someone needs to do a reading at a wedding or funeral, I am always game. I’m a clear introvert, but reading text in front of a crowd doesn’t faze me, I even love it a lot of the time. This is why it is easy to assume that reading my poetry must have been straightforward, simple, easy. Oh no.

I first read my poems whilst I was an undergraduate and, to put it bluntly, it was a bit of a disaster. I read super fast, giggled, curtseyed, and didn’t project. A friend told me off afterwards, asking me what was the point of reading my poem if I was going to make it impossible for people to listen to.

A friend told me off afterwards, asking me what was the point of reading my poem if I was going to make it impossible for people to listen to. Click To Tweet

And the thing is, I don’t think I wanted people to hear them – I wasn’t really ready. I’d hidden that I was a poet for a few years and had only been brave enough that year to sign up for a module called Practice of Poetry. While this gave me a boost of confidence, thanks to the support of my tutors and peers, I knew deep down that I was a fraud, whose thoughts weren’t worth sharing with anyone.

Things changed when I moved to Paris a few years later. I became a regular at Spoken Word in Paris, an anglophone spoken word night that was then based at Culture Rapide in Belleville. The rules there were simple: 5 minutes to share whatever you want, and then you must get off the stage or face the wrath of a bell being shaken. The audience was made up of regulars and people passing through Paris from all over the world. It was always jam-packed so that even in the winter we would all be listening sweatily to whoever was on that tiny stage.

5 minutes every week is a great way to get over yourself.

I didn’t magically transform into a confident reader of my poetry, but those Monday nights certainly improved me. Slowing down, breathing, giving yourself permission to be on the stage: these are not easy things to do. I didn’t excel at them, but it was definite progress, and I was happy to be seen as a ‘page’ poet who can read her stuff ok.

The next few years involved many readings – from spoken word nights to more formal events. Or, as I like to categorize them: readings where you clap after every poem, and readings where you only clap at the end of the set. There was also a one-woman show in there, The Shipwrecked House, which gave me the opportunity to revive my theatre background.

It was a fantastic experience, but it kind of ruined me for poetry readings. How do you go back to holding a book, when you’ve known what it’s like to yell your poetry as you hoist a sail? I felt a traitor to read. I felt that anyone who had heard of the show would be disappointed to see me read so untheatrically.

How do you go back to holding a book, when you’ve known what it’s like to yell your poetry as you hoist a sail? Click To Tweet

And so, in parallel with my disappointment, I found that my writing became harder to read. I love and am proud of Astéronymes, but there’s only a handful of performable poems in it. I was no longer attending spoken word nights, I was no longer writing with an audience in mind.

Outwardly I still seemed confident when giving readings, but I found myself missing the laughter and trying too hard in my introductions to gather them. As my material became more obviously dark, I decided to apologize for it; to compensate for the discomfort I was creating. I was fretting about this at a reading in Bournemouth, when a fellow poet, the very talented Birdspeed, told me to just speak my truth. I do not know if I succeeded in doing that that night, but I have let it gnaw at my brain ever since – and remembered the huge number of poets I admire who share traumatising work. Why wasn’t I allowing myself to?

And so we come to my latest pamphlet Brain Fugue. When I knew the date of my launch I thought I’d try to organise a few readings around it, and so tweeted about it asking if anyone fancied hosting me. I was overwhelmed by the offers and quickly put together an intense week’s worth of readings.

I’m over half-way through the tour, and it’s been a personal revelation for me. I’m still finding my way, my balance, but I have found that allowing myself to be vulnerable on stage as me, not a character, is incredibly empowering. It goes against every one of my instincts. I still have to suppress the urge to people please, to apologise, to joke. Yet, it turns out that when you unpeal yourself, so do other people.

I still have to suppress the urge to people please, to apologise, to joke. Yet, it turns out that when you unpeal yourself, so do other people. Click To Tweet

Last tour dates:

26 April , 7pm, Glasgow: Express Yourself at Tell it Slant Bookshop. Free. Details here.

27 April, 6.30pm Edinburgh: Lighthouse Bookshop. Book tickets here.

29 April, 7.30pm, Manchester: Stirred Poetry, Three Minute Theatre. Book here.

30 April, 7.30pm, London: London Review Bookshop with Luke Kennard, Jenna Clake and Hannah Swingler. Book tickets here.

Cover photo by Ingmar Kamalagharan, taken at That’s What She Said in London.

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Claire Trevien

B2B Content Marketer
Freelance B2B Content Marketer and Multimedia Poet. If you want me to geek out, ask me about digital tools and writing prompts!

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