On Tuesday night, coming home from my gig in Hackney, I had an idea.

Well, ‘idea’ is too grandiose – more accurately, I felt irritated about something. On Wednesday morning, I splurged the idea in a poem. By the afternoon, I was getting feedback online. I tried the poem out in my set in Cambridge that evening. It gave me a chance to hear which lines connected, where the rhythm fell flat. By Thursday evening, when I gigged in Norwich, the poem was part of my set.

I’ve spent the last year and a bit working on a novel. I think and hope it’s going to be really good. Writing prose has all sorts of satisfactions, and I feel like the experience of researching and constructing the book has changed me – I’ve developed an appreciation for wildlife and the countryside that I never had before. I have some basic firearms knowledge. My scene blocking is a little less wretched.

But writing prose is hard, you guys. I’m currently working on what purports to be the final draft of my manuscript before I start showing it to agents. I’ve done my best, and my beta readers’ feedback has been positive, but for the most part writing a novel feels like sculpting clay in a pitch black room while wearing iron gauntlets. I have no idea what people will see when the lights ping on. I’m a little terrified.

I never wanted to be a poet. I always thought I would be a novelist. It’s what I worked towards. It’s part of how I defined myself.

Yet here I am. Poeting. And one of the main reasons I do it is because of that wonderful immediacy, the tightness of the loop between idea and art and engagement. I don’t agonise for months over whether a poem is funny or not. I get on stage that night and I find out. If I want to know whether a piece works, I run it up the flagpole and see who salutes. I listen for the moments where attention lags, and I cut those bits.

What I do is a dialogue with my audience. If they don’t like a poem, it doesn’t matter how intricate a framework of intellectual justifications I can construct – something, either in the concept, or in the way I’m communicating it, isn’t working. Back to the drawing board. On the other hand, I need to remember not to dismiss a poem before trying it out with a crowd. Sometimes, a poem I think is a little too on-the-nose turns out to be just forthright enough. Sometimes a piece I think is cheekily oblique is utter bollocks. I’m not always a good judge of my own work.

I’ve had a wicked run of gigs over the last month. Audiences have been lovely – up for it, generous, engaged. It’s been such a pleasure, and a reminder of why I’m so incredibly lucky to get to do all this for a living. Sure, writing stories is important to me, but I’m happy and proud to call myself a performance poet, and to be part of such a thrilling, diverse community.

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1 thought on “Tim Clare’s Cone O’ Tragedy: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Performance Poetry”

  1. Thanks for this Tim, it really hits the nail on the head as far as I’m concerned. I’ve spent several extremely frustrating years trying to get a novel published, and have constantly come up against tedious, soul-grinding market-related obstacles that have little to do with the actual quality of the novel, and it has made writing subsequent new novels much more difficult – much of the simple joy of writing can be lost when it gets tangled up with other, ultimately less important concerns. And I’ve found the immediacy of performance poetry, which I’ve only really started exploring over the last year and a half, has restored a lot of my confidence and sense of fun, and the satisfaction and pleasure of playing with words. No sales guys, no bullshit, no “it’s nice but it doesn’t quite fit the 17-and-three-quarter-to-29-and-a-half-year-old-KFC-on-a-Friday-eating-used-to-like-Scrubs demographic we’re aiming for”. Just the poet and their words and the audience.

    And on top of all that, the world of performance poetry has been so much richer, more diverse and more exciting than I could ever have imagined, and it’s a privilege to feel part of it.

    Now to get back to re-drafting.

    p.s. if this looks like a duplicate it’s because first time I typed the wrong letters. Seriously. Yeah, I know.

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