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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