On the weekend I did what I could honestly count as the hardest poetry gig of my life. Don’t worry, no lasting physical or emotional damage was sustained. No-one threw anything. I didn’t have to generate any on the fly slap-downs for hecklers. But reading poetry at a music festival, even an easy-going, feel-good event like the Gorgeous Festival, didn’t turn out quite the way I expected. On the surface, the deal sounded great – get up between music sets and read the crowd some poetry. What I had completely failed to consider was that this was a music festival, not a literary one. It sort of follows that the crowd would be more into music than poetry.
So Andrew and I arrive, decked out with our full festival kit of blankets, hats and sunscreen. You know the drill. We’d actually been to the Gorgeous Festival the year before with a group of friends and had a brilliant weekend, which included staying in a beach house that felt like it had just sprung out of a copy of Vogue Living. So I had high hopes that this would be a wonderful day, marred only by my regular level of performance anxiety. Huh. I love hindsight in a weird, masochistic sort of way. Sometimes I can’t believe how truly deluded I can be.
We met up with Ian Gibbins, a brilliant poet I know quite well from around the local poetry traps and Paul Turley, a poet I’d not met before but who was the brain child behind the idea of including poetry at the Gorgeous Festival. Before I knew it the break between the first and second act was upon us. Ian read his set. It went down brilliantly. I breathed a little easier.
It was an unexpectedly hot day. 36°C. The readings were held in front of the second stage, which was in a huge marquee, so lots of punters were coming in between main stage acts to escape the sun. There was a much bigger crowd than I’d expected. I did my first set. People commented on it kindly. But despite clutching my entire repertoire in my now quite sweaty hands I had that uneasy feeling that I’d already used up all of my appropriate-for-this-crowd material. Not a good feeling when there were still three more sets to go.
I’m used to lit gigs where even if the audience are there for short stories or readings of essays, they are willing to sit and listen politely until the poems stop. As it turns out, music festival crowds have different priorities, such as getting into the drinks queue as quickly as possible so that they only miss half of the next music set.
Paul did his first poems, which also went down a treat. It’s so lovely to discover a new poet whose material you find really clever and enjoyable living right in your hood! The day rolled on; the marquee steadily gaining more heat escapees. Ian did his second set and it was at this point in the day that the pattern became clear.
The musicians would finish their final song. The poet would step up to the mike. The crowd would stand en masse and make for the beer queue. The first poem would be read to a sea of swiftly retreating backs. By the time the second poem hit the air the tent would be clear but for a scattering of heat exhausted chatterers and a lovely but tiny kernel of avid listeners. Well, it felt tiny but by our last set Ian did a head count and the listeners actually numbered just on 50, which in poetry world constitutes a big crowd.
To be honest, this was a really hard gig, but only for someone with a comfort zone that doesn’t extend far beyond the width of their shoulders. I find regular literary readings tough, so while this gig was challenging, it turned out to be a pretty gentle way of hardening me up a bit as a performer. Writers have the reputation of being overly sensitive to rejection. Well, we have more familiarity with it than most since we deal with rejection so frequently at the hands of publishers and literary judges. But I like to think I’m gradually developing the kind of hide a rhinoceros could wear and not find too uncomfortable. This gig proved it. If I can get up, read and just keep going as if the crowd is not making for the exit at speed, then I think I handle rejection pretty damn well. The Gorgeous Festival definitely made me a better performer and gave me a healthy reality check on the position poetry holds in contemporary culture. If doing this gig was the equivalent of taking Character Building 101 then I just passed the exam.
I also find it strange that reading in front of strangers is so much easier than if you know even a couple of people in the crowd. While taking my turn at the quintessential music festival experience – queuing for alcohol – I bumped into a lovely friend of Andrew’s. It seems it is a rare performance these days where I can’t spot at least one paramedic in the audience. I should put that on my promotional material. If you come to a gig there is high quality emergency medical assistance guaranteed. Anyway, being the lovely guy that he is, Tom came to see my last two sets and even missed seeing Busby Maroo because we were chatting too long about books, writing and e.e. cummings. Just knowing that someone I know from outside poetry-world was listening ratcheted up the nerve factor a couple of clicks. But having the sort of conversation with one of Andrew’s friends and colleagues that I would normally have with one of mine was pretty damn wonderful.
So when it was all over and the performance adrenaline had ebbed, I can honestly say that the day was far more than just a personal growth experience. Great music, food, wine and conversation – the Gorgeous Festival definitely lived up to its name.