Circling the centre – the poetry reading as writing work

I bumped into a lovely poet-friend at a book launch a couple of months ago and he said something that set me back on my heels – I can’t remember his exact words now but the gist of his comment was that he hadn’t seen me recently which he took to mean I wasn’t doing any readings and was instead keeping my head down and just getting on with the real work of writing poetry.

Insert caveat -the following paragraphs are the direct result of my tendency to rabid over-analysis. This poor man (for whom I have much love and respect) made an off-hand comment, probably thinking he’d found an original way to say “Hey, haven’t seen you around” and now finds his words being examined like bacteria in a Petri dish.

My over-reaction to his comment stemmed from what I took as his assumption about my active choice and control over public performance.  I’ll be the first to admit that open mic performances are not my bag. I can’t emphasise this enough. If I attend a gig with an open mic section I’ll generally avoid the sign-up sheet like I’d be signing my sister’s death warrant. I don’t enjoy the performance aspect of the writing life / poetry at all. Many do, and that’s another reason why I don’t do the open mic thing – there are more than enough poets eager to read their work without me prolonging the night with my painfully reluctant performance.

With voluntary open mic appearances removed from the equation, poets have limited control over the frequency of their performances. They have to be asked, and in cities like Adelaide the invitations to read aren’t exactly thick on the ground. Writers can certainly refuse an offer but then they run the risk of complete obscurity and resultant lack of book sales. People very rarely contact me out of the blue asking to buy my work but they do buy books after performances. If you refuse an offer to perform you may not be asked again. Black marks against your name can be indelible. I once read at a festival where I was approached by an audience member who accused me of failing to turn up to a gig  several years ago –  WTF?! After picking my jaw off the ground it turned out that back in 2012 I’d been invited to perform at a gig and had to decline because I’d won an award with part of the prize being a three-week residency at Varuna in the Blue Mountains. The dates of the residency clashed with the performance so I’d had to pull out (with months of notice given). The slight of choosing a residency over a poetry gig is clearly not easily forgotten or forgiven.

So 2017 gathered its momentum and rolled on without a reading on the horizon. I hadn’t had a gig since July 2016 but wasn’t complaining. Two excellent regular reading events in Adelaide (the Lee Marvin and Halifax readings) are in temporary abeyance so everyone is having a bit of a dry spell.

Then two invitations sailed my way. The first was from Festival Fleurieu. I was asked to read as part of a series of poetry performances in beautiful privately-owned gardens on the Fleurieu Peninsula, a coastal region that lies an hour south of Adelaide.  The other poets were big names – Mike Ladd, Kate Llewellyn and Kate Alder – so I jumped at the chance before reading the fine print, such as I’d have to perform for an hour. An hour!

Holy. Fuck.

Cut to the credits – I did it. There were about forty people in the audience, I only knew eight of them and no-one walked out, so I definitely count that as a raging success. Sheesh. An hour! The Festival Fleurieu people were absolutely brilliant and their whole festival shebang includes two weeks of art exhibitions, literature readings, history and environment trails, music and all kinds of performances in one of the most beautiful coastal areas of South Australia. It’s fantastic.

Then the following night I had another reading up in the Barossa Valley. For those who aren’t familiar with South Australian geography the Fleurieu Peninsula is south of Adelaide and the Barossa Valley is north – so these two readings were separated by 24 hours and 150 kms (or two hours in the car).

The Poets and Platters gig is hosted by the famous Langmeil Winery in Tanunda every second year as part of the region’s Harvest Festival.  It’s an amazing event and the tickets sell out within hours.  This was the first time I’d been invited and I was absolutely floored by the venue – the reading is staged in Langmeil’s enormous wine storage facility so all the tables are surrounded by floor to ceiling racks holding hundreds of wine barrels.

Local poet and all-round lovely person Jude Aquilina wrangled the readers so Andrew and I spent the evening in the excellent company of Jude, Louise Nicholas, Nigel Ford, Carol Whitelock and Stuart Bourne. After the previous day’s hour-long poetry extravaganza I decided to read a short story instead of more poetry and fortunately no rioting ensued.

It was an incredible evening. Gorgeous food, wine and an appreciative audience of 250 people. All I can say about those two readings is that they prove that the audience for poetry and performed literature is diverse and definitely not confined to the CBD.

Heartfelt thanks to the organisers of the Festival Fleurieu, Langmeil Winery and the Barossa Harvest Festival – you were all brilliant, supportive and restored my faith in people’s love of literature.  It was both a pleasure and an honour to be involved.

Now back to the “real work” of putting my head down and writing.

P.S.      Here’s the financial punchline – the remuneration I received for these two performances was equivalent to my payment for other major freelance writing assignments – writing an in-depth review of a poetry collection for a literary journal or the academic assessment of a Master’s thesis.  The opportunities to perform may not be frequent but when they come around it pays not to turn your back.

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