Yesterday, my friend Sherryl and I went to a poetry reading at The Bank restaurant in Yarraville, a few suburbs from where I live. The reading was part of the Yarraville Festival, which I didn't really know much about, but also part of our Rotunda nights -- a series of sessions we've (Professional Writing and Editing at Victoria University) had with well known writers, mostly at the Toniq Bar at our Footscray Park campus. We've had a great turnout both from students and from the general public, and the atmosphere at these nights has been buzzing. (And that's largely thanks to our fabulous organiser Bruno Lettieri, who is just a dynamo on legs!)
So, we're at The Bank, part of a large crowd, which is partly composed of genuine audience members and partly of the lunchtime dinner crowd. I wondered how they felt about the reading: happy to have had some extra entertainment, or pressured to stay silent. Hopefully, the first.
Anyway, all was going well -- we were onto our third reader when he just happened to mention that one of his poems was based on or inspired by one of Rumi's poems. He read the poem, and then two audience members arced up. One started by saying that it was nothing like a Rumi poem. But so what? The poet hadn't said it was his intention to copy Rumi's work or emulate him in any way, just that that had been his leaping-off point, his inspiration.
The poet was pretty good about it. He just smiled and said, "Thank you for your opinion."
But of course that wasn't the end of it. The second one got going, getting more and more vitriolic by the minute, and finishing up with: "That was a load of shit."
Again, the poet thanked her. Fortunately, her partner, perhaps embarrassed at how far the little exchange he'd initiated had gone, shut her up. But it left a sour taste in my mouth. Why do people have to act that way? It can be hard enough for most of us to stand out there on a limb, airing our most private thoughts and being judged, without this happening.
The day before the reading I had bumped into another friend of mine who is shortly to appear on a panel at a library with some other well-known writers. I know he hates public speaking. I told him just to be himself, and that I think a lot of times this nervousness arises out of our feeling that we have to be someone -- someone impressive -- rather than just ourselves. Why do we do this to ourselves? That kind of pressure is crippling.
Most people want to see us do well. They don't want to hear us stutter and fail; they want us to succeed. One of the poets yesterday made a few little slips and kept apologising, something I'm aware I do when I read. I know that I'm better off to just move on -- it disrupts the flow of the poem far less -- but apologising is instinctive. I do it without even thinking. So the trick for me is to keep my brain engaged (or at least hitched to this idea) without freaking myself out. I'm getting better at it -- it's like anything: it needs practice. Practice and dignity -- and that's what yesterday's reader had: plenty of dignity. Good for him!