One of the highlights of reading for a living is choosing which poems and stories to bring to my weekly, read aloud, shared reading groups. Whenever and whatever I’m reading at home (or on the move) my weekly groups are in my mind: will they find this story/novel extract/poem interesting? Will it get them talking? Will they find it funny? Too upsetting?
Sometimes I go about it the other way around – ‘Harry’ (not his real name) mentioned he used to be a keen cyclist so let me find some cycling poems – perhaps he’d love Derek Mahon’s The Bicycle, for instance; ‘Marjorie’ is fond of her garden so let’s get heady with poems about flowers.
One thing I try not to do is to make assumptions about what people will or won’t appreciate. I wanted to bring ‘Affliction’, a Julia Darling short story (from Bloodlines, Panurge 1995), to a group because it involved a nasty April Fool’s joke (it was April at the time) and because I thought its key themes – holding on to personal ambitions in a relationship that’s turned sour and finding support in surprising places – would provoke lots of discussion in the group. I hesitated because I wondered if members of the group (ranging in age from in their seventies to in their early nineties) would be offended by the pre-marital, rampant sex mentioned in the story but I decided to try anyway, telling the group that we could stop reading if anyone felt upset. I needn’t have worried. ‘Elspeth’ (aged 84) laughed out loud at some of Darling’s descriptions (“…a tent of a woman with a face like an eiderdown…“) and asked if the library could reserve her a copy of Bloodlines once we’d finished reading. I realised that I’d been foolish to think that because a person is elderly they would be prudish or offended by ‘untraditional’ lifestyles. In fact, I’ve found just the opposite to be case and I’m frequently humbled by my group members’ open-mindedness and non-judgemental outlook.
Of course, it is important to consider what might and might not work in a shared reading but sometimes a seemingly innocuous piece can cause upset (one group went off into a discussion about paedophilia after reading about Mr Laurence in Little Women) and something that some might consider totally inappropriate can really engage people and bring them alive in the session. I was concerned that Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen would offend people because of its graphic nature but instead the group discussed how the poem gave a truer picture of what actually happens in war and how relevant it was, even today. Many group members talked about their own parents’ and relations’ experiences of WW1 and how an entire family had been affected by absences and trauma.
People do sometimes become upset talking about their personal experiences and I worry that I’ve mis-chosen a story/poem but there is usually someone else in the group who has also experienced something similar and talking all together and giving each other sympathy seems to move us all on. Also, reading, talking, discussing and reading again somehow puts the sadness aside for that moment, as if the sadness is closed inside the pages of the book and we say our goodbyes until next week.
There is something soothing about being able to talk about unhappiness in a kind, supportive, safe and understanding environment. When we read Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, one woman said, re-reading the line near the end of the poem “And we are here on as a darkling plain”, -“Yes, I feel like that. I know what he’s talking about.”- and it felt important that we were all able to acknowledge these feelings and that this lady was able to talk about how she felt rather than putting on a pretence of forever feeling cheerful.
I chose Edip Cansever’s Table (translated from the Turkish by Julia Clare Tilinghast and Richard Tilinghast from the Bloodaxe anthology Being Human) to read in the same session as Dover Beach and one person said “This poem is full of hope whereas the other is full of despair.” We enjoyed reflecting on what we would put on our own tables and how it felt to be full of “the gladness of living.”
One thing I can say is that I haven’t yet chosen a poem which has left a room silent with nothing to say about it. Once a poem or story is read aloud it brings its own life to a room and opens up everyone else’s. I’m never quite sure how this happens but it always does.