Reading poetry to shoppers and passersby

Months ago, I received an email, out of the blue, from someone called Louise Betts who was organising acts to perform on the outdoor stages at The Bath Festival.  Would the Town Hall Poets like to appear?

When I set up Town Hall Poets (who are also a Poetry Society Stanza) in September 2016, I had it in mind that we would meet regularly to read, write, talk about and perform poetry.  So I was really pleased that Louise had identified us as a group, a collective, available for events like Bath Festival!

But before I said yes, I needed to sound out sister and fellow poets, to make sure we had a sizeable number available to take part.  Several emails and discussions later, I was able to contact Louise again to say “Yes, please! and thanks for asking us!”

Hats off to Louise, and those like her, who reach out to community groups and scout around for suitable performers for festivals like Bath.  The outside stages provide free street entertainment for people who live, visit, work, and shop in Bath, and help to add to the buzz and excitement that comes to town when a big international festival is taking place. But there’s a lot of organising, scheduling, negotiating and persuading taking place behind the scenes!

As the day of our readings approached (we were allocated four slots), I confess to feeling incredibly anxious.  There has been a lot of noise about poetry in the mainstream media recently (well, more than usual) with poets appearing in TV commercials, spoken word artists winning poetry awards and Instagram poets selling lots of books.  Were Bath Festival expecting us to be spoken word artists?  Did they think our poems would be like the ones on the telly?  Would we live up to their expectations?

Emails were pinging in and out of my inbox.  One of the stages we’d been asked to appear on would be in a family area, Louise told me.  A few of us have written poems for children so we thought we might have suitable material.  But what did ‘family area’ really mean?  Would it be pre-schoolers? Eight year olds? Tweenagers? Teenagers? All of the above, all at once?

We met a few times for rehearsals, looking at each other nervously and smiling support and encouragement as we read and talked through the poems we thought we’d bring to read.  We resolved to pack our bags with a big selection of poems that might suit different age groups and tastes.

The day drew even nearer.  I’d wanted to write some new poems – poems for a ‘general’ audience rather than a ‘poetry’ audience – but I’d failed terribly.  I was trying to be something I’m not!  Anyway, what did it matter if there were no other ‘poets’ in the audience?  I don’t only write poems for other poets, do I?  I’m doing something wrong if that’s the case.  I looked through my files of poems.  Surely a lot of these would be suitable, I thought.  Like others in our group, I write about personal experiences, about life and events that must happen to other people.  I hoped that at least some of them would strike a chord with Bath audiences.

John Waite reading on Southgate Stage Bath Festival, 2017

And, I’m happy to say, everything worked out well!  I’d also like to report that passersby, shoppers, small children, teenagers, people of all ages, colours, shapes and sizes, and at least one person who appears to be sleeping rough, lifted up their heads and listened, as we read our poems.  Some even clapped and called appreciation.  Why had I been worried about this and why isn’t there more poetry on the streets, I asked myself?

OK, it wasn’t like the kinds of poetry reading I usually go to, where the audience sits silently (for the most part) with attentive ears, and hands ready to clap politely.  In the Bath audiences, people came and went, sometimes stopping to look at us (and perhaps listen), sometimes getting up to leave us mid-stanza.  Children chatted, listened, ran about, looked at us, sat with their backs to us, looked around them.

Some of the audience in front of Southgate Stage, Bath Festival 2017

Only one of our stages had any kind of seating set up in front of it, so our poems had to grab the attention of shoppers and passersby, or drift into their ears as they were walking past.  Sometimes they paused to listen for a while, then carried on.

Dawn Gorman, Helen Frame, Pey Pey Oh and Anita Bell reading on Southgate Stage, Bath Festival, 2017

It felt exciting when people seemed to stop in their tracks, even momentarily, as they hurried by. It was also very, very good for my confidence!  I think I will be able to read anywhere now, and I certainly won’t feel precious about ‘resting bitch face’ now that I’ve read in front of a lovely family who chatted and ate sandwiches while I was reading a poem about being in love!

I think that this experience will stop me worrying about whether an audience will like me, understand me, appreciate me or care about me.  It’s impossible to please everyone, so I hope I’ll just write the poems I want to write.

Peter O’Grady (reading) and other Town Hall Poets
Shauna Robertson, Bath Festival 2017

Other thoughts from yesterday?  It really helped to have a microphone on stage!  In such open spaces, it was essential.  One of the stages, the one for the family audience, unfortunately didn’t have a microphone, and when the heavens opened, the sound of the rain drowned us out completely (although we kept dry because it was in a covered area!).  This technical detail was the only small glitch and it’s useful to have this information for future events.

Other thoughts?  What a lovely bunch of poets and what a load of fun to be with them all day, reading together, moving around the city together, listening to each other and giving each other support.  Perhaps we need to do more of this, perhaps we should be looking for more ways to make this happen.  Huge thanks to everyone who came to read and to listen.  Look out for these poets, find their work, invite them to perform, buy their books!

Poets who read were: Anita Bell, Dawn Gorman, Helen Frame, John Waite, Josephine Corcoran, Peter O’Grady, Pey Pey Oh, Sharon Adam and Shauna Robertson.

And a big thank you to Louise Betts and Bath Festivals for hosting us!

Please get in  touch if you’d like to find out more about Town Hall Poets or come to our monthly meetings.  We’re meeting again on Monday 12th June at Trowbridge Town Hall and we’ll be at a special Poetry Night at Drawing Projects UK (Bridge House) Trowbridge on Wednesday 14th June.  Guest Poet Hilda Sheehan and Open-Mic (more details about this soon).

L-R Dawn Gorman, Pey Pey Oh, Helen Frame, Josephine Corcoran, Peter O’Grady, Sharon Adam, John Waite

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