The poetry world runs on the goodwill, the endeavour, the graft and the enthusiasm of people who organise, publicise, and put on gigs knowing full well that – in pure economic terms – anyone looking at the work they put in for whatever money they may make, would have to conclude it was the activity of madmen. Or fools.
And yet, without them, a host of poetry gigs would never happen, and the grassroots of the poetry and spoken word scene – without which future stars would have nowhere to cut their performance teeth – would wither and die, leaving all of us that much poorer. Up and down the country there are people putting on poetry nights in bars, clubs, and art centres, playing their part in creating a scene where a million poetry voices can bloom. Doing so purely for the love of it and receiving but a fraction of the credit they deserve.
Which brings me to last Monday, and the Guildford gig.
There are some days when I really don’t feel like doing a poetry gig, and Monday was one. That morning I was a broken man. The weekend had been three long days – eighteen hours on my feet each one of them – with the day job. By Monday, I was bone-tired. Stupid with the kind of exhaustion that meant I stared blankly at people while I tried to work out what they’d just said, without ever feeling sure I’d got it right. I stumbled through London to a friend’s flat, fell into bed, and slept.
Even after a deep day’s dreamless sleep, I wasn’t much better. I made my way to Guildford, watching the world slip dream-like by, and found the venue. All I needed to do, I reminded myself, was dig down into the last of my reserves, do my set, and collapse into a chair like a string-cut puppet.
And then the magic happened.
You see, for me, poetry is all about connection, about a space where you can listen to other people sharing their take on the world – candid, comic, personal, political, profound – and where you can offer up yours in turn. It’s about human beings listening to, and being moved by, and learning from each other as equals, without having to fight their way past some ridiculous hierarchy to do so. (In that respect it’s about as far from much of modern life – and certainly the ya-boo-sucks shouting-down of modern politics – as it’s possible to get. But that’s a subject for another blog.)
The Guildford night had all of this in spades. The other poets arrived, wonderfully free of ego or self-importance. An audience strolled in. The venue was perfect, the sound and lighting just right. And as each performer took the stage, they span the magic of their words and passion. I don’t know that I can remember a night where I’ve sat and watched six different poets, and laughed and applauded and been left with a lump in my throat by the work of each and every one of them. Not every night manages to create that magic blend.
So my thanks to Janice Windle and Donàll Dempsey for all their hard work and dedication in making the Guildford gig happen. Organisers of poetry nights generally don’t get the recognition they deserve, but without people like Janice and Donàll grafting away in towns across the UK, there’d be nowhere for the magic they made possible to find a home. Somewhere over the course of that evening, my exhaustion fell away, and as I made my back to London on the train, sitting and chatting with the other poets, I was buzzing and bright with ideas and inspiration. I still am. Poetry night organisers, you see. They change the world.