Tuesday, 23 February 2016
Every one of these responses, in its own way, is a sign that a poem has succeeded. In some poetry readings you can gauge the impact of a poem by the volume of the wordless response from around the audience. It’s most obvious with the ‘instant impact’ poems, which tend to be in the “ooh”, “ha!” or “ouch” categories. But sometimes a particularly good poem needs an appreciative silence, to allow the impact of the words to sink in. A “hmmm” poem can become an “oh!” poem as understanding dawns on the listener. A love poem (usually an “aah”) may have a sting in the subtext, turning it into an “oh!” or even a “fffff”. Two of the First Prize poems I’ve chosen from competitions I’ve judged (Kate Rhodes’ The Movement of Bees and Joanna Ezekiel’s Homecoming, if you’re interested) fall very much into this category – I’ve heard Joanna perform the latter, and heard the audience making exactly those responses. And it’s one of the joys of a good poetry reading, to allow the poems space to take root in the consciousness of the audience, to allow the responses to unfurl in exactly this way.
There are many ways to show appreciation for a good poem. The evocative onomatopoeia may well be the highest compliment a poem can elicit. An appreciative (or even a shocked) silence can be another. And so can a round of applause.
But here’s the thing. A round of applause may be entirely appropriate for a “ha!" poem, or an “ouch” poem. And let’s face it, performing poets love the adulation. But what may be entirely appropriate for a “ha!” poem may be exactly the wrong response to the more subtle piece of poetry – the “hmmm” poem that needs space, and perhaps needs silence too, to sink in. There may even be a risk that a premature round of applause can shatter a carefully woven atmosphere, detract from the substance of the poem, and rob the audience of the chance to really feel what the poet is getting at.
One of my regular correspondents, poet Angela Topping, puts this bluntly. “I ask for a silence so the poem can do its work,” she blogged in August 2015. “To clap at the end of a one or two minute poem is like drinking tea from a delicate china cup, and then shattering it against the wall.”
I’m not sure I would go that far, to be honest. As the MC of a long-running open mic night, I’m well aware of the value of a good round of applause as a sign of affirmation. It’s particularly important for those who are new to writing poetry, or to performing it in public. It also matters a lot to those visiting a performance night for the first time, who may be seasoned performers but could well be strangers to the rest of the audience. The enthusiasm of an audience response can be the difference between that person coming back, and maybe becoming a regular, and them never darkening your door again.
So I was rather disconcerted when, after a visitation from the good people at Write Out Loud last year, The Speakers’ Corner came in for criticism precisely because not all audience members clapped every single poem that was performed. The majority got applause, or at least that was my impression. But for other poems, the response was more along the lines of the considered “hmmm” or the admiring “oh!”, and the poets for the most part took this as a sign of affirmation of their work just as they would have done had they been met with a round of applause. There was certainly nobody who performed that night who wasn’t roundly applauded at the end of their set, whether or not there were claps between poems.
I didn’t think this was an especially big deal. The audience at Speakers’ Corner is always supportive. We don’t boo. We don’t heckle (unless we know the performer very well, and know they won’t mind). We listen really attentively, especially when newcomers are performing. Saboteur Award winner Steve Nash gave his first public performances of poetry at Speakers’ Corner, and even gave us a word of thanks in an interview to Write Out Loud because of the quality of the welcome and the support he always found from the Speakers’ Corner audience. There have been plenty of others, through the years, who have first performed for us as nervous newcomers, and gone on to write prize winning poetry and perform at slams and spoken word shows.
Our visitors from Write Out Loud saw it differently, however. In fact, in one-to-one feedback after the event, I was told that one or two of the group had been planning to perform for us that night, but had been put off doing so precisely because they didn’t think they would be applauded. They therefore didn’t feel that their poetry would be welcome.
That stung and saddened me. I’d hate to think of anybody coming to Speakers’ Corner and feeling that their poetic offerings are not going to be appreciated (unless they are using their verse to extol the virtues of Nigel Farage, possibly). I’ve been soul-searching for the better part of a year to work out if we were doing anything wrong, and if so, how we can improve. And to be honest, I haven’t come up with any answers.
I don’t want to insist that the audience clap every poem. I’d rather have the appreciative murmur for the “hmmm” poem, the shocked silence when someone performs an especially hard-hitting piece. Should we applaud a poem about a rape? Or about the drowning of a Syrian refugee? My gut tells me that applause for the poem is not the right response (though applause for the poet, in due course, certainly would be). I want the audience to have the freedom to exercise the right not to applaud if that poem about the virtues of Nigel Farage gets an airing. But I don’t want anyone to feel that the possibility of not being applauded means a risk of them not being appreciated for sharing their creativity with us.
(Photo (c) Cartoonstock.com)