Reading in public

On Saturday I did my first proper poetry reading. It was down in Winchester at the prize-giving for the Virginia Warbey prize. I didn't win, but two of my poems were longlisted. Before that I had entered a poetry slam at a festival and taken part in a few readings at the end of courses. I also had to read after one of my short stories was shortlisted for another competition.

I have to say that I find this terrifying. I'm not really sure why; if you have any ideas to help me cope I would be deeply grateful. It's embarrassing too; I'm a professional psychologist and the words of Jesus, "Physician, heal thyself" come back to mock me.

I think it's a legacy from school, where the prospect of reading aloud to the class was even scarier than Clifton Hughes, who gobbed all the way down my arm at the bus stop. At work I have to run leadership programmes for senior managers from high profile organisations, and I do that without blinking. When it comes to reading my own work I shrivel. Just writing about it now I can feel my heart spreading till it no longer fits in my chest.

This is something I would like to get over. I rehearse a lot before readings, know most of my work by heart, and think I'm actually quite good at it. When I listen to others, they sometimes mumble out the words in a monotonous, inaudible voice, whereas I try to put some energy into it, and look at the audience.

I just hate it.

A few days ago I found out I've been shortlisted for the Live Canon poetry prize. That's a thrill as it is judged by the fantastic Glyn Maxwell. And the relief is that the awards ceremony will feature actors reading our poems: we won't have to do it. Perhaps I should only enter ones like that.

Please leave a comment if you share this phobia, or if you have any tips for how to handle it.

Photo: Jo Barker (08/11/2011)


Helen Black said...

Oh I hear ya.

I hate reading my work.

I love chatting about it, workshopping with writers etc, but reading it aloud...yuck. It just sounds so, I dunno, pretentious.

To get through it, I just pretend I'm an actor recording a talking book.
HB x

JO said...

Practise. Read to your mother, to your cat, to the mirror, in toilet, as you walk down the street - anywhere and everywhere. Then the words will feel ok in your mouth.

Then, if you can, think of the audience as one person. The one person in the world you want to 'wow'.

Good luck - you'll be fine. Probably much better than the person who thinks they can do this without preparing.

Roderic Vincent said...

Thanks, Jo.

But, but, but, I'm not afraid of the mirror. Or the cat or the toilet, and my mother is dead. And I do practise - I've learnt just about all my poems by heart.

I think my problem is partly that I do want to 'wow' the audience, perhaps too much. I become hideously self-conscious at the thought of being judged.

Jo said...

If it's any comfort, I would never have guessed you were nervous - you looked like an old pro up there!

(I always thought it might help to take off my glasses for a reading, so as not to see the scary audience, but of course that would only work if, like you, one has memorised the material. Have not had the chance to put this theory to the test yet...)

Anonymous said...

Rod - practise in front of your family. If you can read in front of them you can do anything.


Roderic Vincent said...

Jo - thanks,

It's funny. I remember when I was filmed on a presentation skills course years ago. I looked completely confident despite being very nervous. It does help to know that, but it's not enough. I know I could do a far better performance if I could be 50% less nervous. At the poetry slam I actually thought my legs might give out on the long lonely walk up to the stage.

Roderic Vincent said...

Lizzie, but I don't feel nervous at all in front of my family. They would pay me not to read my stuff to them. One of my poems in The Iron Book of New Humorous Verse is called Stop. I was so excited when I learnt that it had been accepted for publication that I insisted on reading it to my son. At the end he asked again what it was called and I said, 'Stop.'

He said, 'Yes, that was what I was thinking all the way through.'

Rebecca Alexander said...

I had the same problem until I watched a friend overcoming his stage fright before he sang on stage. It's all in the patter before he performs. Now I start by explaining something and I find my work mode (I'm a psychologist too)and the reading is easier. I realised that's what I do when I'm lecturing too, and it makes it easier.

Roderic Vincent said...

That's very interesting, Reb. I think you might be on to something. That way you are on stage, but haven't started performing yet. I will think about that.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Rod, first of all CONGRATULATIONS - it's so brilliant to hear about the way you've found your writerly niche and the way the world is mirroring it back to you.
If it's any help, I'm shortly starting a course on public speaking with a very highly recommended guy who encourages people to stop trying to 'perform' and to look on speaking as engaging in a conversation with the audience. He does short workshops too, based in Bristol and Bath. If you'd like details, email me.

Maggie May said...

I am not in the same league as you Roderic, but have always absolutely hated speaking in front of an audience. I even go a bit sweaty at my writing group when it's my turn to read. But maybe that's the thing - if you read it out rather than tried to remember it, that would at least take some of the pressure away. It would sound just as good, but help the nerves. That's my view anyway. By the way, well done. I'm still looking forward to some recognition for my writing.

Anonymous said...

Roderick, absolutely share your fear 100%. I am lucky that my novel isn't out until next July so have a few months grace...but just the thought makes my heart pound, face twitch (really!) and my legs wobble. I like to think I'm passionate enough about writing to be brave and face my fear...failing that a bit of Dutch courage!

It didn't really work for me but Toastmasters are a peer group for public speaking, there are groups everywhere and they are free to try too.

Congratulations on shortlistings and from one phobic to another good luck!


Roderic Vincent said...

Thank you.

I agree about the Dutch courage. A couple of glasses of wine helps a lot. I read in The Shape of the Dance that Michael Donaghy used to slip onto the stage beforehand and refill the water jug with vodka. He said he needed a bottle of the stuff per poetry reading. And his poems are amazing.

Roderic Vincent said...

Thanks for the offer Susie. I might go for that. Also, I told an actor friend about this post and he said he would sort me out. I'm really excited about that as it would be a great achievement to be able to do this without collapsing. In the meantime, it's feel the fear. There's a slam in London tonight. I can feel that fear.

Debs Riccio said...

Isn't there an adage that the more nerves the better the performance or something? I'd say you've already cracked it, Rod, and think of the cardiovascular!

Roderic Vincent said...

Thanks Debs, but isn't stress supposed to be unhealthy!

Fionnuala said...

I think its because you're offering a part of your creative self to an audience - much different to that of your working psyche.
I'm sure you were wonderful and many many congrats on all of your success. Fx

Roderic Vincent said...

Here's a little update. A friend who coaches business people on communication skills believes he can cure me and has offered a session next week. I'm so glad I wrote this post to admit to my problem in public. I might do an update post after I've had some coaching.

Mary said...

Hi Roderic
Congratulations and well done. You must be feeling really proud.

Would recommend going along to a Toastmasters club. Great for improving communication ...standing up and speaking before an audience ..building confidence ..learning about vocal variety ..tone of voice .. speaking tips ... good fun too!

Roderic Vincent said...

Thanks, Mary. I will see how I get on with the offer from my friend and maybe sign up for Toastmasters. Somehow their rather traditional sounding name put me off in the past - it brings to mind portly gentlemen in cummerbunds announcing guests arriving down a marble staircase, but since at least two women here have recommended them I am intrigued.

JO said...

Look how many people you have here who are on your side. You could try imagining you were reading to us - you know just how kind we will be!

Emma said...

Remember your audience is on your side (they want to listen to your poems, not tense up and watch you fail) and use mirroring: if you look relaxed and confident (even if you don't feel it), your audience will relax. They're not looking for you to performance and want to feel as if you are engaging with them rather than reading at them.

A little stage fright is a good thing, but chronic nerves aren't. You'll have to find your own approach - some hum a favourite song, some read a stanza or two backstage, some focus on their opening intro/banter, some develop a little ritual or do breathing exercises.

Focus on your audience too: they can give you feedback as you read. There's a wonderful "you could hear a pin drop" silence when an audience is really engaged. Don't be put off by one or two people fidgeting - it could be the really uncomfortable chairs they're sitting in - but if a whole section of audience is looking at the clock, get the hint. Don't just focus on one person, find a few friendly faces and look towards one of them during a poem.