Tonight, as part of the annual Earagail Arts Festival in our county, I'll be joining fellow-poets who have been published by Summer Palace Press to read at a wonderful old house in the country. Over the past few years, perhaps I've become blasé about reading in public. I'm blessed with a demeanour that hides any nerves I might feel (people always tell me how "calm" and "serene" I am when I get up to read), and I have come to trust that "it will be alright on the night".
I love to hear poetry read. I love to hear the voice of the poet. I love to hear any few words of introduction they might have. I love to recall moments from readingsI have attended. When I read, there is always someone who comes up to me later to say that hearing that poem brought it alive to them, allowed them to relate to it, to understand something of it in a new way, and I think I've done my job well if there is just that one person.
I didn't always love poetry. At school, the way in which it was taught (and read) turned it into a bore for me. The first poetry-reading I ever went to, I went by accident. Back in 1989? 1990?My friend had a new job, working in administration for an arts-journal, and one of her duties was to make arrangements for the hospitalty for a group of visiting poets. She roped me in to go along and help with the sandwiches. So I did. And I went home and wrote the following poem, dedicated to the women of Killybegs Writers Group.
We said 'It might be good for a laugh, at least'
Imagine going totally rhapsodic over trees!
Don't get me wrong.
I like trees. Really I do!
But they're hardly that inspiring.
And then, a woman's voice came up
and spoke my heart,
unfurled the rumpled fabric of my life,
in front of all those people.
It was all said in six lines.
Looking around, I saw faces
saying 'She's telling my tale'
and we stood, applauding our lives.
That night, in the Trades Club in Sligo, a smoky, beer-smelling room, filled with people, my soul opened up to what poetry might mean in a life, in my life, and my life did actually change forever. Where I live now, the friends I have, the journeys I have made, the paths I travel, have all been influenced by that night. My sanity has been maintained because of that night.
Since then, I have attended poetry readings in churches, in fine houses, in arts centres and in hotel meeting-rooms. I have heard Billy Collins, Seamus Heaney, Paul Durcan, Paula Meehan, Wendy Cope, Mary O'Malley.... many, many fine poets read, and there have been magical moments for me in each of those readings, but the memory of the night where I first met real poetry stays with me as the one that was the true gift.
If you don't go to poetry readings, try to find one. If you can't find one, open a book and read a poem aloud. If you have someone to read it to, all the better. If you don't have a book, read a poem from Poetry Thursday aloud. Stand up! Applaud!