A reading is only as good as its delivery – but this is no easy task. At any reading, it can be difficult for the audience to zoom into the poet or author’s words and grasp the full meaning; after all, poems would be read several times over and let to digest and prose is read at your own speed. At a reading, poem after poem is unveiled, or else you’re thrown into snatches of events from a novel, so for the audience, it can be a bit disjointed or overwhelming.
And from the writer’s perspective, you have no idea how large the audience will be, of what they’ll expect or how the other writers you’re working with will perform – and don’t forget, writing is a solitary activity so facing an audience can be a daunting task. So how do writers keep audiences captivated and entertained at readings?
The second night of the festival was an excellent example of performance, as six different writers read their work, each with completely different reading and performance styles – but each as effective as the last.
Ian Wild delivered some dramatic, animated scenes from his work-in-progress novel The Golden Oldies. Wild gave enough background for the audience to know what to expect, without giving the whole story away, and then launched into a strongly vocal performance which easily differentiated the characters. This proved very helpful for an audience listening to reasonably long pieces of prose. Using voice, accent and pitch, Wild had the audience rolling with laughter with pyrotechnic precision. Mind you, it’s not often you get to enjoy a novel about a group of pensioners starting a punk band, singing legendry lyrics like “Young people are crap”.
Alan Garvey followed with a beautifully melodic, rhythmic approach, with the order so carefully planned that each poem led on from the last seamlessly. Setting the context with a mention of a line from yesterday’s reader, James Harpur, “what is history but a roll call of exclusion?” Garvey launched into his history-based reading using visual aids; photographs of the people that inspired his poems. With the background of each person explained, it was easy for the audience to immerse themselves in the cadenced – almost chanted – poetry that followed. To help move the audience along, Garvey also guided with cues such as “We’re going to stay in Hungary now and meet this person…” It’s the first time I’ve seen such a smoothly manoeuvred reading.
Pat Boran immediately set the audience expectation; “After such significant vocal performances, I’m coming in at a lower altitude.” He discussed how when you’re in an event alongside other writers, you don’t know what to expect, you’re “in the lap of the gods” but the readings of the others will inevitably “have a domino effect” and affect your own performance. He demonstrated this by reading “Machines,” saying that an earlier mention of car alarms from Wild triggered the idea. Treading the opposite path to Garvey, Boran preferred to have “no plan at all.” However, as he flicked through the book, looking for the next poem, he kept the audience close with discussion and details about the poem he was next to read. Boran’s reading style was gentle, personal and warm, making each poem sound like a familiar friend.
The second event saw three writers working in languages other than English take the floor. Kristiina Ehin started with a beautiful rendition of a poem in Estonian (without warning), immediately mesmerising the audience with the rhythm and music of the words. Ehin continued with poetry and a short story read in English, but maintained the magical and beguiling quality through her graceful approach. Her voice mirrored the beautiful language and images, as though weaving a spell over the audience – a perfect technique for the unexpected and bizarre twists in her story “The Spy and the Kitten.” It was clear in every word that Ehin has a respect and love for the traditional folklore and mysticism of Estonia which is rooted as deeply in her soul as it is in her work.
Gabriel Rosenstock was the perfect poet to follow Ehin; whether reading in Irish or English, his words and rhythm recounted something ancient, tribal. Using a voice which he likes to describe as “neo-bachti”, (I’m trying to locate the correct spelling of that) his performance resonated with a depth that matches the most spiritual of incantations and chants. His transition from poem to poem was as rhythmic as the poems themselves, and he assisted the audience with cues such as “these poems follow a seasonal order, which is the very essence of haiku”. The Irish language performances were particularly awe-inspiring, making the hairs on your arm stand on end.
The evening finished with Silke Scheuermann reading from her novel. Like Wild, Scheuermann gave the audience the background to her work, but then she adopted a different approach; reading the whole first chapter in short bursts, first in German, then in English. Scheuermann broke up the chapter in a way that left the audience wanting more – stopping at cliff hanger moments. Using a method I’ve not seen before, Scheuermann employed an actress to read the English translation – explaining that it was so that “my strong German accent won’t distract”. Accent or no accent, it was a useful technique for a translated novel written in the first person; the audience had chance to step back from the fact that the piece was in translation, taking visual cues from Scheuermann to pre-empt what was to come and easily immersing themselves into the shoes of the narrator when read in English.
Although each writer adopted a different technique and approach for their reading, it was clear that to perform a successful reading, the writer needs to engage and mesmerise the audience, providing enough context to give a starting point and maintaining a rhythmic flow which lets the listener stay in that zone, soaking up as much as possible. But the evening also clearly showed that there is no right or wrong approach; so long as the writer reads in a way that reflects both their work and their personality.