Saturday 18 November 2017

Taking poetic licence: 'There is not enough emphasis put on performance'

On Poetry Day, Katie Byrne tries her hand at spoken word and discovers that finding your rhythm in front of an audience isn't as daunting as it sounds

Going with the flow: Katie Byrne performed at Circle Sessions. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Going with the flow: Katie Byrne performed at Circle Sessions. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Waxing lyrical: 'Heartbreak' poet Emmet Kirwan
Jonah Hill's police officer Schmidt tries slam poetry in 22 Jump Street
John O'Donnell
Lisa Dwan

Have you ever said 'yes' to something and then, shortly afterwards, wondered how you lost all sense of your personal limits and boundaries?

In normal circumstances, you can just cry off with a carefully crafted excuse about a vet visit or a tummy bug. In professional circumstances, you're snookered.

When my editor asked me if I would perform a spoken word poetry piece at an event in Dublin and report back on the experience, I really ought to have given it at least five minutes of consideration. Instead I shot back an email: "Sure."

This temporary lapse of sanity was followed by the cold, hard realisation that I had to make an absolute arse of myself. In public, and in three days' time.

I'm not a poet. I've dabbled, but I wouldn't dream of reading my work aloud - even in front of close friends or under duress. Truth be told, I get embarrassed in front of myself when I read over what I've written.

And these are prose poems. Spoken word is a different beast altogether. I started to wonder if there was a drug I could take that would allow me to temporarily take leave from my body...

The event I was due to perform at is called Circle Sessions, a free weekly slot in Dublin's International Bar that "provides a safe space in which to perform". They operate an open-door policy for all creatives, though poets tend to make up one third of the performances.

I assumed there would be a strict time limit, as with the monthly Slam Sunday competition where poems, which are recited from memory, cannot exceed three minutes.

Over email, organiser David Halpin told me not to worry about time limits and "let the piece look after itself". Generally though, he added: "The best poems are those which give space for the words to breathe, so the less words you have, the less likely your idea will be lost in the sea of the superfluous."

Coming up with a topic was the next part. As a first-timer, I avoided anything confessional or polemical. Standing in front of a room full of strangers sharing my innermost thoughts, or my feelings on modern feminism, would be excruciating.

It needed to be fun, I decided, but not fluffy.

After a brainstorm that went on for way too long, I remembered a news story in which the owner of a high-profile Irish matchmaking agency said that men in their 50s and 60s were asking to be paired with women 20 years younger than them.

When I read that story, I imagined it from the point of view of women in their 50s and 60s - does that mean that they get paired with men in their 70s? - so I started to write a poem about what happens when a widow in her mid-fifties signs up with one of these agencies.

Finding the rhythm of the piece was the next challenge. I don't like reading poetry with simple rhyming schemes yet this is exactly what I produced when I first put pen to paper. I was hoping to liberate my creative unconscious and use words like 'mellifluous' and 'euphonious', yet Clement Clarke Moore's 'A Visit From Saint Nicholas' was ricocheting around my head - "Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse".

For the most part, spoken word doesn't rely on the elementary structure of rhyming the last syllable of two lines. The rhythm is irregular and more sophisticated. It took me the better part of a day to write it.

This style of poetry is meant to be read out loud so I did this a dozen or so times before I made my way to the International Bar where David greeted me with a huge smile and some gentle encouragement.

He was younger than I expected (27), which makes this labour of love all the more impressive. David and his committee members - either regular performers or regular audience members - have created a platform that is open to every age group and persuasion. I was immediately put at ease.

David soon kicked off the show with a performance of Dead Cat Bounce's hilarious 'On the Road'. An ice breaker, if ever there was one. Circle Sessions secretary and spoken word pro Natasha Helen Crudden performed a blistering piece about 1916 called 'For you I died, My Lover'. There was blood and shrapnel and passion, and it made me wonder if I should omit the line about pedicures and microdermabrasion from my own piece.

Later on, the bravery of newcomer Craig Doyle's spoken word on family issues made me feel like I had cheated the system, and when hip-hop artist Josey Wales got up to perform #FWFD (F*** Work Follow Dreams) I considered going to the toilet and leaving the venue by way of a window.

"You can't follow that," said my friend with a look of commiseration.

Eventually I was called to the stage where I managed not to knock over the keyboard or trip over a wire. The small victory gave me the confidence to take a seat and read my poem from a piece of paper (everything you're not supposed to do). It was easier than I expected, and it drew a few laughs too.

A lot of creative collectives purport to be 'non-judgmental'. This is real. I would have been considerably more nervous in a different environment but this crowd couldn't have been more welcoming. If you have preconceived ideas about the Snowflake Generation (like I did) it would be worth dropping in. There's something exciting emerging here, a generation of poets inspired as much by Stephen James Smith ('Dublin You Are') and Emmet Kirwan ('Heartbreak') as they have been by Ginsberg and Whitman.

"In Ireland, there is not enough emphasis put on performance of writing generally, which makes people even more nervous about performing than they might otherwise be," says David afterwards.

"If you are taught a musical instrument, you are taught that performance is part of the process - whether it be as an exam or public performance or, even if you hate performance yourself, simply watching others. For writers, this is often absent."

It's a good point. David thinks everyone who writes should read as performance even once and, after taking the plunge, I'd be inclined to agree with him.

Circle Sessions run every Monday, the International Bar, Dublin. Doors 7pm, entry free. A showcase takes place in Whelan's on May 2

How to celebrate Poetry Day

John O'Donnell

* Follow poet and running enthusiast John O'Donnell (above) on a 5km run with 'poetic pitstops' across Dublin. 6.30pm, Run Logic, Dublin 2 (book free on

* Poetry and rap collide in Cork as Leanne O'Sullivan leads a lunchtime performance with creative writing students from University College Cork. 1pm, UCC.

* Limerick City Gallery presents the opening of Reconstructing Memory by Sligo-based artist Clea Van der Grijn with performances based on the approaches to death in Mexican and Irish cultures from poets Oscar Mascarenas and Steve Boyland. 6pm.

* As part of Cúirt International Festival of Literature, the Róisín Dubh plays host to an evening of song, poetry, social history and tall tales from 10pm (tickets €10/€12,

Lisa Dwan

* You'll likely be spending your lunchbreak scrolling through Facebook anyway, so why not squeeze in a few poems? Some well-known faces will be taking part in readings on Facebook Live from 1pm, including former US vice president Joe Biden, Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody and actress Lisa Dwan (above).

Irish Independent

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