It’s said that glossophobia – the fear of speaking in public – is high up among the most common fears, so I’m slightly surprised that it’s not something that has ever particularly bothered me.
Perhaps I read the lesson in church as a child or at the school carol service often enough for it to cease to be really frightening, although that raises the question of why, as a very timid small child, I was willing to volunteer to read – especially as I remember on at least one occasion having to stand up to a terrifying schoolmaster in order to be allowed to audition for the carol service: he thought I would never make myself heard – though I proved him wrong.
I learned a lot of poetry by heart as a child, and I suspect someone must have given me guidance about how to speak to an audience – about projecting my voice and when to breathe, as well as how to use intonation and pauses, making eye contact, and other public speaking techniques. So, whether it’s reading my poetry at open mikes and award ceremonies, or speaking about my business in front of a group of entrepreneurs, public speaking is not something that particularly worries me.
I remember the first time I read at the Poetry Unplugged event at the Poetry Café in Betterton Street in London. I went once just to listen and find out what the event was like, but on my second visit I was determined to participate. Everyone knew it was my first time reading there and I was expected to be nervous. I stepped to the front of the room and looked around, then put my reading glasses on and looked up again. Which is when I realised that I had a problem: once I had my glasses on, I could no longer see the faces of the audience.
I’m pretty certain I made a joke about my peril-sensitive reading glasses – I couldn’t be scared by an audience I couldn’t see. (If you don’t know the reference, you should read The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and find out about the Joo Janta 200 Super-Chromatic Peril Sensitive Sunglasses, which are “specially designed to help people develop a relaxed attitude to danger. At the first hint of trouble they turn totally black and thus prevent you from seeing anything that might alarm you.”)
At the event last night, I was reminded of this as I was reading from behind a curtain. The theme was Dark Stories and whole space was draped in dark curtains with small spot lights that were used for each specific performer when they read. My part of the set was very comfortable, with an armchair and a table with a table lamp etc., but there was a sheer black curtain between me and the audience.
I usually stand up to read, so sitting in an armchair didn’t feel particularly natural, although I had practised and knew that I could still project my voice. What I hadn’t bargained for was the fact that once my lamp went on, I had nothing in front of me except blackness. Although I could see well enough when the others were reading, I had to do my own readings without any visual connection to the audience.
I’m glad to say that it all worked well, but it did remind me of how important visual feedback can be when reading.
Sadly, I don’t think anyone took any photos last night, so you’ll just have to take my word for the fact that it was all looked very effective and that the event was a success.
If I manage to get any sound files, I may post them here but, in the meantime, it seems appropriate to settle for an old poem that I wrote on one of my trips to London when I stayed at the New Cavendish Club and read at the Poetry Café.
Breakfast at the club
No one speaks as I enter the dining room.
A quick reconnaissance reveals all corners and the window tables
strategically occupied by elegant-in-mufti, steel-headed early-risers
who now sit safe behind sudoku shields. Their newsprint focus
lets my faux pas unkempt denims pass uncommented. Near the doorway,
buttocks overflowing the edges of his perch, an oversized businessman
gannets down bacon and two eggs, eager to leave behind the discomfort
of lyre-backed mahogany that whispers menacingly each time he reaches
for the salt. Princess Alice looks on in black and white as an over-starched
grey female tears at her mouth with a paper napkin, trying to scrub away
the traces of penny-pinching all-inclusive fried indulgence. Hollow
Sheffield cutlery is neatly aligned to hide invisible darns on damask cloths
and EPNS toast racks hold pale triangles of thin-sliced white. I take up
a defensive position, back to the wall, and don peril-sensitive reading glasses.
Only the Eastern European waitress dares invade my safety zone.