Tuesday, 5 April 2016

For Crying Outloud by Janey Clamp

I recently had the opportunity to go away to one of my favourite places in the world: Keswick in Cumbria, where its theatre was hosting the literary festival Words by the Water. For the last couple of years I'd been like a child with her nose pressed against the sweet shop window; but this time I saved up, took time off work and indulged myself for ten days. The experience was a rich one, consisting of time spent at the feet of masters, time alone to write, time with friends, all against the awe-inspiring scenery - the more beautiful for having nightly dustings of snow.

There was also the childish delight of over-hearing other people's conversations, largely those of the grey-haired demographic. Outstanding among them was this gem: "I went to what should have been an interesting talk about the digestive system and it turned out to be about punctuation." Honestly, you couldn't make it up. (The title of the talk - which was most enlightening, by the way - was To colon or not to colon, with not a biological reference in sight.)

But the point I want to make here was discovered during a seminar so dull that I was literally sitting there imagining poking knitting needles into my eyes. A group of three people had been working on a collaborative project whose potential interest to an audience had been overly "bigged up" in the brochure. One of the three was a poet, and he took the opportunity to read some of his work. I metaphorically laid down my knitting needles to have a better view of my fellow seat fillers. All eyes were fixed on the speaker. They didn't seem to be wearing the frown I was, nor contorting their face into the shape mine was, the shape that says, "Is it just me, or is this terrible?" He announced each poem ponderously, explaining at times that "this next one is humorous." He was wrong, just for the record.

A few days later I was browsing in the festival bookshop and found myself picking up the book this seminar had been about. I flicked through, admiring again the specially commissioned artwork, and paused to read some of the poems. What a revelation to find that, when read off the page, these poems were so different. I still couldn't stretch myself to find the humour; but the wordplay, the rhythm, the entire gist was good. So what I had thought to be bad poetry (I anticipate furious comments in reply to this post....) was simply bad performance.

I read recently that we should always read outloud what we have written. This benefits not only radio broadcasters and actors but any of us who want to better sense the quality of what we have produced, by simply listening. All of us have something we want to say. Let's make sure it's worth hearing.

Janey is the Creative Writer in Residence on the Sunday Breakfast show of BBC Radio Norfolk and on the Thought of the Day team at Premier Radio. She blogs for several organisations and contributes to an online daily devotional. She is currently editing her first novel and has plans for the next two.


  1. Yes, good writing can be disguised by poor performance. I enjoyed this post very much. sue

  2. Excellent post and you had me laughing. The bit about the digestive system, classic.

  3. I've never understood why author readings are thought to be a good thing. I'm a writer, not an actor, for a reason.

  4. Carol Ann Duffy is our Poet Laureate and I've heard her read her poems in two contexts. One - to teenagers at 'educational' events, at which she's read poorly, without any wit or emotion, and the kids have been disappointed. But I've also been to see her at events for adults at literary events, and she's been sparkling, funny and engaging. I wonder whether she just felt self-conscious in front of teenagers, who presumably aren't her target audience, and knew they'd be critical. Interesting.

    1. it is interesting, I'm surprised by that. I try to read (or play music or whatever) as if the audience isn't there, which is a bit stupid since you wouldn't bother at all if they weren't, but it does make sure that you give of yourself rather than tailoring it to what you perceive (or fear) their reaction is going to be.

  5. Interesting! I wonder whether it works the other way? Can excellent performance disguise crummy writing?