Stage fright and poetry – why?

I played live last Friday night.

In a club.

On a stage.

In front of an audience.

I only played one song, but I was trembling with fear.

The pop star who lives in my house was also playing (booked, on the bill), and believe me, she’s born to it.

It’s like the stage is where she was always meant to be.  She charms the audience into submission, and then breaks their hearts with her own songs that sound like they could be by Rihanna or Beyonce, but have a dark underbelly that says, “I may bounce around like Tigger, but, seriously, you don’t want to know what’s going on in my head.”

I never had her facility. I started gigging when I was 15, and had no problem remembering the words to Walking The Dog, or I’ll Go Crazy. But songs with a bucketful of words, like Johnny B. Goode, were more problematic. I didn’t dwell on it. I either repeated verses, or made some up.

Later I jumped into the folk scene, where simple songs were the order of the day.

So it was quite late on when I finally realised I lacked a talent specific to performing – and it is a very, very underrated talent.

Remembering words.

Even my own songs do not stick. I need the lyrics, typed out, on  a stand in front of me, when it comes time to record.

It’s no surprise, then, that I have no real experience as a gigging musician. Occasionally I have been dragged up on stage by, say, Bill Zorn, or the guys from Show Of Hands, but I bet I haven’t performed in front of an audience more than ten times since that first teenage flush, which ended when I was 19. That’ll be ten times in 45 years.

So why did I put myself through it on Friday?

Let me start explaining by telling you something that will appear unrelated, but isn’t. I’ve never been a fan of poetry. And that’s putting it mildly.

When I read poetry, I want to hear a tune behind it. On its own, on the page, it has absolutely zero emotional resonance for me. I know this is my failing, but I don’t have that many, so forgive me. (If you believe that, please get in touch; I know a good therapist).

And then, a few months ago, I was dragged kicking and screaming to Come Rhyme With Me, a poetry event, for God’s sake. The pop star who lives in my house had been invited to do the open mic part of the evening (they sometimes include music) so I couldn’t not go.

We got there way too early, and we didn’t realise food was served (ordered and paid for in advance). So I sat like a sulky teenager for over an hour, listening to people eat and chat, more and more tempted to say, “Screw this” and tantrum my way out the door.

And then the poetry started.

Oh. My. God. Brilliant scarcely covers it.

I’ve been back three more times and have been staggered by talent you may never hear of. Some of it is literally thrilling – wherever you have hairs on your body, they will stand up.

And you will laugh. Laugh yourself silly. Or you will come close to tears.

On my third visit, I foolishly, and jokingly, suggested to Deanna Rodger – co-compere with fellow poet Dean Atta – that I might do an open mic next time.

Deanna is a bundle of energy, emotion, fun and neuroses that you’d probably be better off not trying to get to the bottom of.

But she is utterly magnetic and engaging and her enthusiasm forced me to think well, maybe I should.

Big mistake.

On the night, I was nervous before I got there. And it was hot and sticky. Even before the gig started, repeated washing of my hands failed to rid me of the knowledge that I wouldn’t be able to pick the guitar strings cleanly.

And then the open mic slots started. As each one finished, I thought, ‘My turn’. But no. I think there were maybe six acts before I was called up as the last of the open mic turns. By which time I was utterly terrified, shaking like a leaf and unable to find the strings, let alone play them.

I have no idea what followed. I played Iron & Fire, which I wrote about here, but the rushing noise in my head drowned out any sense of ‘feeling’ the audience, and I could not say with any certainty even whether there was applause at the end.

But Deanna Rodger and Dean Atta were very sweet, and friends smiled reassuringly.

What brought me back to sense and sensibility was the performance of Toby Thompson. A tall, lanky, blonde 20-year-old, so cute that all the older women in the room wanted to take him home and mother him (several of them said as much!).

Let me tell you this. Toby Thompson is a dazzling talent.

Just hearing him will convince you what a talent it is to remember your words. Blizzards of them stream from him, and even when he appears to falter, he’s not faltering. It’s stagecraft. Almost witchcraft, in fact.

And that’s why this week, instead of putting up one of my songs, I’m linking you to one of Toby’s YouTube videos.

And let me also draw your attention to Sally Jenkinson, whose quiet, unhistrionic delivery is very touching. However Big You Think You Are, written for her adolescent sister, is worth two minutes of anyone’s time.

Come Rhyme With Me has a night each month at The Writer’s Place in Jew Street, Brighton. The same bill then plays the following Friday at Cotton’s in London’s Exmouth Market.

Their blog is here:

and they’re on Facebook


  1. You’ve articulated something above that we (and by ‘we’ I mean poets, live poetry promoters and publishers) have been telling people for years – that a live poetry event can have an enormous emotional and intellectual impact. Unfortunately, due to the way its generally poorly taught in schools – though things are getting better – people have such powerful preconceptions that dragging them along to a poetry night is horribly hard work. And of course, the negative elitist image poetry has does in turn attract a few pompous and pretentious souls who further the bad work.

    Deanna Rodger is brilliant, however, and if you like her poetry you really should check out her work with Benin City as well (their album “Fires In The Park” is unbelievably good). Haven’t heard much by Toby Thompson or Dean Atta yet.

    I’ve been performing poetry live for nearly twenty years now. I’ve given up on the idea of it ever becoming any kind of career, and I wasn’t helped by the fact that my generation had much more limited opportunities than the young people now coming through, but it will continue for me in some shape or form.


    • Well, I didn’t know that about you, Dave. We must all check you out! Although I agree that poetry is badly taught, music is barely taught at all, but still has massive cultural impact. Poetry has never hit the mainstream (well, not since it WAS the mainstream!). Don’t know what the answer is, but I am now well and truly a fan.


  2. I don’t think any of us really knows what the answer is – I was helping a friend of mine run a night only last week and he managed to only pull in 25 people through the door despite a top-class bill. True, it’s July, the weather is incredibly hot and I suspect that was a factor, but promoting poetry remains a bit of a thankless task.

    As for not knowing that about me, undoubtedly my own fault! I haven’t been pushing the promotion as hard as I should for the last couple of years, and haven’t really been chasing as many people for work (I get approached by publishers and promoters at the moment, but I don’t really do much shoulder-tapping myself). I’m working on a series of short stories at the moment and finding that I’m enjoying the writing process more than the performing at the moment. It won’t last, so it’s good to take advantage of the feeling while it does.

    And, er… I tend to do quite lively readings these days more than performances for the reasons you outline. If I don’t rehearse a poem for any more than two weeks, that’s it, it’s gone.


  3. Yes, I agree Toby is good! He has a career in this.
    I think it is hard for Poets, but I’m not sure I get your distinction between songwriting and poetry…some write words, some write music, some put it together, and the rare few do both…ALONE!
    When I hear songwriting partnerships talking about their productions, the balance of contributions is fascinating, and sometimes the role boundaries…some wordies are tuneless, and vice versa.
    I love modern poetry. Been lucky enough to get to know McGough and his lovely wife Hilary, and met them both on various occasions…he is so prolific!…and he may hate me for saying it, a true pop poet…
    Interesting about your stage fright…maybe you go out busking, where no- one really gives a f… if you forget or change the words…


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