Poetry readings – the good and the unintelligable

I went to the fifth evening in the Canterbury Poets’ autumn “Poetry in Performance” readings series last night. The guest readers were Sioban Harvey, Kerrin Sharpe and Jeffrey Harpeng. Interesting night. I haven’t come across Sioban or Kerrin before, although I vaguely knew their names. Jeff’s work I know quite well, and was entertaining, as usual (although he’s a good mate, so I’m hardly objective). But Sioban was quite a revelation. Tall, blonde, drop-dead gorgeous, and also actually a good poet! I’m surprised she hasn’t been picked up as the latest “hot-young-thing”, à la Kapka Kassabova and Kate Camp. (Ok, yes, I’m jealous. Not being anything remotely resembling ‘glamourous’, I get annoyed with media darlings, even while appreciating the need for their presence.)

Back to the subject. To add insult to injury, Sioban was also a very good reader, although a little annoyingly prone to that heavily inflected, over emphasised reading manner:

I read, and I want
you to hear every line
and comma,
as though
they were ham
-mered in, into your bones

and I’ll say it like

and this,
and this, and then trail

[pause pause pause]


Ok, that’s a little unfair. But I’m sure you’ve heard it being done. It doesn’t bother you to begin with, but then it gradually starts to irritate and you catch yourself counting the beats and mentally correcting her emphasis (emphases?). But even that does pass, as long as the poems remain interesting.

Kerrin Sharpe wasn’t bad, but seemed blissfully unaware of what the microphone was for. And, to make it worse, got quieter and quieter as the reading went on. I was in the front row, and I could only just make out what she was saying by the end. The slightly odd/sad thing was that no-one asked her to speak up … She also had a tendency to over-explain the poems, and to not do enough to indicate where the comments stopped and the poem began. Maybe nerves? Not helped by the fact that the poems tended to be quite short.

It was a touch of the Elizabeth Smither – one of the worst readers I’ve ever come across. She read at the Chch literary festival a couple of years back. God, it was bad. I remember she had a stack of papers in front of her, and seemed utterly determined to get through them all, in order, if it killed us. And it wasn’t just that every poem had its own page – that’s not so bad. But every poem had its own, separate, page (or more) of explanation. And there was absolutely nothing – no change of tone, change of volume, heck, even change of posture! – to let us know when she’d finished explaining, and started reading again! Just another page being turned over. It’s possible that there were some poems that covered multiple pages – you couldn’t tell. I’m certain that there were plenty of poems that were much shorter than their explanation. The audience just sat there, dead in our seats. Slowly getting older.


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