Last night for the first time since we started, I was an audience member not a performer, viewing the poets and the poems just like anyone else.
I was really happy to be ‘taking a rest’ (as all good performers like to say) because writing and performing new material every month or so is really quite hard work. Not, like, manual labour hard or even making custard from scratch hard, but playing a game of mental scrabble with yourself hard. With added self-doubt for extra fun.
So it was nice not to write, of course. But the real pleasure came from watching my fellow poets get up on stage and perform new poems, for the first time, all over again.
Because of our promise to write new material each time, every Rhymes with Orange is like the first one. No two have ever even been remotely similar in content, audience or performer. The combination that comes together each time is a unique and heady one. Is the audience rowdy? Or reflective? Are the performers feeling funny or feisty, or sad? Has the compere had a really shit day? Are we all going to be able to come together and make this thing happen?
But we do it, every time.
And sitting there in the low-lit room last night made me realise just how essential the audience is to the night. We are the cheerleaders and enablers, the shouters and the clappers. We’re the ones who implicitly give permission to the poets to perform. We, like a Roman emperor, give the thumbs up or thumbs down for each poem. We can condemn a poem to death with the mere stilling of our shakers or the silence of our laughter.
I watched spellbound and proud, as people I know and love; and people I barely know, stood tall and proud, pushed their chins up and walked into the blinding bright of the stage to share their words with me.
Their hearts will be beating so hard they’ll hear it in their ears like a bassline. They won’t be able to see the faces of the crowd, but they’ll be thankful for it. And they’ll have a dry taste in their mouth like they just did a shot of sand at the bar. But they’ll do the long slow walk to the stage anyway.
My privilege is in knowing how they will have sat down and written, rewritten, edited, panicked, practised, read out and read out and… had a quiet word with themselves in the loo beforehand. All before walking up on to the brightly lit stage and saying their poems for the first time to a crowd of people who’ve paid good money to be entertained by them.
And we will watch them, willing them on for their own good but also for ours. We want them to be good because we want to have a good time. I learnt last night that it is always the audience and never the poet who thinks ‘we’re in this together’.
We observers only ever see the tip of this enormous poetry iceberg, the very peak of the giant thing that is writing and preparing for the stage. And I think that is good and right, because that’s how we want it to be.
The audience made the night last night, just like they have every time before.
Because of that, I can’t wait to get back up there and read out my tip of the iceberg, my top of the mountain, my moment at the summit . Last night reminded me that the view up here is amazing and that I am so glad we’re all up there together.