Today I will lose my virginity in the back streets of London. As I walk along cobbled roads in Soho lined with neon signs of dancing bodies, I’m starting to freak out about my performance this evening. But I’ve been assured there will be other first-timers going through the potential embarrassment with me.
I’m not talking about sex, but something more knee trembling — poetry reading.
A little further on, hidden away from the bustling bodies of the West End is the Poetry Place on Betterton Street, a small café run by arts charity the Poetry Society. Tuesday is open mic night, when “Poetry Unplugged virgins” are introduced to the world of spoken word, and the more experienced bards can share their work.
According to Poetry Unplugged host Niall O'Sullivan, the popularity of performance poetry “comes in waves”. After a decade of running the evening, O’Sullivan says poetry is having a come-back with the emergence of spoken word artists such as 24-year-old George the Poet. The Brits Critics’ Choice and BBC Sound of 2015 nominee has, according to his record label, twice as many YouTube hits as the poet laureate. George Mpanga has made poetry cool.
But in the basement of this quaint London café, the wordsmiths don’t look like future rap artists — about half of the 50 people in the room are grey-haired and have the knowing look of your GCSE English teacher.
Orange plastic chairs face the makeshift stage. The cramped seats are filled by adults in chunky knitted jumpers with wild hair while others sport suits and sip on red wine. On the stage, a white sheet hangs as a backdrop with POETRY UNPLUGGED stamped across it. It’s a far cry from the Globe, but for amateurs like me it’ll do.
A yellow lamp shines on the first poet standing behind the microphone. He’s in his early twenties and his face is scared with memories of teenage blemishes. “This one’s called ‘Fuck vitamins’ — excuse my language,” he says and recites confidently: “Fuck vitamins and your shitty death metal too.” This is the type of poetry I can connect with.
O’Sullivan introduces each reader as a poet, regardless of their level of experience. The audience listens in examining silence, savouring each spoken word as I become increasingly nervous.
Anyone who is willing to say a few words on stage can take part in Poetry Unplugged. It lasts for about four hours with a 15 minute break half way. It’s a long time to listen to poetry, especially as you’re never told in advance when you’ll be on.
A grey-haired man and fellow Unplugged virgin stumbles awkwardly to the microphone. “There’s not enough pornography in dirty magazines,” he says in a broken voice that squeaks when he mentions a woman. The audience are momentarily stunned, but give him equal applause as the other readers.
The variety of skills, performance quality and subject matter make the minutes pass surprisingly quickly. I expected to feel trapped in a room listening to self-righteous word vomit but it’s intriguing to hear strangers’ private thoughts.
Some work is particularly personal. A young girl with cropped hair dedicates a love poem to her girlfriend who sits in the audience in front of me. Following her, a softly spoken troubadour recites words about her Asian friend who plans to come out as gay to his strict parents.
At the end of the evening, O’Sullivan announces that there’s one Poetry Unplugged virgin left. My arm hairs instantly prick up and my face is damp and hot. After a final swig of wine, the stage is mine.
Avoiding eye contact with the attentive audience that sits just a few feet in front of me, I can hear my voice shaking as I speak. My attempts at dramatic pauses and pressing emphasis on words fail. “Sun, please rise in me for I’m cold and I need to be warm. Boy, stay close to me for I cannot be alone.” A few words I’d noted down years ago in teenage angst are recited so quickly it feels unintelligible. But when I finish, the crowd still erupts in applause. I’ve now graduated from a Poetry Unplugged virgin to a “poetry ninja” as I spoke in under a minute.
By 11pm the night is over and the poets move up the creaking stairs back into the dark city street. A few stick around finishing drinks and loosely throw names like Byron and Keats into conversation. The Unplugged regulars politely critique each other’s poems, and I’m told I wasn’t bad for a first-time rhymer. This is a perfect evening for any poetry virgins or more experienced bards wanting to try something new and creative in London.
By Naomi Larsson
Poetry Unplugged open mic night is held at The Poetry Place, 22 Betterton Street, Covent Garden, London WC2H 9BX. The evening starts at 7.30pm but to read you must sign up between 6 and 7pm. Tickets are bought on the door, £4 for readers and £5 for audience members.