I walked into the dark blue tinted room about thirty minutes late. There were around eight people in scattered groups of twos and threes talking in low voices but occasionally interacting familiarly with the rest of the people in the room.
The dark light was spotted with white glowing candle flames sitting on the tables spread evenly about the room. At the back there was a small bar with plenty of different bottles stacked up around it, and beside it a stage was laid out backed by a picture of a wide blue ocean scene warmly illuminated by a single spotlight centred on a single microphone.
I walked to a small table in the centre and put my bag down on a chair and walked straight to the bar and shook hands with its occupant, a short but long haired and bearded man wearing a black baseball cap.
“There you are. I was getting them to wait for you. God, it must cold outside?” he asked as we shook hands and felt the distinct difference between both temperatures.
“And your hands are warm, but as nice as they may be to hold, I’d much prefer a nice cool pint of Guinness instead”.
“Of course” he replied with a smile.
I told him “I’ll be back in a second. My bladder shrank in the cold outside and I’ve got to piss. Big time.”
When I came out from the toilet there was a fresh pint of Guinness sitting at the end of the bar for me. Taking the first sip I looked again at the rest of the room. A blond woman was walking around joking with the different groups; in her hands were a clipboard and a pen. She walked over to me and I asked for the clipboard. Four names were already written down with descriptions; some poems and an excerpt from a story, but no comedy or songs. Good, I thought, this was exactly why I had come here. I wrote my name down, followed by ‘some poems’.
In the world of the open stage it seems that more stages seem to be taken over by music or comedy, the get famous quick performances, but here were the unsung heroes, self obsessed and hopeful that some day more people would take the time to think about their entertainment, rather than just allow it to automatically provide the answers. Only here there were probably no illusions as to the reality – little chances of fame but somewhere in the distance an opportunity lay for recognition from those who read and listen to words that hours were spent crafting. Tonight, that distance would be shortened.
I had returned to Korea over nine months ago, but since that return I had been on the stage less than five times. I read at one poetry and comedy night and on a few other occasions in an old haunt, but nothing to an audience I felt was listening, nor to an audience which I could get feedback. A response is probably what I look for more than anything whenever I go on stage, or whenever I write something. Without a response, after hours working on a piece to stand up and place it before the listeners, it can feel almost empty or pointless. Maybe I’m just very impressionable, but without that reaction in whatever form it may come, I fail to know whether it was worth it or not.
Most of the previous occasions had left me with little to go on. I hadn’t really felt anything, with the exception of a few claps and comments, I was still craving a response, a reaction, anything more than what seemed to be the simple recognition of the fact that I stood on stage to read. This is why I had come to the poetry reading.
It was quiet enough to hear everything. The host, a bubbly English woman whom I had talked with earlier, started things off with a simple feel good story about people. It wasn’t written down or rehearsed or over influenced by drink, it was a story about someone having a good experience in Korea thanks to other people. It seemed an ideal start.
Next, an Australian man who looked over sixty, stood up and read from his story detailing the ins and outs of trying to remain sane in between all the wheeling, dealing, talking behind backs, and agreements secured in late night meetings in hofs that exist all over the English industry in Korea. There was plenty of mentions of ‘not in the contract’ and ‘I’ll resign right now’ or words to that effect. This all too familiar story kept us with our ears perked waiting for the next almost typical twist which, despite our better knowledge, kept us reeling.
After this, a computer wielding American stood up and read some multi-parted poems, some of which were featured in a recent anthology of writers work in Seoul. The reading went well, and you could hear his confidence and voice become more self-assured as each word was read out.
This is what can make or break a poetry reading; voice acts as your medium for transmitting the words, and any voice can read the same words, but it takes real craft to take the audience with you on your journey. The importance of knowing the poetry and knowing the tone cannot be further emphasised. Every article, verb, pronoun, and adjective is a critical component of the poem, and they cannot be neglected or passed over unconvincingly. Without the voice that shares them with the listener each word will vanish indiscriminately when the door opens as another customer walks in, or when the listeners walk out.
This is where I would be shortly, standing in front of this small be appreciative crowd hoping to hear what they actually think, and hopefully welcoming any response. I had already moved on to my second pint of Guinness and was nearly finished, and considering I had three before I came in, I was well on course for a confident and verbose account of my work.
In terms of a venue, I can’t explain enough how important it is for me, as poet but also a spectator, that it is in a bar where beer and whiskey are for sale. There seems to be an artsy open mike scene going around where gatherings take place in coffee shops, which I’m sure is great. However, most writers I know like to have a few beers, or possibly something more potent, when they relax before they read. It helps with any nerves which they may be feeling. If you’ve ever read the novel The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, there’s a scene where the whole gang of them go to a poetry reading and make a mockery of any sense of solemnity by drowning themselves in red wine, while at the same time stealing the show with the high quality of their poetry. That’s the way I’d like to see all the poetry readings I go to, or at least as close to it as I can get.
One of the best things about any sort of open stage, be it music, poetry, comedy, or any other that may be around, is that it provides the chance to hear other people reading and what they’ve written, so you can get an idea of the standard, or lack of standards, if that is the case. What is potentially more important is the chance to meet these people and build the connections necessary for future creative collaborations, consultations, and drinking sessions. I’ve used this as a basis for building a large enough body of writers to hold a poetry stage at the HBC Fest, and to produce Soju Tense. I hope I could use this stage to further these ends again.
This stage here in Itaewon holds the same potential with a closely knit group of writers who are comfortable sharing their opinions, and who are confident enough to stand up and ask. I listened carefully, downed my pint steadily to about halfway, and peered over the order of my poems again all in preparation for my opening. Regardless of how many times you do this, nerves are always a factor. Trying to stay comfortable, I took another large swig of Guinness, ran through my head whether or not I’d conquered the complex line and word breaks that I had been stumbling over before, and asked myself if the new poem I finished earlier is ready for an unexplored audience? Nerves tingled more by being unable to know how much longer the reader still on the stage would continue for. Another mouthful of Guinness, a heavy swallow; there was not much left in the glass but no sign of the bar’s staff. I look down at my poems again. No change to the order, no change to the words typed there, no other thing to worry about but my own ability to stand up and deliver them. I looked up again. I took another full sup from my glass. The reader closed his computer and thanked the crowd, the bar, and as he passed me tapped me on the shoulder, the signal that I would be next to read.
As I stood and walked towards the stage, I looked downward watching for any obstacles that might suddenly jump out to knock me down and prevent me reading. I’m not sure what thoughts were running through my head, but I’m sure they were doubts and reasons why this would be a disaster. The spotlight on the microphone showed me where to go, and from there I hoped it would be difficult to make out the faces watching me. When I got there with only a dribble worth of Guinness left in my glass, and nowhere to put the pages of poems down, I turn and face the audience. The owner walked in. Everyone looked at me. I could see each person clearly. I heard a few words of encouragement and expectation. I was new. I was far from certain.
I read out my first poem, “A Thirst”, from memory;
“My glass is empty, if it was full, then perhaps my poems, I could read for you.”
And as I was reaching for another poem to read, another full glass had replaced the empty one to my side. I could relax; this poetry reading would be alright.
Poetry and spoken word is held in Tony’s Aussie Bar and Bistro in Itaewon every second Thursday from 9pm.
Another quality open-mike where poets are always welcome is the Seoul Artists Network, which meets every first and third Sunday in Roofers, Itaewon.