A fear too far: Del Hughes experiences the unbridled terror of Swansea Poetry Slam
My cadence has crumbled as my voice richochets through the panoply of pitch – bouncing from bass to soprano and back again – and I’m trembling so much, I’m in real danger of keeling over.
I’ve heard of knees knocking from fright but, until now, I’d always assumed it was just a metaphor.
I realise, with a shocking clarity, that this was a mistake of genuinely epic proportions – and it’s all the fault of a stupid motivational post I once saw on Twitter.
Because it seems you can’t go on any social media these days without stumbling across them – those inspirational quotes, presented in a saccharine, swirly handwritten font, against a background of soft pastels, or scrawled over the silhouetted image of someone doing, impossibly bendy, yoga on a beach at sunrise.
‘Dance like nobody’s watching’, ‘Live, Laugh, Love’, and a personal favourite, ‘You can, if you believe you can’, which is basically bollocks; believing I can fly a plane is very different to actually doing it.
And I’ve had over ten hours of lessons so well know the panicky pitfalls of overconfidence whilst in control of a light aircraft – as does my instructor, Dave, when, for no good reason, I once decided to pull back on the throttle immediately after wheels up. (And if you’re reading this Dave, once again, I’m really, really sorry!)
Anyway, in amongst the mawkish phrases, which are often hackneyed and frequently ridiculous, you can occasionally stumble upon one that resonates.
A few years back, I noticed a tweet – ‘Do one thing that scares you each day.’ I’d heard it before, but it must have been a slow news day on Twitter because instead of scrolling past, I got to thinking about what frightened me, what I’d find challenging and thought, ‘What the hell!’
I wasn’t going to take it to extremes though – no diving with Great Whites or jumping off a mountain in a wingsuit. These had to be fears I could face daily, though I soon discovered that I wasn’t scared of enough things to manage seven a week, so I changed it to a once-a-month kinda deal.
Quid pro quo
I started off big, with my bête noire, after reading a lovely poem by a friend of mine about spiders.
It later transpired that it was actually a commentary on the judgement delivered by Lady Hale (wearing her, now infamous, spider brooch) when she found Boris Johnson guilty of the illegal proroguing of Parliament, but I clearly didn’t get the subtext.
Anyway, I began trying to exist alongside these leggy lodgers rather than throwing heavy books at them and leaving them in situ until Tim could hoover up their spiky remains.
I even befriended one that lived in my bedroom curtains.
Every night, she(?) would drop from the tie-backs to sleep, legs akimbo, on one single, webby strand. It was Charlotte’s Web meets The Silence of the Lambs, with our ‘quid pro quo’ being I won’t kill you if you don’t crawl into my mouth when I’m asleep.
Then came Plantasia’s ‘Meet the Reptiles’, which was actually more awkward than scary.
I rocked up, only to realise it was an experience for kids, and out of around twenty of us, I was the only participant who could go a whole hour without either peeing my pants or screaming for mummy.
On the plus side, I was easily able to use my superior height and strength to get to the front of the queue where I handled the snake and then exited asap, before the parents complained to management.
Next, the aforementioned flying lessons which were, and will always remain, terrifying – though the views of the Gower Peninsula were so staggering, I really couldn’t be blamed for the occasional loss of concentration.
Despite severe Coulrophobia, I watched ‘IT’ when I was home alone – and at night!
I went to the Gower Christmas Tree Farm to confront the reindeer – yeah, I know they’re cute, but those antlers and pink gum-teeth really freak me out.
A fear too far
I tried an hour in a sensory deprivation tank which was mind-blowing but wonderful and, despite no artistic ability, I attended a life drawing class that, to this day, I can’t look back on without breaking out in a cold sweat.
And then, only the other day, I set off for my own graduation, which was several neuroses rolled into one horrendous bundle: Absurd academic robes (of finest polyester) + sweltering heat + menopausal flushing + abhorrence of formality = Heavy Pass!
Sorry to say but I bottled it.
We took a few photos outside then I ditched the costume, and the ceremony, and we buggered off to the pub. Seems this particular event was a fear too far.
So, back to the here and now, or rather the there and then.
In 2020, I’d entered the Swansea Poetry Slam. Because we were in ‘Covid Times’ it wasn’t being held live – entrants had to video three poems, one for each round, and send them in.
This was way out of my comfort zone.
Not the poetry side of things, though I’d never entered a Slam before.
No, it was because I was overweight and felt really self-conscious about appearing on camera. I’d have much preferred doing it in real life, but I bit the bullet, spent days trying to record myself without my triple chins dominating the shot, and, eventually, sent them in.
I was gobsmacked when I came third; I won £20 – the first money I’d ever ‘earned’ from writing – and that inspired me to keep going with my lyrical ballads and upbeat verses.
And so, when Slam ‘21 was announced, I was first in line to book a slot for the live event, being held at Cinema & Co on High Street.
Arriving, we were greeted by a cheery lady, who encouraged us to remove our Covid masks so she could see our ‘lovely smiles’.
That set Tim off on a, ‘If I catch Covid from this lot. . .‘ rant. Sigh.
Pacifying him with a lager, we headed to the cinema space and got as comfy as possible on the low, cushioned pallets that they use for seating.
The room was artistically rustic, gave off strong boho vibes and seemed like the ideal place for an evening of spoken word poetry.
It wasn’t a large venue and there were probably only around fifty people milling about, waiting for kick-off. I was, understandably, a tad nervous but that was massively outweighed by my excitement at sharing something I’d written with the wider world.
I’d been working on my Round 1 poem for a few weeks and was chuffed with it.
I thought it had enough rhythm, and gravitas, to see me into Round 2 when I intended to pull out the big guns and head down a more literary, free verse route.
While I couldn’t wait to get started, Tim couldn’t wait to get home. He was the one facing fears that night because ‘arty-farty stuff’ just wasn’t his cup of tea.
I got him another lager.
Eight o’clock and the organiser appeared on stage, the crowd fell silent and the Slam got underway. First came the news that only eight of us would be competing. Fab! Much better odds of being placed, and Tim, who’d been agitating to leave before we’d even arrived, perked up and murmured, ‘We should be home by nine.’
Competitors had two minutes from the moment they began speaking, the judges ringing a bell once time was up – and when, finished or not, you had to stop.
The running order had been picked at random and I was #2, which you might call prophetic, but more on that later.
So up went #1, an edgy, flat-capped chap in a blingy waistcoat and Doc Martens, and he set the bar pretty high.
He was loud, animated, acting his poetry with every fibre of his being, and the audience loved him.
It seemed that it wasn’t so much about the quality of the poetry and more about the energy of the performance.
Two minutes later he jogged off the stage to enthusiastic applause.
Then it was my turn.
And, given what would happen in the subsequent two minutes and three seconds, the weird thing was, as I approached the microphone and got settled in the spotlight, I didn’t feel nervous. . . at all. I’d practiced, a lot, so knew my poem was no more than eighty seconds long, and that was reading it reeaalllly slowwwwwly.
And I’ve never been scared of public speaking – probably helped by being a teacher for twenty years – so talking in front of hundreds of eyes felt easy and natural.
And I’d written a deliberate crowd-pleaser, with a lively tempo, some cool internal rhymes and a little bit of word play.
Okay, it was about dying, but I’d approached the topic in my usual, light-hearted way.
I was 100% ready and raring to go.
Nope. Apparently I wasn’t.
As soon as I opened my mouth, it started.
My voice began quavering, like a pubescent boy who’d been on the helium, and a tremor coursed through me before settling into a pulsing, and very visible, shudder – and which, ironically, was way more rhythmical than my delivery.
Then my throat seemed to swell and close, sweat burst from every pore and I heard a deafening thrumming in my head.
As each physiological symptom worsened, I realised that for the first time in my life I had zero control over myself (discounting my sixteenth birthday where I necked two bottles of wine and spent the evening in a flowerbed on the Kingsway), and it was terrifying.
But, despite my body’s betrayal, I did what anyone would do under such circumstances. . . and just ploughed on through; really, there was no other option since my mobility issues meant doing a runner was impossible.
Plus, I was determined to finish within the two minutes. . . or at least before my voice became audible only to dogs.
And I almost managed it, squeezing out my final line a few seconds after the bell, in a small, squeaky act of rebellion.
I vaguely remember wobbling off stage to sporadic pity-clapping, before downing a pint of cider that didn’t touch the sides – though the relief of it all being over was infinitely more intoxicating. Obviously, I wasn’t going through to Round 2.
But I had company in the joint bottom slot.
Mind, she’d turned up with a butterfly emblazoned across her face, told the organiser he could f*** off if he expected her to stop after two minutes and proceeded to wail for a quarter of an hour whilst strumming erratically – and tunelessly – on her guitar.
Guess I was even worse than I’d thought. Sigh.
If you can’t beat ’em
We stayed til the end though. Tim was all for legging it once I’d been dumped, but I didn’t want to look like a sore loser, and most of the performers – because that’s what they were, true performers, unlike me – put on a really great show.
Clearly, I needed considerably more practice.
But, of all the phobias I’d faced thus far, weirdly, this was my proudest achievement.
Because, as it turns out, it’s the fears you don’t even know you have, the ones that sneak up on you and catch you unawares, that are the real killers.
So yes, I was dreadful, yes, it was mortifying and yes, for the rest of the evening, when I glanced in anyone’s direction, they quickly lowered their eyes or looked away.
But sod ‘em!
I tried, I failed but as Einstein once said, ‘Failure is success in progress.’ And that’s a quote I can actually get behind.
As for my fear programme, I do intend to carry on.
Next week, I’m off to the hairdressers which I realise sounds ridiculous but I’m majorly phobic after I once requested a few highlights and a trim and ended up the spitting image of Keifer Sutherland in The Lost Boys.
Then there’s nuns (those ‘Armchair Thrillers’ of the late 70s were terrifying for a nine-year-old) and anyone clad in head-to-toe yellow oilskins (‘Hammer House of Horror: The Two Faces of Evil’).
Both’ll be tricky to accomplish since traditional black habit sisters and crusty old sea-dogs are thin on the ground around my way.
But they’re deffo on my ‘To Do’ list.
And then I’ll probably be penning and practicing my poetry because, in the immortal words of The Temptations: Slam ’22 – Get ready ‘cause here I come.
And this time, I’m bringing a guitar.
Well, if you can’t beat ‘em. . .
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