I was lucky enough to publish my first poetry pamphlet, “The War with Hannibal”, before the pandemic started: Poetry Salzburg brought it out in October, 2019. My second, “The 3-D Clock”, was published by Dempsey & Windle in March 2020, the same month that the first lockdown started. One reviewer said: “Stephen Claughton can surely take some satisfaction from having two chapbooks published more or less simultaneously. Yet perhaps this is not the most fortunate time for him to be promoting them since the current social isolation policy must be playing havoc with any schedule of readings that he may have organised.” How right he was!
I managed two live readings before lockdown. The first I organised myself in the upstairs room of a local pub to launch “The War with Hannibal”. It was an ideal venue for a poetry reading—no frills and with the all-important bar at the back. That said, it wasn’t exactly a commercial success. Despite the leaflets I’d left at local libraries and bookshops, only ten people turned up, mostly family and friends, three of whom had already been given complimentary copies. I consoled myself with the thought that it was a particularly wet night and I was extremely grateful to those who did turn out. It’s notoriously difficult to attract audiences for poetry readings in England—or readings of any kind. I took heart from the novelist and critic, Ian Sansom, who—in his fascinating book about one of Auden’s poems, “September 1, 1939: Biography”—tells how, at a reading in a library, he was introduced as C. J. Sansom, the best-selling writer of historical crime fiction. “When I explained that I was not, alas, C. J. Sansom, two women in the audience got up and left. Which was fine, really. The other half of the audience remained.”
My second reading was more successful, largely because I had a ready-made audience in the form of a local University of the Third Age (U3A) poetry group. They were very welcoming and several members were kind enough to buy copies of “The War with Hannibal”. They were probably more interested in the poems I read from my proof copy of “The 3-D Clock”, which is about my late mother’s dementia, but as luck would have it I wasn’t due to receive copies for me to sell until later the same day. However, Our Bookshop, in Tring, had already agreed to take copies of “Hannibal” on a sale-or-return basis and I was able to leave some copies of “The Clock” with them, after they arrived. My next readings were to have been with Ver Poets at Books on the Hill in St Albans—a new venture for them—but I was prevented first by illness and then by lockdown. I hope they’ll resume, when things are back to normal.
Since then, all my readings have been via Zoom, most of them arranged by Dempsey & Windle. They included short readings at launches for three other poets (I’d to provided cover endorsements for two of them), as well as a delayed launch of my own pamphlet—and of books by two other Dempsey & Windle poets—the original event having been due to be held in May at The Poetry Café in London. Greg Freeman and Rodney Wood then invited me to read at one of their monthly meetings of Write Out Loud Woking. Here’s a video clip of me reading at that the title poems of the two pamphlets. Since then, I’ve also read online at a Ver Poets members’ evening.
Zoom readings may well continue after the pandemic. The most obvious advantage is that you don’t have to travel. (Woking is the other side of London from me.) Ver Poets in St Albans is more convenient, but only a quarter of its members live locally and Zoom allows the other three-quarters to attend readings and workshops for the first time. Other advantages are that I can hear better and don’t have to project my voice. The disadvantage, of course, is that you don’t meet people in person and can’t chat in groups. There are, too, questions of etiquette. At an actual reading, people usually wait until the end to applaud, but on Zoom they often applaud after each poem. I don’t mind that. The applause is muted, mimed, or signally by emoji and I like to think it replaces the appreciative noises that you hope you might get at the end of a poem in the unmuted, real world. For me, the chat-box is more of a problem. It’s good that participants can write comments on your poems, but it can be distracting if they come while you, or another poet, are reading. And then there’s the question of responding. Even if you’re able to compose a response, while listening at the same time, hitting the send button in the middle of someone else’s poem might seem rather rude, so you have to pick your moment to launch the reply. It would be a lot simpler if people commented during the interval or at the end, as they would do at an actual reading.
However, the biggest problem with virtual readings—the one my reviewer was alluding to—is that you aren’t sitting at a table with a pile of your books or pamphlets in front of you, ready to sign copies for all the people you hope are going to buy them. Perhaps I should start posting links in the chat-boxes to my own and my publishers’ websites. That way, I’d be able to create a virtual table.