It Turns Out All Poetry is Improv…

Ahead of The Word’s A Stage on Tuesday 14 April, we catch up with Becci Fearnley, one of the young writers who will be taking to the stage on the night to showcase a new collaborative improvised spoken word piece.

It Turns Out All Poetry is Improv…

I’ve been writing poetry since I was eleven years old, having discovered Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ in the back room of my junior school, and deciding that I wanted to be able to use words as skilfully as that. I’ve also been teaching for three years, in between which, I get up on small stages across London and the South of England and speak poetry into microphones to rooms full of mostly drunk people. Whether they are drunk on alcohol or drunk on words is often difficult to tell. I have often referred to teaching as ‘Professional Improvisation’, and I suppose it’s true. It’s just unfortunate that your audience are very, very happy to make it extremely clear when you’ve slipped up.

Nonetheless, I met up with Robin Vaughan-Williams and three other lovely young poets in a small Costa outside the Free Word Centre with some apprehension. Russell, Apples and SnakesLondon Programme Coordinator, had emailed me a few previously to ask me to be part of this project, and I’d only seen the word ‘improvisation’, after I’d said yes. I spent the whole train journey from Reading (where I live) to Farringdon, thinking, but I’m a POET! I write on paper! I like going on stage PREPARED!

RVW-Jawdance_271113_SqAs I walked into Costa, hiding a cardboard cup of tea that I had definitely not bought from Costa, I expected Robin to be a flourishing, flamboyant thespian with Shakespearean frills and a scarf. I don’t know why. It just struck me that anyone who was happy to get up on stage without a clue what they were going to do had to have a certain amount of Jacobean confidence and flare. I expected I would know Robin immediately I walked into the room. Actually, it was another poet sitting at the table that I recognised, that drew me to the correct group. Robin himself was unassuming, quiet, gentle, calm and patient. Essentially, everything I am not. He was wearing a plain sweater and drinking a coffee. And I thought…oh…and felt considerably better.

We worked solidly that first Saturday. And the Saturday after, and the evening after work that I rushed into London to work with the others for two hours. We wrote and then, (horror!) stood in a circle and improvised some words into a Dictaphone. The first time, the outcome was…interesting.

Not bad, but certainly not confident and flourishing and Jacobean. We were all terrified, none of us knew what we were doing, every single one of us at some point, I am certain, stopped and thought, did I just say that? That doesn’t make any sense! We got on with each other in a simple, polite, artistic sense, enjoyed the experience but I, at least for my part, came away from that first workshop thinking, am I actually cut out for this?

It turns out, though, that poetry is almost always improvisation. As I went home, settled down at my desk and began to write the poems Robin had asked me to write, I seemed at one point to step out of myself, watch my pen flying across the page and think, this is it! I’m improvising! It wasn’t out loud. Yes, I would have time to edit it, but what was coming out of my head and onto the page was entirely spontaneous. Yet, I did this every day. This was writing. All I was doing on stage, I thought, was cutting out the medium of the page and writing the poetry straight into the air. Simple, right? It didn’t even require literacy.

FB bigSince that realisation, the workshops with Robin, though no less tiring, have taken on a suddenly visceral quality. We began to hesitate less, interrupt each other more, push our stories, question each other, contradict each other, drop ideas that would make each other laugh. Last time, the three female poets in the room, myself included (our male poet was absent at the time, though I’m certain he would have joined in), descended into a fit of such hysterical laughter at our sharp ability to leap off each other that it took Robin ages to get us started. Patient, as always, he got us going in the end and for the first time, our improvisations took on a narrative quality. We told the room stories of a girl whose body turned into foam on the ocean, and of a narrator whose brother had fallen out of a tree and his voice had become butterflies. Suddenly, our poetry had leapt from the slim, co-operative dimension of the page to the turbulence of mouth and air and ear. We were each other’s instruments. The collaboration was refreshing. We stole lines, nicked ideas, recycled old phrases and pretended we’d just thought of them ourselves. Or I did, at least. It’s lovely to work with other poets. They tuck all sorts of beautiful language behind your teeth.

On Tuesday 14 April, we take to The Word’s A Stage platform at Free Word Centre to showcase our bizarre, other-worldly adventure across the landscape of spoken language. It will be weird, because that was what our journey was like. But it will also be an experiment in communication. With more and more artistic organisations collapsing due to lack of funding, having to cut back or being suddenly unable to support young artists, experiments like this provide a space for us to re-teach ourselves how to speak. We spend so much time perplexed at our own silence. Thank you Robin, and Andrea, and Zahrah, and Sean, and Apples and Snakes, for reminding me to practise the strength of my voice.

For all The Word’s A Stage details, and to book your ticket, visit the event page here. To keep up with the latest news follow #TheWordsAStage or join the Facebook Event.