When reading a poem to a total stranger, one on one, which uses the noble civic act of blood donation as a tool for unambiguous sexual persuasion, it is difficult to know where to look. Do you go for the thousand-watt stare, broadcasting bawdry directly into your auditor's hesitant eyes? Or gaze inscrutably into the distance, allowing them supply the gaps by conjuring up frankly improbable scenes of depravity from the dark corners of their imagination? How close should we sit to each other, legally? Will they be expecting props?
All of these are questions I was compelled to grapple with by the South Bank Centre, who invited poets from The Emma Press to read mildly erotic verse in a black-curtained booth to any and all members of the general public who could be cajoled to enter. Given my own deep-seated association of unexplained black curtains with the more fatal side of Harry Potter's Department of Mysteries, it felt like any such decision wouldn't have been taken lightly, so I was keen to perform to the best of my ability.
'We've been having a bit of a boring day,' said two people who had just arrived at the Festival of Love. 'So we're hoping you can spice things up.' Could I? The weight of the erotic world was on my shoulders. It was getting hot in there, though mostly because of the three red lights angled towards my chair, the whole experience clearly visible from the street outside through a plate-glass window, my sheaf of papers quivering in my hands. I felt like a rare species of insect pinned in a museum display cabinet, with a mysterious uplight on its butter-flies. I wanted simultaneously to tell my listeners: 'This is my first time,' and 'It isn't always like this.'
As it turns out, I needn't have worried. Though I occasionally felt the urge to avert my gaze like a blushing schoolboy caught doing something illicit beneath his desk, everyone who came to listen was remarkably accommodating. As ever in the South Bank Centre - unlike most mainstream literary events - there were visitors from a variety of backgrounds, many with little prior experience of poetry, who simply couldn't resist the temptation. These ranged from the Argentinian woman to whom I accidentally gave a free poem as an impromptu memento, to the three French teenagers who didn't understand a word I read, to the Australian joker who claimed to be expecting a palm-reading and, my favourite of all, the same-sex couple from Brighton who revealed in a love letter at Emma's adjacent table that they had been together for 33 years. No one asked me any prying questions, no one's eyes widened in appalled dismay, and nobody fled in disgust and tears, which trial and error have led me to believe is the sign of a successful erotic encounter.
Of course, some approaches worked better than others. I found that my (non-autobiographical) poem, 'Projections', which contrasts a boring partner with an exciting new prospect, was less than ideal for an intimate performance when half of the lines required me to deliver insults like 'There is an empty socket in your soul which paper couldn't stuff, should it exist' to a less-than-titillated punter. Poems with stronger rhythms had a better chance of engaging audiences whose first language wasn't English, and it was difficult to properly gauge how down an individual listener would be for a somewhat bracing piece centring on the 'small, surprised, exhausted flood' of a midge swatted against a lover's thigh. But then, if you were planning to play it safe, would you really agree to step into a mildly erotic poetry booth in the first place?
My one regret for the Festival of Love opening weekend is that I didn't get to explore the zones set up for the remaining six types of love, all of them different in presentation as well as concept (though I for one would have loved to listen to some mildly pragmatic poetry.)
Spending nearly three hours, on and off, providing on-tap eroticism, was a somewhat draining experience, though by no means something I'd never do again - not least because of the (stop it) pleasure it seemed to bring to a wide and varied audience. But then, I was only the reader, and I don't know if you should just take my word for it. If anyone reading popped their head around the curtain, it seems only fair to ask: how was it for you?
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