Picture of simulated torture with a red-hot poker
(I STRESS THIS IS NOT A REAL SITUATION)
I was very chuffed to be asked to read from my most recent poetry collection, Clawed Rains, at the Papanui and Central Tuam libraries in Christchurch. The readings were scheduled at 11am and 2pm last Saturday, 1st September.
The first was at Papanui library and I was a little taken aback by the indifferent reception I received from the librarians when I arrived. It seemed at odds with the email I'd received from the person coordinating the visits who'd said that these libraries had "requested" a reading.
As I had come early ( as is my habit), a librarian took me into their staff room for a cup of tea and we had a nice chat about her recent holiday to California. Then when it was nearly time, I was directed to the space where I'd be reading. I asked a librarian if they would do an announcement over their PA to let people know the reading was about to begin. I'm not sure if they had a PA, but one librarian just announced (in a conversational tone) to the ring of computers occupied mainly by teenagers that the poetry reading was about to begin.
I had intended to read for 20 minutes to half an hour depending on audience reaction and throw in a flash fiction story at the end just to mix it up a bit.
Well, I waited...and waited...people went about their business...a teenage boy went behind me to search the graphic novel shelf...my heart lifted...a young Mum came and sat on a sofa opposite...but, no, she was merely seeking a comfy spot in order to read a board book to her daughter...glance nervously at my watch: 11.05am...standing there like a dork...should I just start proclaiming and hope the power of my voice and the magnetic attraction of my wit draws the punters, rousing them from their stupor...glance embarrassingly at my watch: 11.10am...no, I'd feel like an absolute spoon reading to an audience of no one...just one dewy-eyed punter, please...I'll give them my all...they'll walk away thinking they've heard the JFK of poetry, such will be the impact of my oratory...11.15am, not a single soul appears...11.16am, I slink out of Papanui Library, chastened, with my tail between my legs.
In between gigs, I go home to extract some sympathy from my wife and children. My 9-year-old Number One Fan says: "Don't worry, Daddy, you're a good poet. I love your poetry."
1.45pm, I tentatively enter Central Tuam Library and state my purpose. A very kind, smiling librarian shows me to a large table in the Aotearoa Collection Reference room. Signs are hopeful. Posters are up displaying my wrinkled, but smiling, visage. Large signs direct punters to the reading space.
While waiting for the allotted time, I sneak into the aisles of the Reference collection to look for Aotearoa Sunrise, my short story collection, which the catalogue tells me is held at 823 BEL. I can't find it. Has someone stolen it? New Zealand fiction from the 1930s and 1940s is there, but not my baby, bursting fresh from the 21st century. I try to kid/console myself. Someone liked it so much that they felt compelled to steal it and keep for their own. OR someone is, at this very moment, reading it somewhere in the Collection room.
It's a lovely space and a large oil painting of Margaret Mahy stares down at me, willing me to success, with those much-missed and much-beloved laughing eyes.
2pm comes. No punters drift in, eager for literary nourishment. The odd person passes by the entrance to the room-within-a-room that is the Aotearoa Collection and glances in with mild curiosity. Probably thinking, what's that dick doing standing there all alone at that table?
2.05pm, a single librarian enters and takes a seat at the table near me. We talk and she tells me about her long-ago but fascinating Library Exchange to Dorset, England for a year.
2.10pm, the single librarian says, why don't I just start reading and see what happens. I'll read to you, I tell her. She is mildly chuffed to be the sole recipient of my artistic outpourings. I read her an amusing poem first to soften her up. Afterlife Airlines. Then I tax her compassionate side by reading a poem about the English child migrants sent out after World War II as virtual slaves to "the Colonies". The poem is called Silent Night. She makes admiring noises.
2.15pm, like sharks using their ampullae of Lorenzini to detect the electromagnetic fields of fish in distress, two more librarians have sensed me flailing in abject desperation and glide in quietly like Grey Nurses and slide into seats beside their colleague. Now I have an audience of three!!! Oh bliss!!!
I amend the running time somewhat but now I'm in full stride, laying poetic gems on them, left, right and centre. I finale (is that a verb, well it is now) with a flash fiction, Ubermenschen, a story about a Holocaust survivor.
So I leave Central Tuam library, buoyed by my kind reception from the three lovely librarians, but wondering that if you are not a "name" writer with some extensive pre-publicity, you are likely to find that the average library patron equates the words, "poetry reading", with the experience of having their eyes seared with hot pokers. Poetry smoetry, I only come here to access the internet and take out Hot Rods Monthly.