Davy Charles tells us how taking up performance poetry has transformed his confidence.
Time and time over, in the hope that chance would side with me, I went against insurmountable odds and came up empty-handed. Throughout my life I have tried many different ways of combating my stammer, but it wasn't until I started doing performance poetry that I started thinking about it in a new and unusual way.
Growing up on a tiny Caribbean island where people spoke both English and French, having a stammer did nothing but double the number of languages I couldn't express myself in. My schoolteacher pretty much forced me into seeing a speech therapist. Going for therapy meant crossing the island on my own - I was only nine. But I was met with sheer disappointment, all my expectations flattened. I was given a few speaking exercises and told to breathe more. Where was the magic fix? None of it sunk in and after a dozen sessions I quit.
When we moved to England in 2001 I had the chance to reinvent myself. I could leave the old me behind, stammer and all. I began making conscious efforts to speak fluently. But when I blocked, my self-awareness heightened, in turn exacerbating it and creating a cycle of tortuous mental exertion. But I kept pushing, putting myself in situations I hated, like speaking on the phone (I took a job in a call centre). I hoped with each confrontation my speech would improve, but it didn’t. There it was, like an unwanted extra limb forcing people to find somewhere else to look as it fumbled into the conversation.
Looking for a new creative outlet and challenge, I started doing performance poetry in 2013 through what I can only describe as divine intervention. One restless night I woke up at 4am and knew immediately I wasn't going back to sleep. Lying there, it came to me; the first lines of what I later knew to be a poem, a poem I later called ‘The Story Of Your Opinion’, which had probably been buried inside me my whole life, as I've spent so much time worrying about others' perception of me.
I found a poetry event and went along, performing my poem ‘Frankenstein Love’. I remembered to compensate for my stammer; when I felt a block coming, I simply spoke faster and a lot of that poem was mostly inaudible through a combination of nerves and difficulty pronouncing the sounds, syllables and rhythms. I later joined a group called Gorilla Poetry. We have just about every type of poet, from classical to performance-based poets, even MCs. Styles, tone and content vary wildly, offering me a wealth of inspiration. Every time I think I've progressed and expanded my range, we get someone new performing who completely changes everything about what I thought poetry could be. Performing quickly becomes addictive. The feedback I get from audiences is something I can no longer live without.
Each of us has our own rhythm, our own pulse and once we discover it, once we discover ourselves, we can then tap into our full potential.
I realised that it’s all about rhythm. The way I spoke fluently by connecting to the rhythm of the poem was symbolic of how each of us has our own rhythm, our own pulse and once we discover it, once we discover ourselves, we can then tap into our full potential.
I realised I didn’t believe in that still voice inside. Self doubt, shyness and lack of conviction constantly shouted over it. I realised that breathing is listening. Speaking is a call and answer. That still voice calls, you inhale then answer by breathing out. Thanks to this new understanding of myself and my impediment, my speech is now much improved, but still far from perfect. There's infinite room for you to grow, once you lose that negative clutter.
2013 was one of the best years of my life. I won the top prize at the Word Emporium in Leeds, part of the Love Arts Festival and I also became Grand Bard of Gorilla Poetry. As Grand Bard of the collective I host its open mics and ‘slams’, which requires a lot of quick thinking - I'm getting better at it. At a recent slam, one performer got very nervous and left the stage after delivering only two lines - she was visibly distressed. In these tense and delicate moments I get nervous too and when I went onto the mic I stammered quite badly in trying to move the show forward with sensitivity. I'm now working with local film companies to create a series of spoken word videos which I will distribute online and through social networking.
I can’t describe what all this has done for my self-belief – not just as a poet, but as a human being. All of us have a voice, but now I know I have something to say. When I sit and properly reflect on how much I've grown in terms of confidence and the performance of my poetry, I get frightened. I used to look at confident people and think, ‘I'll never be that comfortable in front of everyone, I'll never be so calm and collected’. Now, just a year later, my nerves are virtually gone. Virtually...
Watch Davy performing ‘Sometimes I Stutter’ at www.davycharles.co.uk. He will feature in a BBC Radio 4 documentary on Thursday 17th April at 1:45pm, available on iPlayer after that.
From Speaking Out Spring 2014, p6