Oi you lot, guess what.
No wait, don’t guess, because there’s no point, because I’m going to tell you in around a hundred and fifty words’ time, and anyway you lack the means to actually respond to me beyond yelling at your laptop screen and, though it certainly tickles me to imagine you getting all red faced hollering at a small plastic oblong, in the end t’would be only a waste of both your time and mine, although I suppose I’ve already wasted my time by writing this – and wasted yours by making you read it – and so basically, what I really want to say is: I am deeply sorry for ever starting this sentence which is, to be frank, so lengthy as to be obscene, and I wouldn’t at all blame you if you logged off your computer right now and went for a lie down rather than read the rest of this god-forsaken shit-heap of an article.
Anyway, here’s what: I did spoken word man!
Now, there’s a high chance that this enthusiastic declaration means absolutely nothing to you, and so I shall add context. I’ve been attending a spoken word night at a bar in Neukolln for the past 15 months or so. The night is called Berlin Spoken Word and the venue is a charming little bar called Du Beast; all candlelit gloom and ringlets of artist cigarette smoke hovering around the rafters. Not that there are exposed rafters. But it’s definitely the kind of venue that could totally pull off exposed rafters.
Berlin Spoken Word is typically comprised of poems, stories, song, rap, and general literary goodness. Some people smash it, some people very much do not smash it, but they are clapped warmly all the same. It’s a friendly crowd full of familiar faces; the Berlin writers’ circuit is pretty small, and any time I attend a book launch or writers’ workshop, I can guarantee I’ll recognise a couple of faces – which is lovely, and builds a nice little sense of community. To be honest, a regret of mine of my time living here is that I didn’t attend more of these events. It’s only as the sun sets on my time in Berlin that I’ve discovered a bustling network of literary shin-diggery; something every single night if you’re committed.
That said, I struggle to commit fully to just sitting down and writing (and yes I know I’m going off topic here, I am aware, shut up). I won’t ever be the kid to sack off his friends on a Friday evening and instead pootle home to tap away at his next novella. Fair play to folks who have that level of commitment, but to me writing has always been reporting on life, which means prioritising, you know, actually going out and doing things. You have your adventures, you reflect on them, you write them down for preservation and entertainment.
Now, I’ve never performed at Du Beast, mostly out of blind fear. Plus, I dunno, I never really thought I had anything worth reading. My Berlin Diaries feel under-developed and whimsical; my more serious political/ranting articles can come across a bit self-aggrandizing. However, I’m leaving this city in just over four weeks – nothing – and I’d be damned if I was going to part ways with Berlin without trying my hand at spoken word.
I headed down last Thursday evening around 7pm supping a roadie for courage. I sat reading, waiting for the bookish masses to arrive. There are around 80 people in attendance at the average Berlin Spoken Word. When the founders started it a couple of years ago it was just four or five scruffy writers in a basement, but the reputation of the night has grown such that now they pack out the place. I nursed a second beer, quietly annoyed that the booze wasn’t doing more to quell my jangling nerves.
The organiser, Naniso, passed me on the way to the bar and I tapped him and requested to sign up without allowing myself any time to actually consider what I was doing. If ever ye be afeared to give something a whirl, that’s the trick – commit fast as a lash before your body realises what you’ve done and tries to turn tail. I told Naniso it was my first time, and requested quietly that I not be the opening act. Which was incredibly stupid on my part.
My not going first meant that I was stuck for the next 30 minutes watching poets and writers come take their turn, spend their five minutes, and leave the stage to applause in sweet relief. All the while I sat with my heart hammering, attempting to slouch amicably to disguise the sheer terror squeezing my brain, trying my best not to count the amount of people in the room, trying to ignore the throngs of latecomers that were streaming in and having to stand at the back of the basement because they were all out of seats. Then: finally, finally, my name was called.
‘Okay so next up we have a first time performer – please welcome Dan!’
My heart leapt out of me and my instincts took over, and to be completely honest with you I don’t remember much. I know that I received cheers and clapping before I’d even left my seat – a warm welcome to ease the nerves of a newbie. I was endlessly grateful for this, and felt my frail ego bolstered slightly. I stood before the assembled writers and poets and storytellers of Berlin, every eye on me, spotlight glaring at me, and I suddenly became aware of how quiet everything was. Void of noise, everyone very still. Then it dawned on me that it fell to me to fill the next five minutes of silence.
I decided earlier in the week that I wasn’t going to read a pre-existing piece, not only because I felt insecure about the quality of my writing, but because, when reading it aloud earlier in the week (in my bedroom, to an audience of old socks), I sounded wooden and clunky; a bit ‘high school drama student’. So I made the choice to tell a true story that I’ve never written down. I thought it’d allow me room to improvise, engage with the audience, and move around freely without having to refer to a scrap of quivering paper clenched in my palm. And so I began. It went like this:
“Hey, so… I’ve been coming here for about a year now [cheers], but I’ve never read anything before, mostly out of sheer terror [cheers and laughter]. I’ve got a story to tell you. I don’t have anything written down, so it might be a bit freeform but… we’ll see how it goes. So, it was Friday night, and I was drunk…”
And I went on to tell one of the wildest stories I have – a story that I can’t possibly write here, I’m afraid, but perhaps if I know you and you ask me nicely I’ll tell you in person – and as each successive sentence brought in new waves of laughter, I felt my confidence grow. Everyone was looking at me, listening, attentive, smiling up at me. It was intoxicating. Usually everybody talks over me; I’m not very assertive, but suddenly I found an audience that were laughing, clicking fingers and gasping over my story. I’ve never felt anything like it.
I had a vague outline of the story in my head – it’s all true, of course, but there were certain details I wanted to spend more time on, while brushing aside some more mundane aspects – however, with the crowd on my side, I decided to take my time. 5 minute time slot be damned, I was enjoying myself. I didn’t feel self conscious at all; the laughter was so warm and friendly and raucous that I felt completely at ease, as though I was recalling a treasured memory among close friends.
There is a key point in the story that always brings down the house, and I was terrified of voicing it and hearing crickets. I reached the crescendo of the story, paused for effect, and dropped the line.
And thank fuck, it worked. The kids in the front row were rolling around, slapping their thighs. I sound like I’m making this up but it’s all true. I was thrilled to be so accepted. From then on, I added new details I’d previously decided to omit, went off on tangents, gave brief little character profiles and anecdotes to paint a more vivid pictures, and swore like a sailor on bath salts . I loved every second of it. I’ve always loved telling stories, but I’ve never ever had such a large, attentive audience. It was wonderful.
I reached the end of the story, and with my newfound confidence decided to end on a line I’d been toying with all day:
“And the silver lining to all of this… is that he hugs me now.”
I like that line. I thought it gives what is really a very silly, surreal and shocking story a tender close, with a nice little dab of humour. I smiled to myself as the room laughed once more, and shuffled off the stage and back to my seat to a chorus of cheers. I don’t think I’ve ever been cheered like that. I felt a foot taller.
A few months back I wrote about my friends DJing, and how although I’m so proud, seeing them play to a packed club makes me a little sad – because they’re really getting their moment in the sun; a stage on which they can shine and explode and give it all they’re worth – and I’ll never have that. I wrote about how there’s no parallel for writers – you sit alone and type and, though people can read your words, nobody sees you in motion, vital, vivid. People only read your own second-hand, rough approximation of what you’ve done and who you are – or more likely, who you hope to be.
But, on the stage in Du Beast, with the spotlight blinding me and a hundred smiling faces looking up at me, I finally got to experience it – to be fleetingly embody everything I hope to be one day; to be interesting and funny and clever and charismatic, just for five little minutes. I was on a high for days after.
I’ll definitely be signing up again at Berlin Spoken Word before I leave the city, and, in any future city that I call home, I’ll be seeking out the open mics and spoken words and book launches and workshops. Because down there, surrounded by writers and poets and storytellers, I felt like the most wonderful version of myself. And, I’ve got to tell you, that’s pretty fucking moreish.