Niall O'Sullivan

high brow, low brow, none of that stuff in the middle

On poets that read poems in their profile pictures

Posted on | January 2, 2017 | No Comments

My profile picture if Facebook was around in 2003

My social media bubble is mainly populated by images of people speaking into microphones. Some of them exhibit very awkward postures. Sometimes their hand is blurred in the middle of some involuntary gesture. Sometimes you can almost make out the slight tremor registering on a sheet of paper clasped tightly.

By contrast, a social media page of a successful performer won’t feature a picture of them speaking into a microphone. After all, you already know that they are a poet and so they are free to emphasise some other aspect of their persona — normally a quirky or humble one.

To be frank, I have cultivated a habit of ignoring friend requests from strangers with this kind of profile picture. This was because accepting most of these friend requests would result in very little meaningful contact bar the odd invitation to a gig a few hundred miles from where I live.

Now that I’ve figured out how to block people from sending gig invites, I accept more friend requests. Some are slick and professional looking, especially the dynamically posed performers, while others are quite moving in their amateurishness. I don’t invoke that word lightly, amateurs are so named because they do what they do for the love of it. Professionals, with their carefully posed humblebrag pics from their latest residency or British Council placement, are bores.

I’m looking at one of the beautiful amateurs right now. The subject gazes intensely at their sheet of paper, their head bowed and shadowed, the mic almost obscuring their face completely. The fact that they have chosen it as a profile picture seems to say “Yes, this is me, I am a POET!!!”

But the picture itself says the opposite, “Yes, I am reading a poem but please don’t look at me…

Maybe I’m getting soppier in mid life but something about this sets my top lip aquiver. It’s similar to how I feel whenever someone informs me that they are “a published poet”. Where I once used to think, “Get over yerself mate” I now think, “Oh bless you, bless your precious heart…” and inwardly weep.

I’m reminded of people who read for the first time at Unplugged, often posing for a photo in front of the banner during the break — sometimes asking me to move out of the way first. They are my favourites.

Getting up there and sharing your work is a big thing. I know of experienced performers in other arts who have suffered crippling anxiety before reading their poems for the first time in front of a small audience. A picture of someone on stage reading a poem is often a testament to them doing something they initially found to be intimidating and forbidding.

Ask anyone why they feel nervous before reading a poem in front of an audience for the first time and the answer is often the same. They feel that someone in the audience will perceive them as a fraud. Poems are for smart, cultured people, not normal everyday people. They feel that their poem isn’t a real poem, perhaps because it’s funny, perhaps because it’s not funny. Perhaps because it’s political, perhaps because it’s too personal. Perhaps because it doesn’t rhyme, or because it’s doggerel.

However, in the few minutes they spend on stage, most of them work out that it doesn’t really matter. They’ve already made friends among those in the audience or have worked out that a lot of poets present are more worried about their own spot.

In this sense, when you look carefully at one of these many profile pictures, you’ll perhaps get a sense of them saying Up yours! to every elitist, culture vulture or deputy head who said that they weren’t capable of such things.

Even now, my own profile picture on this site is of me speaking into a microphone. A microphone with a blue pop guard, the unmistakable unwashed yellow hue of the Unplugged banner in the background. Perhaps it’s because there were no social media sites or phone cameras around when I first did it. Perhaps because stepping up to a mic gives me the same old feeling as it used to — of showing some phantom chorus of doubters, still wagging fingers and murmuring at the back of my skull, that they were wrong.

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  • insta-haiku (hover over picture to see the poem)


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