Be quiet and listen

Open mic nights are wonderful spaces. They are brilliant places to try new work in front of audiences and get instant feedback. But more than that, they are places where you can listen to the voices of others and learn from them. It’s essential in these times to be in the same space as others and listen to their words.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been going to a lot of poetry nights in Bristol. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the different nights the city has to offer. I read, nervously at first, but then relaxing into having a space to speak. More than that though, I appreciate listening to varied voices in each night. The joy of open mics is everyone gets their turn to speak. So you hear a huge variety of people from all different backgrounds reading poetry. It can be hugely powerful to hear marginalised voices that you wouldn’t normally be exposed to.

There are people in all open mics who turn up, read their pieces and then disappear. I’d argue these people are missing the point. You read your stuff, yes, but the whole point of the night should be to listen to the other people around you. The nights are not only about you. It’s an exercise in quieting the ego and making sure you stay grounded.

Making art, especially writing, can be a lonely business, so it’s nights like these that link you to a community of people who are doing the same thing. It shows you are not alone in your endeavours and helps you carry on. By listening to others, it also exposes you to different stories, different references, different ways of seeing the world.

Politicians and reactionary tabloids often push simple narratives as a way of managing dissent. The world works like this. Those people are not like you. They exploit and perpetuate prejudice for power. Open mic nights dismantle these simple stories. They allow you to hear other people’s stories from all different backgrounds and empathise with them. It can be incredibly powerful to be in the same room as people and hear their poetry. In these days where we form so many of our opinions online, it is essential to have real-life spaces where marginalised voices can speak freely. It’s also important for privileged people like me to be quiet and listen. Listening becomes a revolutionary act because you are giving your attention to others. It would be a better world if we stopped shouting and allowed others to speak. So stay and linger a while, engage with voices that are not your own. It might be good for you and the world.

The Sound of Silence

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a Quaker wedding. 1 As part of the ceremony, we sat in silence for close to an hour, punctuated now and then by someone speaking briefly, then lapsing back into silence. It was an unusual ceremony. I felt uncomfortable in the silence. I had the urge to speak, to do something to break the quiet. Other people who weren’t Quakers found it difficult as well. Personally, I think I am not used to that amount of quiet contemplation. I was reminded of the famous Blaise Pascal quote: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

We rarely have silence in our lives. Or rather, we have moments of silence, but never moments of stillness as well. To sit for an hour, not doing anything apart from listening to your own thoughts is an intimidating process. Yet it’s something Quakers seek out in their practice. Other religious practices do the same thing, with silent prayer and long meditations. I’m not a religious man, but I have found smaller doses of silence an effective tool to clear out the noise and focus on the signal.

Generally, I think we need to seek out these still moments. It’s important for art and for your own health, even if it’s only for ten or so minutes. The world is only getting noisier and more frantic day by day. If you stop for a moment, you can hear what you actually think. You can hear all the nonsense that churns around in your head day by day. If you do it enough, you might actually realise what you want.

The only problem is that this process is hard and uncomfortable. We crave stimulation at all time and even ten minutes of silence can be too much. Added to the fact that true silence doesn’t really exist, unless you’re holding your breath in the void of space. It seems such an alien thing to do. I struggled with it in the wedding. The silence becomes oppressive and all-encompassing. Time moves slower. The temptation is to say or do something to break the silence.

This process of silence is essential for the creation of new work. You need to be able to listen to the world and listen to yourself as well. It’s often hard to figure out exactly what the interesting part of the work is. Focusing on the work is another issue, especially in the age of constant distraction. If I’m stuck on a piece of writing, I try to put it aside and either sit in silence for a bit or go for a walk without listening to any music. It allows me to figure out what I really want to communicate. By removing audio stimulation, I am able to focus easier.

Wendell Berry said it best in How to be a Poet:

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

Please read the whole poem, because it is masterful. I especially love these lines. It shows that poetry and the art of creation is a sacred practice. It should be treated with reverence, like a prayer. It’s communing with your subconscious in a way that doesn’t happen very often in modern life. In this way, we can create something new.

Like all this advice I give, I’m not brilliant at incorporating silence into my life.2 It’s hard to find the time. I feel guilty for not writing or reading in my limited spare time. But I’ve started walking home in silence, not listening to a podcast or music. It’s helped my mind roam and ruminate over thoughts and concepts. Occasionally I write down a line or two, but that’s not the purpose. It’s time to check in with myself and figure out what’s going on.

We need less stimulation than we think we do. We would all do well to sit quietly in a room alone.