Poem: Sometimes before a reading...
4th August 2023
Published poet Liz Diamond tells us the story behind her poem about stammering. Watch her perform it below too.
Sometimes before a reading…
By Liz Diamond
I like to warn you about this stammering thing.
The way words may stick in my throat sometimes
refuse to come out smoothly. Perhaps I do it
to allay your embarrassment when it happens.
To pretend I am cool about it, unfazed.
Or because if I come out of the closet, so to speak
the thing will happen less, as much of what
happens, happens because I am trying hard
to pretend it will not happen, so it does.
Anyway, I know that you think this stammering
thing is confined to what you hear. The tangled words,
the repetitions. And sometimes what you fail
to hear. The sudden shock of a silence in a place
where it isn't supposed to be. And usually
it is enough that you think that.
But I would like to tell you now, just to be cussed,
that it goes much further back. Back beyond
the moment when you hear it happen. It goes back
to a dread in the pit of my stomach hours before,
even days before a reading, as I trawl through
poems to vet them for danger. The plosive
consonants in initial positions, the words with
multiple syllables, the ones that might activate
some hidden half-baked trauma.
But to be honest, much further, much further
back. To the schoolgirl who sat in the back row
of classrooms and rarely put her hand up
to volunteer known answers to questions,
who trembled in her shoes, waiting for the register
call to get to her name. Who couldn't sleep a wink
the night before French Oral. Who feared to ask
for things in shops, or strangers for directions.
To phone calls not returned or made. Journeys
never taken. Opportunities never sought.
Dreams never wished for or fulfilled.
But to avoid my embarrassment, and maybe
your own, let's go back to pretending when I warn you
before a reading about this stammering thing
that it is just confined to what you hear. The words
that in the moment fail to come out smoothly.
Barely worth mentioning.
Nothing at all.
About me and my poem
I am a Picador published novelist and poet, and often read my work at open mic events. I am also a creative writing teacher.
In my younger days, my stammer was very interiorised and I spent my late childhood, teenage years and early adult life seeking to avoid revealing my stammering to the world. This led to me making choices such as a very early marriage and motherhood rather than go to university, as I thought I would be virtually unemployable. I would not even make a phone call or answer the phone in front of anyone else, and interviews were a source of terror!
My first step to liberation came when I eventually sought help from a speech & language therapist at the age of twenty four. Before then, I had spoken about my stammer to no one, and as I stammered very little at home, even my parents didn't really know about it, and certainly didn't know what an enormous source of anxiety it was for me.
I wrote this poem to introduce to people at poetry open mic nights the true dilemma that many stammerers are faced with. It isn't just what it sounds like. It's what goes on inside.
This heralded the first of what was to be a total of three intensive courses for people who stammer, where I learnt speech and breathing techniques to increase my fluency. Even more importantly, I learnt to chip away at that fear, anxiety and sense of shame about being someone who stammers.
Over the next few years my confidence grew enormously and I started teacher training at the age of 29, which would have been unthinkable in my earlier years.
I'm 70 now. I still stammer occasionally and still sometimes avoid speaking situations. I wrote this poem to introduce to people at poetry open mic nights the true dilemma that many stammerers are faced with. It isn't just what it sounds like. It's what goes on inside. The poem has received a lot of positive feedback at poetry events. People are touched by it and want to share stories of friends or relatives they have known that stammer.
Watch Liz performing her poem below:
Read more Your Voice pieces from people who stammer and their allies.