For Shame of Doing Right

Richard Thompson wrote the song “For Shame of Doing Wrong”. Sandy Denny (in my view one of the greatest ever female singers), turned it into “I wish I was a fool for you again”.

A few of my poet friends have written and talked recently about the feeling of shame, and its involvement in the writing process.

Marianne Musgrove wrote about it on her blog:

Shame can block us from being creative. Being creative exposes us to criticism, reveals our vulnerability, our fear of rejection. A lot of poets I know, especially women it seems, devalue their work and / or don’t like to promote themselves.  Yet to me, they are clearly incredibly talented poets.

Last night I competed in, and won the World Poetry Day Poetry Slam in Adelaide.  I’ve placed in slams before and won minor competitions. But this is the first serious slam I’ve actually won.

I have my lovely niece, Catherine Ford, and her best friend Kate Lang, staying with me for two weeks, visiting from Cambridge, England. They’d never been to a poetry slam before. We’d spent the day cycling, and then rushed into town to catch the slam.

I did everything you’re not meant to do. I didn’t learn my poem. I hardly prepared at all. And then, during the pre-slam announcements, I changed my mind about the poem I would perform. What could possibly go wrong?

I ended up being relaxed and enjoying myself, which of course is how you always want to feel when you’re competing.

The reason I changed poems at the last minute, was that the wonderful M.C., Daniel Watson, mentioned that one of the drivers for slams was that audiences often found poetry boring; that slams are a way of getting audiences more involved in poetry. “Audience Involvement”. Aha! I have a piece called “Selfish Bastards” (written for Tracey Korsten’s “Word Box” event, which also encourages audience participation). I quickly dug out the words for it, from the little spiral bound journal I had with me.  The audience were very participative, and  I quickly had them all shouting “Selfish Bastards!” after every stanza of my poem. It was great fun.

What’s this got to do with shame and Sandy Denny?  Maybe not much, except that I ended up winning the slam. Two of the five judges gave me 10/10.  I won $100.  All for an unrehearsed, unprepared poem that I read from the page.

That’s when a sort of shame feeling can jump out and grab you. If you’re not careful, you can find yourself saying things like: “It was just luck”,”I didn’t deserve to win”, “The judges got it wrong”, “It was a fluke”, “He / She deserved it more than me” etc.

These days I can recognise those voices for what they are, but certainly it’s something to watch out for. My generation was brought up “to be seen not heard”, to not brag or stand out from the crowd. The teachers (mostly priests or ex-priests) at the Catholic Boys’ Grammar school I attended, mostly told us over and over that we would never amount to much. When you’re young and impressionable, those messages can sink deep into your subconscious.

Winning can take some getting used to.

I’m sorry for the things I’ve said, the things I’ve done
I’m sorry for the restless thief I’ve been
Please don’t make me pay for my deceiving heart
Just turn up your lamp and let me in
(Richard Thompson: "For Shame of Doing Wrong")

copyright Mike Hopkins 2013

17 thoughts on “For Shame of Doing Right

  1. Congratulations Mike! I’m sorry I wasn’t there (although I remember the poem well from Word Box and as an audience-member I couldn’t help but yell out “selfish bastards”!)

  2. “Selfish Bastards” is a fabulous interactive piece. Well-deserved win. Really enjoyed your comments about shame. Playing a drama warm-up game last, we had to talk for a minute on various topics (not something I ever have a problem with!), but when the topic was “Something you’ve done which you are ashamed of” I clammed up. Total paralysis. Might need to write my way through that one!! Congratulations on the win

    • Thanks TK. It was your requirement for “audience participation” which precipitated the poem. I think I said to you beforehand something like “not sure if I’ll look a complete dill when I try this one”.

  3. Woo hoo ! Well done Mike and *well deserved* to boot. You will just have to make peace with the fact that you are a champion 🙂

  4. Congratulations Mike! Of course you deserved to win. (not that I heard the poem, but I have heard you read many times) I think you are a great poet. I realised that is why you are my friend- because I liked your poems enough to introduce myself to you and tell you that what I thought of them.

  5. Well done, Mike!! It’s interesting that success can bring about a shame reaction in people as much as (perceived) failure can. Look forward to hearing your poem some time. Sounds like it was a hit.

    • Yes it is, isn’t it? But I think it’s quite common. Maybe the sort of peer pressure that leads school age boys to not want to be top of the class – to not want to be seen to be the brightest kid. Although the opposite seems to apply in sport.

  6. Congratulations!! It sounds as if the poem was a great choice and you did a great job with it. I do know what you mean about the “shame of doing right.” I find it very hard to speak up for myself when I’ve done something “right,” yet it’s all too easy for me to talk about things I feel I’ve done “wrong.” That was instilled in me young.

    As an aside, I’m a huge Richard Thompson fan and share your belief that Sandy Denny is one of the all-time best female singers. Now I have that song in my head…I’ll have to go listen to it.

    • Yes, it seems maybe the baby boomers and many others were programmed that way. Woah, great to know there are Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny fans over there. Thanks Lisa.

  7. Hi Mike,
    Great Blog
    Congratulations on your well deserved win in the World Poetry Day Poetry slam competition. . . I am looking forward to hearing it and yelling out “Selfish Bastards!” . . . That feels good!

    Writing poetry is a great panacea and defence mechanism for those feelings of shame. A great remedy for me was to accept those vulnerabilities through sharing poetry with a friend or poetry group.
    Often our greatest fears are shared by those whom we think judge.

    Keep up the good work
    James Irvine

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