This Lost Shark has been thinking alot about poetry and the Spoken Word lately.
Spoken Word boomed in popularity during the 1950s and 60s. Poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti took their words to the street and found favour with mass audiences, breaking down the barriers of inaccessibility usually associated with poetry. The crowds were there because the poetry was part of a culture. Spoken Word peaked again in the 90’s with artists such as John S. Hall, Maggie Estep, Bob Holman and rocker Henry Rollins all reaching large audiences and achieving critical acclaim. Spoken Word was making a splash on the airwaves, gaining the attention of major record label execs and breaking into the world of MTV. This success has continued into the 00’s with shows such as Def Poetry becoming a programming favourite with USA heavyweights HBO and Poetry Slams reaching ever increasing audiences worldwide.
So why is it that few poems published in literary journals would find an audience in the world of, performance-driven spoken word? In turn, why is it that the majority of pieces performed on open-mic/Slam stages would be ignored by established literary journals?
Is there a line that separates spoken word from poetry?
Over the next few weeks, this Lost Shark will speak to several artists to get their view.
First up I chat with Hinemoana Baker…
Kia ora Another Lost Shark. Thanks for the invite to contribute to this discussion. Yessssss. Page vs Stage. Very good questions.
I know poets whose readings and public performances get raved about, the audience literally gasping, laughing, crying…and yet time after time: the rejection slips. From literary magazines, from anthologies, from websites. I also know poets whose work sings and dances in books, then falls dreadfully and disappointingly flat when they read it in public. It can seem like there’s some kind of quantum crease in reality.
Without getting too much into a definition of poetry or performance, which is territory I’d rather not traverse no matter how much I love you, I reckon we’re actually dealing here with two very different acts, products, artforms if you like. Furthermore, I think the two have something to learn from each other. I’ve had mild-mannered success with both, and I don’t feel too much of a tension between them in my everyday life as a writer or performer. But I know that’s not the case for everyone. So if it’s ok, I’ll just gab on a bit about my own experience, rather than write any kind of academic treatise on the whole thing.
I believe once a poem gets type-set (or just typed, I guess, if you’re publishing on the net) it has to do all its performing on the page, as Bill Manhire would say. No bells and whistles, just the ink and the paper. It can’t call on any of its friends in the back row to join in the refrain. It can’t win over the unhappy punter in the leather trousers with its mellifluous voice and impressive microphone technique. It can’t start its set with that joke about Dylan Thomas / the Pope / the duck who turns out to be a fully-qualified plasterer. The page can, indeed, be a mofo of a venue to crack.
The only ‘voice’ on the page is the one the poet has managed to shoehorn into the words themselves, the black and white, bare-assed text. There can be silence in a poem – but only visually, if you know what I mean. With the use of line-breaks, stanzas, punctuation, that sort of thing. There’s (hopefully) musicality in the poem – the rhythms and sonic resonances of the words, their lines and cadences, the echoing choices the poet’s made with techniques like repetition, assonance, alliteration, all those lovely old chestnuts.
But there’s no actual, audible music. And there’s no volume knob. Yes, we can use different fonts, italics, bold, capital letters and suchlike if we want to, but none of that can really approximate the experience of being in front of the bona fide, carbon-based life form who wrote the damn thing and having them tell the poem with their own mouth, body, props, whatever. And if you ask me, that kind of formatting stuff can easily start to feel a bit forced on the page, a bit like ‘Can you just let the poem speak for itself, already?!’
And that’s where it gets interesting – at least for someone like me. I’ve published a book and I get published fairly regularly in literary locations here in New Zealand and occasionally in Australia (go GDS!) and further afield. I’m very grateful – may this continue forever and ever. I also perform my poems – as part of a stage show that makes room for lots of stuff, including sound effects from a scuba-tank and digital samplings of my traditional Māori instruments.
For some reason, I’ve never really considered myself a proper performance poet. This is possibly because I am comparing myself to others who I admire greatly and figure I can never hope to emulate, like Marc Kelly Smith aka Slam Papi, Emily XYZ and Tusiata Avia. It’s probably also because my show is a fairly ad hoc combo of songs, poems, stories about songs and poems, stories about stories, thigh-slappingly funny jokes and, as I say, the scuba tank stuff. So I’m not sure it ‘qualifies’, officially, as any one thing. Any moment now I will be able to describe what I do in fifty words or less.
Most of the poets I know who perform don’t change their text for the stage – the way it’s written (sometimes even published) is the way it’s delivered. It’s like a script that doesn’t change just because the poet is in front of an audience creating a show, an entertainment, rather than a reading or recital. This may be because, at least for those poets I know, their writing voice is pretty much the same as their performance voice.
That’s also the case for me. I don’t do too much to a poem from the page to the stage. In fact, sometimes I don’t ‘perform’ them at all – ie, I don’t memorise them, I don’t use any theatrical devices like doing different voices for the different characters, or using my body to act stuff out. What I definitely do, however, is that I make a very conscious decision about which poems, out of the ones I’ve written for the page, I will definitely not perform. Some, I reckon, are just meant to be read on the page – and they reward re-reading, of the kind it’s not possible to do when you hear a poem once from a stage. The ones that seem to work best for me on stage are the ones with a traceable narrative, the ones with some good strong quotable lines, the ones with a bit of humour, and/or the ones with a meaningful and entertaining backstory.
The ones which are fairly dense with imagery, elliptical language and wordplay, and the ones which are fairly long and experimental, are the ones that I may choose not to share with the public. That said, I sometimes surprise myself (and my audiences) by breaking out some kind of Language Poem dripping with made-up words and sonic art type stuff. And most of the time when I do this it goes down well – but I usually preface it with some kind of comment about how I love the many things words can do, not just providing us with meanings etc. I ask them to indulge me – and they do. People can be real nice like that.
I feel a lot of empathy for my audience. I am always incredibly grateful to have anyone in front of me at all when I perform. So I want to invite them in. I want them to be moved, and entertained, and also to be intellectually stimulated. But I don’t want them to feel comfortable the whole time, and I don’t want them to be able to predict what might happen next in the poem or in the performance. And I don’t want to end up telling them what to think or believe or even conclude from my poems. I want to come from a space of asking questions rather than one of knowing all the answers.
I’m not saying I’m always successful, but those are my goals.
And actually, those are the same goals I have when I’m writing (if I were ever to articulate them to myself).
So when I find myself saying something like ‘Can you just let the poem speak for itself?’ when I think about poems with lots of formatting on the page, I have to ask myself, am I applying two different sets of rules here? Do I want different things from the different ‘deliveries’ – a damn good show from the stage, but unencumbered dignity from the page?
Well, no. I think I want exactly the same thing from the stage and page, and that thing could easily be summarised as Less is More. I’m not saying performance poetry should be all Minimalist and Unsaid, but I think it could learn, sometimes, that what’s not said is just as important as what is. I think we, as writers and performers, can trust that our audiences will fill in the gaps, on the page and on the stage.
For me, poetry on the page, whether it’s telling me a straightforward story or inviting me into a slightly more mysterious engagement, is about economy of expression, making sure that each word and gesture punches above its weight. And any performance I enjoy is likely to follow the same rules – it’ll leave room for my own imagination to take flight. It’ll say just enough and then shut up.
There’s a limit, though. Sometimes a poem isn’t given enough help when it comes to a reading or a recital. The poet who gets up and reads their poems with few pauses (sometimes not even the ones that they themselves wrote in there), in a monotone and/or consistently quietly or consistently loudly will usually lose me. It doesn’t take much to create even just a gentle dynamic. It doesn’t have to involve acting with a capital A, and it doesn’t have to be about pretending. Even if it doesn’t come naturally, it’s not so difficult to discover a slightly more amplified version of yourself as a poet and writer. I probably just have a short attention span. But I feel people owe it to their work to try and master the basics of public speaking and/or stagecraft when they read their work in public.
I teach my students about this in my Creative Writing classes. It’s something that’s a bit neglected, I reckon, in writing courses, at least here in NZ. We cover all sorts of things that I feel are useful for page poets who simply want to make a good fist of public readings when the time comes, as well as students who are more focussed on Slams, open mics, performance poetry etc. We talk about things like the right to perform; owning the space; post-performance depression; the way time changes on stage; the enormous value of breathing well; and most importantly, being prepared – rehearsing, timing yourself, taking all the props you might need etc. Nothing worse than getting up to read and having to scramble back down to your handbag for your glasses.
(stay tuned for part 2 of the interview tomorrow)