A couple of weeks ago, this Lost Shark asked the question:
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?
Hinemoana Baker’s response fascinated and enlightened, so let’s see what Tim Sinclair has got to say on the matter.
Green Eggs and Ham, Motherf**ker
As kids, before teachers started trying to teach us poetry they entrhalled us with Dr Seuss. Performance poetry? Page poetry? We didn’t know, we didn’t care. It sank straight in, and connected with our brains’ natural poetry receptors. Jump a few years forward, and you’ve suddenly got teachers teaching us poetry. It sucked. Sucked the life out of us. Drained the magic off the page.
I generalise, but my introduction to Capital ‘P’ page poetry was as a dull, ossified, arcane branch of literary AllBran – high in the daily allowance of moral fibre and guaranteed to well and truly give you the shits. Like a lot of my contemporaries (and like the people ten years either side of me, I’ve come to realise), I retreated to rock and hip hop, where the end rhymes satisfied my starving poetry receptors, and the need to find something cooler than school was satisfied. The transition from Dr Seuss to Dr Dre was made, and from that gateway drug it was a short and slippery slide into performance poetry.
It’s the cool factor that’s driven the wedge through Poetry, and both sides have exploited it to further their cause. But I’m not looking at the dividing line here, I’m exploring the contiuum. I’ve always been interested in the big grey area in the middle of things. Grey is where the colour happens.
I ‘came of age’ in the Adelaide poetry scene in the ‘90s, and I’m glad that’s where it happened. The scene was diverse (still is, by all accounts), and one of the absolute strengths of a place the size of Adelaide is the fact that there’s just no room for cliques. Or more realistically, there’s just no room for those cliques to be exclusive. To be part of a scene in a small town is to be constantly rubbing shoulders with the other cliques, and rubbing up close is where cross-pollination occurs.
At the time, I was still working out where all the bits fit, but even I could see that there was something different about the girl with a scream and a saxophone, and the guy who seeemed to feel that making eye contact with the audience would cheapen the poetry he was mumbling. The quiet ones annoyed me, when I could hear that their words were good. I couldn’t work out why they wouldn’t say them like they were important. The loud ones annoyed me too, when I could hear their words but really wished I couldn’t…
Presentation may in fact be the single most important signifier of genre, as shallow and simplistic as that sounds. Here is my cover, say the poets. Judge me. We all do it. We all know it’s done. The smart people exploit it. I know it’s kinda po-mo and relativist of me, but I think that this is what it all comes down to. Performance poetry is in the eye/ear/face of the beholder, and page poetry sits quietly, waiting to discover you.
But the stuff in the middle is the elusive gold, and the stuff in the middle is what bothers people. It’s the reason for all this ‘Page Vs Stage’ carry on. I like to use the lyrics/poetry parallel. I love what you can do with song lyrics. I love that Kurt Cobain can scream, and that scream is not inarticulate – saying more than half a book of poetry. It ain’t poetry though. And set all the poetry you like to music, it’s still poetry set to music. But there are those people in the middle. Laurie Anderson, perhaps. Nick Cave, perhaps. Leonard Cohen, perhaps. It’s all going to depend on your point of view, of course, and that’s about as close as I’m going to get towards a definitive answer here. People do ‘cross over’, and as long as they’re smart about rebranding themselves, the audience can take it. Audience likes to know what it’s getting, that’s all. Audience is simple like that. I ought to know – most of the time, I’m in it.
And as for those people who have to have borders, who have to shove the poets into one of two boxes? I do not like them, Sam-I-Am…
WHO AM TIM?
born in 1972.
lived most of his life in the Adelaide Hills, Australia watching semi-rural give way to suburban in a sad and inevitable way.
also lived in Japan, Scotland, Malaysia, and the USA. And the Blue Mountains of NSW, and now Sydney.
gone to school, gone to uni, got himself some pieces of paper. Answered phones, built sets, sold things, read words, written words, cut down (feral) trees, pumped petrol, planted trees, painted roofs and taught ESL in order to pay the rent.
friends who have put his words on CD, made his words into arty films, put his words on stage, put his words online.
strangers who have published his words, broadcast his words, listened to his words in cafes and pubs. Given him money to write more of them.
not sure that he agrees with Fernando Pessoa when he writes “Every spoken word double-crosses us”. But knows where he’s coming from, some days.
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