Tag Archives: performance

Air for the Birds – Ghostboy & the Brotherhood of the Wordless

If you don’t already have it marked in bright red (or whatever colour takes your fancy) on your 2010 calendar, then grab said pen and mark Saturday January 30, as the day you head across to State Library of QLD to experience Air for the Birds.

Air for the Birds is an inspiring spoken word event, combining the talents of some of Australia’s most well-known performance poets and one of the country’s most unique writing collectives, the Brotherhood of the Wordless. The Brotherhood of the Wordless is comprised of fourteen South-East Queensland writers with autism and other disabilities that preclude speech or the muscle ability required to use keyboards or writing implements. Using the technique of facilitated communication, the Brotherhood works with trusted scribes to bring their powerful thoughts and words to life. The Brotherhood of the Wordless have published a book of collected writing, “Tapping on the Heart of the World”, now in its third reprint. They have featured on ABC Radio National, the Brisbane Writers Festival, Queensland Poetry Festival, and members have preformed at the Woodford Folk Festival to a standing ovation.
 
Working with their facilitators and one of Australia’s premier performance poets, Ghostboy,  the Brotherhood of the Wordless will present performance based texts and poems they have written over the past year with Ghostboy entitled Air for the Birds.  Air for the Birds covers the themes of fantasy and dreams, the face of the “other”, and the voices of the everyday objects central to these writer’s lives.

I recently had the chance to interview Ghostboy and several members of the Brotherhood of the Wordless, to get an insight into the collaboration.

Peter Rowe and Peter Brown with one of the BOW facilitators

Air for the Birds is such a great title for the show; air and breath being such important elements in both the performance and writing of poetry. Tell us about the title’s significance and how it came to life.
 
Ghostboy: The line is from one of the shows central poems by Peter Rowe – I felt it really summed up the collaboration, the process around their writing with me, and the degree of their dreams and ambitions… and all the guys agreed!

Glenn: it represents freedom of expression, like flying / spreading wings

Lucy: the expectations of flying is so precious to me. the lost capacity of speech is tragic & the need for speech breath is basically not there for us.

Sam P: Freedom.

Peter B: Enjoyment!

Peter R: freedom of expression and the thought of movement / something we do so naturally but so essential to my words

Adrian: freedom! our poetry is like clean air, cleansing our souls.

I was reading an essay by Diane di Prima recently and she was saying that what we are is nothing but a physical instrument, not much different to a musical instrument in some ways and that creation comes only out of changes in the physical instrument. Tell us about how the unique ‘physical instruments’ of this show came together and the creative process involved in developing Air for the Birds?
 
Ghostboy: The writers wanted to give you some sample lines from their object poems about their facilitation boards & physical environs  – as they are so central to their creative process – to answer this one:
 
chair takes me places  – Adrian

My chair is my life / It comforts me / It’s chocolate and leather / just for me  – Mike R

Chair / Flat in my legs

And yet a cube in my sign  – Lucy

Straining at the loo / I can’t let this go  – Geoff

the Communication Board feels like my lover

I’m full of gratitude and respect / my beautiful God given board / my life, hope and future    – Glenn

My Board / My true love / my fun time / my friend / my everything. 

You are to me / what air is to a bird.  – Peter R

What have been the highlights of the collaboration?
 
Sam R: So much fun working with Ghostboy, have really loved being part of this.

Mike: The enthusiasm Ghostboy brought to the sessions has been very inspiring, it has brought new life and energy to my words.

Peter R: This project has brought another level to my work

Peter B: Ghostboy and “air for the birds” ROCK!

Ghostboy: The Brotherhoods creative drive being one of need not ego; the efficiency of their language set against their unbridled energy and spark as physical beings; their ability to direct their own work in terms of the voice required by others reading it; their self-belief as artists – huge!

Finally, what can the audience expect from the show?
 
Peter B: The audience will be gobsmacked. awestruck, overwhelmed and flabbergasted!!!

Sam P: It will change the way people think about us – both us writers and human beings

Glenn: it will bring further understanding about the autistic world.

Peter R: It will bring another message that we are artistic – not just autistic- and clever.

Mike R: This is a space for us to express ourselves in the outside world.

Rodney: They will see us as poets being part of the most mind blowing dazzling spectacle of fun. fearlessness, and fucking awesome poetry!

The State Library performance will be accompanied by ouTsideRs artists including musician and poet Suzanne Jones (keyboard); renowned avant garde musician Bremen Town Musician (violin), and ouTsideRs award winning spoken word artists Pascalle Burton and Tessa Leon.
 
Air for the Birds is Presented by the State Library of Queensland, ouTsideRs aRT Inc and Brotherhood of the Wordless.
 
 
When                    4pm, Sat 30 Jan
Where                   slq Auditorium 1, level 2
Tickets                 Free, no bookings required
Please note this performance contains some adult themes and is best suited to people aged 16 and over.
 
 
And you may want to follow these links: 
 
www.slq.qld.gov.au/whats-on/events/talks#opensource
www.outsiders.com.au

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Speak Out: Poetry and the Spoken Word (part 3) an interview with alicia sometimes

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with the Dr. Seuss lovin’ Tim Sinclair about all things Spoken Word. This interview with alicia sometimes continues to dig deep into the world of the spoken word, the opportunities for publication that exist and the art of performance. Questions by Clint Creagan.

alicia-sometimes

Some people have suggested that the term ‘spoken word’ is used by those  who are afraid or ashamed to call the work ‘poetry’. What are your  thoughts on this? 

Spoken word is a term that is used because it encompasses far more than just poetry. Poetry is often literature in a metrical form, usually verse. There are endless definitions and types of poetry just as there are many descriptions and forms of spoken word. Spoken word is spoken. Not sung or in print form. Spoken word can be just the sound of a repetitive voice, a speech, a rant, a monologue, a dialogue, a scream or text fused with music, sound or samples. I would call any poem read aloud as spoken word but it is usually a term that is referred to when the piece is completely off the page – performed, rehearsed and experimented with sound (especially voice).

Spoken word is not just a cool word for poetry. Neither term gets the movie going public to stop what they’re doing.

 

What opportunities are out there for spoken word artists to have their  work published? 

The best opportunity is under their noses. It is so cheap and easy to record your own work today. Recording studios are not thousands of dollars any more and it is both accessible and necessary to record your own work: to become producer, musician, work in collaboration and get your pieces out there. Many bands do it, so should spoken word artists. Spoken word pieces have had top 40 hits. If you can’t name them it’s because they didn’t market it that way – it’s called hip hop, rap or simply not given a name. Websites are great for promotion also.

Many performers will go from performing their work at many poetry readings to having their own shows. Again, the term ‘spoken word’ is often left out – most will call it a play, monologue, cabaret, performance etc…
 

Do you think we will see more opportunities for the publication of  performance poetry in the future? 

Yes, because artists won’t rely on the journals, magazines or anthologies to come up with an idea, they’ll do it themselves.
 

You have performed your work and been published many times. Do you think  your performances and your published work have complimented each other?  

In many cases the work is completely different. I started out performing spoken word with musicians (playing bass and speaking is kinda hard to do but it was fun). I did that for 5 years before I even attempted ‘reading’ my work. I am more interested in being published for the page than I was back then. I like the challenge and the difference. With print I have the chance to change and edit, on stage it’s more of a instant buzz or an instant death. Both compliment each other because my performance work is often very different in style and content than my print poetry. I get to have different depths.
 

Do you consider that some of your own poems are written specifically  for performance and would therefore not work for the page, and vice versa?

Some poems wouldn’t work on page because they are meant to be spoken – by using gesture, pauses, subtlety, timing, immediacy, feedback etc Some wouldn’t work on stage because they rely on texture, visual cues, word plays etc. Others work for both. I like the fact that words can be that different.
 

What makes a good performance poem? 

Communication with audience. Learning the work. Thinking about the piece and understanding it the way an actor would with words from a play. Sincerity (even with humour). Confidence.

 

Can a good performance draw attention away from bad writing? 

Yes but if it takes attention away from bad writing then perhaps it could be a great performance piece. What is bad writing? If someone gets up on stage and says a very simple sentence like ‘My underpants are on fire’ (hardly Shakespeare) and receives giddy applause then what makes it bad? If the way the performer expresses themselves is in context, humorous or meaningful etc then it can be fantastic entertainment. Is it a poem? Maybe not, but who cares? Poetry critics? If it was spoken, it’s spoken word. Is it genius? Well, if it made you smile, cringe, think etc, maybe. Crap writing plus crap performance equals bad audience reaction. Crap writing on the page is naked and so is a performer standing in front of an audience in front of a mike. The audience will tell them soon enough. If they’re listening.

Nothing kills great writing faster than it being performed in a horrible, dull or bland way. This is because the author is not thinking about the medium that they’re using. I’ve seen it happen with amazing writers. You’ll lose people.

 

What do you see as the benefits of performing your own work? 

Immediate feedback, chance to enhance the work, a chance to have fun. I love performing, don’t have to wait until the piece is ‘published’.
 

As a previous editor of Going Down Swinging you have had a first hand account of what it takes to record and publish spoken poetry. What difficulties did you find in this process? What are the benefits? 

With other people’s work the difficulties are actually getting the performers from out of their hiding places. Once in the studio, most writers are amazing: in their originality, creative drive, experimentation and enthusiasm. They are often surprised at the endless ways of layering their work and creating full pieces.

When authors submit their own work often their pieces are badly recorded (you’d never hand in a poem on dog eaten pages) or are simple ‘dry’ readings which can (not always of course) sound average and uninteresting. You can tell they’ve never listened to other recordings. The hardest problem though, at first, was actually receiving the work .

 

Some people have suggested that much of the performance poetry we see  today, tends toward what stand up comedians are attempting, which relies on timing and wit, but is one dimensional in its range. What are your thoughts on this? 

Again, I think that poetry at ‘readings’ MUST be entertaining. Poetry/spoken word doesn’t have to be loud or hammed up or bedded with music but it must be interesting. Too many poets forget their audiences, it is a different medium to the page. Not better or worse or one dimensional. Just think of the times you have been most impressed, involved or entertained at a poetry reading – it is often because the performer was funny, insightful, unique, engaging etc (even controversial). Are people that afraid to laugh?

 

About alicia:

alicia sometimes is a Melbourne poet/writer/musician. She is co-host of 3RRR’s spoken word and books show, Aural Text, and has performed at many festivals and venues both locally and internationally. She has also performed in front of fish, on a tram, across the Nullarbor, with a stuffed horse and on ABC TV’s Sunday Arts. She was co-editor of Going Down Swinging for six years. Her first book is kissing the curve (FIP)

 

Find out more:

http://www.aliciasometimes.com/
http://www.myspace.com/aliciasometimes

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Speak Out: Poetry and the Spoken Word (part 2) an interview with Tim Sinclair

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.

 

tim-sinclair1


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?

Tim was…
born in 1972.

Tim has…
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.

Tim is…
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.

 

Find out more:

www.timsinclair.org
http://poetryandpoeticscentre.com/index.php/Interview_with_Tim_Sinclair

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Chains of Flashing Images – an interview with Max Ryan (part 1)

Max Ryan is a poet whose ‘words sift deep into life, and are full of power and insight.’ (Judith Beveridge) Max is also renowed for his work with musician Cleis Pearce, their CD ‘White Cow’, winning several music industry awards. This Lost Shark caught up with Max recently to discuss the good things in life… poetry & music. Here is part #1 of the interview: 

Max Ryan

The importance of landscape and place is something that is evident in your work. In your first collection, Rainswayed Night, you conjure feverish images of India (The Dancer, Burning Ghat, Varanasi); the sensuality of the ocean (all night the sea) and the rain that seeps into so many of these poems. You currently split your time between the ocean and the desert. How do each of these vastly different landscapes impact on your writing?

 

Firstly the Indian poems: well, anyone who’s ventured to the sub-continent will testify that India confounds any ideas of order and predictability so maybe my India poems are an attempt at some sort of disentropy. Interestingly, ‘The Dancer’ came from something I saw on a very early trip to India: a man dancing on the ghats (steps) at Manikarnika Ghat, Varanasi, in an almost drunken, totally self-absorbed way; his eyes were bloodshot and his mouth smeared with betel juice and he looked like he’d been up all night. I wasn’t even aware of what the actual situation was but the overall effect was an energetic jolt to my being, very strong, and I knew it would turn to a poem one day. Of course there are other benign, deeply peaceful poems about India in Rainswayed (‘A White Cow’, ‘Shepherd’s Hut, Triund’ for example).

A friend, the poet Judy Johnson, pointed out to me the strong presence in the original manuscript of water generally and it was she who suggested I call the book Rainswayed Night. The water element certainly runs through the poems but not in any defined way. In ‘The Hexham Flood’, water, in terms of the river and the dampness or pneumonia that settles on the child’s chest, is a highly malevolent, totemic force that acts as a nemesis in the child’s imagination. In the actual Rainswayed Night sequence, ‘the rain’s soft sheath’ is a source of elemental comfort and solace amidst the horror of the car accident and nightmare of the hospital. In ‘Evening Storm’, the tropical storm and rhythm of the sea-tide flows into the commingling of the two lovers. The rain in ‘rainy day paper boy’ erases all sense of time and space and merges into the boy’s early morning dream. ‘all night the sea’, which is a series of tanka, is probably the closest poem I’ve written so far in describing the place where I lay my head at night. The sound of the sea is the trigger here, a constant presence at my beach house. I’ve tried (unsuccessfully) in another poem to describe just what that sound is. So the sea features in many of my poems even the new ones; sometimes, I feel, overly so. Which is where the desert comes in I guess. Yes, it is very different out there (the centre, the country around Alice Springs) and I’ve come to love the vastness and wildness of the place. Very different, dry and hard, endless, a roaring silence; it’s quite confronting in a way, humbling too somehow. So far though, beside some haiku, I’ve written very little about it (‘A White Cow’ was totally about a sort of epiphany in the desert albeit the Rajasthan one). Last time I was in Alice I was sitting in a car in the car park outside Woolies while my friend was picking up a few groceries and there was something on the radio about some sort of scientific probe on Mars, checking for water, signs of life etc. Meanwhile a group of old Aborigine women, dressed in the most colourful array of raggedy clothes, were taking in the winter sun and then an old uncle wheeled up in a chair wanting a cigarette…I was just struck by the contrast between the radio show and the scene outside, there’s probably a poem there…

But the words for the poems may not come in a direct and immediate way; the India poems, for example, were formed after a very long gestation. As it is for most poets, I suspect, the actual poem can come from many sources. Ultimately, I think, poetry is about words and some weird alchemy of sound as much as any specific experience.

 

You mention that ‘all night the sea’ is a series of tanka. You also write in the shorter, haiku form. What initially attracted you to these disciplined forms of writing?

 

Hard to say but right from when I was in my late teens, I’ve been reading books on Zen and writers like Alan Watts who had a deep understanding of the old Chinese poets and the Japanese art of haiku. There’s a favourite ku of mine by Ryokan, I’ve seen various translations, but this is it essentially:

the thief left it behind:
the moon
at the window

The first time I read this, I was blown away and I still marvel at how much Ryokan manages to say here: the overall picture is of a burglary but right at the centre is the moon, inviolate and beyond any human conniving. There’s a marvellous sense of freedom in this haiku: ‘the window’ (I’ve seen it described as ‘the open window’) turned into a portal to the unlimited and there’s an implied sympathy for the thief who misses out on the most precious thing there. So yes, I’m very drawn to the essential nature of haiku and the sense of the poet’s disappearing into the poem. I still feel very much a novice though. My friend, the poet John Bird, and I have sat together out the back of a country pub we go to near here and written haiku about the things around us…while I’m still struggling to describe a crow perched on the rickety paling fence, John will have a half dozen fully formed haiku, it just seems to come naturally.

Tanka are different again; the five lines allow for a more expansive description and generally more subjective and personal voice. (It’s a great vehicle for the theme of lost love or recalling times past). I write quite a few tanka and submit fairly regularly to Eucalypt, the Australian tanka journal edited by Bev George. I’m also part of the Cloud Catchers, a local ginko group. We get together every season (the Oz ones) and have a haiku walk, usually about three quarters of an hour before we regroup and share our haiku.

I’d say the influence of these forms definitely affects my writing in free verse.  In an important way, the hard clear image, unlike polemic or high blown linguistics, doesn’t lie. I’ve made it almost some kind of credo to avoid the use of abstractions and airy figures of speech. Probably I’ve been too dogmatic about this but overall there’s something undeniable about a good image. Bob Dylan’s method of ‘chains of flashing images’ is a compelling one.

 

‘Chains of flashing images’ was a phrase coined by Allen Ginsberg to describe Dylan’s writing style. Throughout the last five decades, Dylan has been a touchstone for many poets and I know he is someone that has influenced your life and work. What is it about Dylan’s work that continues to mesmerise? 

 

Well I’ve written one poem, outlaws, largely influenced by Dylan’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. It’s his least verbal album but I’ve tried to capture the atmosphere of that work, the overall sense of inevitable tragedy in the outlaw story echoes the fate of the lovers. Even the music becomes part of that:

harmonica swirls as we sink to the floor, wound
in guitars’ quicksilver chords. maracas
swish to the silk of your dress
as i follow you up the stairs.

Saw Dylan the first time he came here in 1966… Rushcutters Bay Stadium in Sydney, still a functioning boxing ring (fortunately we didn’t have to put up with the revolving stage they’d used for the Beatles less than two years before: you’d get one song full-frontal then they’d crank the stage another 30 degrees round til three songs later it all came your way again), the audience for Bob wasn’t so big. I’ve never really forgotten it: Dylan and what was (minus the drummer) The Band; snarling, surreal, wildly eclectic grooves, lots of it from Blonde On Blonde which I don’t think had even come out yet. I’d never heard anything like it… I’d never seen human beings that looked like that! Cuban heels and strange Confederate style suits from some Civil War of their own…Dylan with his floaty, Little Richard bouffant, pale and on fire. Just made me aware of the power of words and music as incantation…something prophetic and uncanny the way he brought it all together. From there I discovered Rimbaud, Verlaine…the declamatory quality of Walt Whitman and the lyricism of Tennyson you could hear it all in Dylan.

I’ve never had any problem with seeing singer-songwriters as bards in their own right. When I went to study English literature at Newcastle Uni I felt lucky to find a department where the Romantics were given great respect with the implied acknowlegement of the importance of the lyrical in poetry. One of our lecturers was the late Norm Talbot who was described by Gwen Harwood as Australia’s greatest living poet. He wrote an article in poetry australia called ‘The Stranger Songs’ (I dug it up) where he declared that something was indeed happening Mr Jones:

The lyrics of many pop songs…are considerably better, more craftsmanslike and more interesting than the work of the Established, the Serious, the Bright Young, and the Promising poets. This is uncommon.

I remember Norm asserting at some discussion of popular song that the Tambourine Man was none other than the Muse. Not to say Norm was some Dylan sychophant or anything (he was probably more interested in Keats and Blake and Emily Dickinson) but he could hear the poetry when it was there. All sounds a bit post-modern now but it was inspiring at the time to see the important place of song in poetry, like putting the lyre back into lyrical.

But yes, Dylan’s been a big influence, even as a medium to the work of other poets. I’m also a huge admirer of Ray Davies (the Kinks), love his vision of the lives of ordinary people:

Terry meets Julie, Waterloo station
Every Friday night
But I am so lazy, don’t want to wander
I stay at home at night

Going back to Dylan, I’m inspired by the narrative leaps of some of his songs such as Tangled Up In Blue and Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts. Poetry and song are a brilliant medium for telling a story, shifting through time and space in a way that nothing else can and Dylan’s a master of this. Also Dylan’s way (mentioned in Chronicles) of leaning into the song on the odd beats is something I’m probably unconsciously influenced by in my work with such musicians as Cleis Pearce. Without the formal structure and rhythmic cycles of a conventional song, you’re thrown into a highly spontaneous interplay of the voice and the musical surge. I feel blessed to be able to collaborate with such a deeply intuitive, sensitive player as Cleis.

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Speak Out: Poetry and the Spoken Word an interview with Hinemoana Baker (part 1)

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

 

hinemoana-tophat

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)

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Reading at Woodford Folk Festival

If any of you are in QLD and looking to take in some amazing art between Christmas and New Year, you should come on up to the Woodford Folk Festival.

I am reading in the Arti Arti space with the lovely Julie Beveridge on Saturday December 27 at 8pm.

This is a gig presented by Small Change Press and Mc’d by that poetic chameleon Ghostboy.

Other poets to feature in the Arti Arti space include Sean M. Whelan, Matt Hetherington, David Stavanger, Rob Morris, Pascalle Burton, Nathan Shepherdson and Sezsu.

So if you are looking for a bit of spoken word to spice up your silly season, get on up to Woodford… would love to see you there! All events start at 8:oopm and the Arti Arti tent runs from Dec 27 – 31, 2008.

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