Present and Unaccounted For
What does ‘performance’ mean when applied to poetry these days? It certainly doesn’t always mean dramatic presentation or even recitation. Perhaps animated delivery, but many poets of the page-based stream present their work with as much passion and panache as do some so-called ‘performance’ poets. Paula Meehan practically chants her poems, and she often recites. Paul Muldoon engages the audience with energy and movement.
The Wikipedia definition is behind the times when it says: ‘Performance poetry is poetry that is specifically composed for or during a performance before an audience.’ Certainly, when I started to perform in the 1990s, I composed purely for the voice for a few years—I have over forty poems that have never been published in text form, and maybe shouldn’t—but since Tenant, I’ve cared as much about the page as the voice.
My first collection, The Making of a Pagan, with its desire to marry form with sense, was not written for performance at all. It was still performable. Very few pieces of creative text, whether prose or poetry, are not. It was when I started to do readings that I was drawn to the new rap poetic, and resolved not to bore my audience.
Whether the poems were published in text form or not, I always paid attention to metre, grammar, syntax and line breaks. The poems, raps or rants, needed to read a certain way in order to be sounded. I can’t compose poetry, or even prose, without attention to how it sounds. Sound is intrinsic to poetic method, which is defined and expressed in aural terms. Many novelists pay similar attention to the ear. So, musical awareness is not exclusive to the performance poet. They might just be better able to project it. They are both the writers and the dramatisers.
I was interested to hear my anti-boredom motivation echoed by the Cuban poet, Omar Peréz, at ISLA literary festival in 2012; and in the list of attributes of ‘fusion poetry’ given by Philip Norton in his preface to Short Fuse, an anthology of ‘fusion poets’ published in 2002 by Rattapallax Press.
Philip Norton says that fusion poems are both academic and performed live, and he goes on to describe them in greater detail. Firstly, they are ‘not boring’. ‘Bland, uninspired devotions to rose petals are out...’ The poet reaches out to ‘actively engage the reader/audience’. Secondly, they are ‘accessible’. ‘If you need a thesaurus and copy of the OED just to get through the 1st stanza then no thank you—references and intellectualism are fine but not if they become the very matter of the poem.’ ‘Using the same measure of accessibility the overly-introspective-only-I-(and maybe a few others of the in-crowd)-really-know-what-I-mean poems are not on the guest list.’ Thirdly, the poems must be ‘well crafted’, well thought out. ‘But most importantly, they have to speak to the now’ in order to be effective in the new era ‘where everything moves so fast that society finds itself ever on the verge...’ Fusion poems must ‘confront the verge’. (1)
I don’t see any requirement here that isn’t also applied in some degree to poetry in general, certainly as presented to an audience. Accessibility is relative, audience-specific. Some poems will be more easily understood by those with the same educational and cultural background as the poet, and there are experimental poems which gain a minor-minority interest. Certainly the ‘well-crafted’ standard applies to all. As for boredom, I’ve long since changed my mind on that one. In this egalitarian age, people will vote with their feet and wallets. All a writer, any artist, can do, is produce what they feel is a good item and offer it to the public. Boredom often depends on context and dynamic. There are people who would say that T.S. Eliot is boring, simply because they haven’t learned how to read him and have no particular need of him. The same with a lot of art, modern or otherwise.
Philip Norton again:
The fusion of Poet and Persona might happen when the poem is spoken, but the converse can also be true, particularly in a dramatic presentation. Performing a poem with dramatic skill is a learnable, rehearsable task that can actually protect you from exposure, in the same way that an actor is protected by assuming a role. The straight reader might be less protected, and often it’s the shy reader who has most impressed me at public events. These poets own up to their texts as much as dramatic ones do. Indeed, the same requirement of a ‘sense of intimacy’ is imposed on almost all poets by now, especially in Ireland. Personally, I felt I was avoiding that with my early performances, which were often journeys into the darker areas of the emotions, or political rants.
‘Another fusion prevalent is a tendency toward a fusion of Poet and Persona. This arises from the spoken word side of the Fusion equation.’
‘We seem no longer satisfied with poems that are detached. A sense of intimacy must be established, but without going the whole I, me, mine route. Another way to put it is authors must own up to their texts.’ (2)
I don’t particularly want to hear racist or homophobic poems, but are we in a climate of undue control? Anything goes as long as nothing offends and the political assertions are popular or populist? This is the difficulty with ‘accessibility’ and ‘not boring’. But there are always restrictions on content if you wish to be accepted in any group of practitioners, whether you want to win literary awards or get a round of applause. In this, performance poetry will have the same natural controls as all other media. The daring artist will have to make do with a minimal response at first.'The very inclusivity of the live arts scene imposes an etiquette on its expressive freedom. In all my years attending performance poetry and cabaret events I’ve never once heard a racist or a homophobic poem, for example.’- Dave Lordan (3)
I’ve remarked before that I think there’s a discernible personality type who considers the performance of his or her poetry more important, or of equal importance, to its impact when read. They are usually attracted to poetry because of its inherent musicality and the comcomitant whole-person (yes, fused) implications. Not content to let the word be given only to the inner ear, they want to express it to a palpable community, and they are capable of doing it, being highly involved with their motile, physically expressive selves.
I think it’s true of contemporary public life and culture that the integration of the person is sought after and interrogated. Witness the rise and rise of biography and investigative exposure. The person melds with the work. We seek the person in the work, as we might seek any organism in its projected structures. For ‘By their fruits we know them’, read: ‘By them, we know their fruits.’
‘Beckett’s work is thus powerfully premonitory of many of those new forms of philosophy, from feminism to radical ecology, that are reinterpreting the Cartesian heritage of modernity, by refusing the refusal of the body which has been necessary to secure the separative authority of consciousness, reason and the subject.’- Steven Connor (4)
All very pressurising, I think, inclusivity or no inclusivity. And this is why I beg to bow out of the performance requirement in favour of the notion of ‘Presence’. When Eavan Boland and I talked last year at the Marché de la Poesie, she was sceptical of the need to ‘perform’ poetry. She said that some of her favourite poets were very undramatic readers, but she’d move mountains to see them read. The majority of poets spend most of their time sitting at a desk working with words in the manner of a sculptor. Why not reflect that, and trust the impact of one’s presence as a practitioner, rather than try to construct an onstage impact? Either way, the poet has ‘performed’, in that the work has been brought to fruition.
There was a time, a long time ago, when I spent a large proportion of my creative time, poetry-wise, creating backing tracks, testing and training my voice, and rehearsing. That time is long gone. I do prepare and rehearse, but the time spent is minimal. Ten years ago I thought I was giving up poetry. So much effort, and, being somewhat withdrawn and dogged by emotional confusions, I never managed to get it all together as a decent business like many poets, particularly in the UK, have done. I finished a prose fantasy and planned and wrote the first in a four-volume children’s story. Neither are published yet. (Boy, what the world is missing.)
Poetry, it seems, had its own ideas. I was asked to give more performances than ever. Poems would just arrive, regardless, and I’d feel compelled to work on them. At the moment we’re back together—I’m writing an allegorical poetry sequence that might be described for marketing as a fantasy verse novel. It has a created environment and a plot. I’ve presented a few poems from this sequence in recent readings, and, yes, recited or performed them, because it seems the most effective thing for me and it’s not really that difficult anymore. At any rate, I like to experience them that way.
Regardless of what genre I'm writing in, I reckon I’ll try to present the work in an effective way to an audience. The moment matters. I’ve done some acting and I love to sing. I have a sensitivity to ritual and response. I try to make people listen and give them value for money in the situation. That’s just the way I am. But most of my creative time, practically all, is now spent writing (typing), and thinking. They’re the activities I pursue, and the result will very often be delivered first in text form. It might also be dramatised and/or read, but that’s after the fact.
In short, I’m internal and want to pursue what that means, producing work I feel has dimension and context. I’ve worked on large literary projects, and want to do more of them. I’ll continue to present my work as effectively as possible in public, and muster whatever drama I can, but I beg the space to sometimes just meekly read.
Performance is dead. Long live the performing Presence.
(1) Philip Norton, Preface to Short Fuse, eds. Todd Swift & Philip Norton, Introduction by Hal Niedzviecki, New York: Rattapallax Press, 2002. p.15.
(2) Norton, opus ibid., p.15/16.
(3) Dave Lordan, Introduction to New Planet Cabaret, Dublin: New Island Press, 2013, p.5.
(4) Steven Connor, ‘Over Samuel Beckett’s Dead Body’, in Beckett in Dublin, edited and introduced by S.E. Wilmer, Dublin: Lilliput, 1992, p.101.