Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The Problems of Performance

I wanted to set down, as clearly as possible, some of my own thoughts about performance poetry. As someone whose alliances are more with avant garde, post avant and experimental writings, I sometimes sound off at performance poetry without really explaining what I have a problem with, so I thought it would be useful to try and be as clear as possible.

Firstly, there are some really good performers about in Manchester, which is obviously the area I know most about. There are also some terrible ones, who don't seem to have much in the way of self-awareness; but I won't embarass them by naming them. But there are performers who are consistently good at what they do, and I'll be mentioning them as I go along.

Secondly, it's very encouraging to see so many young people involved in poetry, and the support that the older generation such as Gerry Potter and John G Hall give to the younger. There isn't a sense of competition or dog-eat-dogness; though it might be there underground, I haven't found it.

So those are the positives; and there are probably many more, but I'm here to talk about problems that I have with it, so let's get on with them. Not that my comments only refer to performance poetry; a lot of mainstream page poetry is not much different in essence, however subtly it tries to hide it. These comments are personal and don't apply to everyone at all times.

Its Eagerness to Please

And I'm not just talking about the way so many performers want to make us laugh by pretending that making your jokes rhyme constitutes writing a poem. It's also a result of having to stand in front of an audience and try to entertain them. Now, there's nothing wrong with entertainment; but poetry is an artform not just show business. The listener should be offered an experience, not merely be amused. I have seen performances like that, where the poet offered us an entrance into an unfamiliar world and we entered into it unsure if we'd come out of it again, and subtly changed by the experience; but not very often.

The poet should never be too eager to please. Or its mirror image: to shock. It's one of the problems I always had with Chloe Poems and Rosie Lugosi. They were so busy being either shocking or entertaining that the real sharpness of their poetry got lost in a frisson of music-hall outrage, that frankly most of their audiences lapped up because that's what most of them had come for. When Chloe became Gerry and Rosie Lugosi become Rosie Garland, I saw genuine voices begin to emerge that were not simply trying to entertain us, or to shock us, but were trying to enlighten us.

A poem really should be itself; it should be an experience of the poet's world. It doesn't exist to please. Though it's not a bad thing if it does.

A corrollary of this is:

Its Cuteness

Look at me! I'm not going to give you anything where you have to feel any bad emotions, sadness or anger or melancholy, and I'm certainly not going to make you think, bemuse you or confuse you, make you feel uncomfortable or bore you.

Now of course, nobody wants to be bored in a poetry performance. But do want to be constantly entertained, amused like a Roman audience at the circus?  Or do we want some reality in a poet?

I've been watching Jackie Hagen perform for a few years now, and she's very good at what she does. But her performances have recently become a completely different thing. She used to be amusing, sometimes cute, and was introduced recently as a "poetry pixie." But her recent poems have taken us somewhere darker, much less cute, angrier, wilder. She's no longer trying to amuse us, to show us the wisdom of the jumble sale; she's giving us an experience that challenges us. She recently performed a poem about a man having a heart attack on Oxford Road that was raw, angry and moving all at the same time, that drew us into the experience and left me at least gasping for breath.

Sometimes it explains too much

This maybe a consequence of the kind of people who become performers rather than, say, mainstream page poets or avant garde poets. It might be a class thing or a confidence thing; although performers may have been to university, they may also be working class, or suspicious of anything too difficult or too strange. Now, I would never personally advocate a poetry that requires a string of references or notes, but a little difficulty is not a bad thing.

As an editor, one of my most common tasks is to cross the last verse out. Sometimes the first, but very often the last. This is where the poet explains to his/her reader what the poem is about, or gives us the lesson that the poet is trying to teach us. If you see yourself starting to explain what the poem is about in the poem itself, stop. Not only does your audience know as much (or as little...) as you, but they should also be given the choice to read it or experience it for themselves. Poets and poems are like cameras: they are lens through which other people see the world in a new way. They notice things, and point them out. They are not preachers, or teachers, and they are not any wiser than the rest of the world.

But what if the audience don't get it? That's the fear, isn't it? But then I have to ask, so what if they don't get it? Puzzlement, bafflement even, is as much a reaction to a poem as applause. Sometimes, a poet's imagination runs off into the surreal: so let it. A poem doesn't have to make the same kind of sense that a newspaper article does; it's a work of the imagination not an essay.

Well, I could go on. But this is enough for now. These are my thoughts at the moment, and they'll probably change tomorrow,


Carrie Etter said...

Thanks for this piece, Steven. As someone who works regularly with undergraduate performance poets, I found it thoughtful and useful.

Sandra Tappenden said...

I have similar problems trying to explain my difficulties with performance stuff, which, sometimes, do enjoy ... but yeah, the `shock` thing is very recognisable (last Apples and Snakes I saw was a case in point, and stopped me wanting to attend other events run by this outfit)...
It IS done well by people like Matt Harvey. It`s poetry (it pays attention to the craft etc) and it`s entertaining too... Bad performance poetry is mere ego; I really dont want to know how, where, why and what it felt like (well maybe a little) when you first had sex/amputated your leg etc. I want to be surprised, not hammered!

William said...

Hi Steve, this makes a lot of sense. As someone new to performing my poetry I think I need feedback on performance as well as feedback on the poetry. I've tried videoing my performacne but it's not the same... Best William

Jackie Hagan said...

nice one! grrrrrrrr to pixie land! no more mrs nice knickers!!! :)

i think a big to-do in performance poetry is it is a cross over between
a) art
b) show business
c) therapy and
d) socialising
so it's a huge miggled mish mash of people wanting and expecting different things from their own and other people's poetry often without them really thinking about it,
most performance poets are odd and we use poetry for our own ends and a lot of the time people want others to have the same ends but blimey we don’t. Performance poetry in Manchester’s a bit like a weekly church meeting where everyone’s a different faith, some don’t know what faith they are and we’re all needing. Kind of in it together and kind of battling for voice-space.

because i work in mental health using creative writing (and actually just cos I’m in my own head with my own preferences) when i see someone perform i judge it with a big mix of a, b, c and d, mainly c+d though,
i can tell if a poem is a Good piece in terms of art or show bussiness (well thats a whole other ramble but you know what i mean), but that doesn’t mean I’ll like it,
metaphor - it’s like you can objectively tell that certain people are good-looking but that doesn’t mean you fancy them, i know that johnny depp is ‘good-looking’ but in real life i fancy men with a funny walk and weird teeth, and in the same way i know that some poetry is Good but i enjoy it more when poem is a bit rubbish but it obviously means loads to the poet or they’re wearing their heart all over their sleeves and shaking their paper and at the end they smile with relief and pride and big and wide and good. Sometimes a really good piece of art can feel so polished to me that it does nowt for me.

Personally i like looking at the performers shoes and figuring out why they’re doing what they’re doing from their own personal reasons, and heckling :)

p.s. oi waling Rosie’s surname is garland you dozy-arse :)

Steven Waling said...

Apologies to Rosie for getting her surname wrong - I have a friend called Rosie Garner (also a poet - and published by Salt) and I was probably concentrating on next mixing up the two so much that I got it completely wrong.

That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it...