Posted by: noelwilliams | October 13, 2013

Poetry in performance

A few days ago I took part in a symposium (a grand word for a discussion, which seems to suggest everyone should be garbed in togas) on poetry and performance. It was organised by Midland Creative Projects as part of their Being Human tour: This is a tour well worth catching – I saw the performance after the symposium, not sure what to expect, and as both a piece of theatre and a bravura exercise in remembering and delivering poetry. Thirty five poems from the Bloodaxe Being Human anthology, edited by Neil Astley, are performed by three actors,. They’re delivered as something between a play (there’s no explicit narrative, but the sequence of poems admits of story interpretations) and a poetry recital, though there’s no reading of the poems as such, the actors each having learned all thirty five. Whilst the texts are perserved intact, the actors interpret them in their delivery, making them into scripts for action as much as texts for presenting, so there’s no hint of the “poetry voice”.

Both the symposium and the performance were great fun, very entertaining and I learned a few things, too.  But a few issues were also raised, quite significant ones for any poet interested in how their work might be performed, by themselves or by others. Being Human, the anthology, is the most recent of four very popular anthologies, which have done a great deal to bring a wide selection of poems to a public who otherwise would not have encountered them (though a few people have criticised the selection).

The four Midland Creative’s tours have a similar objective, selecting poems from the volumes and bringing them to an unfamiliar audience. So the performance has to do more than read the poems. It has to bring the audience into them. It uses the actors’ and director’s talents to do so, by finding ways of reading the poems which are not merely versions, not merely articulations of a text, but a performance by a person believably real. Sometimes they choose to do this in the voice of a clear character (apparently Andrew Motion was horrified to hear one acted out in a West  Midlands accent). Sometimes they do it in their own voices, perhaps their own persons, but with passion and conviction, with gestures, emphases, intonations and attitude which only the Zephaniahs and Hegleys of this world are likely to use in a typical reading.

And it works. The audience responds to the poems, because they are human voices in a very human guise. The actors have found a way of reading which strikes a chord. The audience are rapt. And after they applaud, they buy the book.

This made me think. A lot. How do I perform? Do I, in fact, perform, or do I merely read my stuff, slowly, carefully, neutrally? I try and avoid that common poetry singsong, but do I always achieve it? So I do try to find a way of reading that fits the poem, though I guess there’s a fair bit of similarity between each poem I read. I’m not an actor. I haven’t thought of “acting” my poems. But perhaps there’s a case for a more performative reading, for something which tells the listener more about who I am, in the poem, who that protagonist is. As a poet of the page, which is my view of myself,  I choose the words and the cadence, the rhythm and the sound, until they sit happily under my hand and in my head. I don’t choose them to be read out loud. I don’t think of a live audience listening, but a reader internalising and perhaps re-reading.

The live audience has only one chance to get each word, and needs to be taken along from line to line. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a poetry reading and found yourself suddenly wondering what has just been read – your attention has wandered, you’ve lost the gist, and you’ve no way to go back and gather sense. Well, you may never have had this experience, but you may think I have. I couldn’t possibly comment.

Nor have I momentarily dozed off in a late night reading. Nor have I lost the thread in a long narrative poem. Nor has my attention been distracted from his language by the poet’s eyebrows. Nor have I been bored by a poem so much I’m thinking ahead to the next poet or the comfort break or the beer. I mean, wine.

Actors and directors know about audiences. They know that attention wanders, that people need variety, excitement, interest and engagement. So shouldn’t we pay more attention to such things when we write, when we select our work for a reading, and when we perform it?

But there’s a cost in this, I think. The more performative we allow our work to be, taking the audience into account, then the more we are likely to choose humour, to find subjects which are either titillating (sex and violence generally get more attention than text and violets), to look for ways of presenting our work which make it more ordinary, more human as we read, which may move us away from the endstop, the caesura, the rhythms and breaths built in to the work. What was noticeable in the theatrical version of Being Human, enthralling as it was as theatre, was that the poems lost some of their poetry. At times, the reading could have been a prose script, the flow of the poem (as written) overwritten by the interpretation and character of the actor. Perhaps in popularising poetry this way, getting the audience engaged, we limit some of the features of language that make a poem a poem.


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