Wednesday 8 April 2009

The staged page

Is there a difference between poetry as text and poetry performed?

I will begin with my experiences. In March 2003 I watched Slam, starring Saul Williams. The movie depicts a poet’s journey of reconciliation and search for identity against a backdrop of hard drugs, poverty and violence. In the most memorable scene, Saul stops a prison fight by stepping between the warring tribes and simply reciting a poem. So taken was I with his spectacle, I googled ‘Poetry London’, found a regular, and after months of immersion, plucked up the courage to read some stuff. Six years later, I have published a best seller, Thirteen Fairy Negro Tales, toured extensively from Hay-on-Wye’s Lit Fest to the Oxford Playhouse to London’s South Bank to the Bus 343, and distinguished street corners between.

I am as influenced by the classic Romantics, their form, language and sentence structure, as I am by Hip Hop’s ebonics, diction, rhythm and demand for attention and awe. I’d say Hip Hop’s influence alone lends my work to the stage. Now, I’ve encountered different reading styles… I recall Niall O’Sullivan’s story of being so nervous at his first reading, his legs shook. To be stilled enough to read, he crouched down frog-like, after which an audience member thanked him for his unusual delivery. I’ve seen Southbank Centre’s Artist in Residence, Lemn Sissay give a performance of a performance, reading from a book, constantly losing lines, stuttering, starting from the top, entirely captivating the audience, and I’ve presented poems in a variety of ways; set to music, live radio readings; on occasion, over phones as bed time stories. At live literature events, I’ve recited poems with such gusto I hurled myself across a stage, once attired as a bare chested West African story teller (for The Fairy Tales), to now, where I mostly stand, one hand grasping the mic, the other pocketed, and simply speak the poem from memory.

At last year’s Battle of Ideas festival in London, I read in the latter style, and it was put forward that had my poem been encountered instead on page it would differ entirely, as it had just been ‘performed’. To which I retorted, ‘Is conversation then a “performance” of language?’ So is this all there is? Is the dividing line between performance and the page as thin as memory? Is there any actual difference between a ‘stage poet’ and a ‘page poet’?

An opportunity to test the question came up in January. I completed a play for the Soho Theatre’s young writers’ programme. Titled Calling Maywell, it features two characters, a writer/poet called Lewis and his friend Fred. Lewis is typical of a Live Literature regular, a nerd (as I am), who writes and reads his creations for the thrill and mild lunacy of wanting to touch the world. Freddy is brash, rude and charismatic. One night, Lewis uncovers a plot and sells the story to tabloid newspapers, writes about it in poetic form and reads it wherever he can. Because of a checkered, hidden past, Freddy has to stop him. The play centres on friendship and truth and queries the responsibility of writing.

The play was awarded a ‘rehearsed reading’ and fortunately, I got to work with award winning actors and director during the full day rehearsal. In the morning we talked through the play, in the afternoon we rehearsed and in the evening, with a little stage direction, it was presented to an audience. Before I continue, there are a few things to consider. a) For 15 of the 20 minute duration of the play, the character ‘Lewis’ is in a Live Literature setting. He reads two poems. b) ‘Fred’ reads a poem at the end. c) The play is littered with poetry, so its poetry is delivered by actors, readers trained specifically to act out and perform text. d) They ‘performed’ the poems, whilst ‘reading’ from the scripts.

Messy isn’t it? So many factors: if a performer plays a poet who reads a poem, he is firstly performing a poet, then performing a poet’s voice, all this before the actual poem. To deliver the poem then, even if he just ‘reads’ (that is to say stands still, speaks in monotone), it would be a performance regardless of how pared down a delivery it is. So, already we are on a back foot, but work with me…

The actor who played ‘Lewis’ instinctively tried to ‘perform’ the poem employing an array of tricks, from modulating cadence, to speech inflection, dramatic pauses, gradual amplification etc. It was altogether… quite something, the actor getting so caught his performance he, on occasion, lost his way in the poem. I have seen this work to great effect where an audience accepted the humanity of the poet and even cheered! But on this occasion the performance failed. Why? Because it overpowered the poem. Simply. To such extremes that it interfered with its form and content, and had I not authored the stanzas, I would have lost its meaning. This was in complete contrast to the actor who played ‘Fred’. He’d read the poem to himself, understood what was going on and ‘performed’ it as such, that is to say speaking the line about death with the sadness it invokes (which would naturally call for a slower, sombre pace), the stanza about guilt, with guilt. By staying true to the poem and reading with its emotional intention, the poem lived. This is no more a performance than it is to hold a relaxed conversation.

To do otherwise, to stifle emotion is to act away from the poem, therefore is a performance. It does the poem a disservice, undermines it and, I’d argue, is as bad as an overpowering. Obviously, there is room for argument about how good a poem is. Dramatic monologues may dazzle an audience yet fall flat on a page, but this article deals with the delivery of a poem, and begins with the assumption of well written text.

I don’t believe there is a difference between a stage poet and a page poet. There is just a poet, the poem and the lengths one is willing to go to give a good verbal representation of the poem.


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