Thursday, March 14, 2013

Should We Just Read or Perform our Poetry?

Yesterday, after the monthly Coffee with the Poets event, I had a conversation with poet Glenda Beall and her sister, Gay, about the lack of “performance poetry” in our neck of the woods. This phrase is not to be confused with “poetry slam” or “rap poetry,” though it may be similar, depending on the one dramatizing the poetry.

In a nutshell, performance means dramatization in which an actor or reciter delivers (not reads) the verse as if on a stage. In fact, sometimes the presentation is physically on stage. In many larger cities, you will find poetry troupes that routinely put on poetry plays in theaters or other suitable venues. Very often, they will even build stage settings and props.

I know the very mention of acting gives stage fright to some folks who have never done anything like this before. It’s true that not everyone is suited to acting out poetry. It’s also my observation that most poets are not very good at reading their own poems, much less dramatizing them. I can name some poets in our area who might pull it off.  I have seen Karen Holmes, for example, perform some of her poems quite well. Years ago I also participated in performance poetry.

Simply having good poetry does not good drama make. Some words just don’t work when staged. Usually the best poems for this purpose are dramatic monologues or narratives. However, a good voice can bring out the drama in other poems we might have considered unsuitable for staged presentation. I would find it interesting to see what our area poets select for performance.

One of the main requirements for performing is energy, which is usually the domain of youth. Some of us old timers can still cut the mustard, though I don’t think I’m one of them anymore. My mouth still works okay, though. Older age does not shut down all the possibilities. Many arts organizations actually pair drama departments or theater companies with poets. In this case the actors perform the poetry, and the poet basically takes an appreciative seat in the audience, perhaps taking a bow at the end along with the actors. I’d like to see this scenario play out in our area. When good poetry is coupled with good dramatic presentation, the results can be magical.

In this article, I’m just trying to identify a need, not to make a proposal. Nevertheless, if anyone has any ideas on resources to make this happen or would like to see the idea pursued further, I would certainly volunteer to help out. I suppose I will know the interest level by the number of comments to this post!


  1. Thumbs up, Robert! Sounds like challenging fun.

    Maren OshotedCa. Mitchell

  2. I would love to see some performance poetry in our region.
    A Netwest member, Micheal Beadle does performance poetry. I enjoyed his presentation at JCCFS a few years ago.But I think some of our local poets who are not familiar with it were a bit askance.

  3. Hello, let's don't let the supposed division between well-delivered poetry, performance poetry, whatever you want to call it, and "reading" poetry get us all in a dither. Poetry can be "read" to great effect if the reader knows how to read it, how to sing it, how to make the language matter. A connection with listeners is always important, and believe me, I have seen some performance and slam poets who don't have a whit of connection, they are up there "performing." Connection is the key, the voice must resonate with the listeners. Having music, drama, art, all of this can help create that connection and I am sure that we, as writers and teachers, can work to collaborate with our fellow artists to make this happen. I've seen it happen; I've been engaged in such collaborations. They are magical. I've also stood behind a lectern --or not, as I like to move around--with only my poems in hand, and felt a connection with listeners that dissovles the distance between speaker and listener. Let's don't start making our writers feel they must "perform." Please. No waving of arms, over-done expression. Just let the words lead you, speak them, really, really love the words you are speaking, and your audience will, too. A little humor goes a long way, as well as introductory and other comments weaving poems and stories together. I have always disliked slam poetry because it seems to care little for audience, just leave em stomping their feet and clapping while they are drinking their beer. Michael Beadle is a great performer of poetry, as well as a damn fine poet, and when he "performs" he is bringing his total self into it, but, not everyone can be a Michael, and he wouldn't want us to be, nor would he expect us to be. Claim your space when you stand up to present your poetry, connect with your audience, bring your life to it, love the sound of it in your mouth, and you will not need to worry about reciting it. I never could remember my poems, don't even try, I have my text in front of me and know how to make eye contact and get the rhythm going. This comes with experience, with a bit of age, a bit of chutzpah, more than a bit of trust in one's work and one's audience. Make the connection! that's what really matters.

  4. And please don't refer to "just reading." Reading poetry well is an art that can be learned and developed. Just ask my husband. And, after several seasons with Poets Out Loud, for high school students, I can tell you that the well presented poem is not about "performance" so much as "becoming" the poem.

  5. Patsy Rodenbergh has a couple of books that are really helpful when it comes to oral presentation. She has worked with numerous actors on the British stage. She has some exercises, vocal and relaxation, that are good, and she focuses on voice. The voice must project the "drama" of the poem, the speech, whatever it is being spoken.I'll be glad to post more about this later on.

  6. Thanks, Kay. I agree the performance poetry is not for everyone. My sister, not a poet, went to a program in Atlanta where the poetry was recited dramatically and she enjoyed it very much.
    I completely agree that a poet must feel the poem and use everything possible to make the audience stay with him/her and I think we could all learn more about presenting our poetry. That is why I invited Karen Holmes to do a class on that subject a couple of years ago, but most of our local poets evidently felt they didn't need it.
    Some of our best poets need help in that department. Thanks for the recommendation of Patsy Rodenbergh's books. I hope you will post more on this subject.

  7. Dither? I don't think there is any call to arms here. I also don't believe my original post calls for everyone to be a performance poet, nor does it imply criticism of those who aren't.

    Let's not assume that performance poetry is just "waving of arms, over-done expression." It may be no better than that in some cases, but I could make the same statement, quality-wise, about the way poets read their work.

    The term "just read" refers to the way many poets present their work. It may be read very well, or it may be poorly read. Even if read well, it still may not be performance poetry, which is what my post discusses. So I agree that indeed we should not get in a "dither."

  8. I think Kay is thinking of slam poets and those who do just wave their arms and over dramatize. I can't talk too much on this subject because I've not seen that much performance poetry. I heard that Glenis Redmond was a performance poet and some of our local poets enjoyed her presentation a few years ago.I haven't heard her read her work.
    Perhaps we need a definition of "performance poetry."
    Actually each reading is a performance in a way. We need to engage the audience first thing, I think, and get them in the mood to accept us and our poetry. And of course, the audience makes a big difference. If we are speaking before a group of poets we can expect a different response than if we are reading before a group of non-writers. I read once that the patter between the poems was as important as the poetry if we want to sell ourselves and our books. I agree that humor is the best method of gaining the audiences favor.
    Robert, I will pass on a compliment for you from someone who heard you read at CWP. She said you were the best reader and she, a non-poet, listened to every word and liked the poem.

  9. Suppose you are at a literary conference where open mike nights are going on in different rooms and you can only sit in on one of them. You pause at one open door. The poet is reading something called "Kaboom!" His actions match his words­–yes, dear fellow workshop junkies–it's performance poetry.

    In the next room you come to, stands a stiff, unmoving poet reading or reciting "The Charge of the Light Brigade." You know the poem; a favorite of yours. It is full of soldiers, action and pathos.

    Which are you going to chose? Quick, now. The readings have already started, you're late but you'll only miss a few lines.

    Ha! Bet I know where I could find you.

    JC Walkup

  10. This is a good discussion. Being around poets most of my adult life, preferring their company because they are "thinkers", I admit, poets have strong opinions on all topics. When they give you their thoughts, believe me, they have thoroughly thought it over. Most of us here in the mountains have a limited experience in hearing an accomplished , major poet read his/her poems. Some of us have lived in big cities where everything is available. Some have studied Poetry alone and some went away to earn a degree in poetry.

    For me, what matters is the message. What is being expressed in the poem? Don't distracted me. If I want drama, I'll go to a movie (if there is a decent movie playing.)

    As a poet who also teaches, I am happy that NCWN West offers our members in our "neighborhood" a number of chances each year to read their poems to a live audience, such as Coffee With the Poets, Poets and Writers the folk school, and Writers' Night Out. Our poets get (sometimes) three chances a year to read in public. That is the best way learn to deliver and connect.


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