On being called a performance poet

Commissioned 2009 for the Australian Writers Newsletter. This work may not be reproduced by any process, including printing.

People call me a ‘performance poet’, but I would say instead that I am a poet who performs. So what’s the difference?

It’s a difference of attitude and intent. A performance poet is one who writes primarily for performance; the performance is an integral part of their artform. Their tone of voice, pitch, speed of delivery, body movements, gestures and facial expressions become part of the poem. Poets like this (such as Melbourne’s Santo Cazzati or Steve Smart) are more likely to publish in audio or video form, although many publish in zines, books, blogs and websites also. All of the performance poets I know write and edit their poems first; some (such as Perth’s Belowsky) also improvise at the microphone, finding the audience interaction helps them generate ideas.

Some performance poetry also works well on the page, but some does not because so much of the form resides in the poet’s performance style. Some hip-hop rhymes, for example, are bright and alive in performance (whether performed to music or not) but flat and dull on the page, because the rhythm and associated tension are created primarily by the MC’s timing and emphasis rather than by the words themselves. In particular, good MCs and hip-hop poets know how to bring out the assonances and inventive off-rhymes of their poetry by emphasising particular syllables.

Likewise, some ‘page poetry’ works well in performance, but some does not. A lot of poetry needs more than one reading to be fully grasped; or it may have visual form that does not translate well into performance. It may also include unfamiliar words or terms that need to be looked up or given a footnote.

People call me a ‘performance poet’ because they see me performing — rather than merely reading — my poetry: and perhaps because I often do so without notes, wearing dramatic black clothes, sometimes playing the guitar rather badly, and generally taking up a lot more space than I’m entitled to. Attending, and lately, organising, poetry readings and spoken word performances is a big part of my life and I would guess that most other poets know of me from this rather than from my published poems.

However, I don’t like being described as a ‘performance poet’: that’s only half the story. Since I published a collection, people have said to me that my poems contain patterns and forms that are not discernible from my performances. And I find the idea of someone sitting down with my book and responding to it a lot more exciting than someone listening to me perform. Go to any poetry slam and you’ll see how easy it is to use cheap theatrical tricks to get an emotional response. Doing so with words alone is a whole lot harder.

So why perform or read your poetry?

You can hear what it sounds like. Getting someone else to read it aloud is even better. I love reading other people’s poetry aloud even more than performing my own.

You can bring your poems to life and interpret them for the audience.

You get your poetry to people who otherwise would never experience it. You sell a lot more zines and books.

You get to meet other poets and hear their words.

And it feels amazing! Especially if you’re wearing dramatic black clothes.