Archive | May, 2010

Poetry in Unusual Places. No. 10. Richard Dawkins

26 May

There is no punctuation mark for genuine surprise.  If there was, I would be using it now.  This morning I was leafing through a book on evolution by Richard Dawkins only to find some verse penned by Mr Dawkins himself.  Along side it he also quotes Rudyard Kipling’s Harp Song of the Dane Women.

I don’t really want to get into my personal opinion on Dawkins, suffice to say I neither accord him the god like, or devil in disguise status that others appear to.  The book I found it in is The Ancestor’s Tale, a volume on evolution.

This week I have also been listening to a radio documentary on Mahmoud Darwish, the foremost Palestinian poet.


I can’t write

15 May

As many of my regular readers will know my husband currently has cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy.  Now, I don’t really want to go into detail here about chemotherapy, its physical and psychological stresses and strains, this is not really the time or place.  However I do want to talk about how it has effected my writing.

Whenever I have found myself under stress, particularly of the psychological kind I have always found poetry an excellent release.  The poetry I have written at these times has not always been good, if I am truly honest with myself at times it has been god awful. The difference this time appears to be that I just can’t write.  But this time it isn’t the type of writers block that you normally hear about, an issue I have addressed before in a guest post for one of my favorite poetry blogs One Night Stanzas.

I can write, I do so often for my job.  I can write copy, and reports and briefings and essays.  I recently completed a poem for the Red Squirrel Press, Grand Central Station Project, but any poetry that is actually about me appears to be impossible at the moment.  On analysis it appear that it is something within the actual act of writing poetry itself, rather than the situation I am that hampers me. I think that expressing myself, however ineptly I do it, through poetry has been a way of understanding and to a certain extent controlling my emotions.  Now I find myself in a situation that nothing can prepare you for.  As wonderful and heart warming as the support and love that everyone has expressed is, I still ultimately feel adrift.  A pen is a rudder, and at this moment, in this sea, I don’t know how to use it.  I have always believe that really good poetry is honest, brutally so.  I have felt that if you are not truly honest with yourself about a situation then you can not write poetry about it.

Ned is still going through chemo, unfortunately this week we have had news that although his recovery has been good it is not quite what would have been expected.  Therefore the Consultant is brining out the big guns which means more drugs, more side effects, more invasive medical procedures, more strain and less of the man, and father, I know and love.

All I can conclude is that maybe in the future I might be able to write about this period in my life.  I do believe that time gives us the sort distance that is needed to really see thing as they are.  However just now I feel frustrated that the one thing I have always found as a cathartic release, at this point appears to be beyond me.  Maybe, it needs to be so.

A press is being concieved

12 May

Sometimes I wonder if my constant need to be doing something and the feeling of malaise I get when “there’s nothing interesting going on” is actually yet another character flaw.  The result of my latest bout of “why is nothing interesting happening-itis” has resulted in my cousin and I intending to set up a small press.

Small presses are generally called so because (and I have not done a thorough jobs of researching here) they have annual sales below the $50m mark.  Now, we’re not really planning on aiming at $50m, in fact I think covering the cost of materials will be a great bonus.  Due to much limited free time we are planning an incredibly small run of 10-20 limited edition hand bound book.  So perhaps micro-press or atom-press might be a more apt term to use.

When I first started out seriously in the poetry community my main ambition was on publication, and in many ways it still is.  However, becoming part of the poetry scene meant that I started meeting a lot of people who not only wrote but actually created some beautiful books and pamphlets.  I started to understand that there is a serious art to creating a hand bound book, and luckily, I happen to be related to someone who can do it.

So often though the binding of a book is created in response to it’s contents.  Our first run is going to experiment with the idea of creating the writing in response to the materials which the book is made from.  My cousin, the lovely and talented Gillian Jack is currently in London and shall be looking at some very exciting paper.  Of course there are still a lot of mundane details to work out, but the great thing is, as it’s our press, we can work to our own timescales and around our commitments.

And the name you ask?  You’ll be the first to know…

This week I have been reading back issues of PN Review which my brother picked up for me from Word Power Books in Edinburgh.

Does it really have to be performance versus page?

5 May

Jenny Lindsay, too young to be a veteran, too experienced to be a foot soldier, but the veritable Colour Sergent of the Scottish performance poetry scene discusses performance and page poetry.

Performance poetry is the lowest form of art. It is a bunch of assymetrical hair-do’d teenagers ranting on about Iraq and feminism like they have some kind of insight the rest of us don’t. It is stand-up comedy masquerading as poetry. It is ranty, it is in-yer-face, it is masculine, aggressive, populist. It is postmodern. It is to poetry what the soundbite is to politics: occasionally memorable, but ultimately meaningless. It is style over substance. It is a democratising art-form: anyone can join in. It is open to all – come along and share… It is freedom of speech, man. It is far less elitist than page poetry. It’s not ‘really’ poetry.

I have promoted live poetry events for around 8 years, and the above represents the most common assertions I hear from both page and performance poets regarding the difference between stage poetry and its more traditional counterpart. I agree with none of it.  Page poetry does not have a depth and substance that performance poetry necessarily lacks; nor does performance poetry have the patent on appealing to diverse audiences. Quite simply, where page and performance poets split is on their intentions as they write, not on their ultimate intentions or appeal. Any good poet wants to communicate a message of some sort, uses poetic techniques and devices to get that message across, and wants – to differing extents – to communicate to an audience.  Quite obviously, if you want to perform your poetry rather than try to publish it, you will have to employ different techniques to make your work successful, which, to some poets means performance poets are less ‘serious’ somehow than page poets.

The question of what makes performance poetry any different from page poetry requires a longer answer than lies within the scope of a short blog, but the differences start with the intentions of the writer. A performance poet knows that their work will primarily and above all else be heard by an audience that does not have the luxury of having read the work beforehand (and nor will they afterwards), and thus knows that their poem must have an immediacy and a plain message that can be immediately understood – something page poetry does not need by necessity. Does that mean the writer is an entertainer rather than a poet: does it mean, as has often been asserted, that comedy is the only tool of a performance poet? No. While comedy is one of many tools that a good performance poet can employ to get their message across, it is by no means the only one – in fact, with most performance poets the comedy is incidental rather than the prime purpose of their writing.  What a good performance poet will do is find a way of making a point through a combination of literary and performance techniques.  They will use universal language and themes to say something personal. They use personal experiences to say something bigger. And always, above all, they use plain language: performance poetry is not studied academically nor is it deconstructed in seminars. It is not written to be. It is written to be informative, immediately understandable and entertaining. It is written to be performed.

There are clear differences between page and performance poetry, though many poets would disagree with me on this. However, I often think that those who try to say there is absolutely no difference between performance and page poetry are more often than not merely at pains to say that one is not better than the other – and that I would certainly agree with.

All poets will have their own prime reasons for wanting to write and/or perform their poetry, but, as with all writing, this will usually be a combination of ego, a burning desire to communicate something important and a love of and knowledge of the power of language. All writers feel this to a greater or lesser extent. So, does the added motivation of wanting to entertain mean that performance poetry is all style over substance? Again, no. Though good performance poets will be keenly aware of their audience, audiences ( including the generally non-literary audiences of performance poetry shows) want an entertaining evening out and an impressive use of language.

That is not to say that page poetry readings lack this combination of entertainment and art. But the readings seem to me to be secondary to the ultimate aim of the page poet, which is to express meaning through an impressive use of language, often following certain poetic conventions, rules and traditions. Any performance is secondary to that. Of course, many poets completely transcend the page/performance divide, coming across equally well on stage as they do in print; and many page poets read their work in such a way as to engage an audience completely. This does, however, come from practice; from watching others reading and performing, from making a concerted effort to relate to the audience at a reading and from reading ‘naturally’; not putting on the terribly ubiquitous poetry ‘voice’. Performance poetry is far more than simply reading poetry aloud; and reading poetry aloud (and well) is a skill entirely different from writing good poetry. It is good skill to acquire – and engaging with the performance poetry world can help with this.

I’m no expert on these things of course, but the icing on the cake for a page poet is to be published I would think, or to become the writer in residence of somewhere, or to gain a grant or fund to develop their work. I’m not really sure what the icing on the cake is for a performance poet. Many of us pursue these things too, but really, the ultimate icing for a performance poet would be to make a living out of performing: something that is almost impossible without getting published, teaching, doing workshops and generally taking things on you would rather not and which often detract from what you really want to do: write. And therein lies the ultimate similarity between page and performance poets – we’re all practitioners of an art that doesn’t generally interest or impress the vast majority of people, and most of us will struggle to be heard, read, enjoyed and make a living out of our art. It is therefore quite darkly hilarious that many poets do not read other poets work, and nor do many performance poets attend performance poetry events! I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been promoting as long as I have been performing poetry and have seen a wealth of different styles of performance; but it is as equally important to read poetry. Page and performance poets can learn a lot from each other; and equally.

And so…I think we miss a trick by splitting the two as rigidly as some poets do. Being a performance poet is no excuse for lazy writing or for claiming a popularity that page poetry is perceived to lack. Meanwhile, being a page poet is no excuse for not trying to engage with a wider bunch of people than would generally attend poetry readings or buy poetry collections. Live poetry is, for me, a bloody good night out, and poetry is so diverse; its practitioners come from such a wealth of different styles and genres that it would be quite impossible to say you ‘hate’ poetry. You may well have seen a bad performance poet, (you may well have read a bad page poet!) but if you saw a bad singer-songwriter you wouldn’t consign everyone from Bach to Lady Gaga to the musical scrapheap.Performance poetry has to employ different techniques – both in terms of subject and style – than more traditional poetry, but that doesn’t detract from its artistic merit. And audiences, who in my experience come from all backgrounds, ages, races and classes, enjoy a performance/reading/cabaret/event where they get to hear many different styles of poetry; performance to page and everything in between. Poetry as an art can only ever benefit from being heard in places you wouldn’t normally hear it, and being heard and enjoyed by people who wouldn’t normally think they would like it. That is what live poetry is all about. Poets of the world unite! After-all….it’s all poetry.