Saturday, March 17, 2007

Five Easy Steps to Becoming a Better Performer of Poetry

Some of you have been asking for the "didactic text" that I did to launch the Kitab and then Sarai open mikes, so here it is (scroll to the bottom of this post). It's a prose piece for performance with a bell.

It's interesting to think about what kinds of bells could be used. Anne Waldman's book, Structure of the World Compared to a Bubble, has poems with gong sounds in them that are marked in the text by gong symbols of different sizes, indicating volume. At Kitab I used a bicycle bell that I'd bought at Chor Bazaar for Rs. 20; because it's an instrument I've often used while riding my bicycle, somehow I felt there would be a lot of room for variety of expression with it. At Sarai, because I'd lost the bell at Kitab, I used a spoon against an ugly glass ashtray with cigarette butts in it. Actually, this was fine, since the bicycle bell was a very strong sound which worked well in the open air of the Prithvi Cafe, and the glass ashtray produced a smaller sound for the Sarai basement. What seems important to me for this particular piece is that it NOT be a temple bell, or gong, or anything reminiscent of ritual or organised religion, since that should be a secret / unpretentious purpose here. I've tightened the text slightly based on how it went in performance and I've added three last bell sounds at the end. How to mark the ending of the piece was a bit of a problem, and I think this solves that problem-- will try it if I ever perform the piece again.

About the Lorca essay that I mention in the piece-- it's really a very strange and intense essay and-- I can say this with confidence since I've given it to others to read-- it has an extraordinary effect on the reader who gives it close attention. The clearest translation I have is by J.L. Gili, in this somewhat obscure penguin selected with prose translations of the poems. There's an online version which is interesting since (I'm guessing) it preserves the weirdness of language in the original, but many find it less accessible.

And here is the late Auden poem, On the Circuit (with Auden reading) that I also mention.

Incidentally this poem is also in the ballad metre (loosely, 4 beats, 3 beats, 4 beats, 3 beats) that Koch and Ginsberg improvised their Popeye and Blake poem in, that I played at the Sarai open mike. (You can find the amazing recording at Jacket Magazine. I've also made a transcript of the session after some repeated listening; if you're having trouble following everything I'll email it to you.)

I always chuckle about the last couple of stanzas of Auden's On the Circuit:

Another morning comes: I see,
Dwindling below me on the plane,
The roofs of one more audience
I shall not see again.

God bless the lot of them, although
I don't remember which was which:
God bless the U.S.A., so large,
So friendly, and so rich.

Don't get jaded!

Vivek Narayanan’s


First lesson: do away with the term “performance poetry”. Poetry can travel back and forth between the page and oral performance; that’s one of the things that almost all poems do, that is the transaction that poems are very often born out of. When you read a poem on the page, it carries the ghost of a sound, a voice, a music; and in that longing lies its mystery. It is a longing that is opened up, but never quite fulfilled by performance.

To separate two kinds of poetry, as is sometimes still done in the UK and the US, is to separate activities that thrive on, and live in, interaction. This is a need felt now more and more in the “performance poetry” scene of those two countries also—for there is a debate, that one hears from the more searching and serious poets in those scenes, about whether the “performance poetry” scene discourages complexity and depth, whether it has become too commercial, with recording contracts involved, whether what we should all be turning towards now is something more, something beyond.

Truth is, there’s a trade off. What you get from performance is a very palpable sense of an audience, a community, a situation that pushes you to write, keep writing, get better. Auden famously said that poetry makes nothing happen—and this is true in a larger geo-political sense, but in a small way, in this way (pause)

in this way (pause)

poetry can make something happen. But although performance is immersion and direct dialogue, it is usually on the performer’s terms, not the audience’s. When a poem has to be read on the page, by contrast, the reader has a lot more work to do, but at the same time, the reader is completely in control, and this too is an immeasurable, different, gift. Why forsake it?

So with that caveat, here, just as you have five easy steps to becoming a better manager, here are my five easy steps to becoming a better performer of poetry.

Step One (bell)

READ what I think is the most important text for poetry in performance, which is the famous essay by Federico Garcia Lorca sometimes translated as “Theory and Play of the Duende”. You’ll find that the possibilities of poetry in performance can go deep. The duende, a concept taken from gipsy singing, is a life force and a death force, a gravitational pull. “All the arts are capable of having duende, but naturally the field is widest in music, in dance, and in spoken poetry, because they require a living body as interpreter.” Moreover both the composition (which could be a poem) and the performance are both capable of having duende; and although he says that it is possible for a composition that doesn’t have duende (say, an ordinary pop song) to be given duende by the performer, it is very clear that the real answer lies where both the composition and the performance possess duende. Lorca

was a performance poet, in the sense that he was intense in performance of his work, and the story goes that editors had to chase him around and convince him publish his work. He felt that people would not be able to hear his poems on the page, that they would become vulnerable to—in his words—“idiots, dilettantes, and the complacent, pat-on-the-back smile”; which is to say that a different kind of complacency can set in when poems are circulating only in print.

Step Two (bell)

The most obvious choice for those starting out tends to be the route of the proscenium stage, of theatre, or more precisely, of drama. And while I admire and respect a great actor who understands poetry well enough to perform it, poetry has its own different traditions of performance and recitation that have evolved, and continue to evolve, for centuries, which depends on the solo voice, on the strength of one’s conviction, one’s willingness to stand behind one’s words and give it straight. I am not saying that there can be no overlap or dialogue between poetry performance and drama, but to recognise and PERCEIVE this distinction is the second step (the first step, really).

Step Three (bell)

BE yourself, and not an unintentional caricature of yourself. Be natural, if that’s who you are, but beware of naturalism. Restraint and understatement is all very well, but restraint and understatement can itself be a trap, a pose, a mask to hide a lack of courage or conviction. Forget about pretending naturalism, but follow only the intensities that are already in you as far as they will go. Auden, of course, was very against any kind of high energy, intensified performance, but this was also because he was concerned to work against the power of performance to move and control an audience, about poetry working in service of propagandists and orator-politicians in his time. Hitler

was a great performance poet. George Bush is a gawkier and more understated performance poet, but I suspect he knows what he is doing. I think Auden’s dogma about how to do a poem is at least partly a reflection of his well-mannered English public schoolboy upbringing—but I think it is important to keep the question of control alive. And don’t forget that at the height of his powers Auden was On The Circuit, booked by his agents called (if the poem is to be believed) Columbia-Giesen management. He recited poetry from memory to audiences of two thousand or more, and people remember his readings vividly; which suggests that Auden

was a public poet, he had duende.

Step Four (bell)

STAND with your feet slightly apart, ground yourself. If you stand, it is easier to draw the poem, and your breath, from your whole body and not merely from your mouth. Later you will perform from a wheelchair, or from somewhere in the air.

Step Five (bell)

TALK to the audience, not at them. Before you start look at them, and without a word tell them, with your body and your eyes: thank you

and fuck you. Read the poem for yourself as well as for them, conscious of every word. Weigh the words as you read, perform to discover your words as if anew, find new false notes not visible otherwise. Use performance to defend and stand behind your words, and to defend yourself against your own private self-enchantment.

(end with three bells one after the other, played clearly but much softer than above, with a one second pause between each bell; the last bell should be played to linger and echo slightly.)


Spoken Word Blogger said...

Thanks for those tips! The one about being yourself is hard, because it's hard for a person to be natural on a stage. Anyway, I'm a fan of spoken word, and those are great tips!

equivocal said...

And thanks for the links in your comment, SWB!

Ranjani said...
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