Over the coming weeks, I’m going to be running a series of interviews with the great and good of the UK performance poetry scene. The nice thing about doing stuff online is that I can embed videos alongside the Q & As, and turn appropriate sections of their replies into hyperlinks so that, for example, if someone were to say: ‘My favourite performance poet of all time is the erudite and compassionate Mr Timothy Clare,’ you’d be able to click through and appraise this promising gentleman’s work for yourself. Over time, I hope it’ll build up into a useful and interesting little online archive of who’s who on the circuit and what we’re all up to. I’ll do my best to archive it with decent tags and links, etc, so it’ll be straightforward to navigate.

I was interested to see that on UK poetry organisation Apples & Snakes’ website, they have a section with ten ‘top tips’ for ‘Getting Started’ in performance poetry. I’m by no means an old hand but I’m not exactly a newcomer either, so I thought I’d take a look at them to see whether they match my experience of establishing a toehold in the scene.

‘1. Practice [sic] performing.’

They mean ‘practise’ (the verb’s spelt with an ‘s’ in British English, look it up), but pedantry aside, it’s a simple but nonetheless important point.

It’s embarrassing to stand alone in your room trying to recite a poem from memory, perhaps acting out different parts or testing out various ways of delivering a line, but it’s far more embarrassing to stand in front of a real live audience holding a piece of crumpled paper, reading them a poem you only have a passing familiarity with. I’ve done it myself and it made me feel grim.

I absolutely believe that delivering a poem from memory is preferable to reading from a page. Memorising a poem forces you to engage with it in a different way. For a start, it encourages you to edit – if you have to learn every line, you’ve got a strong incentive to get rid of everything but the essentials. Memorising a poem makes you far more aware of the cadence of each sentence too – as you repeat the piece over and over, clunky lines start to stick out more. In my experience, one of the most frustrating things has been hearing poets that have a few good lines mired in dozens of lazy ones. Editing and redrafting don’t have quite the mythic caché of the divinely inspired one-shot masterpiece, but they’re essential tools for the serious performer, and, in my opinion, far rarer than flashes of brilliance, which come to most people once in a while.

In addition, dispensing with paper allows you to turn your full attention to the audience. You get to maintain eye contact over the entire poem, and you’ve got an extra hand free, so you’ve got more freedom of movement. Of course, this doesn’t mean you’re obliged to prance about like a forest sprite – there’s a real power in stillness, when used purposefully.

Memorising your poems is just better right across the board. At the very least, it’s a courtesy to your audience. It demonstrates a rudimentary level of effort, and audiences tend to reciprocate with a greater willingness to listen.

I’m glad they put this point first. Every other ‘tip’ is completely worthless unless you’re obeying this one religiously.

‘2. Make a tape of your performance and a collection of sample poems.’

A tape? Cripes, I’ll have to dig out one of me old C90s, though it’ll pain me to record over my only copy of ‘Doop’ from the Pepsi Network Chart Show. I love that song (although I missed the first three bars and Dr Fox talks all over the end).

This advice is basically sound though. Having audio tracks up on Myspace and videos up on Youtube gives you an easy promotional platform. Although the few people that stumble across your work randomly are unlikely to give your career a noticeable boost, it’s very useful to be able to email a promoter links to your poems being delivered.

This process is a little harder for stand-up poets than it is for ‘drama’-ish poets, since really, for many good comic poems, the audience reaction is part of the piece. Recording a comedy poem ‘dead’ into a mic is a bit like delivering a stand-up routine to an empty room – it usually feels awkward and, fatally, not very funny.

On the other hand, unless you’ve got a solid gig schedule and regular access to a camera, it’s not always easy to pick and choose which gigs you record. Most of the live stuff I’ve got up on youtube is from Aisle16 scratch night, Homework, where we performed a new show every month, and wrote brand new material for the support slots. To say my bits are a little ropey in places is a very charitable assessment – I’m nervous, I stumble, I’m reading off the page – and while I’m proud of the work we eventually developed out of those nights (and very grateful to the Arts Council for helping us fund them), I wouldn’t want anyone to think it was representative of my sets. The more organised you are about getting your gigs filmed, or maybe handing a Mini-Disc player or similar to the sound tech so he or she can record direct through the PA system, the more chance there is of you landing a good take of the night you absolutely murdered every last man, woman and child in the room – figuratively speaking, of course.

‘3. Research organisations who are likely to programme your type of work and send them your tape/poems with a covering letter telling them a little about yourself.’

Yeah, good luck with that, fucko. These ‘organisations’ are so few and far between as to be practically non-existent. I think what Apples & Snakes mean here is ‘you could try sending your work to Apples & Snakes’.

There are certainly a few performance poetry promoters round the country, but that’s a bit of a misleadingly glamorous term – for the most part, the promoter is the person who phoned the pub to book the function room, and who posts the invitation on Facebook. They’re unlikely to respond well to formal letters of introduction and po-faced CVs; far better to find the Myspace pages or Facebook groups for different nights, then drop the organiser a quick message with a link to audio of your poems on Myspace or a Youtube video. If the night has an open mic section, and is nearby, you could always try just turning up and performing – if you’re good enough, and the person running it isn’t a total knobhead, then after one or two appearances you’ll probably be offered a featured slot.

‘4. Exploit the open mic format.’

Yes. Do this. If you want to get good, you should be fiending for opportunities to practice working an audience and delivering your poems. I find it odd how, in stand-up, for example, it’s not unusual for more established acts to turn up at open mics to try out their new five minutes, whereas in poetry, there seems to be an attitude that the open mic is something you maybe do once or twice, then graduate from, unless you’re rubbish.

Be warned – poetry open mics are usually terrible. I’ve seen the worst live performances in my life – the worst in any genre – at poetry open mics. Not only are they full of mediocre poetry, but the promise of a captive audience tends
to attract both the boorish and the mentally ill. Open mic performers may or may not be an appreciative audience for their fellow poets – prior to their performance, they’re often anxious and preoccupied, afterwards, they’re notorious for buggering off home. With this in mind, if you get the choice, try to go on first or second, so you can perform to as big an audience as possible.

Many nights with featured poets have an open mic section or an open ‘slam’. As a punter, I’m not in favour of this – the simple truth is that most open mic poetry is shit, and its presence on the bill discourages non-poets from turning up. If I went to a concert, I wouldn’t expect to have to sit through 45 minutes of random audience members noodling hamfistedly on an acoustic guitar before the first band was invited onstage. If, however, you’re an aspiring poet, these are good places to cut your teeth and observe a bunch of other amateurs, to see what they’re doing wrong.

‘5. Time each poem.’

Yes. Do that. It’s useful – especially knowing which poems come in at under 3 minutes, since these can be used in slams. Also, if you’ve got any poems that last more than 5 minutes, you should be taking a very serious look at them to see if they justify all that stage time. When you perform them, look out for any points where the pace and the audience’s attention seem to sag. Then cut them.

This ‘tip’ goes on: ‘Overrunning your allotted time slot is a guaranteed way to preclude a repeat invitation.’ Which is bollocks. Most places where you’ll be starting out don’t care, unless you run on by ten minutes or something and refuse to leave the stage. Later on in your career, you might want to think about reining it in a little bit, but having compered the poetry tent at Latitude for the last two years, I can tell you that a significant proportion of performance poets go over their allotted time. Sometimes it happens by accident, often it’s because they’re greedy, unprofessional fuckers who don’t care that they’re eating into a fellow poet’s stage time. The bottom line is, people wouldn’t do it if they thought they couldn’t get away with it. I’ve done it. It’s selfish, but as long as you go down well with audience, it’s unlikely to have any bearing on your bookings.

‘6. Go to as many readings as possible.’

Now, as a promoter of performance poetry gigs, Apples & Snakes clearly has a bit of a vested interest here. All I can say is, if you’re not going to performance poetry gigs of your own volition, why do you want to do it in the first place? There’s very little chance of financial reward, little public recognition, and it’s a lot of hard work. Unless you enjoy poetry anyway, it’s a really stupid career move.

These days, I rarely attend a gig I’m not performing at. That might sound arrogant and shitty, but it still means I see live performance poetry almost every week – often multiple times a week, during my ‘on’ seasons. I don’t have some nebulous passion for all poetry, but the really good stuff on the UK scene makes me laugh and punch the air and grimace with jealousy unlike any other artform. I enjoy writing it, I enjoy performing, and I enjoy watching it. That makes the bulk of the process relatively easy.

‘7. Take as many writing/poetry classes and workshops as you possibly can.’

In my opinion, this is a rather transparent shill. Apples & Snakes run lots of workshops, and they’d obviously like it if you signed up to them. Most poets I know on the scene didn’t come up through a series of workshops – they learned through watching, and practising (see Tip 1). Workshops can be fun, and the money they bring in helps plug the huge gaps in jobbing performance poets’ salaries, but don’t think that classes are in any way necessary. If you’re keen to do one, make sure it’s being run by a poet whose work you know and like. No matter how prestigious their biog makes them sound, you’re unlikely to learn much from someone whose artistic output is total guff.

‘8. Promote yourself relentlessly – without being a pest.’

Excise ‘relentlessly’ and I agree. You shouldn’t waste too much time doing this – your main focus needs to be on writing material, practising it, then testing it in front of audiences to see what works – but it’s good to exploit the various user-friendly applications online to make it easy for interested parties to find you.

Loathe as I am to admit it, however, the truth of the matter is, being a pest sometimes pays off. There are plenty of characters on Myspace who plaster other people’s walls with e-posters promoting their gigs, who send irritatingly chipper messages saying ‘love your stuff – check out my new poem on my player!’, who can’t sneeze without sending out an update about it, and who ruthlessly cull correspondence to create mailing lists, to which they send monthly ‘news’ about themselves in the third person.

Almost without exception, the people who do this are shit poets. They have no time to write and practise because they devote their lives to trying to make people pay attention to them. Indeed, the only reason they write poetry is in an attempt to monopolise every waking moment of other people’s lives with the insipid gruel of their musings.

Yet they get gigs. They get gigs because everybody has heard of them. They get gigs because some promoters are too polite to say ‘fuck off’. They get gigs because they put their name up for everything and try to befriend everybody in the entire scene and eventually someone suffers a lapse of judgement or books them sight unseen, and soon even the promoters who were alienated by the constant barrage of self-promotion start to feel that by not booking the person, they’re taking some kind of conscious stand against them, and that, sooner or later, they’ll have to bow to the pressure, because it’s not as if there’s a vast an inexhaustable well of talent out there anyway.

So. Don’t be an attention-seeking arsehole. But don’t be surprised if attention-seeking arseholes get booked for more gigs than you.

‘9. Explore the web for poetry feedback sites.’

I think A & S is starting to run out of ideas here, and this is their way of saying: ‘Err… you could like, go on Google or something?’

I used Abctales for many years, posting short stories and poetry, but the main reason I found it useful was that I had a real world group of friends who also used the site, and it was an easy way of sharing work. For the most part, if you post a poem in an online community, if you get any sort of response it’ll largely consist of ‘Really enjoyed this, thnx’ and ‘LOL – very funny!’ sort of comments, rather than detailed line-by-line breakdowns of what you’ve done and how you could improve. Also, if it’s intended as a performance piece, there’s a massive segment not represented by the page version, so much of the feedback will be incomplete anyway.

Again, if your craft is performance poetry, then there’s really no substitute for time with a live audience. Whatever they say is right. If they’re bored, then however great you think your poem is, in its current form, it bores audiences. If it kills across five different nights, then no matter what people online think, you’ve got yourself a sweet, sweet peach you’ll be dining out on for years.

’10. Go to the Poetry Library – often.’

4 thoughts on “Getting Started In Performance Poetry”

  1. I can agree that it’s good to know your poems from memory but I disagree that you shouldn’t necessarily have paper on stage with you. It’s about how you want to present yourself.

    For me, my first thought, if someone comes on stage without paper is: oh God, the writing’s going to be shit. Now, I am often proved wrong. Most of the performance poets I like don’t use paper.

    But, often, I’m not proved wrong. I listen to poetry primarily for the words, not for the performance, and having my paper with me on stage sets up that stance.

    Also, having learned something off by heart just means you’ve got the under-edited version of a poem locked in your head, when it should go through more edits. I think this is true right across the performance poetry scene. Less time should be spent learning the poems, more time on editing them.

    So there.

  2. surely more time should be spent on editing AND learning. it also really depends on what kind of gig it is. if it’s a sedate (ish) reading and everyone’s reading off paper then you can get away with it. But i do mean ‘get away with it’ a performance, a good performance, is not a distraction from the words, but a away of enhancing them, communicating them. All of your poems would be improved on the stage if you learned them and were able to look up from the page and make eye contact with the audience. That’s not to say it’s not good watching you on stage Joe, it really is, you rock, but you could rock more. And as for the impression it creates, walking on stage with paper, as you say those preconceptions are often smashed. There was plenty of people who get on stage with paper and their writing is shit.

    there are of course some exceptions, where the paper is needed as a kind of prop, where the piece works best if the message being communicated to the audience is ‘here is something clever i’ve written.’ A good example is Chris Hicks’ superfoods piece, i think that’s because it is a list, and it feels like a pastiche, style wise of something you would get in a magazine of newspaper – the audience kind of expect it to be read. There is no suspension of disbelief. However, I feel most poems, the kind that work live, benefit from being learned. That said, you do have to learn them WELL.

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