Anne Tannam talks about performance poetry and poetry for the page

Blurring the Lines to have the Best of Both Worlds

Eleven years ago I read my own work for the first time in public. I’d been writing for over a year and though very nervous, felt ready to take the next step. After some research online I found a monthly reading event called The Last Wednesday Series which took place in the dark basement of the now closed Cassidy’s Bar on Westmoreland street in Dublin. Two things happened the first night I went which changed how I wrote and thought about poetry. The first was standing at the mic, right leg shaking but voice reasonably steady, reading my words and hearing them resonate beyond the confines of the page and around the room. A nerve-wracking but exhilarating moment I knew I wanted to repeat. Later the poet Stephen James Smith, who at the time ran a weekly event called Glór, bounded up on the stage to advertise his night and invite us all to attend. Then without once losing eye contact with his audience, he delivered a spoken word poem that electrified the room. It was the end of the world of poetry as I knew it (and I felt fine!).

The following Monday I attended the Glór sessions and discovered there was a thriving spoken word scene in Dublin which was welcoming and inclusive. All you needed was the courage to stand up and perform your work without the aid of the page. Over the next few years I worked hard on my poetry and on my delivery until I was happy I was doing the words justice on and off the page. The intense satisfaction of finding the right words during the writing process is mirrored when the words are spoken and heard, eyes meeting in a moment of deep connection.

My Kind of Poetry is Better Than Yours

There have been well publicised discussions in literary circles, some of them heated, debating the merits of the page poem versus the spoken word poem. For me and many others, it’s not a case of one or the other; it’s a case of one and the other. A poem heard only and the same poem read silently can elicit very different but equal responses. The only proviso being that the poem, whether it’s on the page or performed must be of the highest standard. There are poems that work better on the page, and poems that work better on the stage, but most can work beautifully in both mediums.

There is the added responsibility when the poem is spoken, of ensuring the performance doesn’t get in the way of the words. I’ve been at many the spoken word event where too much hand gesturing or stomping about the stage has completely distracted the audience and prevented any meaningful connection with the piece. And what about the spoken word performer that forgets their lines altogether, in a moment of stage fright? This happened to a poet friend of mine in her early days when performing at a Slam Poetry competition (ok, ok I’ll admit it, it was me!). Up I went on to the stage, looked out at the packed darkened room, the stage lights hot and blinding and not only did I forget how the poem started, I could hardly remember my name or the fact that a copy of my collection with the poem earmarked was within hands reach. The audience and organisers were really kind and supportive but it was a hard lesson learned: if you can’t perform it properly, don’t do spoken word.

Finding What Works

There are no hard and fast rules about what works better on the page or on the stage but I have noticed in my own writing my more conversational poems, or poems which employ repetition —just like a song chorus the audience can anticipate and join in on— work very well in performace. I also find those poems easiest to learn-off as they flow naturally in my speaking voice. When I’m on the other side of the experience, listening to a spoken piece, I seek first an emotional hook rather than an intellectual hook, to access and connect with the poem. On subsequent hearings, the intellectual hook plays an important role, but that first hearing needs to pierce the heart.

Some of my poems have two versions: the page version will use less conjunctions or connecting words, relying on punctuation and lineation to guide the reading; the spoken poem will be looser, more colloquial, following the rules and pace of conversation rather than writing. I’ve had someone on more than one occasion come up to me after a performance to say they only realised half-way through a piece that I was no longer chatting with the audience, but was delivering the poem!

Good Poetry is Good Poetry On & Off the Page

As much as a poet may love giving voice to her own poems, there are many arguments to be made for allowing the reader to access the work in their own voice and at their own pace. There is a beautiful intimacy between the poem and its reader in the hushed silence of the page, without the personality of the poet intruding. In that sacred space, the poem no longer belongs to the poet but to the reader who’ll read it through the prism of their unique lived experience.

But thankfully as both writer and reader, I don’t have to choose one medium over the over and can and do have the best of both worlds. Good poetry is good poetry, on and off the page and the more chances we give ourselves to experience its magic, the richer and deeper that experience will be.

“As they had become used to the idea of poetry, they begged: “Speak again. Speak like rain.” Why they should feel verse to be like rain I do not know. It must have been, however, an expression of applause, since in Africa rain is always longed for and welcomed. ”

Isak Dinesan Out of Africa

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