November 5, 2007

Print poems v. Perf' po

Buried in the tsunami of comments on my Blog of October 26 were some musings by Therese Broderick about performing poetry at an open mic. Therese is a thoughtful poet who likes to ponder the many & various issues of modern poetry both in & out of our community. Her comments reflect some of the issues that I have confronted over the years in practice & thought (this is not meant as a point-by-point response to Therese's comments, I'm just bouncing off them randomly).

Some poems are best left on the page while others can be successfully performed, & I think there are even a few that only work on stage, their flaws too blatant, too documented on the printed that they should only be performed. This became apparent to me in the early years of the QE2 open mic when I tried out some of my poems on the audience. The poems with the "literary" tricks that require close, multiple readings, or that use literary devices like footnotes usually don't work with a listening audience where the poem is over & gone in one recitation. An early poem I wrote without thinking of the listening audience, "Richard Nixon Must Die," actually worked quite well on stage because of its use of parallelism & repetition, not to mention its shock images (e.g., Tricia Nixon's collection of stolen panties). I soon began half-consciously incorporating such techniques when writing poems so that they would work well on stage. After all I wasn't having much success getting poems published, but could always read them at an open mic & at least a dozen people could experience them.

Approaching this from the other direction, I use open mics as a way to try out, field test if you will, my poems. I test out the poem & my manner of performing/reading them so that if & when a reading opportunity arises I will be able to put together a program of tested work to give the audience its money's worth. Based on my experience at open mics I've re-written poems, changed the way I read them, or incorporated "performance" such as props, music, multiple voices, etc., or even not used the poem at all in a performance. And believe it or not, I have many poems that I never read out. Although, as I write this, it occurs to me that perhaps there are reading settings where the quieter, or more intricate -- I'm struggling to find the correct adjectives that aren't demeaning to the reading scene -- poems that I don't (usually) read at open mics. Perhaps you've been to that reading.

A final point is that of memorized poems v. reading them from a page. When performing with 3 Guys from Albany I would do my poem "The bass player's thoughts..." from memory, but clutching the text in my hand both as prop & as "Dumbo's feather." As a writer, I like seeing a text used -- we work hard at preparing that text & it should be honored. Committing a poem to memory, or free-styling as many hip-hop poets do, can be liberating. But as with jazz improvisation, free-styling is usually not really "free" but a collection of practiced riffs strung together in the heat of the moment, sometimes exhilarating, often mundane. And -- you can find this somewhere in my past Blog entries -- sometimes a memorized performance can be more acting than poetry, more show than substance, a wonderful aesthetic experience, but not what I paid for, more show-off than sharing.

Anyways, thanks to Therese for prompting this.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

from Therese--Dan, you make some good points and several intelligent distinctions. Thanks for your excellent blog.

Tim V. said...

what an excellent blog Dan. your points are right on too. Especially about the performance poetry. I once saw a feature read a fifteen minute poem. A fifteen minute poem would be fantastic to sit down and read, but since a live audience cannot hear the poem again, the poem is far too long for comprehension. Poems that include words from alien languages (French, Latin) etc. are also problematic since the listener becomes distracted with not knowing the meaning, the poem becomes disconnected for them. I think the same goes for when a poet reads a poem with obscure references to greek mythology, history, what have you. I'll often question the author's motivation for reading such a poem.

I've never given any thought to your comments on people reading poetry from memory. I'm so impressed when someone can do that. I lose sight on whether the poem succeeds or not.

Certainly the "shit-burner" poem was very successful read by memory. But I see your point, especially with your previous reference if substance is sacrificed to maintain a rhyme.

Thanks again for a great blog Dan.

Mary Kathryn Jablonski said...

I AM one of those poets who writes with sometimes Latin, sometimes Polish language in my poems. I also often use mythological references or dream metaphors in my work. These are by no means meant to throw the reader off track. I recognize, however, that it may take a reader several run-throughs or even a few googles or footnotes to absorb all they can from some of my poems. This is not to say that they can't get something on the first try. I just think that some of my poems are a lot to swallow at open mics, and nothing is more off-putting at these events than an explanation that's longer than the poem. Also, I have written poems in two voices (ex: a double sonnet) that is split on the page by some visual device. The sonnets may weave together in alternating lines, but one sonnet
may be aligned left, the other aligned right. Or one may be indented and set in italics. This is virtually impossible to convey while reading, unless read with someone else, which can be contrived. I enjoy giving the silent reader, who looks at the page, the option of reading the poems separately as two distinct poems or as one poem with the alternating lines commingling. Such an option cannot be given when read aloud, unless the poem is read twice. Ten years ago I favored writing lines of poetry without punctuation so that they could squint forward or back, thereby changing the meaning depending on the phrases they became. These were impossible to read aloud as they were intended. To read them was to pin them down; not my intention whatsoever. I think these visual "tricks" stem from my identity as an artist.

Mary Kathryn Jablonski said...

O bother! I forgot the most important thing: VisPo: the world of Visual Poetry. Visual Poetry MUST be seen. It is poetry made into artwork. See a few discriptions at a blog entry from students and faculty at Skidmore (http://www.imwds.blog-city.com/visual_poetry_exhibition_at_skidmore_college.htm). The best works were interactive.

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