Friday, 15 June 2012

Reading / performing / spoken word: stage and page

Last night I was reading for London Liming at Rich Mix in Bethnal Green Road. Liming is described here and even more fully here, and this was our event. I think the idea was that I would bat last but because of the difficulties of getting back him at night, I actually stepped in first. Even so it was close to 2am by the time I slipped into bed.

Going on first and leaving is a matter of regret since it involves the discourtesy of not hearing your fellow readers / performers, in this case Bohdan Piasecki (you'll also find him on MySpace, and catch him in action on YouTube, for example here, where I am not the George in question) and Maria Slovakova (also here and on MySpace).


The venue is great, about 10 minutes walk from Liverpool Street station. I had been up at the university in the morning and went straight for the train, catching the 4:00 pm, walking over to Rich Mix just as it began to spit with rain. I didn't quite know where to go and eventually found myself in the bar watching the last 15 minutes of Italy v Croatia since, throughout the EU Championship ,the bar is broadcasting all matches live. The bar has a big screen and makes a good sized auditorium.

The customers are mostly the age of my children but then most people are by now. Before the match is quite over one of the organisers, Rochelle, finds me. I meet Bohdan and we talk (he lives in Birmingham, having completed his PhD in Literary Translation at Warwick). He's very friendly and soon we are led by Rochelle into an upstairs Green Room where we talk some more, before being taken downstairs to meet Melanie, who had invited me.

We go to the cellar for the 'salon' where there are some nine of us, now including Maria. We arrange ourselves in a circle and Chris, a poet/musician is invited to tell us about what he does. He puts on events with poets and musicians with some visuals, the music improvised, the poem already written but generally performed rather than read. I ask some questions. Then Bohdan speaks about his work and particularly translated spoken word, about the vast audiences for it in Europe. Again some questions, mostly from me. I don't speak about what I do, nor does Maria.

As this goes on I wonder what I am doing there. This is one milieu and I am of another, although the rhetoric is that we can dissolve the differences. Clearly this scene is fairly confident of itself and thrives as it thrives.


We return to the bar where we see Spain score their fourth goal against Ireland. The place is pretty full. Melanie  comes on as soon as the football is over and announces the event. Maria does a single 'whispering' poem, just the poem,  no talk, then we have a poem set against a film of footballers playing on a park. Melanie briefly introduces me. Aware that having a number of books is both heavy and clumsy I have photocopied a selection of poems I'd read from. I stand at microphone and do what I do. I can't actually see the audience and have no idea how they are reacting or whether I am doing the right thing.  As a reading I am doing slightly more of a performance than I usually do, and am very much aware of timing and tone.  I have a twenty minute slot 9:50-10:10 when a taxi has been ordered so I can get the 10:30 given whatever traffic or delays there may be. In the circumstances I don't know the time and though I am usually good by instinct to within about 3 minutes this is slightly disorientating. In any case, as I have already said, I don't know whether I am pleasing or boring this audience of my children's generation (as it looked before the performance began). Those coming after me are of that same generation. In the end I cut it by what, I think, is about 3 minutes short but may be as much as 7 or 8. (General principle: never outstay your welcome.) I go. Rochelle slips a £10 note into my hand for the taxi but the taxi hasn't arrived yet. She says it's a bit early and suggests it may be best to hail one. I do. It's raining quite hard. I make the train with about 10 minutes to spare so get a seat, but am worried I have done too short a gig. But frankly I wouldn't have known.


Clearly my age and the milieu were factors in the uncertainty I feel, an uncertainty complicated by guilt at not hearing the others (it has happened to me very often that other poets had to scoot before I came on, but in almost every case I have made it a point to listen to everyone). I did what I do well, I think, but don't know if that was the right thing to do. If I had been in the middle between Maria and Bohdan, I think (and as Bohdan too thought prior to the event) I would have had a precedent to go by, but as it was, I was in the dark, in almost every sense.

So a few thoughts or, rather, mere stubs of thought. 'Spoken word' does seem to me to overlap with some kinds of 'page poetry' a phrase Bohdan doesn't like. But am I part of this overlap? And is Bohdan right in downplaying the difference with page poetry? Spoken word seems in every way a social act. Why else speak it?

Why indeed? My poetry began with withdrawal. Being socially awkward I wrote (as I have said before) to get away from parties not to attend new ones. I needed another world, one made out of language. Language, I discovered, was my world, but that world rose out of silence, concentration and solitude, without any strong sense of the reader. For that reason it was probably too difficult, too esoteric to start with. Learning to write more clearly was partly the result of two factors: first, the sense that language was shared (how simple that sounds, but what a complicated perception in real life), and secondly, that as I gained in confidence the delight in language was, I found after all communicable.

Nevertheless, as a poet, I was born on the page, in that silent space Wallace Stevens, who has been much in my thoughts recently, so well understands. The understanding here is that some poetry, maybe most poetry, maybe the poetry I most value, is a process that is experienced by the reader in isolation. There are two pacts:  the pact between poet and poem, the other between poem and reader. It is a deep and long pact, a pact not an act. The poetry isn't that which passes directly between poet and reader, but the medium in between, a medium that is transformed by the space between. The reading aloud of a poem by the poet to others is a kind of extra service; to an audience that regards itself as an audience it is different again. That milieu is somewhere between entertainment and liturgy the one passing into another. The audience is a collective. On the page the audience is not an audience. It is a mind dwelling on a concentrated space.


Reading is not entirely a hermetic act, but there is a kind of hush about it, in the sense that the reader's mind is entering labyrinths of its own, labyrinths that are part-palimpsest, one labyrinth laid over another. The words are just words but their layers are deeply private worlds, acts of intimacy. As intimates we can read to each other in bed, at tables, in the chairs the world has provided for us. Two or three intimates do not make a party. Not all poetry is like that, but some is. Maybe mine is.

I wondered why I had been invited. Melanie deals in both the worlds of books and in the world of spoken word / performance venues. Maybe I represented the first.

It was also an event representing Eastern Europe: Bohdan Polish, Maria Slovakian, myself Hungarian. Maybe I was the available Hungarian. But I don't speak for Hungary. Nowadays, in the poetry at least, I don't even register Hungary as a subject very much. Politically it matters to me, but the years in which Hungary was a raw discovery, when it was wanting to claw its way into the English language as English language poetry - in the years between 1983 and say 2003 - are past. I retain a faint foreign accent but I don't announce myself as a Hungarian poet. I address the question when asked.

Put it another way. My imagination has been formed by early experiences, like everyone else's no doubt, but I am not trapped in a small room with the experience. If it is the elephant in the room,  I don't really want to be pointing at it all the time. I think - and hope - that  my attraction as a 'Hungarian' is more publicity than essence.

Regarding the spoken word issue, I don't know in the end. I don't need to be 'down with the kids' though it seems to be mainly their gig. I have long enjoyed meeting the minds of those a different age from me, either older or younger. But do I have anything to offer them? On stage? On the page? Anywhere whatsoever?

It is not something any of us are very likely to know for sure. Best not assume.


Caroline Gill said...

I appreciate your thoughtful and thought-provoking comments here. As a person who writes poetry (almost always) for the page (as opposed to the stage), I am always aware at mixed readings that there might be an expectation of more drama in the delivery than most of my poems (for the page) demand.

I continue to read at these events, and I often enjoy these reading opportunities, but not all poems that are suitable for reading out loud (with clarity and, one hopes, one's chosen selection of intelligence, integrity and humour) require a dramatic or rap approach ...

oliver dixon said...

Hi George,
Funnily enough when I was coming out of work yesterday (a bit further into Shoreditch) a young woman stopped me on the street and asked for directions to Rich Mix, which to my shame I hadnt even heard of. No doubt heading for your reading, which I would certainly have come along to had I known about it.
I share your ambivalent feelings about live poetry events. What was it Hopkins said about his reluctance to simplify his work just so it was understandable on a first reading? With a live rendition you generally gain only that initial aural impact, which I'm not denying is an important one - what you perhaps miss, however, is the opportunity to read back and ponder and reread that you get with a poem on the page. Of course, if you are struck by a poem read live you might then be prompted to go and buy the book and read it in a more considered way, so the two processes are not mutually exclusive.
As the previous commentor suggests, some poems ( and some poets) might work better live than others.
Anyway, hope to catch you 'live and direct' on another occasion.

George S said...

Caroline: There is drama in poems but it doesn't need dramatising or -in my opinion anyway - only lightly. You shouldn't need to sell a poem to an audience. You bring out what is there, not the packaging.

Oliver: I agree with all you say as concerns poetry written without express performance in mind, but there is a realm of poetry for which performance is the right and appropriate medium. I enjoy it as a listener, as it flies. It's just that I think there remains a distinction between the work intended for performance and the work that may be performed, and that generally I, and almost all the people I read, are of the second category.

Angela France said...

I agree there is a distinction 'between the work intended for performance and the work that may be performed' and like you, I and ost of the poetry I read (or attend readings of) are the second category.

I enjoy some performance poetry and will go to see it although I have a particular dislike for the shouty/ranty performers and those who lean too heavily on gimmicks (costumes, personas etc)as I feel both of these things can cover a lack of any real poetry. There is a real difference in the experiences of going to see a poetry reading and of going to a poetry performance and I think it may be to to with the focus of the performer/reader.

It is something I have been thinking about for a while; there is a particular pleasure, a quality of attention, in hearing good poetry well read.This is, for me, an entirely different experience from seeing good poetry well performed.

I can only go from my own experience and so others' experience may be different but I feel, when I read, it is about where my focus and energy is directed. If I speak a poem from memory, a lot of my focus is directed at remembering the lines - looking ahead to ensure I don't lose where I am going. However, when I read a poem - although it certainly helps to be familiar with it - my focus is directed at the words in the poem and the relationship I am trying to enable between the poem and the audience.

Anonymous said...

I find that it's only in spoken poetry that I get what I'm beginning to think is my main pleasure in poetry--a physical, bodily, sensual pleasaure that creeps over your skin. This feeling is at its most intense when the event is hushed, still and with no extraneous added performance elements added. Even at home I tend to read poetry to myself aloud.

A good performance poet (John Cooper Clarke, say) is exciting. But (and despite the invidiousness of the comparison), it doesn't really reach into me in the way that for example hearing Jean Sprackland last week did when she came to Lancaster. She has a simple directness of speech and gesture that I found very affecting.