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.