"Suddenly I realise
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
spoken v's acted v's printed v's read (silently / muttered / dribbled
the debate has been a blue touchpaper in Australia: it was lit yonks ago
and everyone stood back. The candle threw a couple of red fireballs
and fizzed back into its own throat. But it's on fire again.
Performance poetry is alive & up & running. In fact, it could be argued
that it is the most active area of Australian poetry: its adherents
are wide-ranging and enthusiastic, and there are some brilliant
'performers' among them. I'm one who writes almost exclusively
'for the page', and yet I love to READ my work on the telephone,
in the hallway, at festivals, in the backyard, in pubs, cafes
and driving down the road. I have some training in the teatro,
so I like to use my voice, to get it out to the back of the space,
or through the telephone static from Sydney to melbourne. I don't
'perform' in the sense of 'acting out' what I read, and yet I sense,
on a good night, a marriage of ear and tongue and smoke and pint.
As writers, readers and listeners, we know that we're prone to 'go off'
to be sidetracked by an intense image or music during a reading, and thus
return some words or even lines down the track. I often sense this
while reading my poems - a curious dislocation happens, whether
inside me or in the collective concentration of the audience. I like that.
I forget who wrote it, but she was British, and she was referring to
Laika, the Russian dog who went into orbit. She said "Trust your fear".
We have to learn to trust our fear and imagination when reading our work.
Reading is also one of the best ways to edit. The ear has a good inbuilt
bullshit gauge when the tongue is active. I'm sure someone in the
discussion group has already said this somewhere, but isn't reading our
poems aloud to ourselves, while drafting, a kind of performance in itself?
It's ALL practise. You know, pacing the house with a blackened page
waving around in one hand while giving voice to a new version is absurd
theatre at its most wicked. Where was I?
Last year I went on the road with two of the finest Performance poets
I've seen & heard. No doubt I'll get gobsmacked by someone who'll see this
naming as short-changing the many talented Performance poets out there,
but I don't give a flying fox. Philip Norton & Edwina Blush combine
polished acting ability, great voices, and minimal props to create
a kind of cabaret poetry. They memorise everything, of course, and they
turned sleepy New South Wales rural pubs into wild scenes. It was tough,
at first, standing there reading from my books, especially if I was last.
But not only did I get used to it, they inflamed me and gave me a kick
in the guts - I started to memorise poems, and by the end of the tour
I had several that I could involve myself in completely: I found
a real tactile & emotional balance I'd not achieved before. Without
the page or book in hand, I was able to connect more directly with
the eyes and ears before me. It's an obvious statement, but I was shocked
by the different exchange of energy. I'm not going to throw down the book
and take up Performance poetry. Only a small number of my poems lend
themselves to this style - but I know that I can give what I've written
a new edge & luminosity by engaging equally with printed word and ear.
Philip & Edwina are blessed. They are not only superb performers, their
poetry is commensurate with their theatre skills. There are those whose
'performance' is so good, that the dubious quality of the poetry is
But I guess this raises a crucial question: does it matter? If the
'performance' works, on whatever level, do we have to isolate weak links?
I suppose the equation is worked out when you try to read these poems
on the page, without the spotlights & movement.
I've been following the debate closely. It's not going to end. Personally,
I'm working on each poem as it arrives. I'm writing and editing. My dog
turns her head to one side when I'm blurting out lines. I won't be writing
poems for performance, but then, I might get lucky and carve something
that works well inside the ear, voicebox, saliva gland and confines
of the page.