There’s been a wee ruck in the Scottish poetry blogosphere recently. It was kicked off by the This Collection Friendly Poetry Slam, an event organised by the one woman poetry machine that is Claire Askew. I had a chat with Claire about her intentions for the Slam; I hadn’t made it to the night itself due to work commitments, but was interested in the way that it had experimented with the Slam format, and with the debate that it had generated. As she wrote in her reflective blog, one of her main intentions for the night was to bring together poets who see themselves as “page poets” and poets who see themselves as “stage poets” and help them find some common ground, or at least listen to each other. It seems that this was a real success on the night — but in the post-event commentary, the divide seems to have opened up again.
There’s been some extensive debate on Andrew Phillip’s blog, a wee spat chez Russell Jones, and a couple of good discussions/arguments on Facebook walls here and here. In the end, the argument hasn’t been particularly acrimonious overall: we’ve explored a huge amount of territory to do with poetry and performance, mostly respectfully, and what frustration there has been has mostly been with a bit of a smile. But what is depressing is how old most of this territory is, and how tired many of the arguments are. Over half the slams I’ve ever been to have involved at least one poet performing an (often ill-informed) parody of slam or hiphop style that’s got people’s backs up. Over and over again, I see self-identified page poets talk about an emptiness and lack of craft in performance poetry, and I hear self-identified performance poets complain about boring readings of obscure page poetry. Given that these arguments are so overdone, why do they always resurface?
I think it’s partly because the two are often very different types of performance. A couple of people in these discussions have tried to bring people together by saying that a good poem is a good poem whether you watch it performed or read it in a book: that good poems translate between these media. I emphatically disagree:
Performance poetry is not written poetry read well, just as page poetry is not spoken word written down. It’s not the difference between live and recorded music — it’s more like the difference between a playscript and a theatre performance! I quite like that analogy because for me it tracks the history of page poetry: what began as a textual record of oral culture gradually developed into something else, something intended purely *for* the page, just as some innovative writers might write a playscript that’s never intended for performance.
A performed poem is a live event: it’s not just the words and the delivery, it’s the use of space, the physical body, the manipulation of energy in the room, the interaction with the audience, and a lot more besides. A written poem is an artifact: it’s not just the words, it’s their layout, their context in a wider book or website, their interaction with a written culture. There is an overlap between written poetry and performed poetry, and the same seed text might inspire both, but they’re still different things. Think about the difference between 2001 the book and 2001 the film — released as complementary but different tellings of the same narrative.
So performance poetry takes more than just reading poetry well. And a good poem written on the page will not always work well in performance, just as a good performance poem will not always work well on the page, because the way audiences experience poetry in these two media is so different. And don’t think that the “best” poetry is poetry which works equally well in both either. I repeat: they are different media, with some overlap, and some ability to transition between the two.
That the two forms of poetry are so different means that poets in the two camps don’t spend a lot of time with each other — and that means that when they do, when they’re intentionally brought together by events lik Claire’s, they’re bound to rediscover the same territory and uncover the same differences all over again, as well as expose (and sometimes overcome) the same prejudices. But why is it so often so acrimonious?
I think that has a lot to do with power and popularity. Page poetry is “estabishment” poetry: it’s traditionally been the form of intellectual and economic elites. Performance poetry is mass poetry: it’s traditionally been a way for the marginalised to speak out, and its greater accessibility has meant that it ends up being much more popular in every sense than page poetry (have a look at the YouTube hits for Scroobius Pip or Kate Tempest: that’s a level of reach the vast majority of page poets will never get near. It’s important to understand the differences in where these forms have historically come from:
Page poetry is more establishment because of the nature of the printed medium: until very, very recently, access to page poetry required access to restricted means of production and distribution (i.e. printing presses) — means regulated by the many hierarchies of universities, companies and states. And of course until recently the majority of people couldn’t even read any of it! Of course, the development of samizdat, zine and now internet culture has long offered a counterpoint to that, but only now, with much higher literacy and levels of access to production and distribution, are those means beginning to be as influential.
And all this while oral performance has continued, alongside traditional music, as the dominant form of literature worldwide, with relatively few changes. But of course, all sorts of factors have attacked oral culture for the last couple of centuries, from feudal attacks on peasant culture (e.g. what happened in Scotland) to capitalist revolutions. The biggest revolution in oral culture has happened in the last century, first with the development of easily-distributable popular music (through recording devices, radio, television and now the internet), and second, from there, with development of hiphop.
I’ll pause this rant there for now, but Baba Brinkman’s “Rhyme Renaissance” is a good polemic on this subject! http://bababrinkman.bandcamp.com/track/the-rhyme-renaissance
If the poetry divide is defined by these potent dynamics – by social class, by the divide betwen the established and the marginalised – then it’s no wonder the debates often get heated! There’s a huge amount at stake here; the debaters, of course myself included, have their social identities all bound up in the kind of poetry they do and in what that mean politically, socially, and economically.
That the acrimonious debate is so understandable doesn’t make it any the less frustrating for people like me and Claire, who straddle the camps. I began as a performance poet and am gradually (re)discovering the joys of text, while Claire’s undergoing the opposite journey. For myself, working on the page has made me a far better writer and performer (as well as reader and listener) in all sorts of unexpected ways. So while I recognise there are meaningful divides, I also wish more people would try and cross them, because there is so much to learn, and so much to love!