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Role and Shape of Performance Poetry

The following is paraphrased not quoted, and reconstructed from my notes of the first panel discussion of Doing it in Public symposium on performance poetry at Trent. [Some photos from]. It was moderated by prof High Hodges.

What role does performance poetry play?

Jill Battson: Performance gets works to the public between books

Lebogang Mothibatsela: Performance gets work out faster and breaks down the 4th wall. Sometimes you have to use different words to make that connection the words and the audience.

Ziysah: Poetry text is communication. In performance poetry words are adjusted to the who’s there, based on knowing who the audience is and eye contact of what they’re getting.

Motion Brathwaite: Can poetry on the page transfer the same meaning without the tone if sung? Bob Dylan is a songwriter but people give him the name poet as well. Not many people can bridge song and word.

Lebo: We have spoken word poetry now. Next we’ll have acrobatic poetry. It’s what communicates. I refused the term poet for what I did, just called them thoughts but eventually recognized that you don’t have thinkers on stage, you have poets. So I accepted the convention.

Why is performance poetry back?

Motion: It was never gone. Dub poetry was born as the sibling to reggae music when people were hearing the notes and not hearing the message. So take the music away and people can hear the words again. The griot was the origin of hip hop, the building of a storytelling of a community. It’s thousands of years old. Each generation makes a new label for poetry and calls it new. Now performance poetry has a cool factor that makes it the same level as drama or singing.

Ziysah: It’s mainstream art worldwide. Political repression fuels art and resistance. The top 40 charts and the mainstream that can be spread by technology and MTV, are being resisted by the same mainstream technology using myspace and youtube to make a counterculture to keep diversity of voices.

Jill Battson: The new peak of performance poetry isn’t a change in the poetry or in the poets. It’s the same people. It’s just a by-product of a fad of media attention.

Lebo: In this age of information overload, people have more to say, more to synthesize, more international news, people are physically living closer to each other but speaking less with less community. Poetry gives an open entry point to express all this. It’s not just for the depressed and in-love anymore.

On Poet and Audience

Lebo: If the audience doesn’t get you you may as well read it in the bathroom to yourself.

Ziysah: A mic technologizes the voice and can be a barrier between the audience and the poet.

Motion: Spoken word isn’t any less literate. Literate or illiterate is contextual. To understand references that’s in term of culture. Understanding depends on context.

What works on the page may not work with a performance. What works with an audience may not work to record. The tool of the microphone is used differently in the studio. You find out things in the studio, like you’re popping your Ps or not saying a word clearly. It’s a noisy place performing in a bar and if people are watching you they can figure out what you said. You can forget words and say wait a minute and its ok, but with a studio its different. The focus is on the words and the technical. In person you can scream or whisper. The mood is different.

Motion: Slam poetry is like a jazz jam session. It forces you to construct and play and try out things with each other. It pushes your skills and you teach each other. It pushes you to push yourself. If you’re just composing alone it’s like “I’m the best poet ever!” and then you go out and see what others are doing and you go “oh shit. I’m the best poet ever in my bedroom!”

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