What is Performance Poetry?

Lucy English

Novelist, performance poet, Lecturer at Bath Spa University

24 November 2004

In the first part of this meeting the speaker gave an account of the development of Performance Poetry, which has a number of different strands.

The early history of poetry is oral. In pre-literate societies, bards recited poems, usually narrative, and frequently accompanied with music, to live audiences. This oral tradition has never quite disappeared, though in recent centuries, mainstream poetry has mostly appeared in print.

Jazz poetry developed in the 1950s, with Beat Poets, such as Ginsberg, Ferlingetti, and Gary Snyder (all American). Punk poetry in the 1970s was mainly political, occasionally humorous, with poet/ performers such as John Cooper Clarke and Lynton Kwesi Johnson. Black poetry, and rap are still developing today.

Current performance poetry uses some or all of these styles.

The history of Slam

The first slams developed from the punk scene. In 1978, at the Green Mill in Chicago, there was an audience for poetry and the idea evolved of a poetry competition like a wrestling match. (The distinctive feature of the slam, is that the poems are judged by audience response, often the noisier the better) This is the very reverse of the traditional poetry reading, to a small, quiet audience in a small venue. Marc Smith, who developed this further in the Get Me High Lounge said, ‘I wanted to maintain the idea of the responsibility the poet had to communicate effectively’.

The Chicago style of performance poetry is now widely adopted as the over-riding slam style of poetry. It’s aim is to be direct, to use plain colloquial speech, to tackle social issues head on, to avoid rhyme and established metre, and to employ first person narrative. It deliberately avoids publication in print.

In 1991, National Poetry Slams moved from San Francisco to Chicago. They now move to a different city each year. The National Slam of 2004 was in Seattle, with an audience of over 1,000. Varied trends are emerging, New York being political, espousing feminism and minority causes, San Francisco being experimental, with slams under water(!), or on the trans bay tube.

In this country, Performance Poetry and slams are particularly popular with students, Bristol being a major centre. Whereas the tradition in America is strongly political, humour is more used here.

Lucy English then gave a performance of some of her work, which was very much enjoyed, and which countered any idea anyone had that performance poetry would necessarily be loud, raucous and perhaps ‘macho’. What she recited was quiet, personal, and often lyrical.

Questions and discussion followed.

It was agreed that poetry which is only heard has to make an instant effect. It cannot use subtle nuances, to the extent that written poetry can do, or make allusions, which may only become clear after several readings. This drawback, if it is one, can be offset to some extent by recordings. (Lucy had some CDs of her work for sale.) Some members of the audience noted that she used a good deal of repetition in her work, and there was comment that this is an aid to both performer and listener (and was a feature of early oral poetry). Another aspect noted was that as the author is almost always the performer, he or she is free to vary the work ad lib, perhaps in response to a particular audience, so that each performance may be different. (A connection with Jazz may be seen here.) The convenor asked whether the style of poetry for performance was feeding back to influence written work. It is hard to be sure of this, but some poetry published in contemporary magazines may show something of such influence.

There was interest in where poetry is performed locally. Doolally’s Café on Walcot Street was cited (along with the word ‘raucous’), and the Garden Café in Frome.

The convenor thanked Lucy English for a very interesting and enjoyable evening. Some of the audience had come because of an interest in and considerable knowledge of Performance Poetry, but several had also come to learn about something they knew little of.