In Defense of Performance Poetry

Last week I posted about how an inspiration chooses its medium: how a creative spark gets funneled into one genre or another. Today I will discuss how performance poetry is defined then offer some counterarguments to a culture that often deems it less worthy than published work.

How is performance poetry distinguished from page poetry? As I noted last week, I generally create performance poems from subjects that require an animated, physical performance to convey the energy behind them: political poetry and love poetry generally channel best into the performance medium for me. But perhaps more important than the subject is the poem’s adherence to a rhythm and its ability to tap into an emotional energy in both the performer and the audience. Performance poems need a beat behind them, a current that carries the piece forward and keeps the audience engaged. They often operate around a refrain, a central metaphor that remains consistent (my friend and fellow poet Freddie Alexander recently commented that my poetry works like DNA, with strands that recur and wrap the poem together; I think many poets use a similar structure, consciously or not). Performance poems need pauses for breath and effect. When writing a performance poem, the poet should understand how s/he will perform it: as I write, I’m actively reciting the poem in my head or aloud, feeling the rhythm. At the editing phase, I read the poem aloud again and again to refine any choppy or awkward language. Editing for me is generally an auditory evaluation to ensure the poem flows well; however, that is not to say I don’t pay attention to the words and the narrative arc of the piece.

In terms of the content of performance poetry, the audience needs to understand and connect with the immediate sense of the poem. There can’t be too much subtlety: you only have their attention for so long. This is one reason performance poems are criticized in comparison with page poems: because of the format in which they are presented to readers, performance poems need to be more transparent. However, this does not mean that they cannot expand upon further listenings. And I do not believe transparency (not quite the right word; relative ease of understanding or perhaps lack of intentional cloudiness might be better) to be an inherent fault. In theatre, the playwright (generally) doesn’t want his/her characters to tell a story that cannot be understood by the audience unless they go home and pore over the script. So making a poem accessible in the moment is not laziness or lack of sophistication on the poet’s part; rather, it is a requirement of the genre in which s/he writes.

I feel myself automatically getting defensive about the worth of performance poetry. Often it is considered low-brow, a kind of popular entertainment that is amusing but not serious. Kei Miller, the 2014 recipient of the Forward Prize, was the 2004 Manchester slam champion, but instead of taking pride in that accomplishment he revealed, “I am ashamed to have won that prize, and truth be told, I am also ashamed that I am ashamed” (Armitstead). His internalization of the literary world’s condescension towards slam poetry combined with his subsequent rejection of that literary hierarchy highlights how complicated it can be to produce poetry both in “traditional” page format and as a performance poet. Some performance poets feel that they do not have access to traditional publishing formats since they believe that transcripts of their performance poems do not convey the whole sense of them (more on transcribing of performance poems in a future post).

I understand the literary community’s perspective when it implies that performance poetry is not as serious a literary form as page poetry. Some performance poets, like some artists in any medium, are not studious about their craft and produce poems that are more like rants or collections of unfocused cliches. In the traditional literary world, these poems would simply get rejected from publications and would never be seen outside of writing workshops. But with performance poetry, these poets can perform at open mics and enter slam competitions. This welcoming nature of the performance poetry community is, I think, a good thing, as it gives emerging writers a chance to receive feedback and gain performing experience. However, it does mean that many poems that could bear improvement are shared and publicized so that audiences may make the assumption that all performance poetry is sloppy and unstudied. Taylor Mali, an excellent performance poet and promoter, has parodied some of the stereotypes of performance poetry that can lead people to think it is a sham form that could be done by anyone (“I Could Be a Poet”). This amusing, if biting, piece points out how some poets are excellent crowd-pleasers, succeeding in staging work with sub-par content by masking it with flashy performance techniques. But to anyone who believes all performance poets are such scam artists, I would advise them not to underestimate audiences: we can distinguish prettily performed empty words from pieces that are powerful in both content and performance.

Performance poets: Do you think that the literary establishment condescends to performance poetry? Have you ever felt as though publishing venues are not open to you because of the nature of your work?


Armitstead, Claire. “Kei Miller: ‘My productivity is linked to what could be called a disability.’” The Guardian. 28 Sep 2014. Web. 12 Oct 2014.

Mali, Taylor. “I Could Be a Poet.” YouTube Video.

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