Confessional Work: On the Effect of Technology

Last week, I wrote a post on confessional poetry and being conscious of others whose privacy is disrupted in the sharing of personal material. In it I discussed how being a confessional poet requires one to be comfortable with sharing the details in his/her poems with a room of strangers. Luckily, poetry events are generally safe spaces, with the audience entering an implicit contract to respect the performer’s work. When I began performing slam in Edinburgh two years ago as a newly arrived American student, I was grateful for the anonymity of the people in the audience: I could try out my poems in a foreign setting and not worry about people recognizing me or connecting my work with my private existence. Or so I thought. The poems were recorded and posted online (with my consent, I should add, which is important). But then poems that I had written for a foreign audience were accessible to those who knew me well. My family found them online, which was unexpected and a bit jarring; while there wasn’t anything in the poems that I was desperate to keep from them, it was still bizarre having them know intimate details of my romantic relationships.

With the technology available today, performing one’s poetry is no longer necessarily an ephemeral experience. Inexpensive video recording technology, especially smartphone cameras, have revolutionized that way that we can easily capture our worlds. Performers today can assume that most of their audience has the power to record them with or without their consent. These recordings can be posted to YouTube, shared around the Internet through social media, and commented on by others outside the safe space of the venue almost instantly. And while the Internet is not necessarily a permanent hosting space, it is likely that these videos will remain online for an extended period of time and may be downloaded without the poet’s consent (this also brings up issues of copyright, but that’s a subject for a separate post).

With confessional poetry, this can prove problematic. The performance venue is no longer an enclosed safe space, but rather has the potential to open into a world-wide audience. Your family, partner, and boss could all view a poem that you performed without them as your intended audience. This creates an issue when we consider that poets may begin reconsidering which material to share based on fear that it may be posted online. And this effect is not limited to confessional poetry: in terms of political poetry, a piece that is topical and relevant in the moment may appear dated and perhaps even problematic later. The video camera removes the poem from the context of the event and some important grounding information may be lost in that.

One cautionary argument I’ve heard is, “Well, if you’re not comfortable with your Grandma hearing the poems, don’t perform them anywhere!” I understand and respect that perspective; however, I think that would lead to the self-censoring of some poetry that should be shared. Most poets wouldn’t read their love poems to their grannies, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be performed at all! I also think that there is something powerful about being able to share work on subjects that are generally taboo: in doing so we open a space to discuss them. Such sharing often relies on trusting the safe space of the performance venue.

Despite the worrying potential for technology to lead to self-censoring of performance poets, there is also an argument to be made that technology has had an overwhelmingly positive effect on performance poetry. It enables a much wider audience access to these performers and can be used to entice younger viewers to come to gigs. It is easier for poetry to be shared worldwide; many performance poems have gone viral. It’s incredibly useful for performance poets looking to self-promote or give examples of their work to potential bookers. It facilitates cross-cultural, global interaction, meaning that poets in Scotland, say, can learn from American poets and vice versa. So, technology is both a tool and a curse, and ultimately just another element that is shifting how we produce and consume poetry today.

Poets: Does the presence of video cameras at an event change which pieces you perform? Do you think technology has had a generally positive or negative effect on performance poetry?

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