Performance Poetry: To Write or Not to Write?

Recently I’ve been working on developing and refining my creative practice for writing performance poems. To help determine some of the most helpful practices, lately I’ve been speaking with other performance poets about their creative processes.

When I write performance poems, I compose them on the page as I would do with composing a print poem. I tend to free write and then move sections around, play with enjambment (or, in performance, pauses and emphasis), and clarify messy bits. The only difference in the processes is that with performance poems I tend to read them aloud more as I’m composing, and certainly at the end of the process I’m reading them aloud constantly with an awareness of how the entire piece flows and what performative elements (vocal dynamics, physical gestures, etc.) I’ll be using during the piece.

Some performance poets, however, don’t use the written word at all when composing their poems. Several poets I’ve spoken with recently compose their pieces entirely in their heads, repeating phrases over and over, editing them and adding them together until they form a cohesive piece. This techniques requires an excellent memory and an ability to compose without visually seeing the words arranged on the page. While difficult for some (such as myself) to pull off successfully, it has some excellent benefits. It can make a poem flow more like a story, since it evolves gradually and must flow continuously. The rhythm is always present and being considered, which it isn’t always with poetry composed on the page. The poets I know who write in this way compose pieces more in the storytelling mode, with clear narrative arcs and well-tuned rhythms. This practice also has the benefit of making the poems instantly off-book: they are already memorised, so the poet is never dependent on paper.

The benefits of composing in one’s head make it an attractive method and one which I’d like to try. However, I feel quite reliant on my current method, since I have a bit of a sieve-brain and tend not to remember any lines that I don’t write down, forget an entire poem. I generally use the page to specifically consider the narrative of the piece: seeing where I’ve placed too much emphasis on one area than another, considering where I might return to a refrain, etc. I also tend to rely on the visual structure of the piece as a memory cue: when performing poems off-book, my brain usually recalls where a line was in the Word document (the top of the page? indented?) and that helps me remember which lines come next. However, since I often write poems by gradually accumulating stanzas, stringing together various metaphors, sometimes my poems can feel disjointed. I also sometimes delete sections that feel superfluous to me since I’m staring at the whole poem on the page but which are essential to the understanding of the entire piece. I’ve been wanting to develop more of a storytelling feel to my poems, so I’d like to try more mental composition.

For now, then, I’ll compromise by trying to look away from the page more while composing and considering how the narrative of my poem is flowing and how the words are working with each other. Hopefully this will help me achieve pieces that feel cohesive and work rhythmically without causing me to forget all the words!

Performance poets: What does your writing process look like? Do you write your pieces out or do you compose entirely mentally?

2 thoughts on “Performance Poetry: To Write or Not to Write?

  1. Cathernie Wilson says:

    I think this is really interesting, and I’ve been wanting to speak to other people about it for a while now. I was personally really shocked when I found out that people write whole 5 or 6 minute poems in their head because it’s personally never something I even thought was possible, let alone considered!
    I think it’s yet another move away from page poetry to performance style, and I think it’s really interesting just how many differences are emerging due to the fact that people memorise, have stage presence and write for the stage.


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