Recently a friend asked me an excellent, difficult question concerning reproductions of spoken word poems and the ethics of performing someone else’s poem. Her query is below:
I enjoyed watching the videos of you performing your poems. It got me thinking (I know you wrote a blog post about the difference between writing poetry specifically for performance and as written word), do you ever think about the day when others will read out your poems; maybe in poetry group or a classroom or just shared aloud between friends? Are poems, particularly the variety written for slams, inherently about the poet’s own performance? Or does the poet intend for these to be shared and performed by others who will add their own take? Poetry seems to be at this special place in the arts – neither a painting you’d never dream of adding to what the artist already created nor a play in which you would expect to change in the hands of new directors and actors. Does the ability to record the poet’s delivery change the field as well?
I hadn’t considered this question before, and it sparked many new questions for me on authorship, trust with the audience, and identity authentication within spoken word poetry. Here I offer some thoughts on this complicated subject. I’d love to hear others’ responses as well, as I’d imagine answers depend on the style of the poet’s work and how flexible they are about others borrowing it.
Briefly, before I start: for copyright reasons and just plain decency, it’s not OK to perform another poet’s work without obtaining their consent. And definitely don’t use that poem in a competitive context: to slam another poet’s work would be straight-up cheating. Now that’s straight, when might it be OK to perform another’s work?
Like any other ephemeral art form like dance or theatre, performance poetry is dependent not only on the written text or choreographed movements, but also on the performance of that material. Simply reading a transcript of the poem, a script, or dance notation does not give the full sense of the piece. Spoken word is differentiated from “page” poetry by its reliance on the performance for the full impact of the work. This includes dynamics, pitch, body language, changing voice for characters, etc., but it also, I think, relies on the autobiographical accuracy of the performed narrative.
First, the performance of the poem is generally a highly rehearsed operation that would be difficult, if not impossible, for another person to replicate well. When I perform my poems live, I know where to pause, where to breathe, when to look the audience directly in their eyes, how to use my hands. This is a fluid performance each night, based on the setting and the audience. No matter how much another performer studies the printed text of the poem, or even videos of the performer, he/she won’t be able to replicate that performance in the same way (or it would likely come off as false if trying rigidly copy the original performance). In theatre (as I with my limited knowledge understand it) the point is not to perfectly replicate the last run of the show, but to bring a unique take to the play with each new production. Similarly, for me to try to perform Kate Tempest’s work and perfectly emulate her style would probably come across as fake, cringey, and just weird, even if meant in tribute. So, copying the performance of a poem will likely be impossible. The only thing possible is to take the text of the poem and put one’s own spin on it in the performance.
However, there are several instances in which I don’t think that works or is appropriate. Most obviously, when the poem refers to the specific body of the performer, it is rendered virtually impossible to reproduce by people with different bodies. For me as a white woman to perform a poem written about the experiences of being a black male in America would be a form of appropriation, even if I didn’t intend it in that sense. Likewise, if a man were to perform my poems “Swallow” or “Flesh,” which concern issues specific to the experience of having a female body, the embodied performance would obviously contradict with the text of the poem, and indeed would probably come across as a cruel parody undermining the central messages of these poems.
I think this also goes for confessional poems, poems based in true(ish) autobiography and memory. Part of the power of spoken word is the audience’s faith in the performer to tell things that are true. Obviously that can get hairy sometimes with recalling memories nonfactually, or with twisting the facts slightly to make the story feel more real. But generally the genre of spoken word seems to have evolved into a genre of truthful confession, so that when the audience applauses, they are affirming not only the quality of the poem but also the performer’s braveness in sharing personal narrative. Susan Somers-Willett discusses this effect of identity authentication through slam poetry in her book The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry: Race, Identity, and the Performance of Popular Verse in America, which I have cited here before (definitely worth a read if you’re interested in how performance theory can be applied to slam). Since slam poetry has come to be categorised by autobiographical narrative, I think audiences might feel cheated or lied to if they realised that a poem was fictional or written by another. It would remove the element of trust between poet and audience which is so vital to the success of spoken word events.
In addition to poems based in visual physical characteristics and personal anecdotes, I think it’s also inappropriate to perform another poet’s work when you don’t share the identity they’re expressing in some way. For example, if I were to read one of Andrea Gibson’s poems about her experiences facing prejudice as a lesbian woman (such as “I Do”), it would ring false because I do not identity as lesbian and thus I cannot lay claim to the experiences of that identity. Would it be OK for a lesbian to perform that poem, since she would generally share that categorical identity and might identify with some of the sentiments shared in that poem? Copyright issues aside, I don’t know. Some activist poems can operate like protest songs and are perhaps meant as anthems, to be performed by anyone intending to advance the cause. But since these poems are usually inlaid with personal anecdote and confessional material specific to the poet, I still don’t think they can be borrowed and performed by another appropriately.
I don’t think the borrowing of other poets’ work happens often in performance poetry (although if you know of examples, please let me know). I’ve seen Katie Wirsing perform Andrea Gibson’s work before, but as they often tour together and express similar themes in their writing, this seemed an acceptable sharing of material.
Although I initially assumed that I wouldn’t mind if someone were to perform my work, on further thought I realised that it would bother me because it would feel like another person was claiming one of my personal stories as their own. This is particularly true with stories of family and love poems: the confessional ones deeply based in my experience. For someone to perform “Swallow,” or my new poem “Brightest,” both intensely personal works which emerged from authentic autobiographical experience, would feel like theft of my memories. I would perhaps be more comfortable with someone performing a poem of mine which is not as rooted in my life. My poem “Long-fingered man,” for instance, is not autobiographical and in fact takes the voice of another person, so it would be more ripe to borrow (while citing me as the author, of course, to avoid direct plagiarism). It is also more of a protest poem, so if another poet were to perform it in an activist capacity to argue for increased gun-control laws, I would be more accepting of that.
I suppose this is insight into how major poets such as Neruda must have felt when others perform their love poems to woo partners (albeit on a much smaller scale). It’s a strange thing when you embed so many deeply personal and specific details into a piece of writing and then share it out, knowing that others will make their own connections and use it however they like. At a certain level, recreation is an inevitability. The creator (in any art form) must understand that when they put work out there it will be interpreted in different ways and sometimes recreated in different ways, whether that is people reading a written version of the poem silently or aloud, watching a YouTube video and pausing it in various places, getting lines stuck in their head, or even deciding to perform the poem in public. So we need to accept the reality of others taking our pieces and re-creating them, weaving them into their own lives and others’. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: it’s the process through which art is distributed and makes an impact.
Looking at this another way, I think poets can learn a lot by seeing other poets perform their work. Watching how someone else would choose to perform your poem displays different readings and different emphases which might ultimately improve your performance of that piece. This is a practice I’d like to start myself: asking friends to read my poems to see some of the different performance options, and returning the favor. It can also be a good practice to read other poet’s work aloud or try memorising it, particularly if you feel your own style has fallen into a rut and you want to try playing with different cadences.
I suppose this ultimately comes down to the question of how best to preserve spoken word poetry, since (I believe) it can’t really be performed by others, and the whole sense isn’t conferred when it’s just read from the page. Video recordings are one option, but ultimately it seems performance poetry, like dance, theatre, and other live art formats, are cursed (or blessed, depending on your view) with ephemerality. I’ll be posting on transcription methods for performance poetry soon.
Poets: What’s your take on other poets performing your spoken word work? Are there circumstances in which it would be OK?