Being a performance poet means fantastic live exposure: one can interact with the audience, contextualise poems through between-poem chat, adapt the set for the setting, etc. However, as great as this physical exposure and audience engagement is, performance poetry as a genre also carries with it the drawback that it is ultimately ephemeral. The audience may love your work, but at the end of the night, they have nothing to take home with them: no book, no tangible product to which they can refer later if they want to revisit the poetry. This is a drawback for the poet as well, since by not producing their work through print media they lose out on an important way of making money and marketing themselves.
Realising this limitation, many contemporary performance poets are no longer restricting their work to the stage. Increasingly, performance poets are publishing their work in print while continuing to identify as performance poets. Andrea Gibson has three print collections (in addition to six CDs), and there are now publication houses dedicated to publishing spoken word such as Write Bloody in the U.S. However, publishing spoken word poetry is more complex than it may seem because it involves transcribing the work from one genre (performance) into another (print), which can result in a fundamentally different, some might say ‘inferior,’ product. This post looks at some of the complications and benefits that arise when spoken word poets publish their work in print.
There are several questions at play here. The first is whether or not performance poets should publish their work in print or whether these poems should only be enjoyed in live performance contexts (remaining ‘pure’ in the eyes of some). Another is whether publishing performance poems through print is an adequate way of capturing them—and if so, how should they be transcribed?
Let’s start with the basics. Performance poetry is a medium of poetry designed specifically for live performance. A poet merely reading aloud a poem designed for the page is not the same as a spoken word poet performing from memory a piece with physical gestures, emphases, and intention to engage with the audience. Performance poetry is meant to be an enacted art, with audience engagement as one of its key features. Obviously there’s a lot of fuzziness in this spoken/printed binary (and I’ll get to why that’s actually a good thing) but for now let’s agree that contemporary performance poetry is a unique genre with its own traits and standards.
Because so much of the appeal of performance poetry lies in its live physicality, the idea of removing just the words from the stage and printing them in a silent, still book feels akin to selling someone a peach pit while advertising it as a peach. Mere words do not a performance poem make. As I wrote in my review of Kate Tempest’s show in October, I was concerned that my experience of reading the printed collection of the poem Tempest had performed (Hold Your Own, 2014, Picador) would not live up to the experience of witnessing her electric live performance. It’s an excellent collection, but reading it is simply not the same as experiencing it live. And it shouldn’t be—the performance is integral to the art, so I did not expect the experience of reading it to be equivalent to witnessing it.
As I posted a couple weeks ago, some performance poets don’t write their poems down at all in the drafting process: the poems only exist through performance. Some poets, including internationally acclaimed performance poet Jem Rolls, are spoken word purists, believing that performance poetry should never be transcribed in print and should exist solely on the stage. Asked in 2012 whether he had ever sold any books or recordings of his work, Rolls replied,
“No. I’ve never done that. I’ve never sold anything at all. Basically because if you do that it becomes something else. It would take me a long time to edit a poetry book to a point where I was actually happy with it and thought it was any good.”
Rolls’ idea that if you publish performance poetry in print it “becomes something else” reveals something about our perceptions of the fundamental nature of performance poetry: that it must be performed. That sounds simplistic, but it’s a real question on the scene. Is performance poetry a fundamentally different genre to print poetry, enough so that performance poets should not publish their work in the printed form?
Acclaimed British performance poet Patience Agbabi has published her work, and has publicly discussed the pressures within the poetry scene to do so:
“Yes, I had that happen a lot, in ’93, ’94: people saying: ‘Well, are you published?’ And then, ‘Why aren’t you published? You should be published.’ I had gotten to the stage of thinking, ‘I’m a performance poet’. I had originally sent poems out to people, and has been published in one or two places, like Feminist Review, and then I started building my performance career, and just stopped sending things out, not because I thought they wouldn’t be published, but because I was focusing on that side of my career. And then it came to a stage where there were certain poems which were so popular that people were coming up to me with money… I didn’t have a book, and that was painful. “
Agbabi’s comments point to a problematic concept in the poetry scene: that the printed word is an authentication of the spoken word. There is a pervasive idea that being published is the only criterion that matters: you’re not a poet until you’ve published a collection. This perception is damaging for spoken word poets whose art exists in the live performance of their work. It derives from our need for the tangible, our desire to grasp ephemeral experiences so that we can read them, revisit them. But it also derives from this stereotype of printed poetry being more legitimate than spoken poetry. This singular focus on “Are you published?” is inherently insulting to performance poets for whom print publication is beside the point of their creative practice.
However, there are also the very real practical and financial concerns to which Agbabi points. By not producing our work in any format save live performance, spoken word poets cut ourselves off from an important source of revenue and means of marketing ourselves. We neglect an opportunity to make income through pamphlet sales and deny the audience the opportunity to support an artist whose work they enjoy through means other than buying tickets. We also deny ourselves entry into many of the competitions, publication opportunities, etc. of the mainstream literary world (although some spoken word purists might argue that ‘print poetry’ is a separate genre and we shouldn’t aspire to the Forward Prize anyway). As much as the system may be set up to favor print work, and as much as spoken word poets may wish to rebel against that, it remains the reality that if you want to make money as a spoken word artist, selling a print collection is an attractive means of making additional revenue on top of performance fees.
From my perspective, then, there is nothing truly equivalent to the experience of witnessing the live performance of spoken word poems. But I also do not believe this means that spoken word poets should automatically restrict ourselves to the stage. To do so means not only enforcing strict (constructed) genre boundaries between ‘page’ and ‘stage’ poetry, but also denying spoken word poets the opportunity to make additional revenue from their art. It also takes away the opportunity to further develop one’s practice through attempting cross-medium translation. A final issue is one of accessibility. A lack of printed performance poems means this work won’t be recorded for posterity (barring A/V recordings), and makes it more difficult for academics like myself to study these poems. And finally, for people who cannot attend live performances and/or have limited access to the Internet (or hearing problems), a lack of printed material means that it is more difficult for the performance poet to reach these audiences.
For all of these reasons, I personally do not perceive a problem with spoken word poets publishing their work through print media. However, I do acknowledge the complications of fully capturing the energy of live performance in a silent, printed poem. So, if you’re a performance poet and you want to publish a collection, what are some techniques for doing so?
Harry Giles’ thoughtful review of Jenny Lindsay’s pamphlet The Eejit Pit (Stewed Rhubarb Press, 2012) explores some of the pitfalls and pleasures that can arise when a spoken word poet publishes work on the page (read the review here). Lindsay is a brilliant Edinburgh-based poet who co-runs the Rally & Broad literary cabaret with Rachel McCrum. Giles begins the review by acknowledging that Lindsay’s work is best enjoyed in live performance: “some of the poems read much weaker without her actual voice ringing in your ear.” However, he reveals that since he had seen Lindsay’s work performed live prior to reading the collection, the experience of reading is enhanced by the memory of her performance: “Yet when you can summon one of its performances, when you know each line is delivered with enormous emotional depth and range, the text feels much richer.” It’s a bit like reading the book after you’ve seen the movie: the experience of reading is accompanied by the memory of the images and sounds of the film. Lindsay’s beliefs on the matter seem to encourage this method of reading her printed work (quoting from Giles’ review):
“Lindsay has stated publicly that she doesn’t believe the book should be reviewed by anyone who hasn’t seen its poems performed, seeing the texts as a record of the performances rather than something separate, like a book of lyrics to poems.”
Lindsay’s philosophy as expressed here perceives printed versions of performance poems as transcripts, akin to the script of a play. This philosophy openly acknowledges that the experience of reading the poems is not the full artistic experience: the printed words are merely the Cliff-Notes version of the original. This reduces the responsibilities of the printed poem: since it is only a transcript, readers should not look to it for the full impact of the poem. For that they would need to attend the live show. In terms of publication, this philosophy encourages that these kinds of performance poetry collections should accompany live readings: ideally, that these collections would only be purchased and read by those who had previously seen the live show. This would be the perfect scenario for the publishing performance poet, since the printed word would always be read with the spoken word in mind.
I attended the Glasgow launch of Lindsay’s and McCrum’s new pamphlets (Ire & Salt and Do Not Alight Here Again, respectively, Stewed Rhubarb Press, 2014) in April, and felt as though that launch was a highly effective way of releasing the work. Lindsay and McCrum read from the collections powerfully—both are among the most dynamic performers I’ve seen—before selling the print copies. Both collections hold beautifully on the page, but witnessing the live performance added those additional elements of voice, dynamics, gesture, and emotion. I feel like I gained something extra from attending the launch: reading the collections now, I’m not so much reading as recalling the live performance through seeing the written words (i.e. remembering the movie as I read the book). Thus, the experience of attending the pamphlet launch was an integral part of the entire pamphlet experience for me, since the memory of the launch enhances my readings of the pamphlets long after the launch. (I should mention that Lindsay and McCrum are performing shows based on these pamphlets this summer at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival through SHIFT/ – more information here).
So, one means of effectively publishing print work as a spoken word poet is to sell the book primarily through live performances so that when readers pick up the book later, they will read it with the memory of the live performance in mind. However, the unfortunate reality is that poets can’t guarantee that all readers of the book will have seen them perform live, and not all people who buy the book will have attended the launch. So, it is important that the book be able to stand on its own. Or, another option I’m increasingly seeing is that of performance poets simultaneously publishing collections and video/audio recordings. That’s a great way to ensure that the vocal and/or visual elements of the poem can also be experienced by the reader/watcher/listener, although it does represent more of a commitment in terms of time, money, and technological equipment for the poet to record his/her work through A/V.
Even if the performance poet has decided that he/she is comfortable with publishing his/her work through print media, there’s an odd inferiority complex in the back of many performance poets’ heads telling us that our poems are inferior to ‘print poems.’ I’m currently preparing a collection for publication this summer (more on that soon!) and it contains poems I wrote both for the stage and the page. It feels somewhat strange to mix these styles in the same collection since I worry that the stage poems, which are longer and more conversational in style, will look poorly written contrasted against the tighter, more precisely designed print poems.
I’m increasingly realising that this sense that my performance poems aren’t “good enough” for the page is an idea we’ve constructed through our societal values about literature and what’s ‘canon-worthy.’ As performance poets, we tend to think that publishing our work is off-limits to us: that it won’t be as good as work originally designed for the page. Yes, poems designed for performance will probably be best enjoyed in live performance. And yes, poems designed for the page, with carefully thought-out visual patterns, may be more effective in the print medium than poems which were originally designed for the performance medium. However, this does not mean that performance poems will never work on the page, and it definitely does not mean that performance poets should cut themselves off from considering publication if they want it.
After Tempest’s show, I was speaking with a fellow performance poet about this ‘to publish or not to publish’ quandary. He shared that he’d recently sent two poems to a print media publisher, one written specifically for the page and one a transcript of one of his popular slam poems. To his surprise, the publishers accepted the slam poem and passed over the page poem. This serves as a reminder that as performance poets, we shouldn’t write off (no pun intended) our performance work as unworthy for the page. Each publisher has a unique set of criteria for publication in mind, and it’s important that we not limit ourselves to the idea that our performance poems are inherently not good enough for the page simply because they are best enjoyed through performance. “Romeo and Juliet” is best enjoyed in a theatre, but it’s still a damn good read.
It is also important to remember that although they are distinct genres with unique styles and standards, ‘print’ and ‘page’ poetry also exist on a scale containing poems of diverse styles and suitability to various genres. For example, although I would categorise both poems as performance pieces, I think that my poem “Swallow” works far better on the page than my poem “Polos.” “Swallow” is tightly written while “Polos” takes more of a conversational narrative style. “Swallow” is much shorter, lasting about a page while “Polos” takes up four. “Polos” involves lots of physical movements (including ballet steps) which are virtually essential to the piece and difficult to represent on the page. So it’s important to look at each poem individually when considering suitability for print, rather than dismissing all performance pieces simply due to their genre.
OK, so say you’re a performance poet and you’ve decided that you do want to publish a print collection of your work. What is the best way to represent the physicality of live performance through print? While (as we’ve acknowledged) the print poem is unlikely to contain the same energy as the live show, there are some strategies a poet can use to represent the vocal dynamics, pauses, and physical gestures of spoken word poetry through the page which can help keep the integrity of the performance even through the written word.
As I’ve written previously, I tend to begin a poem with a sense of which medium it will emerge in in mind: for example, if I have a more narrative concept, I’ll write it into a spoken word piece, whereas if the concept is more singular and visual, I’ll funnel it into a print poem. In my practice, then, even spoken word poems begin as written pieces, so I write them with a consciousness of how they will be performed. I tend to use spaces to represent pauses, tabs to represent lines which flow over, and line breaks to isolate individual words or phrases which need emphasis. For example, this is what one section of my poem “Swallow looks like written down:
I tend to employ this technique of using line breaks, tabs, and isolations for emphasis in both my ‘print’ and ‘page’ poems. The use of punctuation, enjambment, and other visual cues to bring the poet’s desired emphasis into a poem is an area where performance poets can steal from the print poet’s toolkit (or chuck that toolkit out the window and innovate their own styles).
I’m currently assisting Loud Poet Kevin Mclean with formatting the poems in his upcoming collection Kevin Mclean: Learning to Write (which he’s crowd-funding through Kickstarter right now – please support an awesome artist!). Kevin is a performance poet who composes his poetry without ever writing it down, so compiling this collection meant the challenge—and blank slate opportunity—of formatting his work in print for the first time. Kevin is a highly energetic performer, so we’re working together to try to capture some of the vocal dynamics, speed, and physicality of his work on the page. It’s not easy. To get a taste of the challenge, watch a video recording of “Insomnia” then imagine how to translate that into print . . . Some of the techniques we’re working with include innovative visual structures and emphases such as bold, italics, and strikethrough. Through these devices the print version is better able to convey the energy of the piece, in contrast to simply writing out the script of the piece without any emphases. Collaborating with Kevin on this project was a good reminder to me as well that when translating work from one medium to another, it helps to have a second pair of eyes, a co-editor who can advise you on which parts of the poem you tend to emphasise in performance (whether you realise it or not) and suggest ways to translate that energy into print.
In his review of The Eejit Pit, Giles discusses how Lindsay similarly uses punctuation and spacing to represent performative features of her poems in print:
“With other poems, however, the tricky task of rendering performance in a meaningful way leads to exciting experimentation with form. “Intimacy” and “Mirrors” in particular are both a satisfying stramash of brackets, italicisings, boldings indentations and alignments that convey a disorienting richness of texture and rhythm. These poems would not be out of place in an avant garde poetry journal, as much for their self-awareness and alienation as for their textual innovations. What’s interesting about this is that these poems have reached that point through being performative, through struggling against the forms of the page to find new ways to convey a huge range of voice and emotion in wee black marks.” (emphasis mine)
This brings up a very interesting point: Lindsay’s poems (the review claims) began as performance pieces and found their way to these “textual innovations” through Lindsay having to translate them onto the page. So, while translating performance poems into text is a challenging act, it’s also a healthy, rewarding exercise for poets to take on. The process of translating a poem from one medium to another can be highly insightful for the poet, forcing them to really consider which elements of the poem should be emphasised in which way, whether the line breaks in the print version should echo the breath pauses in the performed version, etc.
Giles’ comments also raise an interesting question about how this work is perceived: does the order in which poets transition from one form to another matter? For example, my poems all start on the page and then I memorise and rehearse them into performance piece, whereas Lindsay’s (the article implies) start in performance and then transition onto the page. Does that make one or both of us ‘posers’ in the genre we’re transitioning into? I certainly don’t think so—we write how we write, and there’s no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ way to do it—but for some the order of the transition (spoken into written v. written into spoken) might make a difference in how the authenticity or quality of the poem is perceived. In a literary scene where spoken word is often looked down upon, the idea of a spoken word poet ‘masquerading’ as a print poet might be frowned upon, whereas a ‘print poet’ who gains acclaim for his/her engaging reading style would be praised. Societal value judgments over orality v. textuality play a massive role in how we perceive the possibilities and limitations for our own work. It’s important that we look beyond these limiting ideas and stop pigeonholing poets into ‘spoken’ or ‘written’ boxes.
So, to wrap up: I think the increasing prevalence of performance poets publishing their work through print media is a positive trend for a number of reasons, but perhaps most of all because it helps to erode the barriers between what we term ‘spoken word’ and what we term ‘print poetry.’ ‘Print poets’ who develop their work into engaging, memorised pieces can compose performance poems, and spoken word poets can publish their work on the page if they choose to do so. Categories can be useful, but not when they’re used to exclusively label poets and through these labels determine their quality (i.e. print poets are the serious ones, slam poets are pop-culture, low-art hacks). Giles’ review of Lindsay’s collection appreciates the inter-media artistic fusion occurring in the performance-to-print transcription and heralds it as a sort of new genre:
Most of these poems have begun as independent performances, with some of them finding a rich second life in print; at least one of them has begun with text as a starting point, finding a second life in performance. There’s a complex kind of interdependence happening in this pamphlet – I’d argue that it’s not purely a book of lyrics to poems, but rather the beginning of a form of poetry that weaves creatively between print and performance.
Thus publishing performance poetry provides an exciting prospect for performance poets to continue pushing the boundaries by experimenting with inter-media art. And the benefits from experimenting across poetry media goes both ways: ‘print’ poets can benefit greatly from reading their work aloud and in so doing better understand the aural elements of their work. Let’s dispense with the idea that poetry is ‘best’ either purely printed or purely performed and relish in the fascinating cross-media experimentation that occurs when poets of diverse practices translate their work in innovative ways.
Performance poets: Do you publish your performance poems on the page? If so, do you consider these published poems transcripts, full representations of the poem, or separate piece of writing? Do you have any suggestions for the best way to translate physical gestures and vocal dynamics onto the page?
Breeze, Jean Binta, Patience Agbabi, Jillian Tipene, Ruth Harrison, and Vicki Bertram. “A Round-Table Discussion on Poetry in Performance.” Contemporary Women Poets. Spec. issue of Feminist Review, 62 (Summer 1999): 24-54. JSTOR.
Giles, Harry. “Putting into the book what was never meant for the book.” Review of The Eejit Pit, by Jenny Lindsay, Stewed Rhubard Press, 2012. Sidebook Books. Web. n.p. Link here.
“Jem Rolls, Performance Poet: Life on the Fringes.” The Phraser. 4 Dec. 2012. Web. n.p. Link here.