Page and performance

I’m coming at this as a poet who writes to communicate with an audience, and I recognise that an audience of 40 or 50 at a public reading is one thing, but reaching a larger audience through publication in magazines and books is a different but equally desirable aim. If that makes me a ‘page poet’ then so be it, but I dislike the term – it’s too often used with pejorative overtones. I think of myself as a poet, without any qualification or genre assignment. Pigeon-holing in advance confines audience expectation to what they know or assume about a form, and I think that’s limiting. I like variety, novelty and stimulation in poetry, whether I’m reading it on paper or hearing it on stage. I very much enjoy performance poetry, but I also enjoy hearing poets read their work from a printed page. There are many poetries and poets, and we’re enough of a minority in any case not to need subdividing.

However, all poets who read their work in public should learn some performance skills, because it’s all about enhancing communication with a live audience. I’ve heard some really crap readings in my time (I’m 70 now, and I’ve heard a lot), and there really is no excuse for not trying to deliver your words in a way which informs, excites and entertains an audience. I was an actor for 20 years, and I will freely admit to using some of the voice and stage techniques I learned to get my words across to an audience. And I’m irritated by those poets who say, “I won’t use the microphone,” and then proceed to read inaudibly. There’s no excuse – learn how to use the technology.

You don’t have to learn your poems off by heart to make an impact on an audience. There are reading techniques that you can use, with a text in front of you, to make it look as if you’re reading from memory, while making eye contact with audience members. If you’ve rehearsed your reading beforehand, and you should always do this, you don’t have to look at every word on a page to read out the lines. Besides, I’ve written several hundred poems in my time, and there’s no way I could learn them all by rote.

As a publisher, I know that what sells Calder Wood Press titles are readings by the poets themselves, and that’s why I never take on a poet unless I’ve heard them read in public and I know they’re good at doing it. After all, I take the financial risk of publishing them, paying the printer, and doing the sales and distribution, and that comes out of my pension. And I invest a lot of my time in producing the publications, because I love doing it. So the poets I publish are part of the promotion, distribution and sales effort; they have to be. And they’re printed on paper, so the poets can take their pages around with them and read to several audiences. Words get around.


About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
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One Response to Page and performance

  1. Jim Murdoch says:

    I’ve never read my poetry publicly and only recorded it twice reluctantly. I cite Larkin to give my stance a degree of credibility but that’s not really my reason. Probably the main reason was that as a young poet I was never around other writers. I corresponded briefly with a poet from Bristol if memory serves right back in the seventies but we were very different poets and the letters dried up. About the same time I was invited to a poetry reading at (what was then) The Third Eye Centre in Glasgow—unbeknownst to me some editor had submitted a poem to a competition and I was a runner up—but I knew no one, didn’t know how to mix and the next reading I went to was where I met you. I’m actually not an especially shy person but I am socially awkward and that’s got a lot to do with my upbringing; I never ate in a restaurant until I was eighteen and on my first proper date—hadn’t a clue. Oddly enough I was not unaccustomed to speaking in public and so getting up in front of an audience has never been much of a problem although don’t ask me to speak extemporaneously. No, I’m pretty much a page poet. Poetry has always been that for me, a visual thing above everything else although I’m not beyond reading a poem aloud to myself to ensure it flows but you’ve read my poetry and most wouldn’t last twenty seconds, certainly what I was writing back then.

    Personally I can’t follow poetry when it’s read aloud and it has nothing to do with whether the person reading is good or not. I lose track quickly. I need the page in front of me unless, as in the case of someone like Larkin, I know the poem off by heart and then the performance is a something else. Marion and I actually talked about that before her reading and I didn’t hate her reading but then I was more interested in her as a person and she could’ve wittered on about anything and I would’ve been attentive. This doesn’t mean I didn’t pay attention to the other bloke who read but even his name is lost to me now. Not knowing his poetry the words never lodged in my brain; he’d no sooner read one poem than he was onto another and I don’t enjoy that. So I don’t go to readings and I don’t read which does nothing to help my sales I know but I’m resigned to that. Also, since I got my false teeth, I struggle with sibilants and wouldn’t have the confidence to stand in front of an audience any more; bit of a perfectionist me and also terribly self-conscious.

    But I do agree with what you have to say about learning how to read publicly. The only other reading I’ve been to was at the Glasgow Museum of Modern Art. I think it was the day you were to receive the makarship and I left before the end. Most of the readers were not very good as I recall and one at least hadn’t a clue what to do with the microphone not that one was needed in such a small space really. It doesn’t matter that you’re reading from a page, you’re still performing and that requires rehearsal. It’s no longer a poem, it’s a script.

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