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Posted by : cj on Thursday, December 02, 2004 - 04:30 PM
Chicago Poetry Archives: Click Headlines The gang joins in on a discussion of poetry as performance.

Should poetry be left alone? Does adding music or props to it enhance it or subtract from it. What did you think of Steppenwolf's Words On Fire presentation? Which is more interesting, a reading from the page or a flashy show on the stage. There are many views to this issue, and we are not looking for any real answers, just YOUR OPINIONS. So, please, feel free to add to this Letter eX discussion.

(The following are some views by members of the Chicago Poetry Scene.)

(Yvonne Responds to Bob)

Bob, forgive me for not responding sooner. The poet in Ailey's piece is Ntozake Shange. The poem is "I Live in Music" set to jazz by David Murray w/ choreography by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar [who is over Urban Bush Women, an all female group]. The name of the piece is C Sharp Street, B Flat Avenue. Really, really nice. It premiered in Dec. 99

(THIS IN FROM MONICA KENDRICK. April 11, 2000, regarding the Truman College Poetry show curated by E. Donald Two-Rivers.)

It was intense and great to be among so many old friends, some of whom I haven't heard read in years. I enjoyed hearing it all, especially Eddie, Larry, and you (I wasn't able to stay long enough to hear David, dammit.). Growth and power and beauty--y'all are really really good.
Thanks for the kind words. Reading some of the stuff in the performance-poetry discussion triggered some thoughts on what I'm hoping to get at.

The last few years as you know I've been really focused on listening to music, writing about music, and trying to understand how music really works, in all the different ways it works. I realized I was really especially fascinated by/envious of jazz players and other kinds of improvising musicians (especially of the more 'free'/'out' fields) because of the collaborative nature of their form; the way players give and take and respond to/challenge/support/surprise each other in the moment onstage. I was wishing performance poetry had more of that dynamic and was less about the persona(e) of the solo performer (this is something I experimented with some back when I was doing some ensemble stuff, but it never lasted as long or got as far as I would have liked). So I've very recently started really working with musicians. I hope to do something other than the standard poetry-with-musical backup--I want to learn how to be an equal partner in a duo/trio/quartet/whatever. Trying to, with each poem as a starting point/basic structure, to keep my words as fluid and open to change and action/reaction as musical tones, sometimes coming to the fore, sometimes stepping way back, whatever the moment calls for. I don't think I'll ever do the same poem exactly the same way twice anymore.

And while I like some of Charles Rossiter's points, I don't agree that the poem should _always_ be the dominant element in poetry/music fusions or jazz poetry or whatever. I think it's OK to be overwhelmed or to step back or to allow oneself to be drowned out or take a few measures' rest--in fact I think it's necessary. The sax player isn't soloing out front _all_ the damn time, why should the poet? And half-hour solos are fine....if it's a solo gig. Or if you're John Coltrane. (I have some illusions but that ain't one of them). So maybe you lose some words or lines...if you get a sense of mystery and possibility and excitement and what-next?--for the performers as well as the audience--as a tradeoff, I think it's worth it. That's my ideal, anyway. You gotta have those even if you know you aren't there yet.

Obviously people who are rigid 'page poetry' partisans won't care for that. Isn't sound an integral element of poetry even on the page, though? Even when reading poetry to oneself "silently" isn't one sounding it out in one's head? Isn't sound an integral element of language? Doesn't everyone learn to listen and speak before one learns to read, and aren't the two pretty intimately woven together? John Cage was right--real silence doesn't exist. I think it's silly and limiting to be a partisan of one way of experiencing poetry to the exclusion of the other (s). Do these people really exist?

Anyway, I'm a real pup when it comes to this mus/po thing, just getting started, no kind of expert or spokesperson for sure.

These are my starting points here. It always starts with an obsession of some sort, doesn't it?

keep up the good work, great to hear from you



After beginning the 'silence of the page' epic essay, I see more time is needed to fully critique the many points made, but I will throw two cents worth of verse into the discussion, a performance poem that must be read from paper....

this poem is meant to be read
from dead trees,
the ink must ricochet
from my shielded eyeballs
because I can't trust my hands...
I grip the paper to keep me away from
props, from costumes,
from slapping paint on a portable backdrop
and carrying it around from venue to venue
(oh god, don't let me PERFORM!)
you see, the, the little slammer,
the little slammer in my head
said my shit is weak,
said I should run free onstage -
"don't you want the bored postmodern
rabble to remember the night you reached
deep down through the pyrotechnic
gyrations and pulled the metaphors out of your ass
and smeared them over your naked body
and they turned your hair blond
and hung you from the ceiling
and made you an idol,
a poseur's wet dream,

(a pause, as I turn over the paper...)

"...don't you want fame,
dried up effetes whispering your name,
hushed, telling mere poets
'Shhh, HE'S reading!'"
this poem is meant to be read on paper,
to keep me from dropping my pants
and exposing my muse,
to deflect the urge to chase a perfect score -
and a future slot on "Hollywood Squares"...
this poem stays in my hand
to stop me from stroking the audience,
to prevent the amnesia of easy applause
from clueless hipsters
who watch in awe and murmur
"Man, that was tripped out;
what was the poem about?"

Larry Winfield


The best performance poetry puts the poetry first. That is, performance poetry starts with a poem and then adds whatever will help that poem get a stronger response from the audience.

Performance art is not performance poetry--it's a completely different beast. It may, and often does, have nothing to do with poetry.

The great danger of adding other elements to the presentation of poems is that the other elements may overwhelm the poetry. Musicians that don't understand their role in supporting the poem can become mere distractions. Sometimes the musician must do a simple repetitive thing that seems (initially) boring to said musician, until he understands his role in being a part of something we call performance poetry. In fact, a repetitive riff (which may seem excessively simple in other contexts) often creates the most appropriate background/mood for the poem

Other performance techniques flirt with the same danger--that they will merely distract from the poem. All ancillary activities/sounds should support the poem.

Here comes the commercial (but it's relevant) but stop reading now if it offends yr sensibilities. If you want to see (and discuss/criticize) an attempt to walk the talk I'm talking here--catch AvantRetro (me and Al DeGenova) along with Terry "The Bassman" Davis at Maze branch of Oak Park Public library, Monday April 17 at 7:30 pm. Maze is at 845 S. Gunderson on the corner of Gunderson & Harrison in Oak Park. 708-386-4751 for further info.

Charlie Rossiter



I luv seeing the visual and hearing the story told when mixing word & sound. Alvin Ailey recently performed a piece that was hot, hot, hot. Black & White photography and slide show vignettes set to poetry create a 3-D absorption that is hard to let go of. Of course, poetry acapella is always nice as well, and maybe having just as equal an impact on the receiver.

Yvonne Orr-Richardson



Yvonne, who was the poet in the Ailey piece?

Performance art grew because poetry abdicated sound sense of perf as its final neck-on-the-rack to text. The original performance artists -- surrealists, dadas, Ital & Russki futurists -- were all poets.

Bob Holman


Is there really a need for discussion. Poetry has always been (or should have always been) a performed art. Remember the ancients with their lyres and lyric poetry. As pointed out by Charlie Rossiter (with whom I completely agree that there should be a distinction between performance art and performance poetry), the danger is when the embellishments become the focal point. Langston Hughes combined his words with jazz very well, but Kerouac seemed to get overpowered. Being a musician and poet myself, I know that no poet can hold up to a full-blown band, how many lead singers get lost in the waves of amplified sheets of sound. Music is an artform that exists within time (in the present, the art is immediate) and people know how to experience music as a momentary pleasure, that's why people will go to see the same musician/band over and over again. A musical experience is different everytime you hear it, depending on the environment, the performer's mood, the listener's mood, etc. Poetry needs to have room for contemplation and absorption...if a musical accompaniment fills all the "space" the words are lost forever (or at least for that performance).

The same goes for props and costumes...nothing should interfere with or distract from the words. If it's a poetry performance, the words come first. When the persona of a poem is a specific character, costumes can be very supportive of the effectiveness of the poem. That sort of "dramatic" effect can really bring a poem to life.

If it's performance art, then the whole criteria for the performance needs to be viewed as a whole, not just as a "words" event. In performance art, different mediums can take the spotlight at different parts of the performance, but even then the focal point should not have to fight for attention with the other "members of the cast." For example, visual art (I feel) is well-supported by musical soundscapes whereas words can distract from a visual's effectiveness because the words tend to direct the audience's interpretation.

That's my 2 cents,
Al DeGenova


Dear Readers,

I have made an addition to the Letter eX Archives: Gloria Klein's "Performance Poetry and the Silence of the Page," which was one of the articles which originally sparked the "page vs. stage" debate which still lingers today.

According to Kurt Heintz's article on his website "e-poets," the page vs. stage debate is over and as old as the 1980s. Actually, the debate began in the nineties with an article by a man named Johathan Graham (of course, published in Letter eX), and I don't think it is in the least bit "over."

Though some would like to believe the debate is "old baggage," we live in a poetry community filled with poets of a new generation, and I think it is important to hear their views on this subject and for them to be educated about the history of the subject. To just ignore it out of a desire to avoid conflict is defeatist. It is part of the history of the Chicago Poetry Scene and we shouldn't ignore it.

If anyone would like to view the original article (with a warning--it offensive to performance poets!) by Gloria Klein, click here

Anyone who doesn't want to read it, simple--don't click.

Your editor,

C.J. Laity

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