I am loathe to call myself a performance poet as I write for the page mostly. Performing has helped me tune my poems for sound better. I have recently described myself as a poet who has one foot in either realm. However the fact that I do not memorise my poems is what makes me, in my mind, emphatically not a Performance Poet.
I am a poet who performs, as time as gone on, more and more frequently. I have been doing so for six years now. I have performed in such exotic locales as: Carlisle, Lancaster, Cockermouth (no I did not make that one up and yes every time I saw it signposted I giggled), London, Edinburgh, Manchester, Arran island, Norwich. There may also be others I have currently forgotten.
I had made a fool of myself on many stages before I started performing my own poetry. Growing up I donned many mortifying costumes. The black and white pom pommed clown suit worn during an acrobatic dance to Ebony and Ivory, the flippers, face paint, misshapen foam hands, leggings -when they were uncool- and oversized green t shirt reading ”FROG” I wore for my high school’s musical version of Aristophane’s The Frogs come to mind.
I have also completely screwed up on stage many times: fainting during a national choir competition, blinded by a mask while dancing and knocking over an mdf palm tree, forgetting an entire monologue from Jim Cartwright’s road and trying to do an interpretive dance of Robert Frost’s poem The Hare.
One day if you get me very drunk and ask very nicely I may reprise my ”hare in a snare” impression. Basically I have no shame, dress me in something ill fitting, shine a stage light on me and ask me to do something utterly ridiculous, I comply with an almost pavlovian response.
However these skills (I am still convinced it is more a lack of basic shame and decency) did not in any way prepare me for poetry performing. Some six years ago I was awful. Truly appallingly bad.
I would get incredibly inebriated almost to the point of being unable to decipher my own words on paper, I would blurt out my (very short) poems at top speed in a monotone, making no introduction, at a low volume and leg it off stage as soon as possible.
When I had been doing this for around two years and on a more regular basis I started receiving advice and listening.
Here are some things that stopped my performing being so appalling:
i) Slow The Fuck Down. I had no idea quite what speed I had been reading at. Reading or speaking too fast is for me a major indicator of nerves and its still something I have to keep a check on.
ii) ”these are your words you need to speak them how you feel them”. I had been affecting what I had assumed was some kind of refined ”poetry” voice. I was sapping all emotion and humour out of my poor poems.
iii) Using that voice projection and lack of shame that I spent all those years making an arse of myself to earn. Thinking of what was doing as Performance rather than just ”reading my poems” helped.
iv) If you pace around take the mic out of the stand. Previously I was clinging to the mic stand for dear life for stability and to hide my hands shaking. I had convinced myself this was somehow more rock and roll and than people actually being able to hear me clearly.
v) Presentation. I have an irrational disdain for poets who turn up to readings with A4 folders with the individual plastic wallets. And the poet I once saw using a music stand. The only reason I have is that to me it smacks to me of a poet who spends more time collating than writing. Its irrational and unfair. When someone pointed out that the scruffiness of my poems (dog eared, coffee stained, some hand written torn scraps of coloured paper etc) did not do me any favours I had to concede. I now have a new chapbook and folder (with no plastic wallets) to counteract this.
Which leads me on to recent onstage blunders. The video I include with this post is from a performance I did last Saturday. I was out of my comfort zone. It was an all day festival of various artforms. I performed in the afternoon to a smallish crowd who were not primed for poetry performance however receptive and open minded they were.
The compere despite a five minute conversation about remembering my name where he managed to call me Katie after staring at the printed running order got my name wrong. I had previously after viewing the lighting asked the tech guy for a white spot light. It didn’t appear. the soft ambient lighting was very nice but I struggled to read.
I had to prime them to applaud after poems. This is a personal taste thing as I know who prefer to complete their set saving the applause for the end, but that is rare. You can clearly see I am still having trouble negotiating the folder on stage. I was thrown by all these things and fluffed a few lines as well as stumbling over my words a bit.
It didn’t compare to one night in the New Cross Inn in London. The organiser put me on before my friend’s punk band at ten pm to a drunken crowd. He insisted I stand on a chair on stage (meaning I had to remove my high heels) it was dreadful. I sold eleven chapbooks that night.
One last blunder.
Last night I performed at Beatification (a monthly night and a review to follow) at Sandbar. The beat poet Micheal Horovitz graced us with his presence along with his anglosaxophone.
I ended up wrestling with my damn folder and doing what was described as ”trying to have sex with it”.
I had run out of hands and the quick thinker that I am I tried to use my thighs.
In front of one of the last living beat poets.
My name is Anna and sometimes I am still a dreadful performer.