Performance Review

I’ve always been honest about how I’m not a lifelong fiction writer or poet. Peppered throughout this blog is the story of how I began writing fiction in 2010. What I haven’t covered so far is how I became involved with performance poetry.

In early 2013, I heard someone speaking about Ill Manors, directed by the rapper Plan B. One day, I decided to listen to the soundtrack with a view to seeing the film at another time. During one of the tracks, a new voice said, “Pity the fate of young fellows, too long abed with no sleep.” I immediately liked it and wondered who this voice might belong to.

John Cooper Clarke, Cardiff, 1979
John Cooper Clarke, Cardiff, 1979 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

John Cooper Clarke was the answer. He first came to prominence in the late 1970s as a punk poet in the vein of Gil Scott-Heron and as the antidote to John Betjeman. He would often open shows for groups like Joy Division, and they eventually opened for him.

By 2013, Clarke was undergoing a resurgence. Having shaken off the ‘punk’ label, he was touring again, he was working with contemporary musicians, and his work even became required reading for the GCSE syllabus. Plan B began working with him after hearing his poem Evidently Chickentown used in an episode of The Sopranos.

When I went to see Clarke on stage, he brought along Mike McGarry and Luke Wright. Until then, I’d been accustomed to the light and humorous verse of Pam Ayers, and I hadn’t considered that performed poetry didn’t have to be cheesy. Indeed, I remember listening to Clarke’s piece Beasley Street while waiting for a bus on a street that could easily have been the one described.

After that gig, I listened to as much performance poetry as I could find, particularly through the former Edinburgh-based duo Rally & Broad. I was introduced to performers as diverse as the politically-minded Alan Bissett and mellow guitarist Lake Montgomery. Alas, I missed the chance to meet Kate Tempest because I’d been invited to read at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh while she was in Glasgow signing her novel.

But what of my own performances? The acts I saw and heard all influenced what I was writing at the time. Probably the first poem I wrote for performance was Anatomy of a Party, available on The Purple Spotlights EP. It was the first piece where pace mattered, with a long and fast first section, then a calmness near the end. I also took every opportunity to perform my work and learn through experimentation what flies with an audience and what goes down like a lead balloon.

As I’ve written more material, it’s become gradually more personal, and that was influenced in part by a weekend masterclass with Francesca Beard in 2016, who encouraged the group to write something we were scared to write about.

Only a few months later, I was informed that I would have my most personal poem to date published in Aiblins: New Scottish Political Poetry, the first to deal directly with my own bisexuality. It wasn’t that I was scared to tell people – indeed some of the audience already knew – but I was worried that people would miss the satire and think it was insulting.

Another poem on my current setlist is heavily influenced by Andrea Gibson, with an honourable mention to the Tempest poem The Woman the Boy Became that I happened to find at the aforementioned masterclass. My piece Sir Madam features either an intersex or transgender character – it’s never specified which – who has a horrendous back story. I was scared to read it in case my portrayal was considered offensive. In fact, it has been well received, even from those who identify as other than male or female.

And I still have more performers to hear. Two people independently recommended Neil Hilborn recently, and who knows where his influence might take me next.

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Speak now, or forever hold your piece.

Last week, a friend asked me to give him feedback on a piece he’d written and performed to camera. As he’s not yet ready to go public with it, let’s call him Jack.

I would have given him honest feedback if it had been no good; I don’t think it helps to give praise unduly. I listened to it a few times to determine whether it stood up to repeated listenings, and to listen carefully to the words and their meanings. I concluded it was almost ready for a live audience, and I gave him tips about how it might be improved.

It’s hard to define performance poetry. Some pieces work equally as well on the page as on the stage. Spoken word also falls somewhere between rap and stand-up comedy. Rap generally relies on wordplay and repetition, while stand-up is often infused with the comic’s personal experience, and both elements can be present in performance poetry.

While I don’t have a catch-all answer, there were three elements in Jack’s piece that – in my opinion – made it suitable for performance.

Firstly, he started with a strong image and good use of internal alliteration. The first line alone revolved around ‘L’ and ‘T’ sounds. As we moved on, we began to hear more alliteration, plus complex and slant rhymes.

English: Eminem performing at the DJ hero part...
English: Eminem performing at the DJ hero party with D12 on June 1, 2009 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A great example comes from the Eminem track Stan. This video starts at lines where the rapper has stacked up the ‘ee’ sounds of ‘dream’, ‘sleep’ and ‘scream’, but the piece as a whole is largely lines of a regular length with an often-slant AABB rhyme scheme. You can see this when the lyrics are written on the page.

Secondly, Jack took his opening lines and repeated them near the end, although not verbatim. This type of repetition can be vital tool in performance, as it helps to cement ideas in the mind of the audience.

More regular repetition can be used to create an onomatopoeic effect, but be sure to do it consciously, as random repetition can sometimes feel as though the poet is trying to pad out the words. I can think of two great examples. The first piece is safe for work: Francesca Beard with The Fluffy Song, with a reputation helps bring out the voice of the eponymous dog. The second piece is decidedly NSFW: John Cooper Clarke performing Evidently Chickentown, where the swearing lends the effect of a hen clucking.

Thirdly, Jack’s voice in the video infused the piece with a different slant benefit had been read on the page. It wasn’t in his normal register, but reminded me of Murray Lachlan Young: rich and defined with an intentionally snobbish undercurrent.

Of course, anyone who reads a performance piece will bring something to it. Andrea Gibson is quite the opposite of Young, packing a lot into a poem and rattling through it with barely any time for breath. There’s no wrong way of performing, as long as you aren’t forcing yourself to do something unnatural.

When Jack is ready to go public with his work, I’ll post it here and I’m sure you’ll see what I mean.