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.
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.