This blog primarily discusses writing and the performance of literary works. For the most part, this encompasses novels, short stories and poems.
But some of the entries touch upon films, TV series and rap music. What these forms have in common is that they almost always begin as a written document, from the musician who jots down lyrics in the notebook to the screenwriter carefully crafts a story arc.
In my view, it’s healthy for a writer to have influences from many different sources. Last week alone, I’ve been to see a 40th anniversary screening of Alien, I visited and participated in the StAnza poetry Festival in St Andrews, and I’ve been listening to the hits of Rizzle Kicks.
That’s not to say these sources will immediately influence my work. Rather, I might pick up a line of dialogue or a neat way of wrapping up a plot.
When I undertook my MLitt Writing Practice and Study course at the University of Dundee, I had the privilege of being taught by Dr Jim Stewart before his death in 2016.
If you came to him with a piece he didn’t understand, he’d ask you questions until it was clear to him or research it. If he felt something could be improved, he would guide you rather than make outright suggestions. I never once heard him dismiss anything.
And when a writer embraces an unlikely influence, the result can be eye-opening. Take P D James as an example. She was known for her detective novels, then at the age of 70, she wrote Children of Men, her only science fiction work.
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.
It must have been about fifteen or so years ago that I was listening to a portable radio – perhaps tuned to Radio 2 – and the DJ played an incredible track. It was simply a wall of words shouted by an incredulous, angry voice. I caught the name of the artist: one Gil Scott-Heron with his poem The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.
I use the word poem very deliberately, as that’s how he wrote it. It contains many of the elements of performance poetry, being light on metaphor but heavy on wordplay. Today, it would probably be classed as rap because it also embodies many of the hallmarks of a modern rap track, with repetitive backing music and rapid spoken words.
Even if you don’t remember the racial tensions of the 1970s, he conveys the spirit of the time in just over three minutes. I also have the rest of the eponymous album on vinyl. If you seek it out, do listen for Whitey On The Moon as well.
I was just as surprised listening to Radio 1 in 2002 as some ska-like sounds started to play. The trumpets of Let’s Push Things Forward made me a fan of The Streets for their first two albums. I recommend avoiding the last two, as Mike Skinner appeared to have run out of ideas by then.
His first CD Original Pirate Material (OPM) was hailed as ‘Shakespeare for clubbers’ as he spoke about urban life in the UK, painting an uneasy sense of civil unrest bubbling under the surface. For this, the BBC also made the comparison to Never Mind the Bollocks, an unfair comparison because Skinner is far more intelligent than that.
For a start, each track on OPM quotes a lyric from another track, while his second album A Grand Don’t Come For Free is a proper concept album, each track adding a little more to the story arc. Between the machine-gunning internal rhymes, Skinner also surprises with the beautiful ballads It’s Too Late and Dry Your Eyes.
More recently, Rizzle Kicks burst onto the scene with Stereo Typical. I can’t get enough of their second album Roaring 20s. It’s the hooks that draw you in, but the lyrics keep you there.
Even when you move past the radio-friendly Skip to The Good Bit and Put Your Two’s Up there isn’t a duff track among them. I Love You More Than You Think is about unrequited love, while Me Around You explores the awkwardness of acting normally around an ex-girlfriend. It’s hard for lads to talk about things like that, yet they acknowledge this difficulty while expressing themselves in such a fluent way.
The point I’m trying to make is that not all rap should be dismissed as rubbish spouted by overpaid bigheads. If you know where to look, there is some good quality writing out there that we can all learn from. At the very least, it can help bring on the right mood or give just a small suggestion to expand upon. I openly admit that poetry is my weak point, so I mainly listen in awe of how these artists construct their words and phrasing.
Of course, inspiration can come from the strangest of sources. I have a short story that came from watching an RSPB advert, and a poem that was helped along by Corona’s dance track Try Me Out.