‘What Do We Mean by Poetry?’ - Cheltenham Literary Festival

‘Are the use of the voice and the body an integral part of poetry?..Can we reposition the role and the importance of performance within poetry?’. These questions were posed by Hannah Silva, poet and playwright, who discussed these with performance poets, Malika Booker and Mark Mace Smith.

Both Malika and Mark are competent on stage and have important experiences and meanings to convey, yet I felt they could have utilised more ‘performance’ skills. Were they being conservative because they were playing to a mainly white, middle class, audience?

Or, more importantly, is it because performance techniques are not valued highly in the performance poetry world? I believe this may be the crux of the opening questions.

To engage an audience the performer has a grab-bag of performance skills, which those on the poetry circuit don’t always use, or even know about. It’s not merely the conducing of the metre and suspended sentences with one hand, as Malika does, and it’s not just the volume and vocal expression, which Mark uses to great effect, that constitutes body and performance in poetry. There are also many more techniques than the proclamation style of ‘recitation’; which should be part of the performance poet’s canon.

For example, a rehearsed reading uses a recognised technique that allows the performer to hold the script/book at a certain angle and where to lift and lower the eye line, meaning they can escalate their performance through vocal and facial techniques. But reading poems from a small piece of paper indicates nervousness, as the paper always shakes and amplifies movement, making the performer look unprepared and amateur. We all know that eye contact is essential, but not necessarily to reassure people that you are safe and trustworthy; in performance it is a group management and control technique.

How does the performer know if the audience is responding the way they want them to, if they never look at them? How does the performer know if they even understand or are enjoying what the words do and say, if they don’t look at the audience? They must gage audience reaction and read the feedback.

Both Malika and Mark are experienced poets and performers: their words deserve to be lifted higher and the audience to be lured further into the poem and the performance.

There are some great performance poets and many more who could utilise these skills. Perhaps the Cheltenham Literary Festival could host ‘How to Perform Your Poetry’ workshops?

(c) Sarah Myers 2015

Cheltenham Literary Festival 2nd October, 2015

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