Live Poetry: An Integrated Approach to Poetry in Performance by Julia Novak

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This is a cracking book, especially for anyone wanting to understand this movement, this growing, UK-wide phenomenon of people getting together to read poems to each other, in open-mic, spoken word, live or performance poetry events.

As someone who has spent the last 10 years trying encourage this phenomenon, I was delighted to read this book, even if I quibble a bit with its conclusions.

To Austrian academic, Julia Novak, it was something of a novelty when, whilst studying in the UK, she encountered ‘live poetry’. The novelty became a passion that led to a PhD that begat this fascinating book, which is more about the performance of live poetry than an analysis of the whole phenomenon.

Her thesis is that ‘…the Live Poetry boom in the English-speaking world is being ignored by academia, which has failed to update and adapt its concept of poetry to meet these recent developments’. Her book tries to redress that failing.

Sod academia, for now anyhow. I’m just glad that, at last, someone is taking this live poetry stuff seriously. Readers will be grateful for her comprehensive research and its potential value to those seeking recognition for live poetry as an art form, and a grassroots mass movement ignored, not just by academia, but the media, the poetry establishment, and funding bodies.

OK, Arts Council England funds some ‘performance poetry’ stuff, especially if it’s young, urban, hip – Apples and Snakes for example - but they don’t see the whole picture, don’t appreciate the huge asset that this movement represents, not least in giving a voice to those previously denied one by poetry’s gatekeepers, the editors of print-based publications. The formal education system too, with its curriculum-straitjacketed teachers, does little to encourage writing for reading out loud.

And it is certainly a ‘boom’. Our gig guide shows that, daily, hundreds read their work out loud in UK cafés, pubs and arts centres. This year will see over 5600 events on our listings, the first quarter 12% on last year.

This live activity encourages people to write more and seek further venues to share the fruits of their scribbling. Having got the bug, many post their work on online poetry communities, like our hugely popular poetry blogs. Some go on to other writing forms, have their plays produced or win competitions. It’s an educational movement comparing favourably with the Workers’ Educational Association, according to Steve Dearden, Director of the National Association for Literature Development, in his independent evaluation of Write Out Loud’s work (copies available if interested, from

But is it educational, or simply dumbing-down, opening the gates to those who have not served their poetry apprenticeship? There has always been this tension in trying to articulate what we are about as live poetry organisers, often stuck between an old, page poetry mindset, and wanting to abandon the old and embrace the new. For example, slam organisers often ponder how to guide the judges on what they are scoring: poem or performance?

The book suggests that live poetry is an artistic medium in its own right, allied to but distinct from page/printed poetry; that it is “a basic realisation mode of the art of poetry” rather than a “mere oral presentation of a printed work”. It suggests that ‘dumbing-down’ arguments are based on modes of critical analysis that, though valid for printed poetry, are inappropriate for the oral, spoken varieties. Old thinking. Cheese and chalk.

One of the challenges for live poetry is overcoming the old thinking that says you are not a poet until you are published (in ink). We have long contended that sharing your work with a live audience is a legitimate form of publication. In support, Julia quotes Denise Levertov:

The willingness to expose the poem to aural reception is not, as I see it, of a different order from the willingness to print it.

Julia’s declared aim is: to bring live poetry into ‘the mainstream of literary research and criticism’. The result of her thorough research is a ‘communication model for live poetry’, tested in analyses of performances from folks like Jackie Hagan, Brian Patten and Kat Francois.

I cannot judge its value for academics, though hope it might encourage some enterprising head of school to develop live poetry courses. For myself, I think her model has great potential as a framework for designing learning experiences that transcend traditional, page-bound approaches. I wish we’d had it when planning our Arvon open-mic poets’ course, for example.

I ran that course with successful career performance poet, Francesca Beard, who was very clear that page poetry thinking should play little part in a course helping people to perform live. Whether ‘page poets’ like it or not, most live poets neither know nor care whether they are performing, say, a villanelle. Neither do they care what it looks like on the page, as long as it allows them to communicate their words to an audience, as distinct from a readership.

This makes live poetry accessible to people whose formal grasp of, say, punctuation and line breaks, is weak, because making it work on the page is not essential to success in live/oral contexts. People can enjoy hearing poetry that is not correctly spelt. How would they know? 

This accessibility encourages new writing. Or should that be new ‘work’, as Julia argues that each reading is ‘new work’ often adapted for a new context. Many will identify with this idea of adapting for an audience or venue, though some ‘page’ poets won’t. Once printed, the poem is the poem, isn’t it?

Simon Armitage argues against the idea of ‘performing’, insisting poems should be read in a neutral way, leaving the words to convey the meaning. The late Adrian Mitchell would disagree, being a powerful and successful advocate of live ‘readings’. He famously updated To Whom It May Concern, altering its best-known line, Tell me lies about Vietnam, to make it a critique of Blair’s Iraq adventure.

The book makes one claim that might irritate some: this volume presents an indispensable guide for anyone interested in understanding and analysing poetry’s evolution through its current spoken word renaissance. Probably publisher’s puffery, but that is overtrading. Though apparently countercultural, being about physical gatherings of real people, its phenomenal growth owes much to the use of technology in helping build communities of interest. It certainly owes a great deal more to the passion, dedication and often unrewarded hard work of hundreds of individual open-mic organisers. Something not touched on at all in this book. Hmm, I feel a PhD coming on.

In summary, Julia Novak correctly identifies a lack of analysis - of understanding – of this phenomenon, and her book goes some considerable way towards bridging the gap, and helping live poetry towards a coming of age.

Anyone interested in the future of live poetry should read this book.

And let’s get a national, if not international, debate going, starting here. Please let us know what you think of this review and its potential contribution to this, whatever it is. And do buy the book.

An Integrated Approach to Poetry in Performance.
Novak, Julia
Amsterdam/New York, NY, 2011, 271 pp.

Pb: 978-90-420-3405-1
€ 26 / US$ 35

More information

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◄ The Write Out Loud interview: Kenneth Steven

Lincolnshire tales by McMillan, Clarke, Lochhead - and Tutu ►


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Julian (Admin)

Wed 6th Jun 2012 11:33

Hi Kirsten
I meant no offence to Apples and Snakes and particularly not to you. We have worked with A and S a lot over the years very successfully at times.
What you guys do is valuable in getting some professionalism and quality into this huge, eclectic live-poetry scene. It was more the mismatch between the Arts Council's perception of what it is about and, I suppose, mine. I think they and A&S see it about performance. I see the live poetry scene's biggest benefit being its engagement with huge numbers of otherwise-non-participating 'poets', many of whom would not have known about the beneficial effects - dammit, the sheer joy - of writing what you want to write/say, and having a forum for your work, regardless of what boxes you tick, or categories you are deemed to be in. This gives a voice to the otherwise unvoiced.
Sure, performance skills are interesting for those who consider it a career path, but I would suggest that most of those on the open-mic circuit are there for the pleasure of sharing their words with others occasionally, being heard and appreciated for what they have to say, and how they have chosen to say it.
An evaluation of Write Out Loud's work compared us favourably with the WEA in terms of the educational value of what we are doing.
The overemphasis on youth is soul-destroying to those people - thousands of them/us - who discover live poetry, which is more accessible than published poetry, more fun, more sociable, late in life. It actually reinforces a sense of there being a small elite that does not want to know about the vast majority.
I do have issues with Apples and Snakes, though have good relationship with some of the individuals.
We have worked with A&S when it was us getting them an audience locally for a tour that was elsewhere playing to the janitor and his missus. A&S had their annual grant reduced to what to us is an eye-wateringly huge sum. We get nothing, and are subsidising our work out of our own pockets because we believe in it and the 1,000 visits a day to our site, the 12,000 unique users monthly are testament to the fact that we tick their boxes, not the funders'. We are doing a service to thousands of poets nationally, but told not to bother applying for portfolio funding. Forgive me for a bit of cynicism. I approached A&S to see if, given that you had the funding and we didn't, you could provide a workshop for our poets, so they could build on their skills. It was a flop because A&S brought someone up from down south who was a great performance poet, but no workshop leader. He 'delivered at' the participants rather than finding out where they where and what they needed.
Arts Council have told us to contact you with a view to working with A&S, as your funding is meant to be used in partnership with other players, apparently. I have tried to talk to your last two directors about and been ignored twice. We do have our dignity. So, again, forgive the cynicism.
I would be happy to hear about the work you do. Perhaps you could write us an article about it for the website? That would be appreciated.

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Julian (Admin)

Mon 28th May 2012 19:55

Hi Kirsten
I am delighted to read your comments about your work. I don't know how to contact you as you are not registered and I don't have your email address. I would be happy to discuss my remarks and your work with you further. Do get in touch either here or offline:

Kirsten Luckins

Mon 28th May 2012 09:55

Hi! Apples and Snakes having been name-checked, I feel compelled to reply! Just to say that as a regional programme coordinator for Apples (North East), I can assure you that I work with poets of all ages and backgrounds, not just the 'young, urban and hip'. We as an organisation have a special mission to work with young poets, hence this year's Shake the Dust slam project, and urban centres like London and Birmingham naturally bring forward a certain kind of poet and poetics more than say our more rural South West region might. But I and my colleagues enjoy helping anyone find their performance voice - I'm excited by authenticity, as I think most audiences are, too.

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Mon 21st May 2012 20:13

I'd say there are page poems and there are page poems...

Some transfer quite easily to performance - the ones that are written to be understood. The other sort just leave an audience cold. I don't think it has anything to do with whether the poem is shouted, rapped or just spoken quietly.

A lot also depends on the audience. I've read to a room full of poets who aren't really listening - just waiting for their turn to 'shine'. I prefer audiences with a good balance.

I think page and performance poetry complement each other - the spoken word being capable of inspiring more people to look at poetry of all different types. To work on the page, performance poetry needs tightening up - the punctuation, the spelling and the layout does matter.

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Greg Freeman

Mon 21st May 2012 09:02

Fascinating review, Julian. I don't buy into the "page and performance poetry in opposing corners" argument - and I'm sure you don't. Many "page" poets read live - they have to, to spread the word - although they don't necessarily shout and make a song and dance about it. Anyway, at a spoken word night, it's probably good to have an "in-your-face" performer followed by a quieter one, to provide a bit of light and shade. At the same time, it's clear to me why academics aren't particularly interested in spoken word/live performance: there's nothing in it for them. They're not able to mediate between artist and listener, and interpret; they're not needed in that context, not required to add their levels of mystique and complication. Are academics like witch doctors? Discuss.

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Cynthia Buell Thomas

Fri 11th May 2012 16:04

The review is a bit long-winded, but it does cover some good points.

In my opinion, we are now completing a full circle back to the bards of ancient years, the oral traditions in all cultures, mostly minus the musical instrument. 'Performance poetry' can be, and often is, barely more than prose turned/versed as the performer pleases, according to audience feedback. What exactly makes it poetry, except that the performer says it is so, and the audience doesn't object? I think the 'open-mic' piece really should be 'a poem' with the basic skills of poetry crafting well observed, a 'work' that would be recognizable as 'a poem' on paper. What we really need is a completely NEW WORD to cover these performances. And concrete tuition in the theatrical presentation of a one-man show.

The above scenario is entirely separate from the gatherings of like-minded people who share their poetry in a spirit of friendship and mutual criticism. Such meetings, long in existence below the academic radar, are becoming more high profile in our popular culture.

Perhaps, the ideal is an 'open-mic' practice session, a 'stop-and-start again' idea where the participants are interactive. Then, the actual open-mic performance would be of much higher quality. These sessions would be at a level far below the current Slams, not competitive, more inclusive.

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