Live Poetry: An Integrated Approach to Poetry in Performance by Julia Novak
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 firstname.lastname@example.org).
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.
Amsterdam/New York, NY, 2011, 271 pp.
€ 26 / US$ 35
More information www.livepoetry.net.
Book available from http://www.rodopi.nl/functions/search.asp?BookId=IFAVL+153