Monday, May 19, 2008

Paul Vermeersch on Spoken Word

...and why it sucks. It's hard to disagree with most of what Paul says--banal clichés bad? check; naive political browbeating bad? check--but it should be noted that there are quite a few gifted practitioners out there--including Wakefield Brewster, Tanya Davis, Ian Ferrier, Shauntay Grant, Catherine Kidd--whose writing and whose performances are quite free of the generic clichés Paul enumerates.

Paul says at the end of his rant

My message to any aspiring poets out there is this: if you want to read your poem to an audience, read your poem the way it is written. If it is well written, it will sound just fine, and if it has something to say, it will be said. And if it isn't well written, then I recommend you keep working on your writing. "Performing" a shitty poem, no matter how well you "perform" it, isn't going to make the poem less shitty.

Okay, I know what he means, but the advice given is actually impossible to follow. If ten people read a piece "the way it is written," you will still get ten different readings because of the accent and other less readily identifiable qualities peculiar to any given speaker. The oral performance of a poem is perforce an interpretation. Coaching people to "let the words stand for themselves" is most apt to result in the dreaded deadened-affect "poet voice" that is as big a bane as any hip-hoppery. Dylan Thomas didn't read his poems the way they were written and G.M. Hopkins put accents in the text of his poems where accents wouldn't normally be expected. Sprung rhythm, hip-hop... Better advice would be: if you're going to read your work, know the damn text. This at least can be said of even the worst spoken wordsters.

The problem isn't generic; it has to do with reading hosts who lack either the guts or the native discrimination to say no to bad writers and readers. Spoken word is not the only genre rife with hacks and hams, sentimental effusions and unsubtle political aperçus. So Paul's terminology "legitimate poetry readings" makes me cringe a bit.

I remember talking to a patron at the Victory Café in Toronto one night. He said he'd been upstairs, but had to leave because there was a poetry reading and he hated the precious lyricism of it all. In the words of Marianne Moore, I too dislike it...

1 comment:

GM said...

Someone just asked me in an interview about the relationship between printed poetry and spoken word and whether it matters in my work, and I said:

This doesn't really affect me much, because I write my poems for the mumbled voice. I write for the page, and for the voice of the reader tasting the words for his/her own pleasure. I don't write for the stage, and in some cases think what's most successful on the stage is almost a completely different art from poetry written for the page. I don't think it's a lesser art, just a different one. I have yet to see a poem that's won a slam competition stand, as a work of poetry on the page, against any good poem written specifically for the page, and vice versa. This makes me suspect one of two possibilities: a) I haven't seen the right slam poems, or b) I'm comparing apples and oranges. I think the latter.