I've been enjoying a variety of offerings at the Talking Stick Festival, hearing from the masters, the newbies, and everyone in between-- it's at gatherings like this that i sit back with pleased amazement at the blazing vitality and talent in ndn country/all artforms. The strong community-building flavour of many performances, the strong pull toward healing motivations on every level, the generosities of mentorship, and the sheer brilliance of humanity, are some of the things that call me back, again and again.
Seeing so many poets performing in a short space of time, has me thinking about performance do's and don'ts-- not just for the less experienced poets, but for all of us. Setting aside the key question ("am i shy or just oppressed?"), i will ramble across a few thoughts, drawing on poetry performances i observed or took part in recently, both at TSF2012 and at the V125 Poetry Conference last fall, and a few memorable past readings as they occur to me.
-shine. everyone feels nervous about performing, even people who have become incredibly laid back about it all, the old pros sprawling back on their chairs or across their microphones. it is better to be in touch with that energy (vitality) than to distance yourself from it. if you write along the edge of your being, or share your words in unfamilliar places, that will goose you again.*
if everything is new-to-you, the important thing is to gather your forces, and focus your energy along the lines of the poem you've created and in a generous outward flow toward the world (your audience). performance is oratory (stand and deliver), it is song (emphasize the music), and it is an embodied exchange: it is an opportunity to give and receive energy from the small or large or humungous group of human beings gathered. the more you trust the situation, yourself, your audience, and this might be fun, the greater the generosity of the exchange may be.
if you're not out for having fun, maybe a more trustworthy statement will be, this might be good. this might be great. this might be beautiful.
if your trust is low to the point of passing out, well, i once borrowed a trick i read about in a biography of Edith Piaf (French singer), and took off my boots and socks so i could feel the floor and be sure i did not just float away like a kite with no anchor (or pass out). If you tremble a lot, memorize your work or use a table or podium, or just notice how much energy is flowing through and shift it out the eyes and voice as much as you can. Increase your volume, strengthen your voice.
Between performances, take up dancing or tai chi, martial arts, any form of moving meditation that helps you to befriend your body and the flows of energy and the feeling of being one with many other people. This will pay off big time when you are again ready to perform your poetry. You are not a page. You are an embodied being, a human being, and eveyone can both see it and hear it, so there's no point forgetting or pretending your body away.
-*shine. Be mindful of your words, both the highly polished words and the between-the-poems patter.
There are a lot of poets who prefer to be cool, and i have to say, there are limits to cool. Cool embers mean the vitality is low and the fire is about out: time to breathe into it a bit and heat things up. There is nothing more boring to me than listening to poets who don't care about what they are writing about. If the poet doesn't care, why should I? It's okay in a group reading situation to get one or two of these, it is one way of performance and it can be fun.
But, if you end up with a whole roster of people who are conserving their energy for something else and not generous with their energies in performance, a bunch of talking head newscasters inviting you to nibble and not throwing open the feast at the table, well, that can be painful, in a lot of different ways. Have you ever had a poetry-induced head ache?
Destroy poetry cynicism! Open your self!
Ambivalence in performance is something to watch for: if you have taken time to polish your works, and have accepted invitation to share your work with others, try to avoid spending a lot of time telling the audience how bad you are, what your limitations are, how hard everything is for you, or--reacting against these feelings of insufficiency-- going on about your greatness, or how much better you are than you used to be, or how bad other people may be (the flattering contrast). But, mainly what i hear are minimizing comments, and the problem is that people do listen to you, that is part of the deal: when you find yourself going down that road of balancing the audience' good attention with your own deflective manuevres, just stop. Take a breath. Perform a poem that changes the mood or focus.
I have seen a poetry master derailed because he was unhappy with his audience, and a benevolent poetry heckler intervene from the audience, zap him with unexpected love so that he was surprised into dropping his assumptions about the audience, and get on with the depths of what he genuinely had to offer. This is a bodymind thing that can happen to anyone, and anyone can intervene. The convivial and the mentorship way is to say something encouraging, to the poet, between performances-- there will always be more performances, and the idea of the talking stick-- that the person who has got the stick in hand is the one who leads, speaks, and should not be interfered with (wait your turn)-- is a basic premise. With practise and encouragement all poets can truly shine.
Heckling is not a strategy i recommend, but, it can help settle a poet who is on edge if the intervention is benevolent & quick. This i have seen.
The other side of excess is caring too much. Question: is it possible to do that?
The world would be a boring place without passion and polemics. On the other hand, an entire meal of polemical passion can unsettle the nerves. Causing riots is not so great, as International Criminal Court defendants may well admit, one day: your voice is your power, to use wisely, your poetry offering is a motivational force, and you can direct energies in excellent and in catastrophic ways. Be aware of your impact, modulate, pace yourself.
This is a long term thing, so, it is good to be aware that what you put out there will come back to you. If you share stories of tragedy, tragic stories will come forth from the people around you. If you share particular kinds of troubles you will hear more from those who share those elements of life. This is excellent to know. What it means is, what you need to hear about, you should just start talking about. And, if you are becoming overwhelmed with a particular kind of story, you should set the tone, provide leadership, and focus on a different theme. Redirect the conversation. The role of poet is, in this way, a leadership position.
Cool and polemical can work together, and what allows them to work together is, honesty. That is the fulcrum. The human person in the role of poet. Sincerity, simplicity, being real. If the poet is honest, he or she has an amazing range of freedom, can initiate any of the conversations that are needed or possible between human beings.
-beware fashion. it has come to my attention that lists are a big trend in poetry these days, and, i can hardly wait to see this trend turn. Eager to catch the next wave. Lists are an excellent artform, and, too many lists in a row slips away from delightful and begins to look like a lazy poet, or-- in a group reading-- like a clique that can't step apart for fear that mom or dad will up and smack them.
a list is a wonderful thing. i encourage each poet to perform just one, their very best most current favourite one, and not have the form be the theme of the reading. break it up, step out of line, surprise me.
this is just an example of too much the same. use your senses to detect patterns and trends at readings, or become more aware of the patterns and trends in your own writing: and find the new and the fresh in everything.
I was considering recently what is the briefest definition of poetry, that might leap across cultures and languages, styles and times, and what i came up with (this time) is, say well.
Brush away the unnecessaries, so that the clear core of the message is shining bright, uncluttered, unobscured. Say your piece, and then stop, and let the space around the words breathe. This is clarity, and i don't think it is too restrictive: if it takes three days to deliver what you've come to say, or three minutes, do what you came to do, and then stop doing.
Well in the sense of to the highest level you are capable of in the moment. Do not interfere with yourself, by distracting yourself with thoughts about what other people do, or how other people do what they do. All the debriefs and critiques in the world can happen between performances, and in the moment of performance, self-discipline is required. Simplicity. Bring your mind back to the moment: this is you, here, now: shine.