When asked to contribute poetry to Uimhir a Cúig I was enthusiastic, but on reading the second part of the request, namely that I might also provide a few thoughts on slam or performance poetry in Ireland I grew a little more hesitant. With thoughts of writing this commentary and of my own reluctance to be categorised I conducted a brief and very unscientific survey on my Twitter and Facebook accounts to ask various writers and performers what they thought performance poetry actually is in an Irish context. The overwhelming trend in response was a rejection of the definition of ourselves as purely performance poets or ‘slam’ poets. Many of my fellow writers indicated that the difference between page and ‘performance’ poetry was whether or not our work was memorised and performed to an audience, and for me that is nearly as narrow as classification of performance poetry in Ireland can go. I don’t particularly want to get into the much-flogged-hackney debate about which form of poetry is more poetic, nor do I want to go over the much-mentioned or mis-mentioned role of spoken poetry in Ireland and literature’s history. Instead I’d like to tease out (with the help of all the people who gave me their opinions) what performing poetry is like here and some of what (other than the obvious) divides and unites the page and stage methods of delivery.
It is irrefutable that a writer personally delivering their work in public has a whole range of what I’ll call emotional manipulation ‘tricks’ at their disposal if they chose or learn to use them: they have their physical presence, they have their tone of voice, eye contact or lack of it, they can dictate the pace of the poem, insert poignant pauses and depending on how their appearance or manner engages the audience they can add layer after layer of meaning, wit or irony to words that are absent if, as with traditional printed poetry, a quiet reader sitting alone has to interpret a piece unaided. Conversely though, as someone who was dragged around to literary events from a young age I heard many readers, poets in particular who were terrible, terrible readers of their own work and whilst I forgive some of them – (the ones who were nervous or who really wished not to be in the public eye) there was frequently a type of soul destroying reading where the hefty profound pauses between words and thick silences supposedly laden with meaning at the end of each utterance presented poetry as some type of Latin mass to which some people had access and the rest of us never would.
These type of readings now seem to be an endangered species however (thankfully), and I put this down to the good influence of a whole gang of poets who are interested in both the written and performance aspects, particularly the ones who encourage other writers (people such as Kevin Higgins, John Walsh and Lisa Frank of Doire Press, Stephen Murray, Dave Lordan, Colm Keegan and Stephen James Smith) These ‘crossover’ poets (and writers) are threateningly at-large on the small literary circuit here at the moment. For any writer going off to do a public reading there’s a great risk now that you might be faced with being billed with Kevin Barry hamming his way through a variety of his character’s voices, or with the fury and passion of Dave Lordan unleashing his vernacular poetry or ‘frags’ upon you, or with Elaine Feeney’s warm demeanour tricking you into thinking you are in safe hands before she launches into the creative and fearless deconstruction of everything middle Ireland holds dear from the GAA to the catholic church, you might find yourself lulled by Billy Ramsell’s Cork accent and mesmeric voice as with limitless ambition for what language can be made to achieve, he tries to describe music more musically in words than the music can describe itself in notes. If like me you are totally prudish about hearing sexual exploits described in public, you might find yourself squirming beside our adopted Canadian Dimitra Xidous as she takes a totally un-Irish relish in describing her own and others genitalia and how they might combine in a range of inventive ways mostly related to food. There are many other poets just as impressive and engaging that I could and should include here for mention but those will be enough to indicate that in Ireland, the notion of performing your poetry or writing is by now firmly ensconced within the literary scene rather than an outside element. Perhaps it was always like this and I just went to stuffy readings? Several of the writers mentioned above are award-winning ‘page’ poets who have published collections of their poetry as well as being performers (except for Kevin Barry who is an award winning short story writer and novelist and Dave Lordan who is a playwright and prose writer as well as being a poet).
Whilst there are exceptions to every bold statement I might make about performance poets in Ireland, you will see from the above that it is safe to say that a lot of the poets here who regularly or irregularly perform their poetry are, at the very least as concerned with their written, published work as with their performances. I am even going to hazard a foolhardy statement and say that for the most part even in ‘competitive’ performance poetry in Ireland as represented by long-running annual events such as the Cuirt International Festival of Literature Grand Slam Championships, the North Beach Nights Series and the All Ireland Grand Slam Championships (which feeds qualifying candidates through from events held in each province of Ireland) the successful poets seem to owe more to traditional lyric or narrative poetry than they do to rap or hip hop or the influence of the Beat poets, as seems to be the case in other perhaps more culturally and ethnically diverse countries. We seem here too, to have less of the ‘confessional element’ that I have seen and heard in popular spoken word from North America. Yes we have lots of people with poems about gender and sexuality and politics and bullying etc. but generally here to be successful in competitive events or well received at the others, people’s personal experiences need to be put through a spin-cycle of imagination and deflective imagery that I haven’t seen evident in competitive performance poetry from the US or Canada. This is also the case in many social settings in Ireland though; we are not generally straight or forthright talkers about emotional issues.
For context, a word or two about my own stance on things; I am often described as a performance poet and I vary between being amazed that anyone would call me a poet at all and between being unhappy with the restriction implied by the label. I started to pay proper attention to my own desire to write creatively in around about 2009, and now five or six years later, a relatively short time in the life of a ‘poet’, I have had two full length collections of poetry published and have another one The Truth and Other Stories due out this month. I am not making any claims for the merits or standard of my various emissions – that’s something any interested others can assess as and when they want – what I am saying is that for someone who gets variously described as a slam poet, a spoken word poet or a performance poet (even by my own publisher) I have actually published more written or page poetry than many people who are described as poets without any of the various prefixes attached, and sometimes if I am in that kind of humour, I wonder why should be the case.
In my own writing, I don’t consider the page and performance poetry as separate things and I don’t generally consider which arena or form I am writing for at all when I sit at my computer or scribble in a notebook. I write very instinctively and sometimes when I am finished I find that I have captured something in a way that I like, and sometimes I haven’t. In the latter case I usually delete it. The ‘finished’ poem then, if it survives my delete button, will sometimes be a piece that lends itself particularly well to the immediacy of performance in public, but in fact if I have written a poem that to my own standards is one to keep then even if it’s not a performance ‘hit’ it should almost without exception, be able to be read or performed aloud in a way that maintains its rhythm and meaning. This does not mean that I’ll necessarily perform the poem in public; what it means is that if it sounds wrong, awkward or uncomfortable when I read it aloud to myself then I haven’t finished it, and I need to adjust or rewrite or rethink whatever lines jar either on my tongue or in my ear.
Speaking personally again, for me if a poem is to be effective in a noisy bar or other public space filled with the circulating thoughts and movements and concerns of others it needs, in some way to be able to claim and own that space. It’s a mistake though to think that performance poems need to be strident or obvious or raucously funny. Often a quiet, eerie poem can silence an audience much better than a more in your face piece. In a lot of cases with poetry-performed-out-loud-in -public when the performer is doing a whole set rather than just one piece they can usually establish a connection with the audience by presenting some familiar or accessible work and in doing that they can in a way ‘earn’ the right to have more complex or less immediate pieces heard, and in this way anything, even the most obscure or un-crowd pleasing poems, can be aired without losing the engagement and energy that comes from connecting with an audience. This all sounds weird perhaps, but if compared to a singer songwriter or a band it’s very familiar to us: they play a few old favourite or hit songs or even a cover version (the crowd pleasers) then they play their new material to introduce it to their fans, they let it sit and then they’ll play a few more hits to send everyone off satisfied. This works in performance poetry too. If you’ve gained an audience’s trust and attention they’ll come with you to places they wouldn’t necessarily chose to go by themselves. I have no proof of this, but I suspect that sometimes when a performance goes well you can get an audience to engage with a poem they may have skimmed over or not bothered to read in your book.
William Wall a novelist, poet and friend who responded to my Facebook question pointed out that for him the flip side of the range of ways a performance-poet has of communicating through poetry is a slight over-determination. In some cases the reader or the audience is told what to feel about the poem, often in no uncertain terms and so the ambiguity or the space for a reader to interpret or respond to a poem themselves, (which is perhaps one of the chief defining criteria of a piece of art) can sometimes be lost or diminished. In terms of detailing differences between the page and stage forms, I think this is a valid point; that page poetry may well retain a capacity within its ambiguity to access the sublime in a way that is very rare in ‘performance’ poetry.
The first two poets I ever saw give what I would call a ‘performance’ of their work in public were Rita Ann Higgins and Maighread Medbh. Both of these poets and those first performances I heard are useful to put the theory of performance poetry as overly-deterministic to the test. That both are woman is not a coincidence; some of what struck me about both events (which took place some years ago) is how unusual it was or unfortunately still is, to have woman claiming and occupying stage space for their own work on their own terms. I am not sure how Medbh would self identify if we asked her to classify herself poetically, but I do know that Rita Ann Higgins does not claim membership of any ‘performance poetry’ sub or supra strata in Irish poetry.
Despite the fact that I mostly agree with Wall’s point regarding the narrowing of creative ambiguity when poetry is performed, I’d have to make an honourable exception for Maighread’s work, which certainly keeps one luminous eye on the sublime. I first saw her perform in the quiet reserved venue of Galway City Library during one of the Over the Edge Series of readings run by Kevin Higgins and Susan Millar Du Mars and she took the space at the front of the room and through presence, energy and movement as well as through the intensity of her poetry created a charge and a level of discomfort amongst the audience that fascinated me- this was not consoling poetry. I didn’t and still don’t find her poetry immediately accessible. On the page or computer screen I find her work resonant and deeply unsettling but each time I have watched her in the flesh performing I have been moved and impressed by her bravery. Hers was a performance of poetry that blew space open rather than summarised or encapsulated any particular event or experience.
Staying with that point about the possible loss of ambiguity in performances or readings it is worth looking at some of the ways a totally deterministic performance of a poem is in itself (or can be) an act of imaginative creativity. For me a fine clear example of this was that reading by Rita Ann Higgins some years back (I think it took place at the Cuirt International Festival of Literature).
In a crowded room filled with the type of people who attend literary festivals (myself included) she read her poem ‘Some People’. She left no wriggle room for anyone listening, it was her poem, her hook and us her audience were on it. The poem begins:
Some people know what it is like
to be called a cunt in front of their children
It then continues to describe a litany of demeaning, horrible and sometimes absurd things that some people and their children know before finishing in magnificent understatement:
and other people don’t.
The closing lines and in fact the silence that lingered after them perfectly captured the unbridgeable gap between the majority of her audience and the people who the poem speaks about. As a member of that audience I had no doubt at all that I was one of the ‘other people’. In this case the poem in question also works brilliantly on the page but it works there in a way that is different from hearing it read aloud in public:
In public it is a direct, confrontational and political act, an intervention in polite discourse. For a woman to stand on stage at a civilised poetry reading and say the word ‘cunt’ in the way it is used in this poem; as an insult hurled at a woman in front of her children is not business as usual. Right from the off we were far, far out of our comfort zone. The impact of the physical presence of a woman writer standing there and using either her own personal experiences or witness, and her willingness to be personally publicly identified with the demeaning experiences she describes is immeasurably greater than the effect of the words on the page alone.
On the page parts of the poem are amusing, striking and inventive, but performed, in person they are devastating.
The reason I highlight this particular poem is to point out what I see as something vital in poetry that is performed and that is that it necessitates a willingness on the part of the poet to be personally identified with what they have written. In my experience in effective or good performance poetry there is no dispassionate distance available to the poet because it is that distance (which IS available as an often effective device within page based poetry) that will diminish a performer’s chances of connecting emotionally with an audience. Even if performance poems are not autobiographical in any strict sense, when they are performed by their writers themselves the creative aspect of the writer’s personality is being demonstrated in a physical public space and that in itself is an intimacy that the remoteness of the covers of a book can help to shield us from.
To a large extent (and possibly a matter for me to take up with my psychologist rather than here) most of my own public interactions in any sphere are performative but what causes me stage fright and nervousness quite often is that in performance poetry even if I am not the ‘speaker’ in any particular piece and even if, as is usually the case my poems are not a verifiably true reportage of anything that has actually happened, every time I stand there and perform one of my own poems, I am exposing my own vulnerable creativity and allowing it to be linked back to my own physical presence, my actual body and voice and demeanour while I stand there on the spot. For me that is the best thing about performing my own poetry and for me that is the horror of performing my own poetry. Whilst having a book or a poem published is hugely thrilling to me it is something that happens at a distance, whereas performing is hyper-personal. In one final point it is worth mentioning that like most writers I know, the making public of my writing either in performance or in a publication (or on Facebook which is my bad habit) is actually a side effect. What I am actually addicted to (other than reading which is my first love) is the act of writing, the excitement of inspiration and moments of realising that inspiration into something that didn’t exist before I wrote it and hopefully each time into something that doesn’t mimic what I have written before. Yehaw, that’s what that feels like.
For Lazarus, whose alarm clock is ringing
In the terminal’s time warp the sun-on-glass glare
and the lack of appropriate places to sleep
have me left bug eyed and pacing static-filled corridors
that send sparks through my fingers and hair
when I touch things (or if I touched things) and I’m thinking
of how we came to be each others others and
how it is that people like us come to mean things to each other.
Without knowing it does so, the heat from the sun’s kiss on
the plate glass windows licks at my neck and like it, you and me are helpless
our warmth spreads without any permission, we’ve no borders,
no boundaries and we’ve been friends since we met
so I can say; Lazarus get up out of that because I want to talk to you about how
I’d resolved to be only one person all of the time but then
a woman came in to my ninth floor hotel room and stood
at the window looking down at some city or other beneath her,
I (or the me I was using) stayed at a distance with my back
to the wall and across those great acres of room space and bed space
and sheet span I watched the light burnish her edges;
her ribcage, her jaw and the fine hairs on her arm
and as the evening grew gentler I watched the rise and fall
of her breath while the day itself melted and Lazarus
I wanted to go to her but this me that I’ve chosen to be
all of the time now didn’t know how or where to begin,
I didn’t believe that my static filled fingers could touch her
and that she might welcome it and I wanted to tell you
that I mightn’t be able to stay being me in situations like this
where I have all the ingredients gathered and measured
and then I forget how to cook them (if that was in fact,
me there in the bedroom and not one of my minions)
and I’m saying this because I’ve learned that staying one person
isn’t straightforward and sometimes being truthful is less accurate
than having the courage to act the part beautifully,
and Lazarus I want to tell you whenever you get up
that I might not be able and I know you’ll know what I mean
because we are each others others and we know things
Lazarus, it’s high time you were up.
It’s the Dark
A poem for my selves
On this day of halogen and helium
we are dodging shadows
our eyes squinting against late afternoon sun
but it’s with us, despite the whiteness;
it’s a hand not held
in a dark bedroom, of a dark house, on a dark street
where no one ever thought to leave a light on for us
it’s every unblown birthday candle
a school of sorts, an education,
it’s a taunting lane with pine trees and a wind channelled down it,
it’s the terror that made our fat legs pedal faster,
made us flee it,
as if in the bright lights of the kitchen hours later
we still wouldn’t feel it
it’s that car journey we didn’t want to go on
those other headlights sweeping past in freedom
and our relentless windscreen wipers beating rhythm
to the place we swore we’d never get to
on a morning night wouldn’t relinquish,
it’s a bridge in an inferno crumbling
and I can tell you there’s no crossing back over
it’s the confessional where we don’t know what to say
or even who to answer
it’s a hundred pagan folk memories;
nameless because they never tried to conquer it
it’s the dark
it’s the dark
it’s the dark
and it’s best to leave it be.
Sad Bear’s Dance
In the middle of a critique of post-feminist lit the academico asked for examples
she cased the joint for samples. ‘You there in the corner’ she pointed ‘how do you
and like I do when put on a spot I back-answered, retorted; ‘as chat ups go,
that one’s a keeper, and I’m really liking the cut of your jib’. She insisted excitedly
that I was manifesting a notably insidious strain of patriarchy and said; ‘Sisters
and the few selected males amongst us, can you see how our specimen is acting
unwittingly contrary to feminist interests… Seems she’s internalised, oh yes she’s
Picking fleas from my fur I said well in the interests of political correctness, are we
here gender or sex? And she; ‘Whichever, I’m asking are you an X or a Y and if
with that designation or do you feel you’ve been put in a box?’ Never till now, I
but yer wan just wouldn’t be stopped; ‘I’m asking did you learn it or just be it,
speaking, science we’re talking, not myth?’ And I said ‘Oh science is it? Why didn’t
Well you’ll be happy to know I’m empirical, a walking experiment and I propose
……….that there are
waaaaay more letters than that. I’m a boy if you want, a man for all seasons and
the moon calls I’m her bitch, I’m a wave that never comes far enough in, an eight
……….year old child
in a dress, in my father’s high heels call me princess — and sure while we’re at it get
on your knees for your king, and if we’re talking here subject and object then I’m
……….the rent boy
you’ve always wanted to bugger, I ‘m a work in progress – might never be
a construction fallen foul of the bust, so come on in with your cork board and
sure I’ll prostrate myself for your pin- why wouldn’t I when I’m my own favourite
blank canvas, an artwork unfinished and I’m thoroughly glad of your interest –
yea I know — Eureka! We could begin our own travelling freak show and go out
on the road if you want, we’ll meander through small towns and hamlets and
and when the crowds surge I’ll get my kit off oh yes I’ll perform to entice them
while you pocket our ill gotten loot, then later when it’s quiet and they’re gone,
I’ll slow dance on your chain like the saddest of bears until someday, when
I’ll about face and savage you, in that way no one ever predicts, however often
this rictus of captive and victims’ enacted, and I’ll be happy at it let me tell you,
happy as a striped jacketed monkey transplanted to the coldest of streets, ‘cos
I’m a one trick pony reading up on peripheral vision, realising she has it and
asserting that I can grind any organ I wish, and I trust that answers it?’
Your tight lips and stubborn back
and the sound of our dinner dishes
being none too gently stacked
have sent me outside
to sneak a cigarette
in the closest thing a summer night has
My match strike flares
and blinds me for an instant
as I guiltily inhale.
Down on the bog-land
below our house
there are car lights moving slowly,
then going out.
A door thuds shut
and no other sound comes up.
Close-by my ear I hear
your barefeet lubdubing like my heartbeat
across the wooden kitchen floor.
My nicotine plumes fray
and on the uplift of the breeze
an acrid petrol smell
mingles with the gorse, wildflower
and wet earth fumes.
In the morning all there is
is wood smoke and a few blackened patches,
otherwise the gorse bushes
stand out flag-yellow
Bogland doesn’t always burn
that easily, even after
a surprise late night baptism with petrol
up here, where we are,
a sly sea mist can sneak
in to douse it
so it’s left to smoulder
neither burning nor put out
like we are
like we are.
Sarah Clancy is a page and performance poet from Galway City. Her first themed collection of poetry, Stacey and the Mechanical Bull, was published by Lapwing Press Belfast in December 2010 and further selections of her work were published in 2011 & 2012 by Doire Press Galway. Her first full length collection of poetry Thanks for Nothing, Hippies was published by Salmon Poetry in April 2012 and was launched at the Cuirt International Festival of literature that year. It has since become a poetry bestseller. Cinderella Backwards a CD of poetry by Sarah and her fellow Galway poet Elaine Feeney was released in December 2012. Her forthcoming collection The Truth and Other Stories is due out from Salmon Poetry in September 2014.
She has had success in slam or performance poetry circles winning the 2011 Cuirt International Grand Slam Championship, twice coming in as runner up in the North Beach Nights Grand Slam Series (2011& 2012) and in 2013 she was runner up in the All-Ireland Grand Slam Championship. She has also been placed or shortlisted in many page-poetry prizes including the Listowel Collection of Poetry Competition, the Patrick Kavanagh Award, the WOW awards and the Over the Edge Poetry Competition. In 2012 she received second prize for her poem ‘I Crept Out’ in the Ballymaloe International Poetry Competition judged by Matthew Sweeney.