The title should have been enough to warn us it was to be a gala night of experimental poetry, followed by open mike.
Colleen spent hours honing up the lyrical poem she planned to read, working on the music and vivid images. Was this word more appropriate than that? Prepared to put her heart into the performance, she practised, coached by her husband.
The night began with a horrendous drive through heavy peak-hour traffic. Colleen managed to shrink-fit her Corolla into a narrow park. We were both more than ready to quaff a glass or three of bubbly. The chicken shish kebabs and tiny meat balls were scrumptious.
We sat back in eager anticipation .The first Performance poet rendered a long monologue of unintelligible sounds, while his sidekick covered his face, every so often, with an orange beanie and displayed a video of a nude pole-dancer,.
His vocalizations went on… and on…and on. Colleen and I exchanged a glance. She got the giggles. Would this never end?
Most of the audience, all young ones and many probably university students, sat in rapt attention. Were we missing something?
Ten minutes? Fifteen? Seemed like an hour. Sounds the poet produced could have emanated from the mouth of a brain-damaged patient. Or were these the profound, pre-speech utterances of a misunderstood people, trying to find their voice?
Maybe this is about the modern world, I thought, chaos, dissonance and disconnect?
The next poet was introduced with an accolade for her Phd in creative writing, cheered by fellow students. She displayed black plastic objects, which reminded me of solidified lava. But she explained they were digitally photographed (?) representations of her poetry. She would present it in at third, second and first dimension. She turned over her three dimensional replica, her index finger touching the surface, as a blind man palpates Braille. Her vocalized bing or ping or bong or ding rang out each time she found a word. Then she read her poem from old-fashioned text. One must have an exciting time in her creative writing classes.
When is a poem not a poem? In searching for new ways to express our collective or individual consciousness, it can easily become an ego-trip, devoid of meaning. Were we applauding nihilism? Did those present find deep symbolism in what appeared to be a jumble of inarticulate sounds? Or was it a case of The Emperor’s New Clothes?
Of course, as we all know, there’s nothing new about experimental poetry.
Poets from Alan Ginsberg to Yoko Ono have embraced it. Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara used newspaper clippings and experimental typography. Ezra Pound, TS Eliot and Gertrude Stein explored new ways of writing.
The Surrealist movement employed exotic methods to arouse dream-like states in their poems. Robert Desnos wrote a dream novel while under hypnosis. George Luis Canthazar’s Hopscotch is read with the chapters in no particular order, which certainly replicates the absurdity of many dreams. Some writers strive to achieve the merging of the self with the inner and outer world. James Joyce employed stream of consciousness writing.
What of absurdism, in which the unreasonable, silly or foolish are celebrated?
Then there are digital artists like poet Caterina Davino. The Fluxos movement endeavours to expand the definition of Art, Performance Poetry being composed for, or in front of an audience, and not for print.
One may think of Performance Poetry as postmodern, but in pre-literate societies, poets used repetition, alliteration, rhyme and kennings-two word phrases of Anglo Saxon and Norse origin- with metaphor to describe an object. A kennings poem is a riddle made up of several lines.
These kennings aided memorization. The performer added savours of their own to the recalled version. And, of course, there were bards, those Celtic lyric poets who composed and performed tales of heroic exploits. The arrival of printing changed poetry from performance to the written word, used to entertain at home or in private.
Elizabethans and Robbie burns used poetry as song lyrics, or Madrigals.
In the 20th Century certain poets eschewed the written poem, composing their work directly into tape recorders, or improvised in front of an audience. Some used jazz, or combined readings with a harmonium (Alan Ginsberg). Basil Bunting declared the poem like a musical score, which only comes to life when it’s heard.
The British poetry revival combined literary works and music. Performance poetry is composed for, or during, public showing, spoken or almost sung, sometimes considered Conceptual Art.
Open mikes and poetry slams have been a boon for unknown poets bringing them before an audience. It’s become one of the most popular forms of poetry. Alan Ginsburg’s spectacular performance in the Albert Hall, London, 1965, at the International Poetry Incarnation, probably transformed poetry into popular art.
On a delightful summer’s day at the Women Writer’s Network Christmas Party, under the magnolia tree, a gentle breeze caressed the huge white blossoms. Dappled by sunlight, Colleen and I followed the Fluxos Movement and Absurdism with our Performance Poetry. We brought no message, political, significant or other. We weren’t influenced by hip hop, nor did we dance. But our stand-up comedy, improvisation and word play, brought hysterical laughter and enthusiastic applause. And as one puzzled friend said later, ‘It went right over my head.’ No it didn’t.
*With thanks to Wikipedia for research material