Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Performance Poetry Reading

I confess to having mixed emotions about performance poetry. I have on several occasions attended a performance poetry reading and been captivated by the singing and the physical presence of the poet or poets. But then when I took the poetry home and sat down to read it, I've been disappointed to discover that the poetry on the page didn't measure up to the poetry on the stage. So it seems to me that the music and performance can sometimes cover up a lack of craft. I've also sat through performance readings where it seemed that the poetry consisted largely of screaming, pacing the stage, and hurling obscenities.

But I've also several times been really taken with a performance reading. For example, I'll never forget hearing Patricia Smith read in Paterson, NJ, several years ago. Take a look at her amazing delivery:

And then when I later sat down with Patricia's book, with her words on the page, I was just as riveted as I'd been when she'd stood before me.

So I never know what to expect when I attend a performance poetry reading. I went to one on Saturday, December 1, again in Paterson. The poets were Charlie Rossiter and Al DeGenova, a duo, and Kurt Lamkin. I've known Kurt for several years. I first met him when I brought him in as a guest poet at the high school festival I ran for seven years when I was teaching. Then I had him back again. Later, I ran into him yet again when he first was featured at a Dodge festival. I'd never met Charlie or Al but knew their names.

I had just returned from the poetry retreat so really had to drag myself out, but I was very glad I did as the reading was just wonderful. Here's Charlie posing for my camera:

Charlie and Al went first. Their reading was full of music and instruments, singing, and wonderful poetry. Two gentle souls.

Click here to hear some of Charlie's work:

Then Kurt performed and as always was wonderful. He played a kora, a 21-string West African instrument which, by tradition, must be made by the performer.

I went home with Back Beat, Charlie and Al's co-authored collection; AvantRetro, their CD; and two CDs by Kurt, Magic Yams and String Massage. I look forward to the reading and the listening.


  1. I do agree that pieces that work in performace frequently fail on the page, but I think some performance poets would argue that they don't write for the page, so it's not a fair criticism. We've featured one true performance poet in the DeBaun series, and his stuff was OK on the page, but outstanding on his CD. We've had may performers with low poetic craft in our opens, though.

    I think I remember Sekou Sundiata say that he always anticipated his work being received aurally; that he was more interested in output as audio than as print - but he clearly expected his stuff to work on the page as well. I don't know if writers attracted to the art by Def Poetry Jam think about the individual encounter with the poem on the page - their whole approach to writing assumes a stage and an audience.

  2. Hm. I agree that it's an oral/aural art and if a performance poet creates for the stage only then it's not fair to apply the same set of criteria in evaluating. But once the poems appear in a chapbook or a book, then they've got to be able to withstand the same kind of critical eye that other poems do. I want to be able to hear the music and the voice right there on the page. If I can't, then the poem, regardless of what we might label it, isn't going to get high marks, though the performance of it might.


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