Performance Poetry : performing from the page or from memory

There’s been some debate of late about the merits of reading from a book verses performing from memory, and whether one has any advantage over the other.

The easy answer is that both methods are performative, though performing while using a book can easily be construed as reading from a book. This in itself could be a performance so long as there is some audience engagement.

I always read from a book. Indeed, the book has become a part of my whole persona. It is a character who comes with me on stage. It also suits the character that I’m trying to give myself while performing. There’s something old fashioned and comforting about having the book there, and it helps that the book has been around a bit. It’s been there at every poetry gig I’ve performed at for the last three years.

But there are poets who perform from memory. This is a liberating experience and allows them to concentrate on their delivery and on their performance. I have only been able to memorise two of my poems, Somerset and Plop, while The Straight Poem, Fozzie and The First Time are very nearly memorised. (I can do them in my sleep. Just not on stage). Having the words locked in allows the poet to move around and inhabit the words.

Perhaps this is something I could work on. However, there are several factors mitigating against this approach, for me personally. The first is that my poems do not rhyme, mostly. Therefore learning them is harder. There’s no rhythm either, just a line followed by another line. Secondly, my work rate is such that there are too many new poems coming through to memorise. I try to write one performable poem or piece a week, except during April and September, when this goes up to one a day. The best I can do is rehearse, rehearse, rehearse until I know not only the poem, but the piece of paper it’s written on, the font, and the way it sits on the page.

As you can see from the picture, I have notes and ideas written next to the poem which I have taken in during the rehearsal period. (The picture is of a poem I have performed frequently, and also in Germany, hence the scribbled German translations next to the text!)

I have spoken to many poets about reading verses memorising and most have a similar approach. Matt Harvey, Jackie Juno and Johnny Flufffypunk all use a book as a back-up and as a part of their performance, with the added bonus of having a permanent on-stage advertisement for their latest publications. People see the book and they want their own copy!

But there’s something mystical about memorised poems. Perhaps it goes back to the days of the shamen, the travelling storytellers of old, the odd man ranting in the street, speaking in tongues, the very origins of poetry itself. It gives the performance that extra kick. It puts them up there with rock stars and preachers, politicians and orators, conjuring words as if from within. One just has to watch Pam Ayres to see how effectively this can be done.

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