This morning I read a short essay by John Glassco called “A Real Good Noise: the Poet as Performer” from the quirky 1982 compilation, The Insecurity of Art: essays on poetics, all by Montreal poets. He provides a quick overview of the rise of poetry as performance in Canada from it being (in the 50s) a sideline for only a few poets to it becoming (in the later 60s) a de rigeur part of publishing a book in this country. As a poet who now performs quite regularly, I cringed a bit at his comment that “the poet who recites cannot help noticing that his lighter, chattier, funnier and sexier poems receive the most applause from his audience – and unless he is a very strong character – which most poets are not – he may find himself composing this kind of verse de societe rather than serious verse.”
Yet, while Glassco interprets this situation as an either/or – one composes serious verse and doesn’t perform or one composes populist work and performs, the former only good on the page and the latter only truly suitable for the stage, I have never felt the choice as this rigid or deterministic.
When I first started writing seriously in my mid to late teens, I was quite taken aback at the presumption I would “do a reading.” Apart from mostly reluctantly performing as a violinist in my youth, and dabbling with the notion of playing drums, then guitar live, I never thought of myself as a performer. In fact, it terrified me. My first reading saw me stand up shakily, recite three pieces at light speed and sit down trembling, wondering why why why. Gradually, I enjoyed reciting more but it continued to feel like an exceedingly vulnerable act. I could play bass in a band, even sing, yet alone I felt exposed, awkward, ravaged by eyes.
By 2007, I had already gone on several reading tours in support of books and I still felt uncomfortable. I admired poets like George Elliot Clarke, Sue Goyette, Phil Hall, David McGimpsey, Steve Heighton, Joe Rosenblatt and others who seemed able to take their audience into a deep, textured, even disturbing poem, then lift out of it with humour, music, repartee. The last reading I gave where I realized I could no longer give those kinds of readings was for rob mclennan in Edmonton. I recited a sequence of emotionally difficult pieces relating to suicide (framed by quotes by Francis Bacon) from my chapbook Fyre and at the end, I experienced only the silence of the audience, the dark plummeting in my gut and a sense of devastation. I didn’t want to feel like this in front of others. So I determined to find a way to read pieces that were more performative and intersperse them with chit-chat, moments of laughter and now, song.
Was this a decision borne from cowardliness and fear? Perhaps. But I do think there are poems better read in quiet, absorbed in solitude. And others that are best served by expressions, by vocalizations. I learned to better control my voice, undertook breathing and chanting exercises, began to see performance as another aspect of “what I do” as an artist, not something I am forcing myself to do where the act is inappropriate or counter-productive.
And then also, there is the sense of honouring the past, the ancient celebration of poetry as an oral art form, and of closing the circle of writing, publishing and then bringing the poem into another kind of life in public. Of the connection now drawn between going on book tours and the books receiving further distribution and more attention. At the same time, I am conscious always of the risks and aim to detach from the stage when I write and be in the moment of language with its private faces, to see where and how it wants to quest on its own, first, into the world.