Deconstructing the difference between the message and the messenger.
I sat on a panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival recently called something like Poetry in Performance. Four poets were asked to perform a poem and then partake in a moderated Q&A. Normally I would have felt quite at home on such a panel, but two things happened that afternoon that led me to believe I might have been slightly out of place. Or else the other three poets were.
First, during the performance portion, I noticed I was the only one of the four poets on the panel who chose to stand up, take the microphone off the stand, step in front of it, and attempt to physicalize the performance of my poem; the other three poets all stayed seated and recited their poems with some sort of musical accompaniment. That, to them, was what made their poem a “performance.” Fair enough. Make no mistake: I’m not a rapper. I don’t strut back and forth waving my arms in time to the rhythm of the poem. In fact, I rarely move a muscle unless I know it will add to the poem. Nervous energy usually tries to convince you to do something—anything— but most times deliberately doing almost nothing is usually the more difficult but better choice for the performance.
But the fact that the other three poets read from a stationary position was just a curious observation. The real epiphany for me came a little later—during the question & answer portion of the panel—when I noticed a more telling distinction between my idea of poetry in performance and everyone else’s. The moderator of the panel, Mary Gannon from the Academy of American Poets, asked us all to comment on how we strive to make our work “come alive in performance.” The poet to my left was Tyehimba Jess, the author of leadbelly and a poet I greatly admire. In response to the question, Jess said with a wise smile that he’d “discovered long ago that the harder I work on the page, the less I have to work on the stage.”
Everyone, including myself, nodded in agreement with Jess’s answer. In fact, I even made a self-deprecating joke about how “that must explain why I always have to work so hard on the stage.” But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Tyehimba Jess was dead wrong.
Maybe not wrong exactly. But rather, his comment was not something I would ever expect a performance poet to say. Which is fine, because I sincerely doubt Tyehimba Jess wants to be considered a performance poet. He’s just a poet who happens to be a damn good reader of his own work, not to mention an amazing harmonica player. Furthermore, the panel we were on wasn’t called Performance Poetry, but rather Poetry in Performance. Still, something didn’t sit right with me.
Because although I do work really hard on stage when I perform my poems—that part is true—it’s not to compensate for a lack of hard work in the drafting process. It’s to complement it. The tacit assumption behind Jess’s observation is that once a poet has finished crafting and revising a poem, the lion’s share of his or her work is done. That’s the “hard” work. Everything after that is easier. Just read the poem clearly, slowly, and dramatically enough to let it speak for itself. And that, right there, is what a performance poet would never say. Because to a performance poet, writing a good poem is only half the job. Now comes the rest of the work. And it’s just as hard.
If you were a painter, and you’d just finished a masterpiece and wanted to show it to the world, would you hang it in a dark closet and expect “the work to speak for itself.” Certainly not. You’d take care to display your painting to the best of your ability, which involves framing, hanging, placement, lighting, reflection, spacing, and flow of the room (to name just a few of the considerations that I can think of, having a friend who is an expert in “hanging art.” Seriously. That’s his job).
A good performance poet is thinking about things like that when he or she is performing a poem. Where do I breathe in the next couple of lines? Be careful not to rush this next gesture. Don’t step backward because that will make me appear dishonest. Is the audience getting this or do I need to improvise something in the service of understanding? My beef with non-performance poets is that they are too often oblivious to these elements, either in the reading of their poems or the gratuitous nervous chatter they cram between each poem. All of that stuff profoundly affects an audience’s experience and appreciation of the poetry whether you know it or not. When people start counting how many times you say “um” or “like,” they’ve already stopped listening to your poetry. Academic poets are like painters who hang their masterpieces unframed in the poorly lit cramped rooms.
Oh yeah? Well, then performance poets are painters who hang their pictures with revolving disco balls and distracting laser light shows and strobe lights that actually detract from the work of art. That’s actually an accurate criticism a lot of the time. And it’s a calculated risk that performance poets take every time they perform. “Am I doing too much? Am I being the perfect messenger for the message of this poem?” Those are questions a good performance poet should constantly be asking. By contrast, non-performance poets too often elevate the message and completely dismiss the messenger, essentially saying, “my poem is good enough to survive the butchering I’m about to give it.”
Taylor Mali is the founding curator of the Page Meets Stage series in New York City, where “the Pulitzer Prize meets the Poetry Slam.” A four-time National Poetry Slam champion, he was one of the original poets to appear on the HBO series “Def Poetry Jam.”