Sat 26 September 2020
In the Media
Digital Reading
Young Writers in the News
Books & Reading
Goings On
You are here: Home > Young Writers' Hub > Blog > Page Versus Stage: Complementary or Conflicting?
Page Versus Stage: Complementary or Conflicting?
It should be noted from the outset that I have no firm predilection for either ‘page’ or ‘performance’ poetry. I’ve been known to love and loathe aspects of both writes guest blogger Jake Campbell

I’m aware that certain writers of each camp often view the two forms as mutually exclusive entities. Clearly both have their advantages and disadvantages, but I don’t want to go too much into that. Rather, I’d like to share my personal experiences of the two in the hope that I might open up some debate about whether the forms can, indeed should, exist reciprocally; to the other’s benefit.

I first ‘performed’ my poetry just under 4 years ago at the (then) new open-floor night in Chester, ‘Zest’. This involved me, my very soon-to-be girlfriend and a mutual friend taking a stanza each of my tri-narrative poem and, well, reading it out and trying as best as we could to hide our nerves. Far from the performance poetry glam of the rate-a-line slam you might think, but our three-way narrative poem stood out, at least I hoped at the time, because it was rather different to just one person reading a sonnet about their goldfish.

Other performances, not necessarily by me, that I remember from Zest include Dennis Just Dennis strutting onto the stage, holding up a dictionary, declaring it the most important book in the world and proceeding to captivate everyone in the room with an expertly nuanced and gustily performed  political-themed, alphabetical poem about...ah. Here we reach a quandary. I know that the poem’s structure meant that every word had to flow alphabetically, and that each letter wasn’t given a set amount of words. I also know that it was, frankly, bloody brilliant and an obvious highlight of the night. My caveat is this: even an hour after leaving the bar, I couldn’t remember what the poem was ‘about’. Yes, its delivery resonated in my mind, to the point where I’d be tempted to label Dennis a master of performance in the broadest sense, but the poem’s novelty soon subsided so that all I remembered of it was its unique structure and supreme delivery.

Performance poetry purists and the casual observer of that performance might well argue, and they’d have a point, that the fact alone I remember that much of the poem 4 years on is testament to Dennis’s skill. Fair game, I’ll go with that. However, another performance I remember just as vividly from Zest was a ‘page poem’, read directly, without pomp or prop, by Francesca Haig. I’ll tell you now that Francesca being a former tutor of mine, the following will invariably be tainted with bias. Any road up, her poem was about a girl with anorexia. The line, and I paraphrase: ‘the nasogastric tube hung from her nose like a fuse’ gave me goose-pimples. I don’t know if it’s because the simile achieves the unsettling effect of juxtaposing the fragility of life with a mechanical object, or if it was more to do with Francesca’s stern, unsentimental delivery, but the poem resonated as much as Dennis’s.

I went on to read at every Zest that I attended with varying degrees of success – a difficult thing to gauge at a poetry night, really. One has to assume that a large clap and ‘Ohs’ and ‘Ahs’ in the appropriate places is encouraging, while silence, coughing and/or people going to the toilet halfway through your set is at best a sign of indifference and at worst a sign that people are going to the bathroom not because they’ve over-indulged on the wine, but to remove their fists from their throats so they can laugh at you politely yet wholly.

I like to think that my performance poetry CV is now strong enough, boasting a smorgasbord of readings, open-mics and piss-ups with added poems, that I could confidently get up at any event which vaguely tolerated literature to further the case for my writing. Indeed, a recent gig in Newcastle seemed to manifest that ideal. Long story short: I was the (I want to say ‘token poet’, but that would be a discredit to myself and what genuinely was a brilliant evening) spoken word artist on a lineup of acoustic musicians, it quickly became clear that my poems about having a piss with my Dad at halftime and my Granddad burying his dog at the local lighthouse, were always likely to be met with what might best be described as the stare from the front row which says: who the fuck are you; why don’t these rhyme? Context is key. It’s also, I reckon, often a hindrance to poetry slams and open-mics. That is, these events are self-consciously billed as literary events; they connote, often wrongly, old men in tweed jackets donning their jam-jars and reading from dusty, slim volumes. There’s the poetry voice. You know which one I mean. If you’ve been to even one open-mic worth its salt (or not, as the case may be), you’ll recognise its pitch, its self-effacing musicality, the fact that were this a comic strip, I’d draw that person with a neon arrow with the word ‘twat’ above their head.

These things have their cliques. I should know: I ran my own monthly one for over half a year in Chester and twice, randomly, in Durham. Barring the odd new face, my open-mics always attracted a fluctuating diehard from the local literary literati. On one of our regular Chester nights, we had a very entertaining, brash performance poet from Manchester, who was literally duelling for airspace with the Champions League being belted out of the widescreens on the floor below. That’s off topic though, isn’t it?

Returning to Page vs. Stage (the cage match?), I’d surmise that the best thing performing my poetry somewhere between 30 and 50 times over the last 4 years has done is this: I know my voice. Granted I want to know it better, but I know it. I’m aware that in Chester and Liverpool, I tend to tone down my Geordie-ness. I don’t have the thickest Tyneside accent, but if you catch me reading in Newcastle, I guarantee I’ll preface a poem with the relevant colloquialisms and probably ham up the dialect a bit. I’ve done loads of Newcastle ‘gigs’ lately. Too many, actually. I now haven’t performed in Newcastle since January, and don’t plan to do so again till April. The reason for this is the simple one of saturation. I started to feel that my poems were being re-hashed in different pubs to largely the same crowd. Granted the night I described earlier, which was in a cinema, was different, and in many ways refreshing (performing to a non-poetry audience is a thrill as much as it is a chore), I still reached the point where I told myself to pause.

If my voice was the practical gain from these experiences, hearing where line breaks were/weren’t working and where the rhythm was too clunky/bland, was the technical one. Many of my poems have been edited swiftly after open-mics, often just after I’ve read them. The third benefit, and it would be wrong of me to exclude it, is the feedback I received from my peers and random people. I don’t want to labour this point because no one likes a narcissist, but the sheer fact that people have came up to me and said my poems were good; that they resonated with them, makes me feel like I’m doing something right, something worthwhile.

But now it is time for a break. Bands write and record music and tour the hell out of it solidly for months. Bands burn out. I now empathise with the rock singer puts their group into hiatus because the pressures of relentless touring have exhausted them; have made them lose creativity; forget why they got into music in the first place. Okay, so that’s a rather wild analogy, but this one isn’t: I’ve released a batch of poems into the auditoriums of the spoken-word scene fairly persistently for the last half year. It’s now time to get back to the studio, as it were. The EP’s recorded and was well-received. It’s time to settle down for the album, to hit them hard with round two.

To be continued (maybe by me [e.g. the discerning reader will note that I’ve essentially neglected to comment on the ‘page’ aspect of the title ], but hopefully by your comments, too.)

Jake Campbell is a young writer based in South Shields.