By Victoria Stanton and Vincent Tinguely
Literary readings represent the simplest kind of spoken word performance. They are generally conceived as a means for literary authors, who normally work in solitude, to share their work with the public. Spoken word artists argue that even a literary reading is a form of performance, and that writers unfamiliar with the world of the stage ought to take that into account, or spare their audiences the pain of a dull reading.
Michel Garneau: It’s hugely presumptuous to put oneself in front of people and say: “What I’m about to say is interesting enough to make you stay seated, quiet, for a half hour, maybe hours. A personal morality of mine makes it necessary to try to supply some content. We must give our audience pleasure, something to remember in order to justify what we’re offering. I prepare accordingly, and try to give the best performance possible. I just suffered too much, all through that era when it was understood that you were going to be bored. I saw poets stand stock-still behind a microphone with a bunch of papers and read for periods of time that were downright inhuman (laughs). In fact it wasn’t really all that long. For example, I saw Margaret Atwood reading. Just standing there in front of the microphone, she had darkish glasses and a big hat, you couldn’t see her. And she went through with her horrible voice like an hour of bitchy bullshit. I wanted to shoot her, I wanted to kill her! Her droning voice. Forever (laughs).
John Giorno: I forget the year exactly, but it might have been 1963 that John Ashbery, who lived in Paris, moved back to New York. And Frank O’Hara gave a poetry reading at some gallery in the seventies on the East Side. I went with Andy Warhol. It was a hot, June night, really hot, and it was packed, because John was famous at that point, in his little quote ‘world’. It was packed, a hundred some odd people at this gallery, and they had no sound system! Microphones, which we take for granted, didn’t really exist before. There were such things as PA systems if you were a politician. It sounded like a foghorn to a large audience, but in a small situation like that, it was not even possible to rent a sound system, I think. Maybe in Saint Mark’s, for the poetry, they had a little primitive PA system that was not much better. Two speakers on the side that echoed, the quality was horrible. So there were a hundred and twenty-five people, and John and Frank up at the front there, we couldn’t hear a word. Andy kept saying over and over again, “It’s so boring. It’s so boring,” (laughs) and, “Why does it have to be so boring?” And it was true. So I think that was one of those things that one remembered. Why does it have to be so boring?
Michel Garneau: In the Sixties, there were readings. Then it was recitals, but because I’ve always worked around theatre I’d think: “No, I want to organize shows. I;m a showman. I love it and I refuse to be ashamed of it.” Spectacle is basic to human beings, that’s how storytelling was born, there was a born showman somewhere – We mustn’t turn our backs on this. And the moment you say yes to spectacle, things can get very very free. For example, Raoul Duguay with L’Infonie, wearing a world globe on his head, with horns and all. This guy went all the way. With Raoul and just one musician, I gave shows that were completely wild. We had tons of texts, some we knew by heart, others we’d written the night before. We’d ask people in the audience to give us a sentence and we’d write about that. That was during the Seventies. But we weren’t about readings and recitals anymore, we were presenting shows now. This notion is specific and very important. It leads to performance, where there are various ways to give shows and say things. The minute you do this, you start working from memory. Meaning that you work poems to know them enough to be able to move, to give them a beat, music, you rap them, whatever – I think that because of the various influences, when performers get in front of an audience nowadays, they’re thinking about getting pleasure from that and with providing pleasure for their audience. I think this is moral progress. And from then on the show obviously connects with oral tradition, much more than with literature, because when you give a reading, you’re stuck with the piece of paper.
Hélène Monette: I wonder if the screen created by the poet’s piece of paper doesn’t create a distance, a wall between audience and reader. Maybe the emotions can still come through, I don’t know. I’ve been pondering this question for ten years. When you’re onstage reading, you forget yourself, and at the same time you’re taking possession of a physical space. So you’re physically involved but at the same time, you get into an altered state where you’re not always aware of your gestures, of how the audience is perceiving you. I can’t compare myself to poets who are too shy, nor to the more daring performers, I’m neither. But I’m bothered by this sheet of paper which gives the impression that when you read with it, you’re more static than in movement.
Todd Swift: I don’t accept the division between ‘reading’ and ‘performing’. My concern is that we can lose sight of the source and intent of a delivery of poetry by concentrating too much on the vehicle mode, let’s say. If someone passionately reads their work to a live audience, celebrating the oral/aural community of poetry, that is far better than a piss-poor actor dully reciting cold, banal verse from memory. This is why I employ the concept of fusion poetry, where page and stage, reading and performing, are sometimes indistinguishable. What matters is connecting, reaching, moving, touching. Or alienating, if that’s your motive.
David Gossage: If someone’s up reading a very long poem and a very complex poem that people spend lifetimes studying and learning, then sometimes in a live context it just goes past people…. It’s better to keep the shorter jewels, so they can just digest a moment and get enough of the poem…. In a live context with someone reading, the accompanying music’s nice, because if it’s done well it could try to capture the mood of the poem in another way that you might lose as it’s zipping by you. Because they do zip by, they’re gone. When you sit and watch poetry, you start going, “Ah,” and then it’s gone, and you ask the person next to you, “What was it about again?” (laughs) People often, when you do a poetry show, either buy the book or go find the poem.
Anne Stone: I find that, having done this book tour where I moved between doing readings and doing spoken word pieces that laid up against the novel, and doing other things some people were really into it and accepting and open, and they were pretty sophisticated. Because they had an experience of spoken word, they had an experience of all sorts of different ways of bringing the work in. I found that in Vancouver, at Bukowski’s, they were obviously from a community that’s very vibrant and alive. But in other places people were like, “Wow, if you hadn’t read it I really wouldn’t have got the inflections.” So suddenly the book is stripped because I’ve done something with my voice, and the sense that I’m going to do the same thing every time with my voice. No, I was in a particular mood today, it came out this way.
Michel Garneau: What I like about spoken word is that the poets who present their texts have decided they want to do it. Because there’s a terrifying tradition of poets who don’t enjoy reading in public but they do it anyway. There are people I respect a lot who discourage me in this respect. You go somewhere to present your poetry and next to you there’s a poet sighing and saying he hates giving readings. So why choose to take part in the show? When poets feel uncomfortable reading on stage, they should refrain. Because they’re going to send the audience a message of non-enjoyment as well. If you recite poems looking like someone who doesn’t enjoy it, you’re asking the audience to do some strange mental exercise where they have to overlook the fact that you look miserable. You’re going to read your poems with a kind of absence and so you undermine the whole phenomenon.