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To Publish or Not to Publish Performance Poetry by Katie Ailes


Being a performance poet means fantastic live exposure: one can interact with the audience, contextualise poems through between-poem chat, adapt the set for the setting, etc. However, as great as this physical exposure and audience engagement is, performance poetry as a genre also carries with it the drawback that it is ultimately ephemeral. The audience may love your work, but at the end of the night, they have nothing to take home with them: no book, no tangible product to which they can refer later if they want to revisit the poetry. This is a drawback for the poet as well, since by not producing their work through print media they lose out on an important way of making money and marketing themselves.

Realising this limitation, many contemporary performance poets are no longer restricting their work to the stage. Increasingly, performance poets are publishing their work in print while continuing to identify as performance poets. Andrea Gibson has three print collections (in addition to six CDs), and there are now publication houses dedicated to publishing spoken word such as Write Bloody in the U.S. However, publishing spoken word poetry is more complex than it may seem because it involves transcribing the work from one genre (performance) into another (print), which can result in a fundamentally different, some might say ‘inferior,’ product. This post looks at some of the complications and benefits that arise when spoken word poets publish their work in print.

There are several questions at play here. The first is whether or not performance poets should publish their work in print or whether these poems should only be enjoyed in live performance contexts (remaining ‘pure’ in the eyes of some). Another is whether publishing performance poems through print is an adequate way of capturing them—and if so, how should they be transcribed?

Let’s start with the basics. Performance poetry is a medium of poetry designed specifically for live performance. A poet merely reading aloud a poem designed for the page is not the same as a spoken word poet performing from memory a piece with physical gestures, emphases, and intention to engage with the audience. Performance poetry is meant to be an enacted art, with audience engagement as one of its key features. Obviously there’s a lot of fuzziness in this spoken/printed binary (and I’ll get to why that’s actually a good thing) but for now let’s agree that contemporary performance poetry is a unique genre with its own traits and standards.

Because so much of the appeal of performance poetry lies in its live physicality, the idea of removing just the words from the stage and printing them in a silent, still book feels akin to selling someone a peach pit while advertising it as a peach. Mere words do not a performance poem make. As I wrote in my review of Kate Tempest’s show in October, I was concerned that my experience of reading the printed collection of the poem Tempest had performed (Hold Your Own, 2014, Picador) would not live up to the experience of witnessing her electric live performance. It’s an excellent collection, but reading it is simply not the same as experiencing it live. And it shouldn’t be—the performance is integral to the art, so I did not expect the experience of reading it to be equivalent to witnessing it.

As I posted a couple weeks ago, some performance poets don’t write their poems down at all in the drafting process: the poems only exist through performance. Some poets, including internationally acclaimed performance poet Jem Rolls, are spoken word purists, believing that performance poetry should never be transcribed in print and should exist solely on the stage. Asked in 2012 whether he had ever sold any books or recordings of his work, Rolls replied,

“No. I’ve never done that. I’ve never sold anything at all. Basically because if you do that it becomes something else. It would take me a long time to edit a poetry book to a point where I was actually happy with it and thought it was any good.”

Rolls’ idea that if you publish performance poetry in print it “becomes something else” reveals something about our perceptions of the fundamental nature of performance poetry: that it must be performed. That sounds simplistic, but it’s a real question on the scene. Is performance poetry a fundamentally different genre to print poetry, enough so that performance poets should not publish their work in the printed form?

Acclaimed British performance poet Patience Agbabi has published her work, and has publicly discussed the pressures within the poetry scene to do so:

“Yes, I had that happen a lot, in ’93, ’94: people saying: ‘Well, are you published?’ And then, ‘Why aren’t you published? You should be published.’ I had gotten to the stage of thinking, ‘I’m a performance poet’. I had originally sent poems out to people, and has been published in one or two places, like Feminist Review, and then I started building my performance career, and just stopped sending things out, not because I thought they wouldn’t be published, but because I was focusing on that side of my career. And then it came to a stage where there were certain poems which were so popular that people were coming up to me with money… I didn’t have a book, and that was painful. “

Agbabi’s comments point to a problematic concept in the poetry scene: that the printed word is an authentication of the spoken word. There is a pervasive idea that being published is the only criterion that matters: you’re not a poet until you’ve published a collection. This perception is damaging for spoken word poets whose art exists in the live performance of their work. It derives from our need for the tangible, our desire to grasp ephemeral experiences so that we can read them, revisit them. But it also derives from this stereotype of printed poetry being more legitimate than spoken poetry. This singular focus on “Are you published?” is inherently insulting to performance poets for whom print publication is beside the point of their creative practice.

However, there are also the very real practical and financial concerns to which Agbabi points. By not producing our work in any format save live performance, spoken word poets cut ourselves off from an important source of revenue and means of marketing ourselves. We neglect an opportunity to make income through pamphlet sales and deny the audience the opportunity to support an artist whose work they enjoy through means other than buying tickets. We also deny ourselves entry into many of the competitions, publication opportunities, etc. of the mainstream literary world (although some spoken word purists might argue that ‘print poetry’ is a separate genre and we shouldn’t aspire to the Forward Prize anyway). As much as the system may be set up to favor print work, and as much as spoken word poets may wish to rebel against that, it remains the reality that if you want to make money as a spoken word artist, selling a print collection is an attractive means of making additional revenue on top of performance fees.

From my perspective, then, there is nothing truly equivalent to the experience of witnessing the live performance of spoken word poems. But I also do not believe this means that spoken word poets should automatically restrict ourselves to the stage. To do so means not only enforcing strict (constructed) genre boundaries between ‘page’ and ‘stage’ poetry, but also denying spoken word poets the opportunity to make additional revenue from their art. It also takes away the opportunity to further develop one’s practice through attempting cross-medium translation. A final issue is one of accessibility. A lack of printed performance poems means this work won’t be recorded for posterity (barring A/V recordings), and makes it more difficult for academics like myself to study these poems. And finally, for people who cannot attend live performances and/or have limited access to the Internet (or hearing problems), a lack of printed material means that it is more difficult for the performance poet to reach these audiences.

For all of these reasons, I personally do not perceive a problem with spoken word poets publishing their work through print media. However, I do acknowledge the complications of fully capturing the energy of live performance in a silent, printed poem. So, if you’re a performance poet and you want to publish a collection, what are some techniques for doing so?


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To Publish or Not to Publish Performance Poetry

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To Publish or Not to Publish Performance Poetry

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