Four Possible Futures For Performance Poetry

This week I was asked by someone writing for a Uni newspaper to write a bit about performance and slam poetry and about how I “saw the the future for performance poetry in Britain”. I realised that my view of it’s future had shifted quite a lot since the change of government and shake up of Arts Council funding. How realistic are any of these scenarios?

1. It continues as a grass roots activity with small, enthusiastic audiences and occasional break out performers impact on other fields: eg Hip hop or stand up comedy.

-In most cities there are at least one or two regular events where performance poetry is part or all of the line up. Still, even the most marginal sports (ice hockey say with average attendances of 5000 attract many, many times larger audiences.)

2. It gets more funding and support as a non commercial art form, is used more widely as an educational tool, and borrows platforms and values from subsidised theatre and theatre venues – whilst also developing its own reflective practice and criticism.

-It feels like this is the way things were heading pre Funding crises. Things like the “Lit Up” initiative were spearheading a spread into larger venues. Artists like Inua Ellams, Polar Bear, Molly Naylor and Zena Edwards were working in ways and forums also used in experimental theatre. Aisle 16 & others continued getting Escalator East funding to take shows to the Edinburgh Fringe and many poets worked on Creative Partnerships projects in schools. Apples and Snakes continues to advocate for the medium- & the Arts Council sees it’s funding of an Olympic S
Am project as a strategy to widen it’s educational use. Much less money around than there was though- & the Poetry Society seems to be having a bit of a meltdown over a division between how much they should focus on widening poetry participation through education. A reflective practice among artists and critics would be nice though. Universities might have been pulled in in an era of more humantities research, but that seems likely to be delayed some years now.

3. It breaks out into the mainstream like stand up comedy and becomes a commercial art form supported by British versions of the visionary Russell Simmons of Def Jam in the U.S.

-Yeah right. As many performance poets as non performance poets seem perfectly happy to play for small audiences and not “sell out”.

4. It diversifies and re integrates into other art forms in the way it used to in the early 80s and you get performance poets valued in music, comedy, traditional literary events, academia and even the corporate world.

-Personally I think the diverse portfolio of work that the Saturday Live (Radio 4) poets do is a good example of this. It may not quite fulfil my dream of a mainstream platform promoting greater inclusivity, but a reminder that poets can write accessibly and to order on a wide variety of issues (as also done by Ian McMillan on Radio 5 in the 90s), it means that you can see performance poets in sports arenas, health conferences, er…supermarkets, Literary festivals (as the novelty act though). Live in forlorn hope that Carol Ann Duffy might include performance poets in things sometimes….sigh.

Not included in these scenarios though is the melting pot/melting poet most commonly, not exclusively working in London. Crossing page/performance boundaries. As likely to be found in post in a literary residency as in a one person show in Edinburgh (Helen Mort for example) and less likely to reject out of hand the occasional label of “performance poet”. Their future is more closely tied to the general poetry funding/audience situation in the country (hence, a but precarious but probably safely subsidised to a degree for the foreseeable future).

Or none of the above?

3 thoughts on “Four Possible Futures For Performance Poetry”

  1. Hi Kate,
    I fear it’s still an uphill battle and that we’re plagued by the “P” word and the sad and sorry fact that most people would rather sit in a bathtub of warm sick than go to anything with the word Poetry in it! Yet when they come along (sometimes through the aid of trickery – poets calling themselves standup acts or comedy or theatre, or what I used to do, book a good local band with a popular following to play in amongst the poets and thereby get a new audience!) they enjoy it!!

    Partly it’s the way Poetry has been taught in schools as a kind of aversion therapy. Although this is improving as more performance poets get into school.
    Partly it’s the dreaded label – who are we? Performance poets? Stand up poets? Comic poets? Poets? What? If we’re confused then no wonder the audience is too …
    Poets themselves not approaching performance poetry in a professional manner – coming along to open mike nights, unsure of what to do with the microphone, how to use the stage and mike, mumbling into their beards (and that’s just the women – boom boom!).

    I think that Saturday Live is doing wonders for poetry – but it’s still marginal.

    A main problem is that in the UK poetry is seen as “worthy” and – same as has happened with opera – not for the uneducated!! That it’s only worthwhile if it’s inaccessible and somekind of frickin puzzle. The US have a much better tradition and approach to poetry – yes they too suffer from the P word.

    It’s beginning to be taught in Uni – i.e. Bath Spa – which is maybe good, I don’t know.

    Personally I think it’s more akin to comedy and acoustic music – but, yes can be much more than that and is a wonderful and adaptive art form.

    So, I think all of the above approaches and more. I still think that Todd Swift and Phl Norton (with their anthology Short Fuse: a global anthology of new fusion poets) were onto something with their Fusion Poets and that poetry can be fused with other art forms in very exciting ways. I hope that this is an exciting time for poetry and that it doesn’t go the same way as the 80s with poets going into other disciplines because they could tell that poetry was too hard a medium to make a breakthrough. I also reckon you’re quite right to call for Carol Ann Duffy to do something for us beleaguered performance poet.

    Thanks for your input. We need to keep discussing and redefining and growing.
    Rosemary xx

    1. Thanks for adding to what I’ve said Rosemary.

      I’ll look out the “Short Fuse” anthology as I’ve never read it.

      I wonder how one would go about lobbying CAD on the matter? Perhaps a multiply signed letter and an invite to a showcase?

  2. Yes, do, Kate – the intro to Short Fuse by Phil Norton (who co-incidentally was the first winner of the first ever slam in Chicago in the 80s!!) is spot on and well argued. Is worth it if only for that.

    Ah, what a good idea to do a signed letter to Carol Ann – I’d be up for signing it. Actually, it’d be more interesting to see who isn’t! As there are all sorts of cliques and rivalries in PP, don’t you think? Anyroad. Is about time she did something for us. Oh yes.

    R xx

    p.s. I wrote an article for online mag Fusebox back in 2002 on the differences between US and UK performance poetry and the histories – ooo get me!!! hahahahahahahaaaa

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