How To Write About Readings

Live Poetry: an integrated approach to poetry in performance
, Julia Novak
(271pp, £23.00, Rodopi)

Magic (as performative utterance) and the supernatural (as hauntings and presences) are never far from the centre of Geraldine Monk's poetry. Hearing her read highlights how much her poetry welcomes such potentialities; how many of her texts are only fully activated in performance; and how that activation comes in a large part from the texts' co-extensiveness with a range of registers, usages and voicings. Her language usages can include comments about the venue, apologies for not having assembled a clear programme of work, indecisiveness about what to read, descriptions of how particular poems were composed, greetings to friends in the audience, and remarks to latecomers. Monk's voicings can veer from intimate whispers to booming full-throated shouts and cries, from broad Lancastrian to something approaching RP, from Sitwellian articulations to everyday speech. In a reading of her work Monk is always doing at least one of the following: speaking, acting, speaking acts, or acting speech. Monk's ability and willingness to communicate with an audience is inextricable from her unique identity as a poet and performer. Her compelling performances of her texts articulate an understanding of those texts. Monk's performances articulate an understanding-in-process because they allow her to act as a kind of intermediary between the rawness of her material and her audience.

There is an immediate problem with terminology here, an inconsistency between 'read', 'performance', 'usages', 'voicings', 'reading', 'speaking', 'acting', 'poet', 'performer' and 'performances'. And yet all those terms are applicable to the many times I have heard Monk's poetry in public. There is a further problem once we compare these experiences with others. Monk 'reading' her work is certainly not a poetry reading in the same way as Matthew Clegg reading from his 'Sonnets for Nobody' but neither is it a performance in the same way as Steve McCaffery performing the first half of the Toronto telephone directory at a speed which can only be described as 'Raworth prestissimo'. Now my terminology has become musical because McCaffery was using the directory as a score. But, again, this is very different from Lawrence Upton or the late Bob Cobbing using non-linguistic marks—e.g. paintings—as scores for vocalizations. Finally, this is different again from Upton's dance performances of shattered letter shapes. (See 'Poetry and Dance?', his fascinating article about his solo work and Cobbing collaborations, in The Paper, Issue 6 (April 2003)).

As a punter, I love all these things but as a critic I become self-conscious about names. Such critical self-consciousness is one starting point for Julia Novak's thoughtful and thought-provoking study. Novak addresses the fact that despite the increasing popularity of literary festivals, open mics, and poetry slams, poetry criticism has generally failed to respond to 'live poetry'. Poetry criticism still relies on the primacy of the printed text. In part, this is understandable because a poetry reading or performance is, as Eric Dolphy famously said of music, 'gone in the air'. But, at the same time, poetry's meanings are peculiarly tied to context. A poet reading or performing their work at a reading that is part of an academic conference on contemporary poetry is very different to that poet reading the same work in an arts centre, in a room over a pub or on a podcast. Indeed, I'd argue that much of Sean Bonney's work can only properly be understood by being listened to as one negotiates the weird demarcations, enclaves and exclusion zones of the urban scene.

Novak's answer to this critical lack is two-fold. In the first part of the book 'Theorising Live Poetry', she surveys the critical field. She demonstrates poetry criticism's focus on the page and brings together what little writing there is about poetry and performance. This includes Stephen Vincent and Ellen Zweig's excellent The Poetry Reading: A Contemporary Compendium of Language and Performance (1981) and the equally compendious and important volume I co-edited with Keith Tuma Additional Apparitions: Poetry, Performance and Site Specificity (2002). It's good to see that there are also numerous 'shout outs' to Peter Middleton, one of the few critics who have argued consistently that the reading or performance is not separate from everything else we call 'poetry'. The first part of Novak's book also offers a definition of live poetry derived from what she calls 'the fundamental bi-mediality of the genre of poetry – i.e. its potential realisation as spoken or written word'. She goes on to argue that 'poetry's oral mode of realisation [...] is a parallel to, rather than a mere derivative 'version' of, the written mode'. This is one of those statements that is so obvious and feels so obviously right that one wonders why no-one came up with it before. It allows one to be comfortable with that fact that, say, the printed text of Maggie O'Sullivan's 'Murmur' is a work that is quite distinct from her performance of it. Similarly, 'live poetry' allows one to stop worrying about whether to call something a reading or a performance—although I'd want to add a note of caution and say that it risks ignoring the importance of context to poetry's meaning.

In the second part of the book, 'Analysing Live Poetry', Novak does two things. She assembles a critical tool-kit drawn from linguistics and theatre criticism as well as from more conventional literary criticism. She then goes on to give a number of worked examples to show how such an analysis works. This includes analysis of audio transcriptions and body communication. She uses musical staves, emboldened text and words or parts of words above and below the lines to show both emphasis and movement. One thing Novak is trying to do, I think, is to give a sense of something similar to what rappers and MCs call 'flow', although I don't recall her using that term. The book concludes with a very useful 'how to do it' checklist for anyone wanting to analyse a 'live poetry' event.

So, this is an important intervention in an emerging critical field. It offers a refreshing perspective on a neglected aspect of poetry and makes one reflect on page-focused models of poetry criticism. But the book leaves me a little dissatisfied. I think Novak focuses a little too much on what is generally called 'performance poetry'. I was surprised to find no mention of Caroline Bergvall or of performance writing, the genre she has done so much to establish and theorise. Bergvall is noticeable by her absence not only because her published texts and performances demonstrate Novak's argument about bi-mediality so well but also because Bergvall herself has little interest in fixed texts. 'Cropper', Goan Atom and Éclat have been available in a number of different versions and contexts. Indeed, a greater emphasis on what happens when experimental poetries go 'live' would have added an interesting dimension to the book. There is a brief, very good discussion of Bob Cobbing but I think that the book would also have benefitted from a sense of the performance tradition that Cobbing, Henri Chopin and others represent and which pre-dates the 'slam' and poet/performers like Patience Agbabi. The inclusion of Chopin and others alongside Cobbing would have allowed for an expanded notion of text.

My other concern circulates around what might be called critical location. To return to one of my opening examples, if I want to write about Matthew Clegg's 'Sonnets for Nobody' as a published text, I could write about them in terms of sonnet tradition; in terms of contemporary makers and breakers of the sonnet like Muldoon; and in terms of the Sheffield and north British poetry scenes. But if I want to write about their live manifestation using Novak's checklist what am I doing? Or to put this another way, what am I analysing the sonnets' live manifestation against except the checklist? If I compare Clegg's reading with, say, a Geraldine Monk reading of 'Domestic Warps' or a reading by Joolz Denby (a poet Clegg particularly admires), am I doing anything useful? If I say, 'Clegg's public reading style is clearly influenced by X', is that useful? Have I had a better experience or just a different one if I've read and heard Clegg than someone who has only done one or the other? My concern about critical location is, however, a positive one. It seems clear that the real implication of Novak's book is that we ought to consider writing about contemporary poetry from a bi-medial perspective and that we may be missing something if we don't. My questions reflect, merely, that there are, as yet, few observable models for doing so.

     © David Kennedy 2012

: Readers are recommended to visit Julia Nowak's excellent website.