The Embodied Text
It began for me with two performances in 1988, one by Patrick Deeley, the other by Diarmuid Lynch-Ó Dálaigh. Though in my early stages as a poet, I had already decided on an approach to composition: I would shape the form directly from the feeling and I wouldn’t censor my language. Publication and vocal delivery weren’t yet issues for me, but watching those two very different poets reciting without text awoke a fancied heritage of bardic performance that gave me a sense of mission. I still see them, how their words seemed to be living in them, straining their chests and pushing out their foreheads.
Inspired, Gerry McGovern and I organised some multi-media performance nights, which, fired by fandom and hubris, were christened Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Taking part were people who are still on the Dublin scene and some who, sadly, no longer perform, Mael Coll Rua and Whipping Boy—as originally constituted—among the best.
I was socially inept, bad at confrontation and unable to deal with criticism. Not the best personality for embarking on a course of declamation, iconoclasm and self-exposure. Thankfully, the debilities were containable. I put on whatever armour was necessary and proceeded to do a job. To my introspective and uncool self, the possibility that I might be part of something radical seemed worth the effort. In practice, much of it was self-immolation. I never became part of any ‘scene’. I made a point of being indifferent to praise and resistant to adoption by radical coteries. I wanted to explore, as faithfully as possible, the phenomenon of my existence.
I’ve always been attracted to performance. I trained in stagecraft and took part in some productions. But performing your own work is terrifying in the initial stages. In a play you lose your personality in the character and someone else’s words. When you stand up pageless to present a poem, you're naked and alone. You embody the text.
It wasn’t just the romantic notion of a bardic tradition. Public Enemy had just taken to the world stage and spoken-word performance had energy and relevance. Some rap was really good, and Britain had a huge array of exciting artists, from Johnny Cooper Clarke to Jean Binta Breeze. It also seemed necessary to address the political situation. Source and story, philosophy and psychology, were my more natural habitat, but in the late eighties Ireland was shivering in the uncertain hand of censorship and social flux. If I were to write seriously, even self-obsessed little I realized that I had to address the prevailing issues. There was also feminism, which I had discovered late.
Did the performing make my poetry inferior? Yes and no. During the heavier political phase, I was often polemical, simplistically formulaic and hasty in concept. Within a few years, I had resumed my closer work with concept and form, though I still composed with an eye to dramatic potential. If print is a yardstick, I’ve been shortlisted in a few competitions, published in many journals and anthologies, and my collections come from three publishing houses. At my lowest textual ebb, I think the audience at least experienced verbal fluency, passion and a physical engagement with words that was relatively unusual.
I’ve sometimes regretted the decision to publish in the vocal moment more often than on the page. If I hadn’t spent all that time working with samples and recordings, training my voice and body, I might have twenty published collections by now. I did, after all, write several novels and a work of non-fiction. At present I’m focused on a mix of page and performance and am glad to have embraced what is now a renascent art.
So what’s it all about? For me it’s about sourcing the physical motivation behind the thought. My basic method is to mine my body for its reactions to chosen themes, listen to the rhythms that emerge, and fit words to the rhythms. Lately, I often remain more distant from my themes, but for the narrative poems and those that describe emotions, I usually work from body-feel. I then like to let the words sing, and be sung by, the body. This act becomes part of the publication process. Performance poets are, predictably, physically expressive. It seems impossible for us to speak without being possessed by the vibrations. Another major component is empathy. I want to reach out and touch someone. The desire to create a circle of communication drives the performance. At one event someone remarked, “The others told us how it was; you took us there.”
Performance poets are often very well read and are not necessarily inattentive to detail. Verbal simplicity and play can be deceptive. I’m very impressed by the quality of concept and experimentation on the lively contemporary circuit in Dublin. However, there are performance poets who play slavishly to the audience, who think their presentation must be light, ‘positive’ and moral. The demulcent approach is also a common practice among poets who don’t consider themselves performers. I don’t think any artist should apologise for depressing, disturbing or bewildering. When we present the truest work we can manage, we offer a memorable and challenging experience.
Discipline and preparation matter. A rakish performance will work, a careless one will not. But the key, the absolute necessity, is a considered and sustained theory of the text. This is intellectual practice and the gig will suffer from its neglect. Performance poetry, at its best, is a fusion of mind and matter.
(This piece was first published in the Poetry Ireland Newsletter March/April 2011.)