Aloud and proud: The new Performance Poetry

Performance poetry conjures up images of po-faced writers declaiming depressing verse. Could a young collective bring some humour to the spoken word? Holly Williams takes a masterclass

Monday 18 January 2010 01:00 GMT

Performance poetry. It's not a phrase that strikes joy into many people's hearts – there's a fear it'll be some fop emoting furiously about a penchant for self-harm, or a lame attempt to make an archaic art form 'hip'.

But one young poetry collective is proving it doesn't have to be that way. Luke Wright and Ross Sutherland have been performing together since they were at university, where they founded Aisle 16, a group of writers who wanted to take a more irreverent approach to live poetry.

"When we started, we didn't want to be bleeding hearts, 'here are my issues'. We wanted to be entertaining with it," explains Wright. They developed shows that blur the boundaries between poetry and comedy, with a bit of animation and projection thrown in. An Edinburgh Fringe hit with their show Poetry Boyband, and then a London run that won a Time Out Critics' Choice award, proved that Aisle 16 were on to something. Books, radio slots and tours followed. This month sees Wright and Sutherland performing their respective solo shows in the Old Red Lion Theatre in Islington.

These performances are slippery things, blending anecdotal stand-up with ferociously paced, fervent poetry. "Sadly, there's still some of that stigma that people carry from school, that poetry is learning, or a kind of penance. I think not taking yourself too seriously, having the comedy, encourages people to relax a bit," says Sutherland.

However, Wright insists that the shows are still really "about the poems". This is evident in performance; while the contextualizing chat is certainly funny, it's the poetry that packs the punches, and sneaks in some more poignant moments too.

"Quite a lot of comedy is about lying, about making that work; poetry is often about telling the truth," suggests Wright. Their work, for all its verbal acrobatics and self-mockery, often contains moments of self-revelation.

But what sort of poems work live? And how do you bring them to life? I'm intrigued to know a bit more about the workings behind it, and Sutherland and Wright agree to give me a lesson in performance poetry.

"It needs to be a certain length," starts off Wright. "If you do a poem that's only a minute long, it'll feel weird; you need to earn your applause." Structure is important too: "stories, list poems and formal techniques are useful because the audience can relax: they know the structure; they can actually enjoy some of the stuff going on inside it," says Sutherland, who has a fondness for constrained writing. "There's a style of poem called a 'univocalism' that only uses one vowel, really good, fun stuff."

"You look clever too – and people like to be in on the joke," chimes in Wright Sutherland laughingly agrees: "It's nice because on the one side the audience get to think 'this is quite hard', and on the other, you still get to do knob gags."

Although acknowledging that some people consider it showing off (they recount that Germaine Greer once gave a talk on performance poetry as male mating display, an idea they both chuckle over before agreeing with), Sutherland does defend the value of self-imposed rules. "Even when you're jumping through insane formal hoops, you're still the person doing the acrobatics."

And so to my own attempt at performance poetry. It's not something I have any experience in, and while these young poets do manage to make it a fun, forward-looking art form, I'm worried I'm going to be a bit cringeworthy. But Wright and Sutherland put me at ease; teaching is something they're used to as they also give poetry workshops in schools.

As my poetic talents are fairly slim, Wright had suggested I bring someone else's poem. So I get out a Don Patterson collection, Landing Light, which I've been reading, and Wright suggests we have a go with a poem called 'The Rat'. "It's a title the audience will be able to grab hold of," he explains.

Performance poetry has a sense of immediacy, but abstract or over- complicated conceits are likely to get lost. My first read-through is pretty stilted, although they seem pleased that I don't use 'the poetry voice' – a dreaded monotonous drone. Wright explains there are three approaches to live poetry: a straight reading, as your literary festival poet might deliver; a staging of it, which the ham inhabiting an 'ac-tor' might deliver; and a performance – a heightened, crackling version falling somewhere between those two.

The latter is what we're aiming for, and – like comedy – timing is key. It's in the pauses, I'm told, and in giving weight to certain resonant words. Sutherland also encourages me to run over line endings and obvious rhymes, to avoid that cheesy tum-te-tum-te-tum rhythm. My next go is a little better. Both poets insist that stillness is a good thing, which slightly surprises me. "When I start runs I often shamble about the stage, and as it goes on I get more rooted," says Sutherland. In performance, both seem to brim with energy, as if the poems were trying to escape physically, Sutherland beating a rhythm with his hand as he speaks. Maybe keeping a rein on it is key.

Certainly, confidence is crucial, and something they both have in spades. After a few more read-throughs, tips and encouragement, I'd just about mustered enough of my own to have a good shot at it – but I don't think I'm going to be lighting up London's burgeoning poetry scene any time soon. Fortunately, Sutherland and Wright have got it covered.

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