Melanie Branton, poet and performance poet, discusses her experience of the differences between page poetry and stage poetry.
“It was in 2013, after five years of writing poetry just for myself or to share at a grassroots poetry group, that I first had one of my poems accepted by a literary magazine. Six months later, I tried my hand at a very different kind of poetry when I entered my first slam and was immediately hooked. Ever since, I’ve been producing both “literary” poems for journals and spoken word pieces for performance. I’ve sometimes wondered if I ought to give up one, so I can concentrate all my energies on the other, but I just can’t choose.
People often find it surprising that I juggle the two, but it’s not that unusual: although poets find their way to spoken word through a number of routes, including hip-hop music, stand-up comedy, story-telling and theatre, and it has traditionally provided a platform for people whose voices are shunned by the “literary” poetry world, it has always included a fair number of people who got there via the mainstream poetic establishment.
Anyway, there is no hard and fast dichotomy between the two forms: after all, the main goal of a lot of emergent spoken word artists is to get a book published, while the goal of many up-and-coming page poets is to be booked to read or perform their poetry at literary festivals.
That’s not to say that the two forms are identical, of course. Obviously, different rules apply– while much modern page poetry is pared back, minimalist, understated, spoken word poems are longer, more wordy, more repetitive, because they’re catering for an audience that has to be able to follow the thread of the poem on one hearing. For the same reason, spoken word has to avoid too much ambiguity: not for us the hard poem that only begins to give up its secrets on multiple readings. I hate to use the word accessible, because it’s become a bit loaded, but spoken word does have to be accessible, in the best sense of the word. It also has scope to play with phonology, rhythm and rhyme much more, as it’s seducing the ear, not they eye.
Spoken word audiences sometimes value emotion and hard-hitting, real-life content over language and craft (at its worst, spoken word can be someone shouting badly written, clicheed socio-political slogans, while lapping up the whoops of a smug, right-on audience who are actively resistant to being told anything they didn’t know already; at its best, it can move you to tears with its courageous honesty and cuts through the crap to say the things that really matter – things that are often unfairly derided as “naïve” or “sentimental” by the mainstream establishment), while “literary” poetry puts more of an emphasis on technique and can actually, at times, be more inclusive, in that oddball subject matter is more welcome and diverse personal interests encouraged – want to write a poem about eighth-century burial rites, sir? No problem! At their worst, though, page poetry circles can sometimes seem like private members’ clubs where you have to have learned (often at great expense) an arcane system of arbitrary “rules” to be able to write (or even understand) the fashionable style of the moment and their output can seem coldly cerebral and calculated.
I sometimes find that writing for two different audiences causes unwanted interference. I am, perhaps, in danger of producing work that is a Frankenstein hybrid of page and performance poetry that pleases the audience of neither. Journal editors have sometimes pointed out that the poems I have sent them are too unsubtle, too repetitive, too long, not ruthlessly edited, mix their metaphors, overuse rhyme or become self-indulgent – all “bad” habits I suspect I have picked up from spoken word. Meanwhile, when I lay my work before spoken word audiences, they are sometimes turned off by oblique metaphorical communication, academic references, understatement or obscure subject matter that they can’t relate to – all, I fear, the legacy of the page.
Nonetheless, I have gained more than I have lost by mixing the two kinds of poetry and the barriers between them are extremely permeable: it’s often the case that a poem I write with the page in mind works better in performance than my purpose-built “performance poetry” and when I’m asked to do a “literary” reading, my spoken word stuff goes down better with the audience there than the earnest pagey stuff I feel I ought to do. Page has taught me metaphor, precise word choice and craft; spoken word has taught me emotional authenticity, the need to speak to your audience in a way they can understand and respond to, and performance skills.
Ultimately, I honestly think there is as much division within page poetry (witness the regular spats between “elitist” and “accessible” poets, grassroots and the academy, modernist and post-modernist, de blah, de blah…) and within spoken word (John Cooper Clarke, Kate Tempest and Chanje Kunda have about as much in common as a camel, a peacock and an eel) as there is between the forms. We are not two opposing camps: we are all poets. And we’re all fighting poetry’s corner in a world which often views it as an irrelevance. We are all on the same side here.”