One of the worst evenings I’ve ever endured was at an event called Poetry Unplugged. About 50 people were crammed into a sweaty basement, all perched expectantly on orange plastic chairs. How nice, I thought, to see such an enthusiastic audience for poetry. As one figure after another leapt up to read their doggerel, the truth dawned. They were all here not to listen, but to perform. They would suffer each other’s poetic rants, but only for their moment of glory. A woman in a red wig recited a poem about her vagina. A man in a blue jumper did a lengthy lament on lost love. It was a very long night.
When Andrew Motion talks, on a new website, about public poetry readings keeping “the mystery of poetry intact”, he can’t have been thinking of such events. The website is the Poetry Archive, a wonderful resource launched last month, which aims to keep poets’ voices alive for posterity. It includes a crackly, but thrilling, recording of Tennyson reading “The Charge of the Light Brigade”; one of Betjeman, ever the bumbling teddy bear, mumbling his way through one of his odes to the sturdy suburbanite Joan Hunter Dunn; and, perhaps weirdest of all, Yeats’s incantatory rendering of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”, which, he tells us, was inspired by “an advertisement for a cooling drink”. It’s fascinating stuff, and it will soon be the world’s leading collection of English-language poets’ voices.
There has, however, been a long-standing distinction between poetry in performance and “performance poetry”. For many poets, the very word “performance” conjures up chilling images of being forced to prance about a stage while some grim-faced Arts Council lackey sits ticking boxes about access and making “literature” groovy.
The words “performance poetry” are even worse. That’s for the ranters, the hipsters who roar their rhyming rubbish or deliver it Jack Dee deadpan, in a desperate attempt to bridge the (usually rather large) gap between poetry and stand-up. “Page poets”, as the performance crowd dub them, prefer to call it a “reading”. “Performance poets” think “readings” are for the bearded, be-corduroyed, bespectacled crowd who shamble on stage and then mumble into their beer.
But the gap between the two worlds seems to be closing. As the demand for public literature events of all kinds has increased, so have the performing skills of most poets. The “performance poetry” scene has also grown beyond all imagining. Apples and Snakes, one of the leading agencies devoted to its promotion, has in seven years expanded from an organisation of three part-time staff based in London to 13 scattered around the country. Pubs, arts centres, clubs, theatres and even art galleries now regularly host “open mic” events, poetry slams – in which the audience chooses the winner – and a host of creative variations on the theme, such as poetry bingo and poetry pub quizzes.
Radio 3 has a weekly programme, The Verb, devoted to “new writing, poetry and performance”, and now the Arts Foundation is offering an award of £10,000, the first of its kind for a performance poet. So has performance poetry joined the Establishment? And, more important, is it any good?
There’s not much sign of the Establishment on a Friday night in Stratford, east London, where a group of largely black youngsters are assembled for an evening of “alphabet soup”. It’s billed as “the jam where generations of writers, lyricists, poets, MCs, rappers, spitters, singers, dancers and storytellers come together in a celebration of the word” and hosted by the performance poet, DJ and musician Charlie Dark.
“I’m trying to make poetry events less fussy,” Dark tells me over a drink at the bar. “I think”, he adds, “a lot of hip-hop poetry and performance poetry has become a bit of a dirty word.”
We’re in Stratford Circus, an arts centre, in a large room flooded with a weird orange light and swirly projected graphics. A head-scarfed DJ is fiddling with his deck on the stage, which is surrounded by funky little chairs like mushrooms. When the pounding hip-hop beat dies down, Dark steps on stage. “Anyone who’s wearing a hood, don’t steal anything,” he says, grinning. He’s wearing one himself – and so is pretty much everyone else.
After starting, and stopping, a story of his own – “this is long, man, it goes on for ever” – he hands over to Dan “Dan, Dan, the flying man” Cockrill, a slight man in a brown cardigan and jaunty hat. Resolutely unhip, Dan recites a poem called “My Geography Teacher”, followed by a paean to his girlfriend’s culinary skills. Like “Gina’s gravy”, they seem to go down very well.
Next up is a teenager in a green tracksuit, apparently called Pace. It stands, he says, for “powerful, artistic, creative energy”. Pace is white but speaks the Jamaican/ London urban patois of the young street male. He’s remarkably confident for someone who, I learn, discovered poetry only a couple of years ago. He is also remarkably good. He ends his mini-set with a punchy rap about anger, which he’s set to do at City Hall the next night. He’s already done it in Trafalgar Square at the memorial for the 7 July bomb victims, and with Ms Dynamite on Blue Peter.
The rest of the evening, which includes contributions from the poet Urban Spirit, the dancer-rapper Jonzi D and the musician Me One, is a medley of poems and music of varying quality, with two forays into dance. The first is from two young women Dark met on a station platform. Relaxed and smiley, they do their tap dance – “a black tradition” – as if they’d just been asked to do a turn at a family wedding. The other is from a 14-strong group called Avant Garde. In hooded grey tracksuits, they leap and bob and sway. They are terrific.
Formal proceedings end with a rambling poem about a terrorist, delivered by a dreadlocked man from Leeds. As the words “open mic” are uttered, I’m out the door.
There is, thank goodness, no trace of an “open mic” at the Purcell Room a few days later, where I join a sell-out audience for The Contenders, a public battle for the Arts Foundation’s £10,000 award. The five finalists, selected by a national network of nominators, will be judged by a panel of the poet and broadcaster Ian McMillan, the performance poet Philip Wells and the South Bank’s Ruth Borthwick. The evening is compèred by that doyen of deadpan delivery, John Hegley.
“I thought we’d start with a song,” says Luton’s most famous son, clutching a silver banjo to his trademark suit. After a little enforced audience participation and some antics with a bald man, we’re ready for the first contender. Zena Edwards is a beautiful young black woman in tight jeans and kitten-heeled boots. She wriggles and gesticulates as she whispers and sometimes sings poems about her friend’s house, an office romance, and the pleasures of laughter. “Do it so your heart don’t freeze,” she instructs us, but our hearts are by now thoroughly unfrozen.
She’s followed by a pale man in a suit, called Matt Harvey, clearly a graduate of the stand-up school. It’s a mixed set, but there’s one very funny poem, about curtains as a metaphor for the self. The final contender in the first half is another feisty young black woman in jeans and blue sequinned vest. “I’m a poetry whore,” says Kat François; her poems veer, sometimes uneasily but always energetically, from humour to raw anger and pathos.
The second half kicks off with Shamshad Khan, a slight young woman in a pink shirt and khaki combats, who starts with a floaty number about clouds and leaves. Her more contemplative style strikes an odd note, and her humorous monologues go on too long. Much funnier, and much more assured, is the lugubrious Yorkshireman Tim Turnbull, whose poems about sadism and Johnny Cash go down a storm.
In the ladies’ loo, I overhear two young girls. “I want to be a performance poet!” says one excitedly. “But I don’t”, she adds a touch dejectedly, “have anything to write about.” Her friend is reassuring. “What about that boy who wants to follow you to Oxford?” The friend’s face lights up.
Yes, it’s official. Performance poetry has joined the Establishment. And some of it’s quite good.
The Contenders winner will be announced on 26 January.