Reading In Public is Always a Performance

SJ Fowler explores the role of poet as performer and artist

Cautiously declaring a desire to be severed from the tendon of smugness often associated with the avant-garde, be it in writing or performance, I will begin rather by saying my interest in this kind of writing is really not about literature first, but about three things, two of which seem relevant to the notion of liveness and poetry.

The first is the future – a desire to be future facing, in a moment where the world is so different than it ever has been before, so much so that it is beyond previous imagination. By this I mean the world population of human animals doubling in the last forty years, climate apocalypse, the internet as a language based human nervous system emerging in the last three decades etc… No more on this, but to me the avant-garde gives poets more in the way of preparatory strategies than the classically fascinating, formal, history-facing poet. I’ve been asked why it is important to be future-facing. To know the past, as I try to do, reading as much classical poetry as I can (ought to?) is useless without having a stake in the future. It is undeniable that the default mode of contemporary British poetry is conceptually, theoretically and methodologically facing backwards, over its shoulder, resisting what might lie ahead.

'What is the possibility of the page?'

The second is potential. What is the possibility of the page? Does it stop at times new roman size 12 left aligned grammatically correct first person narrative anecdotes of emotional insight, as most poetry books are? No. White space, paper stock, colour, font, language as material - this is the domain of the poet, if any kind of artist. The poet is a language artist, and these material concerns are not just for the graphic designer, or text artist etc… This is all a frame of mind, a mode.

The third, most importantly to me, is my naiveté as it relates to poetry. I have only been writing, performing, painting, for a sixth of my life, or thereabouts. It all, for better or worse, flooded in at once. Before, and since, I am fundamentally confused, about most things, about poetry. Why is what might be taken for a normal, everyday sentence, describing an event or incident or anecdote, but given line breaks, called a poem? And speaking most generally, I find existence relatively adversarial, within the comfort I’m lucky to have (again I mean macroanalytically thinking, life is adversarial as its fundamentally degrading before expiry etc…) And this is often the state of avant-garde work. It is confused, can appear inexact, or exacting, it is equal to life, it does not control the uncontrollable, it mirrors it. It presents questions to questions, not unlikely answers.

SJ Fowler

So to my beginning. When I began reading, properly, intently, poetry and things like it, it changed my entire life, overwhelmed me. It did so for many reasons, but one of them was the context of the act of reading itself. Intense reading. I was alone, I was searching, and I was in this unique phenomenological state, just for me, not to impress anyone else. There was no one to impress and yet I was excited to be in that space. I know that says more about me than reading, but it is the truth of it. When I was to read for the first time in public then, I immediately felt, along with painful nerves, I was performing the act of reading. It struck me immediately that everything from the tone of my voice, the clothes I wore, the content (and length!) of my introduction utterly changed the impression of my actual poem and its semantic meaning. This is a fact so obvious to be meaningless or revelatory. To me it was the latter.

Moreover, when I attended poetry reading after poetry reading, and sat through hour upon hour of poets reading their work, I realised how extraordinarily formal and full of pretence, the notion was. Not pernicious perhaps, but utterly uninterrogated as a thing. Most readings seemed to me to be social occasions, for friends in poetry to see each other, perhaps gossip, and for one or two of them to have their ‘turn’ reading. As they did, a large portion of the audience checked out, and a smaller portion heard some of the words being read aloud, words they could read upon the page. If the reading wasn’t in the mode of a round robin, it was fundamentally hierarchical. A big boss poet read to underling poets. Maybe this is a valuable rites of passage, maybe due respect for those around in the game for a longer time. But it was especially ironic at readings where the younger, or older, poets would advocate an intense egalitarian politics or utopian socialist ideals, and then sit at the feet of a ‘leader’. Perhaps that’s not ironic actually.

'Performance art, and theatre, has been fundamentally exploring the notion of liveness for decades.'

With all of this I mean not to undercut the notion that a poetry reading can be beautiful, entrancing, inspirational. Nor that a reading as gathering is not often a warm hearted, supportive locus for a community of writers. I simply mean that’s all it ever seems to be – a reading from a book that can be read alone, I would safely say with more attention and potential for close reading. And most often it is suggested as a public facing event, like stand-up comedy or theatre, when it is really more a gathering of fellow poets, friends or a minority of enthusiasts.

And all this while performance art, and theatre, has been fundamentally exploring the notion of liveness for decades, if not centuries. Are these disciplines so far apart? Are they not overlapping? I learned then, quite early, that if I treated each reading as a new art work, a Heraclitean moment that would never be repeated, and if I recorded it (a personal proclivity, not necessary or even favourable perhaps), then the entire experience of those watching me read would be changed. Maybe not for the better (especially, and this is a different essay, if my ‘performance’ allowed for valuable negative aesthetic effects, rather than mostly bland positive experience of the reading, where the audience sighs, audibly. The reading seems to only be seeking to instil inspiration, insight or joy in the listener, but rarely disgust, fear, discomfort), but I would say probably for the better.

SJ Fowler - Soundings

At first I’d just play, perhaps with tone or volume, with stopping mid-sentence, to look around the room, play gently with context. One early reading I handed a tangerine to a friend and whispered into the mic, as if he were a stranger, I dare you to throw that at me. He didn’t but I doubt many in the audience heard a word of my poems from that moment on. All the better for them. Then I did a reading where I spent eight minutes introducing a ten second poem. Then I began planting people in the audience to heckle, I began to destroy my books on stage and hand them out to the audience to read with me, multivocal, choral. A sidenote to that performance, which I had to stop as it had become a little too synonymous with me, is how it reflected the nature of the audience, in terms of reaction, like a Rorscach test. For example, when I did it in Mexico people saw it as a giving gesture, that I would dissect my book to share it with them, offering a memento, a totem, a piece of myself. In Berlin they said I was egotist, a priest poet, who choose my own book to multiply and force on people, a crap Jesus with his paged loaves. Much more resonant, either way, for me, than a reading, a simulacra of the printed letter on the clean white page.

By no means do I think poetry should become performance. Performance art is doing this work without the help of poets, and performance poetry or spoken word or slam is neither poetry nor performance art. Again a separate essay to discuss why it is not (its rather most often a politically reductive diatribe given in a contrived rhythm, to an audience who agrees with its message, never interrogating, or being aware of, language itself, or allowing for the ambiguity and complexity present in most interesting art.) I mention this to say this is not the route I’m advocating, to make clear that this isn’t the solution to the reading’s sense of being staid. In fact I’d rather a stuffy poetry reading, with perhaps the democratic social community feel of performance poetry, than the sentimental and confessional mistaken as live innovation for the poetic medium.

SJ Fowler - Enemies launch

With this said to emphasise I am not trying to break away from the poem, the literary poem, all I advocate for is the notion that the reading as a model can evolve, can allow for new understandings of what liveness is around the poem itself. That it can work with its actual circumstance, context and material to become something more than a shadow of the book, the written word read aloud. This doesn’t erase any tradition, it simply compliments it, and this for each poet understanding their own world, which is inevitably idiosyncratic and new, might wish to find a kind of permission, as I did through peers and forebears, and exploring the performance tradition, to make new work every time they read aloud in public. And this is something I’ve tried, away from my performances, to offer, permission to explore these ideas gently through inviting collaboration with my Enemies Project, where, with another human being, the poet has to become aware of at least one thing outside their voice and their body – that is another body to whom they are responsible. Not only does this tend to Trojan horse poets who don’t perform into innovative performance, and often more complex poetry, but it tends to make the audience warmer, more communal, the bond innate to (good) collaboration spreading out from the performers to those watching.

As a final note, knowing much of what I have touched upon has been done so with necessary reduction and clumsiness, I will add that I still give what I term clean or vanilla readings, and often do so with pleasure. In the context of a literary festival, for example, knowing any sort of liveness or unpredictability will disturb a more literary, or elderly, audience, or the very kind host who has invited me to be there, I am happy to read from the lectern like the poet-priest the hipsters of berlin think I am. There is pleasure in this act, and there is great value, when it is the time and place for such a thing. But it is not all there is, and for me, and perhaps for me alone, it is not what I will limit myself to.

About SJ Fowler

SJ Fowler is a poet and artist. He works in the modernist and avant-garde traditions, across poetry, fiction, theatre, sonic art, visual art, installation and performance. He has published various collections of poetry and text, and been commissioned by Tate Modern, BBC Radio 3, The British Council, Tate Britain, Liverpool Biennial and Wellcome Collection. He has been translated into 21 languages and performed at venues across the world, from Mexico City to Erbil, Beijing to Tbilisi. He is the poetry editor of 3am magazine, Lecturer at Kingston University, teaches at Tate Modern and is the curator of the Enemies project.