Ant Smith

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Do's and don't's of performance poetry

Do's and Dont's Of Performance Poetry
Tuesday 10th May 2016 11:42pm



I've read a couple of do's and dont's list for performance poets today - what a wonderfully novel and genuinely helpful idea! So here's mine, I hope it's equally helpful:


1. Don't do it, just don't do it

In all likelihood the sharpness of your mind, your wit, your control of language, your personal demons, your ability to divine a greater truth, your charisma and your X factor are no greater nor lesser than those of the tramp you pitied with a haiku or of those dying in some war you heard about on the news that spurred you to vomit an epic in blank verse from your morning bed.
You're not special. You're a twat. If you must perform remember this mantra:

"I am not special. I am just another twat."

You should repeat it ten times for every minute you plan to unfetter your ego and foist it onto a room.

And never, never, never spontaneously recite something of your own in a corridor, a car park or round a camp fire - this makes you a super-twat. Mind if you're sat at a camp fire that would encourage such behaviours you're probably already a super-twat: take care not to set your jafaican dreadlocks alight.


2. Do it drunk, if you must do it

This is all about self-preservation. If you're suitably drunk you have the perfect excuse for being a little bit shit. It'll stop you whining to other performers about how hard it was to 'get in the zone' and blaming the audience for not recognising your true genius. Remember, whatever happens on stage - IT'S ALL YOUR FAULT. You asked for it and you let the real world fuck you over. Tough shit. Get pissed. You can drop the mic, fall off your chair, break the mic stand and even vomit on stage. All these things will at least let you travel home secure in the knowledge that you've added something to the urban myth that is you. One day there may even be a Wikipedia entry recounting such tales. The memory of the sight of you dribbling incoherently will trump any minor complaints that actually, you were a bit shit.


3. Don't remember a single line, word or pause

Words in and of themselves are nothing but puffs of noxious exhaled air. If you're anything close to a decent poet you'll be on a minimum of twenty fags a day, all swilled down by the cheapest of smuggled drinks. Your breath will be poison, do you really imagine the words that it carries can express something noble, of a higher order? Cherishing words is like polishing turds.

The only hope you have is to at least try to make them fresh. In the way that a fart can be momentarily pleasing before the stench hits the back of your throat. Spit words out like bullets. Spew them forth. Fill the room with a foaming gaseous cloud of thought. It's the moment that matters, not some grand vision.

Nobody wants to listen to you parroting out some sixth form philosophy. They want to see you stumble and cavort like a mangy baited bear. They want to laugh not with but at you. They want to be appalled so they can pretend "thank fuck I'm not like that".

Nobody really gives a shit about anything you actually say.


4. Do listen to the other poets

Pretend like you give a shit about what they say. They'll think you're lovely. And when people think you're lovely they think you love them. The feeble minded fools. As you immerse yourself in the event of the luscious soundscape they draw so effectively and they lead you on some unique and compelling journey of the soul you'll be reminded why it is so important to do these things drunk. Very, very drunk. Tortured by their endless inane drivel you'll reach out time and time again for another shot of sedative.

But remember, the worse they are the sooner they'll turn their hand to running a night of their own. Where they'll feature folk who they think are lovely. They have no concept of talent (good, it doesn't exist, we're all of us twats - see point one). But if you want performance opportunities you've got to be lovelier than you are good. No matter what the effect to your groaning kidneys.


5. Don't imagine it matters a toss

So you've played a great set and there were like twenty people there (including the other performers, the MC, the sound man, the bar staff and a dog). Or you've had your 90 seconds on the telly. Or you've played in a field with the tent half full on account of the rain that always falls at the back end of the festival season when you can actually get a booking.

And for one, hell maybe two, people you've made a deep and resounding connection. A phrase, or a shape, something you've created is indelibly stamped in their minds. Some fraction of a moment lives with them beyond the performance. One moment in one life made up of approximately 2.2 trillion seconds.

Well done. You have attained immortality.


6. Do whore yourself around

The more places you perform the longer you can eek out the one or two pieces you have that are actually good, and different to what everyone else is saying. Sure, if you perform that particularly resonant timeless piece, you get that fuzzy feeling of having the audience joining in - which is nice. And you don't have to bother writing a piece that actually demands the whole room gets on board on first listening. By sticking to one place you get to be king of the castle.

But if you don't want to be peddling the same dead words by rote from the same dog-eared copy of a book you had published five years ago to the same set of faces then get yourself out and about. There are near endless opportunities to be heard and to be hated. You're not a true performance poet until you've built up a throng of pitchfork waving haters the length and breadth of the country. Where's your goddam dedication? Ambition? No stage is too small to die upon.


7. Don't slam, ever

Okay, believe it or not, despite it being obviously ludicrous, the majority of the other poets you meet will have dreams and aspirations of becoming a full time, paid and professional, poet. No, really, this is exactly how these saps think. So fuck if historical culture tells us that real poets waged real wars, the modern capitalist malaise has corrupted that vision - just as it corrupts everything of worth.

You might have thought that in a world that capitalises every damned thing, we could hold on to just one endeavour as a pursuit of pure effort. Poetry, with its internal claimed purity and its universal accessibility AND its impossibility of ever paying the bills is THE ideal endeavour to reclaim from the grasping and despoiling hands of exploiters.

But it isn't so. Wherever you look in society, whatever endeavour you join, you will find the small minded, the petty, those of limited capacity. You'll find them carving up the goods and laying ownership.

Desperate to exert a USP, a unique selling point. 'The best night in London', 'The oldest slam in Europe'. So high on their high horse they construct arguments that say its fine to CHARGE YOU for the honour of performing on their stage. And then to judge your work (and remember, your work is your life) against their own mediocrity.

Don't get me wrong. I don't mind mediocre work, that's all we can mostly manage. But the emperor's clothes of these self-serving, greedy flesh maggots does in fact make my skin crawl.

Don't encourage them. There are NO good arguments for the productisation of poetry. None. Don't try and engage me in any.

You can be a poet or a pusher - your choice.


8. Do stick to the timing

It isn't all about you. You're just a twat (see point 1). Clinging on to stage minutes just makes you more of a twat. Plan your set, do your best to make whatever impact you mistakenly think you can and sit the fuck down. Over running, performing longer than others, stealing minutes from later in the bill will make the audience hate you even more than the words you use. Cramming in just one more reminds us that you actually believe your words are somehow more special than everyone else's. You arrogant bastard. Play your set. Play it well and let us all move on please.


9. Don't pay to be patronised

Do not pay to play. Don't be succoured by the flim flam 'it's for charity' - it usually isn't. Don't fall for the argument 'we need to pay the features', who are no better than you anyway. Remember 99.9999999% of poets, featured or not, are crap. Their lives are worth no more than your own. If they can't bring enough audience in to pay their fee, why should you subsidise it?


10. Do remember, real poets aren't very nice

Poetry is about healing. All art is about healing. Public dreaming soothing society's sickened soul. Your job as a poet is to expose sickness. Don't let anyone tell you different. If they do then they are not poets, they're politicians or salesmen. Their opinion matters not. Good poets are well reviled.


Ten mantras

I am not special. I am a twat
It's all my fault
Nobody gives a shit about anything I say
I must be lovelier than I am good
No stage is too small to die upon
I can be a poet or a pusher, my choice
It isn't all about me
I will not pay to play
Good poets are well reviled