Niall O'Sullivan

high brow, low brow, none of that stuff in the middle

How Should You Perform Haiku?

Posted on | April 22, 2017 | No Comments

One of my most excruciating live poetry experiences was during the reading of a long haiku sequence. The poet stopped for applause after each one. Gradually, it dawned on the audience that this wasn’t going to end any time soon. The poet read the next haiku and then slightly bowed his head and stepped away from the microphone. We took our cue, briefly patting our palms together as he stepped forward to read the next one. We could have stopped applauding but decorum dictated otherwise. It was a long five minutes.

The problem wasn’t that that haiku were bad, on the contrary, the problem was that they were good. That is to say, they weren’t just seventeen syllable poems (sometimes known as senryu). They weren’t just seventeen syllable poems that used a seasonal word. Many of his haiku were faithful to the mood, philosophy and aesthetic of traditional Japanese haiku. The problem was that the poet didn’t know any other way of reading them other than the standard open mic procedure of poem>applause>poem>applause>poem>applause…

One of my favourite definitions of a haiku comes from this article about haibun by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. She characterises a haiku as a meaningful murmur. In the same article, haibun (a form that normally consists of a prose poem followed by a haiku) are characterised and differentiated from other observations of nature by merit of them possessing the quality of aware:

aware—the quality of certain objects to evoke longing, sadness, or immediate sympathy.

Many haiku can seem incomplete when read to an audience. There is often an openness to the poem that is at odds with the need for immediate response characterised by the kind of poems that we hear at poetry slams. Let’s look at a typical poem by Basho.

This autumn
why am I growing old?
bird disappearing among clouds

(trans Robert Hass)

Now, unlike a lot of Japanese haiku, it’s hardly oblique in its meaning to western ears. Autumn is traditionally a time for pensive moods and reflections of mortality. The image that concludes this observation invites us to see the speaker, a poet who led an ascetic lifestyle, as a bird disappearing among clouds. His inevitable vanishing from the world is a casual, almost unnoticeable thing.

Now imagine the poet reading out this line, then stepping back and awaiting applause. Not so insignificant and modest now, is he?

So, if a haiku often ends with an image that may need to be bounced about the brain of the listener for a while before they can really make a judgement about it, how should a haiku be performed and how should it be received? Here is a good point to pay heed to the magnificence that is cockney hard man actor Danny Dyer reciting reflective haiku(s).

Now, while this is obviously a piss take, Dyer’s recitations and his reactions to the poetry are more appropriate to the form than standing back and expecting applause. Whether taking a drag of a fag, or exclaiming “That’s properly reflective innit?” or thinking to himself silently before exclaiming “Wasssat fackin’….. wassat mean?” he is at least recognising the openness and ambiguity of the form – the meaningful murmur, albeit in his usual idiosyncratic way.

When we encounter haiku from Spoken Word or Performance Poets, the poem tends to resemble a seventeen syllable aphorism, epigram or joke. In a video of a haiku slam (The Haiku Death Match, great name!), the poems seem to be judged by their immediate effect on the audience – in this case immediate laughter or recognition of how right-on or mind blowing the idea is. Rather than try to tailor the event towards the needs of the form, the form is instead tailored towards the needs of the event. An audience member interviewed for the Haiku Death Match video shares her idea of what a good haiku is:

A good haiku is like, thought provoking, where they use the seventeen syllables to really blow your mind or it’s hilarious. Those are the two options. You can’t really go any other direction.

Another describes a good haiku as being “…quick, to the point. I really like a twist at the end.”

There’s no doubting the talent of the poets involved in the Haiku Death Match. There is an economy of language and pithiness that is less evident in the longer pieces that succeed at conventional slams. They are similarly welcome to tell me to get fucked with my restrictive definitions of what a haiku should be. I will in turn, take that critique in good grace while mumbling “…but it’s still not a haiku” as I amble away.

While the syllabic count stands as the sole criteria as to whether these aphorisms are haiku, it is interesting that the syllabic count is often seen as the least important criteria when translating classic haiku from the Japanese. It is far more important for the translator to get the mood and imagery just right instead. The Penguin Classics translation of Basho’s The Narrow Path to the Deep North substitutes four line quatrains for the three line originals.

One reason why the syllable count is not that important is due to the difference between spoken Japanese and spoken English. A spoken line of English poetry is often characterised by its stresses. A line of Japanese poetry is characterised by its syllables. We can tell if a line of English poetry is in iambics by simply listening to it. It is far harder to count the syllables in the same line without finger counting. Japanese language uses stresses less in speech, hence why syllables are more apparent to the ear.

Perhaps we need to examine what happens when a traditional haiku is read out to an audience within the typical poetry reading format. What do we do with that air of ambiguity that ends barely a moment after it has begun. What is the best show of appreciation or understanding for a meaningful murmur?

Our first cue should be to look at the communal aspects of the composition and readings of haiku. Sometimes haiku were traditionally written as part of haibun, as detailed above, or as part of long travel journals. They are also used in renga, linked verse, where a chain of haiku and waki (two seven syllable lines, often appended to haiku to make a tanka) would be composed by the visiting poet and their hosts. Poets, monks, novices, lords and servants would often partake in creating the renga together. The effect would be a poem that showed different minds as fractured manifestations of the same experience.

Contrast this with the format of the poetry reading and the cult of authorship. There is an anxiety at the heart of poetry in performance, the possibly antagonistic relationship between the poet and their audience. It cannot be denied that the person on stage is often endeavouring to conquer or subdue the audience. Or, in a kinder sense, they are seeking the audience’s approval. It is this anxiety that is shut down or kept in check by the snappy one liner or the grand statement. In contrast, when the ambiguity and openness of the haiku is introduced to this environment, the anxiety is amplified.

I would perhaps solve this a couple of ways, The first would be, in the spirit of the haibun and travel journals, not to present haiku as main courses in the performance, but to toss them in among some banter and storytelling. Let it sit there as part of a softer, inclusive silence before getting back to the small talk.

The second would be to invite more feedback from the audience, not in requesting applause or demanding silence but to instead to throw it open, to let the audience respond with their own thoughts or even to write haiku of their own. They would be welcome to share these at certain points during the reading. Anyone caught counting their fingers will be escorted from the premises.

This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts that work towards a criticism of the Spoken Word. I will be looking at all forms of Spoken Word — not just poetry readings and spoken word/poetry performances but stand up comedy, confessional monologues, academic lectures, speeches, wrestling promos and any other act of public speech that rings my bell. All posts will appear under the Toward a Criticism of the Spoken Word category. Click to see if new posts have been added and for any you may have missed.

Marc Kelly Smith – The L Train

Posted on | April 10, 2017 | 2 Comments

a poem is a city filled with streets and sewers
filled with saints, heroes, beggars, madmen,
filled with banality and booze,
filled with rain and thunder…

Charles Bukowski – a poem is a city

When people speak of Slam Poetry these days, they don’t speak of a fun, competitive, live poetry event. They speak of a specific type of delivery, social attitude and subject matter. In the popular imagination, American Slam is not a format but a genre.

Luckily, we have a good document of the early days of Slam, via anthologies such as The Spoken Word revolution and that ever reliable museum of ephemera, YouTube. What we uncover from these is a much more varied catalogue of styles and attitudes.

In this video, Marc Kelly Smith performs one of his signature pieces, The L Train. I first heard it when I performed at a Slam that Smith hosted in Denmark ten years ago. I had the honour of playing the old man who spits on the floor.

Using concrete language such as “push a button, flip a switch”, Smith opens the poem with a trope that all oral cultures use – the call of the bard for the audience’s attention. When he stamps his foot on the ground, he echoes the oral traditions that keep a simple rhythmic or melodic accompaniment to the words of the bard.

While the poem focuses on how a train journey conveys the sounds, scents and spectacles of Chicago, Smith’s habit of performing it as an invocation makes it an Ars Poetica – a poem about poetry. Echoing Bukowski’s dictum that a poem is a city, Smith uses the language of the city to make an argument about what a poem can be.

But this poem is not just a list of urban tropes. It is just as much about Smith’s energy and how it reflects the city’s energy. One of my students once said that it reminded her of an old drunk shouting in an urban park. I have a feeling she wasn’t being complimentary. That said, there’s a point to be made within that. The crazy shouting drunk in the park is a much more accurate portrayal of the chaotic character of a city than the more elegant modernist odes that spring to mind.

Sometimes Smith parrots the vernacular voices of the characters that frequent the train (the old man and the stop announcer). Sometimes he comes across as an over eager tour guide. But when he tightly shuts his eyes and groans loudly after repeatedly shouting the word “whistle” he is performing a state of unbearable tension. This is the noise that accumulates between the shoulders, manifests as a dull ache behind the eyes, a buildup of steam that needs a release valve to keep it from exploding.

While we may immediately think of Kate Tempest when we imagine Spoken Word, most of it follows a calmer, more conversational pattern. Be it Sarah Kay or Hollie McNish, there is more of a sense of cosiness and intimacy to spoken word. If someone started to perform like McNish of Kay in the middle of a conversation at a coffee shop, we’d probably think it a tad strange but keep listening with one hand on our coffee mug and the other on our cheek. If someone started performing with the passion of Kate Tempest or Shane Koyczan in the middle of a conversation in the same coffee shop, we’d ask them if they were feeling okay. If someone started performing like Marc Kelly Smith or Lydia Lunch, we’d dart for the exit, knocking over a few tables on the way.

I find it interesting how it has become an unquestioned tenet of spoken word that what happens on stage should be synonymous with civilised behaviour. While the subject matter of Spoken Word can still be provocative, the style of performance can often be more Ed Sheeran than Iggy Pop. At the heart of this is the sense of authenticity that advertisers have recently found so appealing. Intimacy can help an audience let down their guard. Intensity does the opposite.

Smith’s poem is not a refuge, it relishes all of the noise of the city. It takes poetry outside, much like Smith’s early performances did. In his book, Take the Mic, he describes the raucous early days of Slam:

We brazen experimenters in this new style of poetic presentation gyrated, rotated, and spewed our words along the bar top, dancing between the bottles, bellowing out the back door, and busking on the street corners, turning uptown Chicago into a rainforest of dripping whispers on one night and into a blast furnace of fiery elongated syllables, phrases, and snatches of script on the next.

This is a man who bellows lines of poetry across a busy street corner in the same way he once bellowed across a building site.

When I met Smith at that festival in Denmark, I was still working blue collar jobs and was incredibly cocksure of myself as a poet and theorist. We were still a few years from the arrival of YouTube and social media. Most British Performance Poets had formed their ideas about US Slam from what they saw of visiting American and Canadian Slammers. Even from this, it was obvious that the Slam was beginning to ossify into something generic and predictable, in contrast to its wilder origins.

During one of these conversations, Smith told me that the first Slams weren’t even competitions, he simply handed out scorecards to initiate an honest and unflinching dialogue between the performer and their audience. Even when a competitive element was introduced to the Slam at Chicago’s Old Green Mill, the prize remained the same: a twinkie.

The Slam is now big business, in many ways it has become the establishment. Audiences know what they want and what to expect and the poets strive to give it to them. The addition of slam coaches reflects the anxiety that performers have about misreading the audience and stepping over the line. But none of it would have happened if Smith hadn’t done something scary – bellowing out loud wherever he could and trusting the audience to be uncompromising in their response.

This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts that work towards a criticism of the Spoken Word. I will be looking at all forms of Spoken Word — not just poetry readings and spoken word/poetry performances but stand up comedy, confessional monologues, academic lectures, speeches, wrestling promos and any other act of public speech that rings my bell. All posts will appear under the Toward a Criticism of the Spoken Word category. Click to see if new posts have been added and for any you may have missed.

Why Every Poet Uses “Poet Voice”

Posted on | April 3, 2017 | 10 Comments

If someone came up and started talking a poem at you how would you know it was a poem?
– David Antin

If there is a style of reading that is widely held to ridicule it is the Poet Voice – a highly affected method that signifies “I AM READING A POEM”. While practioners of live literature may have their differences, they are united by their disdain for it. At least that is what I thought.

Firstly, not everyone means the same thing when they speak of Poet Voice. Those from a literary background often refer to poetry voice in the sense that is explained in this article by Rich Smith and satirised here by the comedian Andy Hamilton. It is a soft, breathy, rendering of the line that gradually descends in pitch with each stress before inflecting upward to mark the end of each line or sentence. If you need a real example, here’s Louise Glück.

I noticed that Spoken Word poets were also refering to Poet Voice, but this one was different in many ways to the literary poet voice. This one is perhaps best illustrated by Switch, the spoof Spoken Word poet from the comedy show, Cardinal Burns.

It’s similar to the other Poet Voice in the sense that the speaker is heavily emphasising each word, especially the word at the end of the line. But where the literary Poet Voice is distinct by its lack of passion, Spoken Word Poet Voice emulates passion without eliciting it.

So there we go, two kinds of poery voice. How quaint.

But it doesn’t end there. At a recent reading I noticed that a lot of the readers, younger literary poets, were delivering their work in a similar fashion. This wasn’t the dispassionate, slightly robotic Poet Voice of Glück. The poems were declaimed with a sense of restrained urgency – as if they were trying to catch someone’s attention while trying not to cause too much of a scene.

With these different ideas of poetry voice running through my head, I ended up confering with Tim Wells, who just happened to be working on an article about Poet Voice for his Morning Star column. “There’s more than one kind of Poet Voice” he confided in me and a little light bulb pinged to life above my banana curtains.

Case closed? Not quite. Now I was listening to every poet I could and taxonomising different kinds of Poet Voice. And that’s when it dawned on me: Every poet uses Poet Voice

Listen to any poet introducing a poem and then listen to them reading the poem. In every case you will notice a change in their voice. This gives you a sense of their talking voice and their Poet Voice. Sometimes the shift is subtle – poets that aim for a more natural or conversational aspect of their work such as Billy Collins or Spoken Word poets like Polar Bear. But the shift is there. In a sense they sound even more conversational when speaking the poem than they do when introducing it.

The difference between the poet’s natural speaking voice and their Poet Voice often says something about their ideas of poetry and how it contrasts or compliments natural speech. In the video linked above, Billy Collins accuses Yeats of having an inflated idea of poetry. By the same token, we could say that Collins has a deflated idea of poetry . Yeats saw poetry as heightened speech and read out his work in a way that distinguished this difference. Collins and many other mainstream American poets do the opposite.

Writing is not the same as talking. Anyone that has transcribed natural human speech knows this. Writing tends to flow from one idea to the next. It follows along a measured line of argument (though not always!).

Speech is a series of jittery expulsions of half formed ideas and abandoned trains of thought. As the Talk Poet David Antin demonstrated, talking is far more reflective of human thought, of what really goes on inside our heads. Writing is a wishful act in which we fashion images of how we would like to think and how we would like to make those thoughts known to others. A spur of the moment, spoken rebuttal will never match a carefully written response.

This is why a different voice is needed when reading a poem. This is why trained actors, accustomed to scriptwriters’ recreations of talk, often get it wrong when they try to inject a conversational tone into the reading of a poem that is not written in a conversational style.

I’m not defending the familiar, derided strains of “Poet Voice.” I am pointing out that it is not their artifice that renders them so ineffective or infuriating. The problem is that the Poet Voice has been adopted as a way of reading out any poem in order to signify that it is a poem. Rather than think about how they will read out a particlular poem, the reader falls back on an old technique and sticks to it. It is a sign that the reader is in autopilot mode.

Here’s some practical advice. When you read out or recite a pre-written text there will always be a change in your voice. This is your Poet Voice and you’re pretty much stuck with it. That said, you should always beware of becoming too comfortable with that voice, especially in the sense that it signifies that you are now sharing the received text. Know your work before you share it.

When I know my work, I can sneak in all kinds of modulations that keep the audience engaged. I quicken the tempo or slow down. I make little shifts in pitch and volume. I throw in a little gesture, or even better, become stock still.

When I don’t know my poem I take refuge in my poet voice and dial it up a notch. I frown and glare a lot. Every line I utter sounds like a threat. There’s nothing less engaging than a threat that’s repeated several times and leads to nothing. The reading ends with an exhausted poet and an underwhelmed audience.

Your Poet Voice may differ. But if you don’t become aware of it and if you don’t know your work, the results will always be the same.

This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts that work towards a criticism of the Spoken Word. I will be looking at all forms of Spoken Word — not just poetry readings and spoken word/poetry performances but stand up comedy, confessional monologues, academic lectures, speeches, wrestling promos and any other act of public speech that rings my bell. All posts will appear under the Toward a Criticism of the Spoken Word category. Click to see if new posts have been added and for any you may have missed.

Gerry Potter – How Do You Respect F*** All? [NSFW]

Posted on | March 23, 2017 | No Comments

Whenever a news channel is slow to the scene for a big event, they appeal to the audience for phone camera footage. They sometimes remind viewers to have the good courtesy to hold their phones horizontally when filming. This makes the captured riot/terror attack/assassination/snowfall antics more amenable to the dimensions of your typical flat screen TV.

As much as some may sneer at vertical video, I can see why so many make it their format of choice. It is not intended for viewing on a flat screen TV via a news channel. It is intended for viewing from a phone – be it passing the original device from hand to hand or via social media. The vertical video has no aspirations for the validation or intervention of the mainstream media. It is peer-to-peer communication in its most literal sense.

Gerry Potter, also known by his Performance Poetry persona, Chloe Poems, uploaded this video during a week of rioting across England that followed the fatal shooting of Mark Dugan. It made up an early instalment for a series of videos he referred to as his Poetry Selfies. While the Instagram culture of today portrays impossibly aspirational lives or papers over the cracks with wafer thin platitudes, Potter speaks the bitter truth of Fuck All.

Fuck All could be interpreted in a number of ways – it could be meant in the common vernacular sense of having nothing but it could also be taken as “fuck everything”. Even the word fuck slowly loses its power as it is repeated. As the poem progresses it deflates from a cry of anger and defiance to a wounded growl of defeat. Formally, this poem could be seen as a list poem, but only in the sense that it argues that nothing we can conceive of can escape being corrupted by Fuck All. It implies that what seems at first glance to be a thread that binds all aspects of society together turns out to be a crack on closer inspection.

If the 2011 riots had uncovered anything it was a relentless nihilism at all ends of the social scale. Those at the bottom of the ladder had no ideological framework to channel their rage and frustration. The nihilism at the top manifested as a slow, blameless drip feed as the Coalition Government set about dismantling of the Welfare State under the guise of austerity.

With the state using surveillance powers to snoop email and social media, the riots were planned and orchestrated via BBM Blackberry networks that the Police couldn’t eavesdrop. Potter recreates the peer to peer aspect by using his phone’s front camera. No fancy filters are applied. The video sparks a contrast with the slick and polished Spoken Word videos that can be found on YouTube. This accentuates the DIY Punk ethic. In the same way that Punks published zines armed with nothing more than some photocopy money and a stapler – Potter uses the most mundane, everyday tech to dramatic effect.

By contrast, the mainstream media relied on God’s Eye helicopter footage or lingering shots of the smouldering aftermath. Many of the iconic images of the riots, such as Pauline Pearce’s rebuke of looters, were caught with phone cameras. As if to demonstrate the out of touch aspects of mainstream media, especially with the bullying of Darcus Howe, Potter states that the BBC are also Fuck All.

Potter’s voice is sonorous but grizzled, as if he has been out amidst the chaos for the past few hours, shouting his throat raw. The phone camera is held close, distorting his facial proportions, revealing the lines and blemishes that affect all middle aged men. His face fills the screen.

When watched on a tablet or larger screen this becomes intense and overbearing but when viewed on a small screen it seems candid and intimate. It almost evokes the old sci fi shows where characters spoke to each other from screens on tiny hand held devices. But this isn’t the gleaming Jetson’s future where automata enhance all human lives instead of rendering them redundant. It is a future where almost everybody owns a smartphone. A smartphone, but no property, no job, no education and no future.

That’s fuck all.

This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts that work towards a criticism of the Spoken Word. I will be looking at all forms of Spoken Word — not just poetry readings and spoken word/poetry performances but stand up comedy, confessional monologues, academic lectures, speeches, wrestling promos and any other act of public speech that rings my bell. All posts will appear under the Toward a Criticism of the Spoken Word category. Click to see if new posts have been added and for any you may have missed.

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  • insta-haiku (hover over picture to see the poem)