Hi Niall, you’ve got a new course coming up with us soon, Off the Page. Could you tell us a bit about that?
Off the Page is a course designed to help poets that are comfortable on the page to branch out into public reading and performance as well as take advantage of all the digital means of sharing work. The outcome hopefully won’t just be to become more adept at navigating these options but also to use performance, improvisation, digital and social media as a platform for the creation of new work.
It won’t be about forcing poets to choose between keeping a poem for the magazines or publishing online but instead create distinct poems that work best in their respective media. In short, you don’t have to post your National Poetry Competition entry on tumblr but you might find tumblr to be an exciting new outlet for creating and sharing new work.
When performing, is it ever enough to have just written a good poem? Or, conversely, to just perform well?
Well, if we just take a big leap over that issue of what a “good poem” is, I’d always say that a tightly written poem allows more freedom for a good performer as they spend less time using their talents to hide the slack spots. Different poems have different challenges and demands when stepping beyond the medium that they were written for (be that page to stage, stage to page, blog to Soundcloud etc).
There are some poems that almost require a great effort not to succeed in a live setting and yet some people remain up to the task (Google Ben Kingsley reading Shelley’s Ozymandias for an example of a great talent doing a terrible job of reading a great poem). A lot of very good literary poets read their work in the dreaded “poetry voice” (see below), which always makes the appreciation of the poem in a live setting a more difficult task.
On the front page of your website, I can see one poem in standard text, one video performance, eight audio recordings, various instahaiku mixing art and poetry, plus, of course, a link to your physical books. The days of poetry being page-only (if they ever existed) are gone for you, then?
It wasn’t really ever page-only for me at any particular point. When I started off in the late nineties I was very much a Performance Poet and later became interested in the aspects of a hybrid page/stage poet after that. I became very evangelical about denouncing the page/stage divide. I still feel that way as while we can point to distinct ideas of “stage poet” and “page poet”, there is no obvious dividing line between the practices. Things also get much more interesting in the fuzzy space between them.
Now that the internet and social media have brought in even more interactive dimensions it has become even more nonsensical to posit a page/stage divide.
This is the point where I think the ideas of private reading and social reading becomes more useful a distinction than page/stage. All literary poets give readings and plenty of Spoken Word and Performance Poets are bringing out books. However, the literary style of reading aloud often depends on a private experience of a poem and the Spoken Word piece often hinges on a social experience.
As mentioned above, literary poets give plenty of readings but they are able to recreate aspects of private reading for the audience experience. For instance, they often ask the audience not to applaud between poems and save it for the end. Applause isn’t just a means of communication from the audience to the poet, it is also a way for an audience to communicate with each other. By stifling this kind of communication, the audience become a set of individuals experiencing the poem within their private sphere rather than losing their sense of self in a way that is experienced by crowds at music or sporting events (or slams for that matter). The Spoken Word or Slam poet will rely on these kinds of communication in an attempt to recreate the feeling of the latter.
Your website’s biography says that you teach Poetry and Performance at London Metropolitan University; an Independent article published last year says that you teach Performance Poetry. I sense that there’s a lot of meaning in that slight difference of phrasing. What exactly is performance poetry, and how does it differ from, say, spoken word, or just a ‘poetry reading’?
I teach Poetry and Performance at London Met so the scope of the course is much wider than what we would strictly term as Performance Poetry. Performance Poetry has had many terminologies attached to it that can normally be distilled to “poetry that has been written specifically for performance”. Take heed of the term “written for…”. Unlike oral culture, Performance Poetry is often a post-literary art form with the performance being preceded by written composition rather than being simultaneously composed and performed on stage as a epic singer would (some exceptions such as David Antin spring to mind though).
I have sometimes gone further and defined Performance Poetry as a genre of live poetry that became prominent in the 80s and 90s; the generation of performers that came after the Ranters and Dub Poets and before the Spoken Word generation of today. I have to be very clear about the sense in which I’m using the term, as I have previously put a few noses out of joint when speaking of “The Death of Performance Poetry…”
When writing about performance, as you do – excellently – here, you refer to ‘poetry voice’. What do you mean by that?
It’s a trope particular to a style of poetry where the lines are read out in a very slow, deliberate sense. The pattern can often be a descending alternation between high and low notes. Let’s say we’re reading the first line from Sonnet 18:
Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?
Poetry voice would perhaps read this line slowly, gradually descending in pitch with an upward inflection on each stressed syllable:
It often gives an exaggerated sense of the poem’s importance. At the same time the voice is almost robotic, as if it is trying to remain dispassionate while simultaneously denouncing any conversational element within the poem. It could be said that this kind of reading is similar to the sing-song qualities of the “liturgical” style heard in recordings of poets such as Yeats and Tennyson. This might be correct in terms of the attitude (presenting the poem as heightened speech rather than the casual speech of the breakfast table), however, I much prefer the (admittedly strange and dated) readings of Yeats and Tennyson in comparison to the deadening drone of Poetry Voice.
What can poets and students gain from going to see, and perform, poetry live, that they might miss out on simply reading and submitting to magazines?
They will get a much more vital and immediate response to the poem. I also believe that they will reach a wider audience than the average poetry magazine subscriber base will allow. I’ve often not even needed the audience response to become aware of parts of the poem that need work, all of a sudden the poem’s faults can become apparent while I’m in the middle of reading it. The materiality of the poem manifesting as sound within a physical and social environment can often pop the idealistic bubble that the poem was composed within.
Your most recent book Caffeine Songs contains 15 15-line poems written in January of this year. A previous book, Sonnet Hack, contained only sonnets, one per day written throughout September 2010. What is it about writing this way that attracts you?
I only learned the term Wu-wei recently but I think it describes my reasons perfectly. Wu-wei is the old Chinese term for the state of flow — when you appear to be carrying out a complicated task with very little conscious effort and doing so with a grace that intense concentration will never able to attain. The obvious example of this is the tennis player who practices serves and returns until they can do so without thinking.
I only really noticed this with the Sonnet Hack project, how that previously mechanical process of composing a sonnet became more natural and intuitive as the project progressed. The most extreme length I took this process to was with The Mundane Comedy, a blog where I wrote a poem a day in Terza Rima for a year. I even wrote and posted one of the poems from a maternity ward hours after my first child was born. For all its flaws, that project remains the one I’m most proud of.
I was particularly struck by your 2014 long poem Happy Hour in Herne Hill, which covers many of the contradictions and problems of gentrification. It seems particularly to question poetry’s – or art in general’s – place or complicity in it: the “soft palmed man of letters dry humping the dead / wood of [his] credible, blue collar past”.
It is an unavoidable truth that a big part of gentrification and the displacement of working class communities has been down to artists from affluent backgrounds colonising poorer neighbourhoods. Property developers and estate agents don’t always wait for a “hipster phase” before putting plans into motion but the springing up of pop ups shops and galleries can often be the first sign of an area’s ripeness for redevelopment. A recent Guardian article interviewed “creatives” that were now being priced out of Hackney and Peckham and it was interesting to see one of them talking about how they had to find a new “frontier”. This is the same language settlers used about indigenous people in America being applied to working class communities in 21st Century London.
This hasn’t always been the way, artistic types from affluent backgrounds have been coming to places like Brixton for decades but many wanted to become involved in what was going on with the community arts scene. The difference now is that gentrifying artists are much more insular, setting up their artistic practice in the context of their peers while remaining separate to the local communities.
With regard to my own situation within Happy Hour in Herne Hill, I present myself as an individual with a working class/blue collar background that might be able to point a condemnatory finger at the gentrifiers while at the same time doing very little to engage with local working class communities. Perhaps poets can essentially be loners in this sense. At the same time, it’s a bit rich for the loner to point the finger at other artists’ lack of community spirit. I guess this is the contradiction that I recognised at the heart of the poem.
Finally, what are you up to at the moment, and where can people see you perform?
August is a traditionally quiet time with live poetry and I’m not taking a show to Edinburgh, so there’s not much happening in that sense. That said, I will be releasing a New and Selected poems with Flipped Eye later in the year and there should be a few readings happening to promote it. So my immediate future seems to be based around getting back onto the page!
Also, Poetry Unplugged, the weekly open mic that I currently run at the Poetry Cafe, will be temporarily moving to the Betsey Trotwood in Clerkenwell while our regular venue is refurbished for five to six months. The last Unplugged at the Poetry Cafe before the temporary closure of the Poetry Cafe will be on the 30th of August and we will be running at the Betsey every week for the months after that.
Niall O’Sullivan is running the Poetry School course Off the Page in the Autumn term 2016.
Niall O’Sullivan is a poet, educator and event host. He has published three collections of poetry with Flipped Eye and has served residencies for the Wimbledon Championships, the South Kilburn Estate and the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Niall currently hosts the Poetry Unplugged open mic at Covent Garden’s Poetry Cafe and teaches a module in Poetry and Performance at London Metropolitan University.
He’ll be teaching the course Off the Page for the Poetry School in the Autumn 2016 term.