Serena Agusto Cox has an ongoing interview series at the 32 poems blog, in which she asks different poets the same set of questions. We’re linking here (part 1 of 2) to some of those interviews and excerpting some answers to the first part of her second question which asks, very Voice Alpha-ishly: “Do you see spoken word, performance, or written poetry as more powerful or powerful in different ways and why?”
Obviously, when we hear the poems or see them “performed”, they become altered, and many times more powerful, vehicles. To see the shape of the poet’s mouth, the body posture, the diaphragm expand, the throat constrict, etc.—this is an incredible organic experience all leading to the convocation of voice. It’s a great sharing. I do think that in these moments, which at their greatest extreme could border on shamanistic, we may find ways to temper our human nature, to tune it into a more harmonious instrument, maybe. Although, I do hear my inner skeptic creeping in, so I will stop here.
I think the most powerful poems are those that really work in both mediums – as words arranged on a page and as words spoken or read aloud. As a reader/listener, I want both! After reading someone’s poems in a book or journal, I want to hear her or him read them. It almost always gives the poems an extra depth. I love to hear poems in the poet’s own voice – to see where she puts the stress, where she pauses, and so forth.
I seem them as powerful in different ways. Spoken word and performance poetry have more to do with the skill of the writer as a performer than they do with the power of the poetry itself. A brilliant performer can bring you to tears with your tax return. Because of this, it’s hard to tell from a performance whether the poetry stands on its own as poetry because the voice of the performer gets in the way. In addition, spoken word is crowd-oriented, meaning that your reaction is somewhat determined by the reactions of those around you. It’s a communal experience.
Written poetry, on the other hand, is intensely private. Even if you like the same poets and love the same books as another person, chances are that you are receiving different things from the poems, and that those things are different than what the writer intended. Text is like e-mail in this: the skill of the writer narrows the field of what the reader interprets, but it is still an interpretation.
I have never found spoken word to be enjoyable outside of the environment they are being performed in, usually a bar or coffee shop. When I was in Philadelphia, I went to a couple of these back in the 90s, but have not followed the movement since. As far as “power” goes, it depends on the meaning of such an abstract word. What is power to a garbage employee working 9 to 5 or to a white collar exec? I do not think that writing can equalize anything in today’s age and while it had a powerful force at one time, even influencing politics, I think it has fallen into the folds of the Ivory Tower. Those in college, whether a student or teacher, are probably the most exposed to words, to language, and thus, poetry is unable to spread its wings beyond that.
I love ephemeral creations, and as I have been working with Brazilian new media artist Cyriaco Lopes since 2005, have become more and more enamored of doing things that disappear—words and images (he uses photographs and video), sound pieces. We did some ipod voice pieces for an installation and I loved that…watching people lean into the rooms to catch fragments, etc. Of course I still love words on the page. But I really like staging “events” with him where we switch out—it feels unexpected, even when I know what’s going to happen, as I do now with the day you left, a 50-minute piece we’ve done several times.
I was never all that enamored of spoken verse. I supposed I’d rather hear a poem in my head with my own cadence and emphases. There are exceptions I can think of, however. I love hearing Plath readings of her own work.