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 2 of 2) to some of those interviews and excerpting some answers to the first part of her second question, which asks: “Do you see spoken word, performance, or written poetry as more powerful or powerful in different ways and why?”
I don’t like the limiting writing into discrete genres that are then put into opposition to each other. I think writing is most effective, most meaningful, when it cribs from many genres and traditions at once.
I believe that the power of a poem begins with the poem on the page. The poem has to work on the page before it works on the stage. That said, I also think that reading a poem in front of an audience is a crucial experience for both poet and public. It is important for the poet, if she chooses to read her own work, to read as well as possible. I believe poetry and theater go well together.
Well, I love theatre (see above). When I was younger, there seemed to me to be very little difference between theatre and poetry, and I still feel that way. If you listen to a Beckett or Mamet script, for example, you’re hearing language shaped to emphasize repeated rhythms and patterns, right? So naturally I love poetry “for performance” in all its guises. But theatre is a collaborative art, while writing shorter lyrics meant primarily for the page seems to me to be a solitary activity. Both satisfy competing desires for introspection and extroversion, as I imagine they do for a lot of writers, and writers are a part of humanity—or at least they’d like to think they are.
I think we are at a pivotal time in poetry, with spoken word/hip hop communities affecting, for lack of a better word, more “literary” communities, and vice versa. In fact, at West Chester this year, I am working to have more of a dialogue between these communities. The new Anthology of Rap, edited by Adam Bradley and Adam DuBois, for example, brings performance to the page. By the same token, I think some poets do not think enough about performance, and so miss an opportunity to make poetry more vital and electric for an audience.
I’ve been present at some spoken word performances that were full of energy and proved to be both entertaining and artistically satisfying. But performances are really of the moment; I don’t find they translate well to film, though oddly enough I think that sound recordings of readings can have real force (the way Alan Lomax’s recordings of Southern music from the 1940s and 50s have the power to blow away contemporary recordings with their authenticity and presence). But I believe the written word lasts longer, even if it languishes on a shelf in a used bookstore, and that it generates a dialogue between reader and writer that simply can’t be had in a live reading. And one need only read Shakespeare’s Sonnets to see that the written word is not dead, but alive and awhirl, a sort of quantum cloud of meaning awaiting a moment of attention to fix its meaning before it swirls back up again.
For me, written poetry has the emotional force expected of spoken word and performance poetry, while also having a life on the page.