Poetry is a Performance, too.

I have been actively thinking about performances. Specifically, the relationship between actor and audience and the implications that each role holds. We often associate performance with plays like Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom and music, but what about poetry?

I have been deeply fascinated by the poetry presented in The Angles of Ascent. I’ve discovered many poets and poetry that I am genuinely awestruck by. I deeply appreciate having the opportunity of engaging with this anthology. On one of the first days we were first asked to flip through the pages of Angles of Ascent and find poems we liked, I gravitated right toward Patricia Smith. Admittedly, I probably should have been searching and connecting with poems I hadn’t seen before, but Smith never ceases to astound me, and I was excited to see her work again.  I was first introduced to Smith’s poetry a few semesters ago, in another one of Dr. McCoy’s classes. The poem’s anthologized in Angles of Ascent are from a larger book and collection of Smith’s poetry called Blood Dazzler, in which she paints the horrifying devastation of Hurricane Katrina . I still (literally) carry this book around with me everywhere to this day. I remember shortly after latching onto her work, I was suggested by my former Creative Writing professor to watch videos of Smith reading her poetry live. And that is the long-winded way in which I bring us back to present day, and my thoughts on poetry, plays, audience and how they all might be related.


After reading Suzan-Lori Parks’ work, I saw that many of my peers had already beautifully attended to addressing the responsibilities of each member involved in the theatre experience. Parks says, “A playwright should pack all five, all six — all 7 senses. The 6th helps you feel another’s pulse at great distances.” (15) A playwright is partly responsible for the way a scene is depicted on stage, how actors act on that stage, and the way that their performance is received by the audience. This should by an immerse, active experience by all those in the room that goes far beyond just ‘watching’ the show.  

Poetry, like a play, is often meant to be performed, though we generally see it in written form only. I am unsure if Blood Dazzler was specifically intended to be performed live, but after watching videos, I think Smith’s performance elicits a grander response than simply holding the book and reading the words in my head.

At the very basic level, both the performance of a poem and the performance of a play require an actor (or an artist), and an audience. Both consist of certain rhythms and beats. The actors, or the artist, controls how each syllable is pronounced, how many breaths are taken and where they are taken, and what pace to keep the piece moving. They control how much or how little emotion is put into it. In this way, both the actors in a play and the performer of a poem control how the story is told. Also, an actor in a play and an artist performing their poetry often inhabit a persona. In the play, Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, each character does not represent the author themself, but rather an individual persona. The character of Molly is different from that of Charlene, who is different from that of Dr. Lutzsky. It was sometimes to difficult to follow each persona, but perhaps seeing this play come to life on a stage would make understanding the different voices easier? In terms of a poem, the voice or narration of a poem is not always attributed to the author, but the speaker, which creates distance and a persona. Even when a poem is performed live, by one singular person, that person has the authority to create a persona of their choosing. The performer dictates how each word is spoken and how each story is told. In the link I will post below, Patricia Smith opens up her poetic performance by telling her audience, “I write a lot of persona poems. I write a lot of stepping into other people’s shoes…” She follows with a performance of her poem “34” (which is not included in Angles of Ascent, but is featured in Blood Dazzler), where Smith denotes each verse as a different story, a different voice, a different persona, similar to the way an actor would capture a role.

But what about the audience? Like Parks discusses, both the performance of a play and that of a poem require active participation from the audience. She says, “Language is a physical act. It’s something which involves your entire body– not just your head. Words are spells which an actor consumes and digests– and through digesting creates a performance on stage.” (11) This responsibility to “consume” and “digests” falls on the shoulders of not just the actor, I think, but also the audience. Whether it is an actor performing their lines, or a poet performing a poem, their words come to life when they are, well, performed. They must created an experience that elicits some sort of emotion, and it is the audience that must be watching (“consuming”), listening, thinking (“digesting”), and reacting.


Patricia Smith’s performance of “34”


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