On Monday Keble Arts Festival hosted a poetry evening featuring performances from Steve Larkin, Phoebe Nicholson, Paul Askew and Andrew Ridker. The ways in which the poets interacted with their material made clear the distinction between the performance of poetry and “performance-poetry”. Ridker and Nicholson relied on the natural rhythms of the written word to hold the audience’s attention, while Larkin and Askew’s performances were designed to be theatrical.
Highlights included Steve Larkin, international ‘Slam’ champion of 2004, performing his poem ‘Fat Sex’ – a piece inspired by reading women’s magazines on the loo. Meanwhile, Paul Askew got some laughs with his rendition of ‘The Holiday’ – an angry diatribe against a vacation in Scotland. Phoebe Nicholson created a very different atmosphere, with her powerful readings of ‘Dutch and Flemish Still-Life’; poetry inspired by her Devon home-life; and ‘Cat in the Lanes’ – an ode to her cat who ran away for a year and a half, only to reappear just before her finals. Andrew Ridker amused us with his anecdotal poetry about American life and began by relating his grandmother’s advice to him aged twelve: “women like to talk, but men like to fuck”.
For Phoebe Nicholson, “performing is the best way to get in touch with people and get your work out there”, but she wouldn’t call herself a performance poet. “Poetry performs itself,” she tells us. Nicholson started doing live poetry recitals at the Catweazle Club, a bar in Oxford that hosts open mic nights in which anything goes. She now edits the quarterly magazine ‘Catweazle’, which features a variety of stories, poems and visual arts features. For Nicholson, “there always needs to be an element of sound in poetry but not necessarily through performance – it can be achieved just as much from the cadences on the page”. This is evident in her work, as despite not being intentionally theatrical, the lilting steady rhythm that she adopts is hypnotic. Nicholson’s mellow reading allows the words themselves to resonate.
Paul Askew is right when he says, “I don’t do the whole banter thing very well, so I’ll just do some poems.” Telling us “love poetry is so annoying”, he proceeds to perform his own rendition of a love poem, ‘#YOLO’, in which he explores how many times you can say the word ‘kissing’ before the sound becomes meaningless. A lot of times, as it turns out. His book, Animal Magnetism, comes out in June. This raises the issue of whether performance poetry translates well onto the page. Askew is very aware of this. “The arrogance of page poets is they think they don’t need to put effort into performing, whereas the performance poet often forgets it needs to be edited before going on the page.”
Steve Larkin takes performance-poetry to its extreme, reciting off by heart, and occasionally bursting into song, accompanied by an octave mandolin. He relies on audience participation, and in between poems shows his flair for selfdeprecating stand-up: “I’m at that tricky gap between the time you leave full-time education and the time you die.” Larkin doesn’t publish, and says he never will. He conceives all his work out loud, not on the page, and is irritated by the education system’s insistence on the analysis of poetry.
“The importance of creativity is negated – it distances you from an experience of the actual poetry.” Larkin is the founder of Hammer & Tongue, the biggest promoters of ‘Slam’ poetry in the UK. The final of the Oxford round is on 14th May. Oxford’s decision to appoint Geoffrey Hill over Larkin as Professor of Poetry is perhaps indicative of the fact that performance-poetry has yet to be taken seriously as a medium. But it is at its most refreshing when it reminds us that poetry has always been read aloud.