Pragmatics: Performance Poetry: The Practice

So I get on stage, finally, because the compere has just said my name. I’ve spent the last few minutes
scanning the crowd as well as looking at my counterpart competitors in this slam poetry

I’m also mumbling to myself, though the movement of my lips is barely perceptible. I’m running
again and again a sequence of words which in my mind’s eye and ear and bodily memory are
synchronised with certain vocal inflections, pitch timbres, bodily movements and kinaesthetic
attitudes, which are consciously tailored to bring out the significance encapsulated in the poem. Of
course, when I go on stage there are a whole host of unconscious things I’ll do which interfere with
optimal performance.

But if I focus on those, it’s likely that I’ll focus on the negative and even subconsciously invite them

The private ramshackle algorithm of words, cadences and subtle inflections I am attempting to
commit to memory minutes before being summoned on stage is an idiolect only known by two
people: my writing self and my performing self. My performing self is constantly trying to go beyond
the words, to make them doing things the writing self, had not envisaged: to create syncopation
between syllables.
My performing self knows I need to engage the audience and interest them in the work as the entry
ticket to being appreciation. It knows I need to grab and hold their attention, to be likeable, if
possible ‘be charismatic’, whatever that means. That is pressure, even the performing self
sometimes feels it is whoring itself to the fickleness of applause, that is still what I need to do,
authenticity but not insurality.

My performing self sometimes wants to take out whole paragraphs because it doesn’t want to bore.
My writing self wants to ensure that I don’t garble the words too much and I get the point across. It
feels justifiably aggrieved if whole stanzas it sweated over were discarded on the cutting room floor.
But at this point I’ve probably performed it 50 times in the last 3 days, at least 10 times as if on
I’m sure I’ve committed it to memory, but there is always creeping doubt even a hiatus in a dropped
syllable may throw me off my rhythm. This could break the spell I’m trying to cast over the audience.
This might be a spell of self-confidence when I don’t feel that confident. Of course, I am acutely
aware that I can extemporise and ‘style it out’ as the audience does not have access to the original
written text. But still, there is immense satisfaction in becoming enveloped in the flow, becoming
merged with the cascade of words and gestures. It’s beautiful, a sublime oblivion only ended by
rapturous applause.

But I scan the audience again and doubts start to creep in. I’ve got to be at least 15 years older than
everyone else here. I’m feeling like a befuddled father at a school disco… The references are going to
be most relevant to a Gen X audience, the original hip-hop generation. This lot look like Millenials
with a smattering of Gen Z. Then again, I’ve been reading about ‘fauxstalgia’ so maybe this will still
hit? like taking them to the Old School and have a retro cachet to it? Hmm. I oscillate between
reticence and recrimination. Maybe I should have selected a sonnet and read it out rather than a
rapped soliloquy.
But I know that there is difference between flexibility and vacillation and I need to knuckle down

So I banish these thoughts and try and focus on the matter at hand. And the matter at hand is a mic
in the mic stand, and. So said Definition of Sound. I could quote hip-hop verbatims liberally. I won’t.
In the days before the performance, I have turned the poem over and over in my head again and

I will be learning it by stanzas, both through looking at the words reading them out and through rote
repetition. I will do it in front of the mirror, record into my voice note on my phone. Stanzas means
rooms in Italian, and as luck would have it they are perfectly amenable to a memory palace
technique of memorization, which is what I do, with mnemonics for each stanza that allows me to
move from one to the next, more or less smoothly. If it is done to music I will record it onto the
music software, Logic and bounce the track as an MP3 and listen to it on the move or if not I will
record voice notes to myself. I try and come it at different ways. There is a cybernetic feedback loop
between the thinking that produced the writing on the page, the ideal performance in my mind’s
eye, and the internal monologue that seeks to osmose the essence of the work itself. I will print out
the draft, annotate it, write notes on and then amend that messy and scrawled over copy by typing
up a fresh copy on Word.

That then becomes the latest draft and that fair copy is what I use to practise the evolving piece until
the next bout of editing, and the process will then repeat many times after that. Like a samurai
sword I want to bend and beat and the steel core enough times to create a sharp blade that will be

Every time I perform the poem, it becomes more of me. It becomes something that inhabits my
body rather than something I wrote that I happen to now be reciting. I realise I am able to produce it
on a demand wherever I am. At the pub, on the bus, perhaps at a party. Not that you want to me to
recite too many of my poems at a party! Nevertheless, my creative process is to metabolise the
work, so it becomes less of a string of words and more of a prayer or mantra, which I summon forth
when required.

Please welcome to the stage: ‘Chris Arning’

My name is called and I clamber onto stage feeling less limber than a lot of the other poets, nursing
a bad left knee. But in order to be in flow I need to focus. As I stand on stage and adjust the mic
stand upwards and test the mic I make a joke about its height and my height. I get a burst of nervous
laughter but the joke is there to test my rapport with the audience. I think we will be okay. I squint
into a stage light more or less angled straight into my face. I can barely see the audience. That’s not
great, but this happens. I see a girl in the front row, dressed like a goth, she looks about 15 and she’s
frowning. They say to focus on one person in the crowd. Not her, I tell myself, this is all part of
building resilience. My adrenaline is already kicking in. I need to not make assumptions about the
audience. I want to entertain but also be true to myself. If I can perform in all conditions and keep
the audience front and centre, it will build ‘on stage’ chops. These thoughts all happen in seconds as
I poise and ready myself.

I open my eyes and begin…

“I’m a wasp in the bottle of the chamber of rap…”

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