A conversation between Tanyaradzwa Chitunhu and Jessica Wood
What happens in a live poetry performance? Does it get lost on the way to the page? Or does written poetry have more gravitas? We sat down two different styles of poet to discuss the similarities and differences in their art forms.
Jessica Wood: I always find it a weird question when people ask me ‘what kind of poetry do you write?’ I don’t really know how to answer that question, but I’m going to ask you anyway: ‘How would you describe your poetry?’
Tanyaradzwa Chitunhu: I would say it’s Spoken Word poetry. The difference, I think, between spoken word and page poetry is that spoken word is written with the intent of sharing it out loud. It incorporates hip-hop, storytelling, theatre; it is many different elements all at once, but it is intended to be heard out loud. Whereas page poetry is intended be read.
JW: I think with my poetry, you can read it out loud and there’s something to be gained from that, but it takes multiple readings in order to understand it fully.
TC: I think the more accomplished performance poets can walk the line, but there’s an immediacy about performance poetry. I don’t have all day to listen to you, or for me to go over a line multiple times so that you get it. I have to be powerful enough to capture the essence of what I’m trying to tell you.
I think that better poets are able to do that; they put enough work and effort into their craft that even though you can get something in the moment, something else should hit you later. There should be a level of realisation even after the moment is done, but I think that takes a lot of craft and a lot of understanding of how to use the words and the performance to create something bigger than the moment.
JW: What do you think is the benefit of seeing performance poetry live?
TC: Some of the work that has inspired me has made me think after they have finished it. There’s something about the way they’ve done it: the words, the atmosphere they’ve created, that remains with me and it resonates. I think those are the best ones. I’m still striving to get there. That’s where the craft is.
JW: For me, I have that feeling sometimes after watching music, after seeing someone live. I like to come away from seeing art when I feel like I’m buzzing, really alive and my only response is: ‘I have to create’.
TC: To this day there are things that I’ve carried from those performances, things I’ve learned from that, and those things were spontaneous, they were in the room, they can’t be replicated. I really love that. I love the spontaneity and flexibility of recreating a moment or recreating a poem every time I perform.
That’s one thing I’m trying to do now: even if I’ve been doing this poem for five years, I should be able to ‘re-create’ this, every time I’m on stage. So it’s a different performance every time. It’s a one-off.
That’s hard to do because you’re using the same words. It’s a challenge for me as a performer; how do I say this in a way that’s still real and true to what I wrote it to be, but also bring it forward into today.
JW: Does the way you perform differ a lot between groups, places or people?
TC: I don’t think I’m there yet. I’m still trying to experiment with what that’s going to look like. I hope to bring something different every time, but I don’t think I always manage.
When I’m doing My Africa – which I’ve done hundreds of times – it becomes stale after a while. But [the flexibility of] performance over the page is that I should be able to recreate My Africa in such a way that it’s new, it’s fresh, as if I’m speaking in this very moment. Rather than speaking it from the past, it’s a now thing. It’s a very different performance.
JW: That’s interesting. In my poetry – in Precariat, it’s centred in a very specific time, a specific issue. But if I choose to read it in a different space in ten years’ time, who knows what the context will be like then? It might speak differently compared to what it tells people today.
TC: My favourite poem now is Imagine the Angels of Bread by Martin Espada – it’s so urgent right now, but he wrote it in 1999, and I’m telling you what he says is timeless. Essentially – in the way I interpret it – it’s the kingdom come. He’s put what’s underneath on top, he’s talking about righting wrongs and injustice, but he’s imagining it the other way around and it’s now more urgent than it was in 1999.
That’s the best writing, when your work in twenty years time can still speak and be as urgent or even more so than when you wrote it. That’s the kind of writing I would love to do. I know I’m not doing that right now, but it’s exciting. I just don’t know how often that sort of work happens.
JW: It’s interesting thinking about the seen and the unseen of art; there’s something about time and context which can determine what people are able to achieve or articulate.
TC: You know what – I think the truth is timeless. If you speak the truth it should live forever. There’s truth in the Espanda poem. For me it’s a prophetic piece because he’s talking about universal ideas, big ideas: if your work has these things, it’s going to speak regardless of what time you wrote it and it should speak in sixty years. The nuances might be different, but the truth will always resonate, whether it’s on page or on stage. But for me I love when truth is said out loud. That’s why people preach, right? It’s because there’s power in that.
I think it’s a challenge in this day and age, because we’ve lost the art of being present. We’re consuming the world through media, but there’s still something really beautiful about connecting with an audience. That’s how I look at performance poetry – it’s a live conversation. Yes, I’m doing the piece and I’ve got the words, but the audience is just as much part of the performance as what I’m reading and what I’m giving to them. Their reaction, their faces, however they’re reacting to me, that’s part of my conversation with them. Sometimes I get people to be part of it – I tell them to do this or do that, because I want them to feel that they’re just as much a part of the performance as what I’m doing.
I think that’s the difference with the page. I don’t know if you write with an audience in mind?
JW: With what I was writing recently – all the stuff that’s in Temper – I think I had in mind people who are like me, encouraging those people to be empathetic in how we engage our opinions, our views and our voice.
What you say about the fact that we’re not present anymore is so true – it also relates to the way we form our opinions on situations. I really wanted to step into that and challenge that a little bit. I’m learning more that it’s a valuable thing to do to focus my work, but I’m still growing in it.
TC: It shouldn’t overtake you. There’s also the fear of writing to please people, writing to impress people. Unfortunately spoken word can be a bit like that, particularly competitive slam poetry. People can write with the intent of winning a slam and write knowing what the audience wants to hear, or what is popular-
JW: Yes, that vexes me so much. That’s what I was trying to get at in Temper, I want to speak about these issues that everyone is talking about, but in a different way. Using all these phrases and the buzzwords that people love nowadays can get you the affirmation that you want, but does it actually help people grow, and see the world differently, and see the world from different people’s perspectives?
TC: This is something that poetry should do in general: authenticity. There should be a level of being honest and real. Sometimes it’s easy to write with the intent of pleasing or to fit in or to conform, whereas I think the best kind of poetry is authentic.
There’s this saying ‘what comes from the heart, enters the heart’. I like that. What drew me into spoken word was that I really felt these performers were not just performing, they were giving me their guts, giving me their heart, and I thought – wow, I’ve got to be part of this, because this is meaningful, this is powerful, this is weighty, this is costly, this is awesome – you know, in the best possible way.
JW: If people only ever saw your work online, a video or on youtube, or even reading it in your book, what do you think is lost?
TC: I think that that’s an audience question. I think that you should answer that, because you’ve seen me. It’s hard for me to answer
JW: With your poetry, the way you perform it engages your senses and you have so much genuine joy when you’re reading it. I can see how much you love and value all those elements, and that really comes across in the performance. There’s something about your personality that’s only scratched on the surface in the words, and that comes to life in your voice and your character.
TC: What I’ve always loved about performance poetry and what I always try to give is passion. Passion, passion, passion – I try to embody the moment. I don’t know if I do it well every time, but I am literally becoming the poem. I’m taking on the emotions, the intent, everything.
I’m investing me into this piece. I’m giving you a piece of me, essentially. Taken to its fullest extent, it’s very exhausting, but I feel like it’s worth it. It says that this is important enough to put me into it. So then the poems will be different than on the page, I think, because it’s missing something of who I am.
JW: You’re still there in the poems on the page, but it is like a little scratch on the surface. There’s something different when you perform, when you embody it.
TC: Also I think ‘performing’ and ‘performance’ is different. I tend to be quite big on stage, but I think I need to learn as well how to be small. That’s as much performance as being big, you know? You can’t be big all the time, not every poem is big. It’s learning how to do that, but still how to be myself, how to be authentic, but learning how to use everything that I can on the stage.
There’s more to work with on the stage than the page. I could sing a line or I could say a line. I could say it quietly, or loudly, I could say it with force.
JW: I see that as well on the page actually, I see that there’s so much room. You know the book On Poetry by Glen Maxwell? He talks a lot about the use of space in poetry, specifically on the page. He talks a lot about black space and white space, how the white space of the page interacts with the blackness of the words and the text and how you can manipulate and use that.
TC: A performance space is very much the same for me. I’ve thought about starting a poem from the back of the room and walking my way to the stage. I’ve never done it but i think I should-
JW: You should! I think that carries the audience through the poem in a very different way.
TC: -and it’s always that element of surprise, that’s the thing that you miss, the potential for surprise on the stage. The Haitian-American poet Carvens Lissaint, he came over almost ten years ago, performing with a group, and this poem he did – Beauty Part Three – he’s basically talking about how he grew up and was being bullied, he was overweight and then he lost the weight.
In the performance when I saw him, it was in this dark room full of people. At the end of the poem, he did something that wasn’t even part of the set. He got off the stage and he started saying ‘you are beautiful’, ‘you are beautiful’ ‘ you are beautiful’ – I remember that moment. I thought wow… when he said those words I swear something shifted in the atmosphere; something magical happened and I never forgot that, as an audience member but also as a performer.
He created that moment, and ten years later I’m still talking about it. As a performer and as a poet that’s what you want, to remain, but how you do that is going to look different on the page as on the stage. I love creating those moments – I don’t think I’ve really mastered that, but I would love to be able to do that for other people.
JW: So what are you working on at the minute?
TC: I’m praying about, how do I use this art form to serve in a bigger way, in a bigger capacity. Paul in Philippians says don’t do anything out of selfish ambition or vain conceit – value others above yourself, seek other people’s interest over your own. That’s really a challenge, especially as someone who’s on the stage, which is all about ‘what i want to say and what I want to put out’.
I don’t want my work to just be about me. I want it to be bigger than my own experiences, or my own life. The best kind of poetry helps you to see differently. I would love to be able to do that. I just know that my work can’t be rooted in myself – I’m too small and to be boring for my work to be about me, when there’s so much going on in the world.