3/2/10 – Holly Pester, Steve Waling & Rob Holloway

Despite snow there were around thirty people at The Old Abbey Inn for the latest Other Room reading on Wednesday. The readers were Steven Waling, Holly Pester and Rob Holloway. To be honest I found my attention wandering a lot throughout the evening so my account will be pretty unreliable. That wasn’t the poets’ fault, it’s just been a hazy kind of a week, but it may have contributed to some of the misgivings I had that will become apparent.

Steven Waling opened with poems drawn from Travelator and Captured Yes as well as other more recent poems. This was a particularly interesting set because it appeared to offer views from different stages of a writer attempting to rethink and reposition his practice closer to where his interests lie than what is conventionally expected of him. Plainly given my own history over the last few years this has resonance for me, and it helped that I am more familiar with his work than with that of the other readers on the night.

My personal preference was for the poems from Captured Yes because they appeared most thoroughly subjected to disruptive processes like being cut-up and the furthest from personal/confessional poetry. This is not to say that the poems from Travelator were not disjointed but that the way they were read tended to smooth over any disjunctions. This is not something unique to Steven I must stress, it is something I have noticed in some other readers, and in a slightly different way was present in Rob Holloway’s reading. I will expand my thoughts on performance a little at the end of this review.

I like Steven’s collaging of disparate elements from a variety of sources although for my taste his use of pop culture references feels rather dated. I feel that experimental musics and poetry on the whole have started to move beyond the navel-gazing Romantic heroic/visionary fantasy of the artist as the centre of their art that these references seem to conjure up. This may be a personal idiosyncracy and didn’t seriously impair my enjoyment of the reading. I did feel that the reading was somewhat tentative and broken-up without that necessarily being the intention.

Steven’s poems shift from the present tense to the past tense or reflection, from specific observations or reported speech/text to more abstract concerns, from simple language and quotidian detail to complex and specialist language. There are nods to the conventional formal structures of poetry – particularly in the form of sonnets that are in the contemporary tradition of exploding and exploring the form and its meaning rather than the historical tradition of inherited metrical and rhyme schemes. It will be very interesting to see where he goes from here.

I thought Holly Pester gave the most effective performance. She appeared to be much more in control of her voice and consequently able to give a more varied and compelling performance. My impression was that she also read for a shorter time than the other two, although you’ll be able to check that when the videos get posted on The Other Room website in a week or so. She also used non-linguistic sounds and repitition to a large degree, both of which I greatly enjoy.

Holly’s sound poetry elements are integrated with more traditional semantically based text poetry. Her performance started a little tentatively but quickly warmed up. This was important because the non-verbal elements needed to be performed with conviction and confidence to carry the audience. This integration of sound with speech probably explains why her performance was the most impressive on the night – the poetry demands a committment to performance much more obviously than a more conventional text poem would.

As you might expect the poems foregrounded the sounds of words and the echoes between them more than the work of the other two readers. They had a discernible auditory ‘shape’ in the way that we normally expect poems on the page to have a visual shape. I suppose in this sense sound poetry or poetry incorporating elements of sound poetry can be a lot closer to the formal verse of earlier centuries than contemporary innovative or mainstream poetry, while achieving levels of abstraction and fragmentation every bit as demanding and satisfying as contemporary innovative writing. Most of what she performed was available on the night in zimZalla Object 002 along with work from James Davies and Julius Kalamarz. Although that appaered to be the only work of Holly’s available.

Rob Holloway performed confidently and well, but I found my attention really was wandering quite badly. This may simply have been due to the fact that it was the end of the night. But I also thought that in comparison with Holly his reading tended to render every part of the reading much like every other part. Rather than a dynamic sound field I got the impression of sounds flowing by with occasional pockets of meaning bubbling through. As I say this was partly due to the fact that my attention was drifting all over the place.

When I did manage to pay attention the reading was good. Rob was confident, he read well, appeared in control of his voice and to know his material. The writing also was good – multiple perspectives, subjects, sources and vocabularies interrupted each other. There were moments of humour too. What I did find hard to trace in the early sections drawn from Permit (available on the night and in my current reading, along with two CDs from his Stem label) was a sense of the performance practices that apparently underlay its writing. Although I’m sure it was probably not part of the project it was a shame that performances (perhaps themselves based on texts or scores) translated into poetry and then performed didn’t perhaps play with this element a little more.

I mentioned the auditory impression I got throughout even when I wasn’t listening as closely as I wanted. Although I am not happy at missing a lot of the content, the form itself, the reading – or at least the general sound-impression of the reading was good. I was able to locate myself in relation to the reading without too much effort, and it was clear as I mentioned earlier that Rob was in control of what he was doing.

My misgivings about Steven and Rob’s performances are reflected by a wider concern with performance that I’ve become increasingly aware of over the last couple of years. I appreciate that many poets do not want to perform, that many would even see it as inimical to their practice. There is the argument that performance can give a spurious authority to the performer and narrow understanding of the work. There is also what I would regard as the more serious problem that performance can draw attention to the poet, that performance can be used in the development of a persona, and that the persona becomes a block to critical approaches to the work. Some poetry primarily exists on the page and any performance would be a form of translation and perhaps remove important elements of the original work.

But while recognising this I believe that if poets choose to perform, especially if they claim that performance is a part of their practice or an element in how certain poems were written, then that should be reflected in the performance. Performance is not just something that happens to the poem, and the effects on the poem are not trivial or unimportant. For one it is different from the poem on the page in that it is a unique iteration. Those precise circumstances of space, people, time, and other environmental factors will not be repeated. A live performance cannot be reworked and revised in the same way that poems can prior to their appearance on the page. The page is a space that looks more or less the same in any place or situation, and that can be visited at times when it’s most convenient for the reader. This means that the performer is in a unique position to react moment by moment to the specific circumstances of the reading. For me this ability to be responsive and the ephemerality of performance are crucial, core differences between poetry on the page and poetry readings.

This is not to say that the performance needs to be easy to understand, or that the poet should try to project a persona that the audience will easily warm to. Any glance at the performing arts of the last century should demonstrate that. But any writer considering performance should think about what they want to achieve with their performance, how they want to go about that, and what unique aspects of performance (duration, location, acoustics) they want to reflect in what way, and how that relates to the poems they will perform. Surely for someone who wants to perform with any sort of regularity, or who finds that they are performing frequently, these should be considered in the same way that words, meaning or non-meaning, arrangement on the page and other elements of poetry are considered during the writing and editing of pieces. I may return to this subject at greater length shortly.

Matt Dalby – Santiago’s Dead Wasp

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