When people compliment poetry, three words tend to come up a lot, “honest”, “brave” and “real”. These three qualities are treated as the holy grail for spoken word performers of a certain ilk. That ilk being the evocative, emotive poets who make you do a little cry when you watch them. The most frequent question I’m asked about my own work, “how do you talk about such personal subject matters on stage?”, I’ve never been fully equipped to answer without sounding a bit ethereal and wanky. I tell people that once you find the right words in the right order, it becomes a struggle not to share them.
That is true, but it’s also true that performers, underneath all their neuroses and foibles, are massive show offs. We’re all searching for some kind of validation from an audience, the reasons behind this are different for everyone, and validation comes in many different forms, never wholly positive or negative. For some performers, validation means people walking out in disgust, sometimes it’s five star reviews and rapturous love from strangers, for others maybe just one single person coming up to them after a gig to say they felt understood. The performer can’t exist without the audience, as we all know, and approval is addictive.
However, let’s return to those three words- honest, brave and real. When there is huge pressure to embrace these concepts it can be tricky to balance self-preservation with creating relevant work. Indeed, if you go to open mic nights up and down the country there are budding poets pouring their mental health history into a microphone in an attempt to make a connection. Often I find these performances difficult to watch- they feel like trauma in motion. Not helpful, barely cathartic- just someone in pain hoping to make sense of it live in front of an audience. There’s not a wrong way or a right way to perform, but I believe you need some distance from your sorrow before you can productively create good performative work from it. Misery itself doesn’t make you an artist, but learning from it definitely can.
Writing is therapeutic, the order and structuring of it can help to mend a messy mind. However, difficulties arise when your work is so intrinsically linked with your life and the line between performer and person is very hazy. Our currency as poets is emotion, but what happens when you can’t trust your emotions?
Recently I’ve been through some big changes in my life. It’s been a difficult time, and in many ways I feel like a completely different person to who I was a month ago. We live through many varying versions of ourselves, but to feel one version splitting away so suddenly leaves you feeling quite raw. As a result, my feelings towards performing right now are complicated. My old work has shifted in meaning and intention, I don’t feel brave, honest and real performing at the moment, I feel anxious and small and confused. But if I am booked for a gig, these are the poems people expect from me. However they aren’t helpful for me anymore, at least not at the moment. Can I help people with my “uplifting work” if behind the curtain I’m at a mental low point? How long until what I’m currently going through translates into some kind of art? Is it narcissistic or unhealthy to even think of trauma and change in that way? Maybe it’s optimistic to think that something good might come of it all.
I teach workshops, to young and/or vulnerable people, and something I often highlight is the importance of being ready to tell your story. It’s easier than one might expect to do damage trying to encapsulate your truth. When your version of therapy is a pen and paper, or an empty word document, you’re expecting a lot of yourself.
What I feel needs to be defined is the journey between writing emotive work for your own healing, and when you are healed enough to share it. For the right reasons. Performing is wonderful and important. But what is even more important is caring for your old noggin, so that you can continue to be productive and feel like a real person. All of those tragic artistic figures may have romantic allure, but imagine what they would have created had they sobered up, reflected, built on their natural talents and stuck around long enough to experience a full life.
Sometimes you need to recognise that you need silence and time before you can write and share to your full ability. I think taking that breather, readying yourself and tending to your sore head is pretty brave. Saying no to one performance in order to flourish later on is the best way to start to feel real again. And you can only really be honest with an audience, when you are honest with yourself.
Okay that’s wanky. But you see what I mean.