Performance poetry is easy; good performance poetry is almost impossible. Like punk rock, there’s a low barrier to entry: more or less anyone can rock up to an open mic, sign on the line and spit their rhymes. On one hand, it’s inevitable that all sorts of nonsense turns up. On the other hand, as with any scene, talent rises. Rapture: An Anthology Of Performance Poetry From Aotearoa New Zealand is that talent.
Today, the phrase ‘performance poetry’ is often mistakenly used synonymously with ‘slam poetry’, and the form has copped some unwarranted flak because of this. There’s a view that pitching poets against each other for prize money and bragging rights doesn’t necessarily sit well as a cultural showcase. Yet competitions drive audience numbers in ways that polite coffee-shop readings never will. Also, like it or not, competition inspires poets to sharpen their words and deliveries to pitch perfection. There’s nothing new in this. Ancient Athenians exploited competition famously, with the Dionysia festival yielding works which have possessed the western imagination ever since, from Oedipus Rex to Women of Troy.
But, of course, there’s more to it. Competitive slamming is a drop in the ocean. The truth is that humans have been crafting spoken performances for millennia, both in and out of competitions. Homer was a performance poet, and never wrote a single word. Shakespeare penned his stuff for no other purpose than to be spoken out loud. It’s been going on forever.
Editors Carrie Rudzinski and Grace Iwashita-Taylor negotiate the paradox of rendering spoken words into print largely by ignoring it. The editors both have lengthy and illustrious slam careers, have both built plays around poems, have both published their own collections, and they are both leaders and organisers of years standing in this community. Events and crews like Rise Up, Jafa Slam, Word! The Front Line, South Auckland Poets’ Collective and Going West Poetry Slam (the list goes on) have all benefited at some time from at these storytellers’ input, either together or separately.
It’s not just about winning. Or, if it is, there’s a bigger prize at stake than podium glory. Performance poetry serves as a kind of hoop dream for a vibrant and sometimes vulnerable community. The editors of Rapture work at the centre of a movement using spoken word as a kind of agit-prop, a loud and provocative voice that – of necessity – punches above its weight. Yes, to win a prize. Yes, to demand attention. And yes, to connect its vital message with a society awash in gifs and memes. Many of these poets are literally talking themselves – and their audiences – into better lives.
As a result, among the ninety-plus poets showcased here, there’s a tendency towards the rebellious. Often, the niceties of poetic form give way to impassioned reactions against massive injustice. Why hold back? On a more technical level, putting these fiery words in print gives us a deeper view of the workings behind some of the better-known pieces.
One example is Jessie Fenton’s classic ‘TEXT ME THE FUCK BACK!!!!!!!!’. This piece leaps off the page with the same finger-pointing rage Fenton delivers on stage. But without her deft performance, we’re left to contemplate the words more deeply, and as a result, following the vitriolic opening, the gender politics underpinning the jokey title emerge all the clearer.
We young women have been doing this for so long
We are so scared of being called crazy or needy
that we don’t know how to ask for what we want.
But I want more than this.
I am not needy.
I. Have. Needs!
Selina Tusitala Marsh’s ‘Fast Talkin’ PI’ is here in its now famous glory, a rap-like taxonomy of the infinite traits of contemporary Pasifika, vast, rich and joyously paradoxical: ‘I’m a fast talkin’ PI / I’m a power walkin’ PI / I’m a demographic, hieroglyphic fact-sheetin’ PI.’ I use the word “taxonomy” deliberately for its scientific and colonialist roots. In a similar vein but with brutal economy, the poet For My Wairua in ‘Stereotypical Māori’ condenses a more critical cultural catalogue into just a few lines, with verses like:
The ‘smart for a’ Māori
The mean Māori (mean)
The Police 10/7 Māori
The ‘don’t speak te reo’ Māori
The ‘never grew up on the marae’ Māori
The ‘who do you come from’ Māori
Its four short verses are perfect: short, sharp, to the point and not remotely comforting for anyone. It’s haiku-like brevity only adds to its tragedy.
In ‘(Un)Learning My Name’ Mohamed Hassan addresses race in a more narrative way, and it’s no less powerful for that. It’s a refreshing variation for the book to include contemplative works of this nature, in addition to the incendiary word infernos for which the form is best known: ‘The first time I am mistaken / for a white man I feel a rush of joy / lurching from my gut / a relief / I have finally won a place / a right to invisibility’.
Elsewhere, Lily Holloway’s selection ‘you are my night terror i hope i am yours’ perfectly conveys the sense of catharsis of much spoken-word poetry. Shunning punctuation, capitalisation, metre and even syntax, it still finds its feet and rages like a modern-day Hieronymus Bosch from the back blocks:
open my mouth and sand spills out in towers and slipping hills endless
open my mouth and vomit is shot at speed chunks of green monopoly
houses marbles clumps of drain hair and pineapple lumps open my
mouth and i scream magpies robbing mutton sobbing and gasping who
go for eyes pimples scabs making meaty nests open my mouth and i
turn inside out filling bathtubs with puddles of mouthwash and sperm
cilia grasping out motherless open my mouth and i’ll bite your tongue
This is also the first open mic poem Holloway ever performed.
With its sheer number of poets, Rapture has great breadth and depth, including voices from all over the motu and the moana, representing cultures from all over the world. Māori, Pasifika, Pākehā are here. Egypt, China, Zimbabwe, Scotland, England, France, Philippines and the USA are just a few points of origin mentioned in the writers’ biographies.
With such a wide range of work, not everyone will like everything. To me, not all pieces function properly without their author’s own unique enunciation. Without the rhyme-spitting performers present to prop them up, some of the metres fall strangely, as do some of the wider references (‘rivers of blood’ surprised me, in reference to one poet’s own veins: presumably they weren’t thinking of Enoch Powell). Still, there’s not a single piece without something vital, poignant and relevant to say, and a unique way of saying it.
Gender politics gets a good workout in many forms. Freya Daly Sadgrove’s fabulous all-caps ‘I DON’T CARE WHO YOU ARE WHERE YOU’RE FROM WHAT YOU DID AS LONG AS YOU LOVE ME’ leaps from Backstreet Boys’ lyrics to shout its way across pubescent heteronormative fantasies of desire and adulation. Laura Borrowdale’s ‘Guilt’ describes an erotic encounter skilfully stripped of gender, with glimpses of a narrator escaping middle-class tedium: ‘I am a bad mother. My children watch Donald Duck downstairs while, on my bed, I have / stripped you bare. I run my tongue over your body as though you are my oasis in the desert, / as though I am searching for the secret well of you.’
While much of the book embodies the youthful energy of anti-establishment rebels, it’s not all shouting and angst. Winning a slam requires sharp writing and pitch-perfect performance, but some of this energy can be peaceful as well as raucous, internalised as well as expansive. Marcus McKenzie’s ‘A Letter to My Younger Self’ is a meditation on a discovery long past but vividly recalled. In person, McKenzie brings an intensity to his performances that sets the room alight. Without his voice here, the words sit more calmly, and as we contemplate – alone – his experiences, his words hit us all the harder: ‘You are the most handsome boy at that all-girls school / thirteen years young / pimples to the gods … Your life did not start the day you / found your name / got your first shot / first called yourself boy’.
Sarah Hirsch, a ‘London-grown poet’ and UK slam champion, is represented by a biting piece of surrealism called ‘A Poem about Being Human in Five Parts’ that plays with lyrical themes around relationships and materialism. Much of it is written in prose form, but it’s also peppered with internal rhythms and rhymes that simultaneously drive forward and trip up both the poem and the reader. The effect is a little like something generated by an early, bungled AI experiment.
… Personalised number plate to match the surname, sneakers red to match the paintwork – perfect, toenails – perfect, not a scratch, sneakers sneaky red to match the heat cheeky red to match the feet, red to spark the thought, to spark the smile, to spark the match.
Deeply absurdist, it’s funny, captivating and alienating all at once.
The editors describe Rapture as a snapshot of our performance poetry over the last decade, but it’s not a snapshot: it’s a wide-angle panorama. It’s challenging and pleasurable reading for anyone with an interest in who we are, and how we express ourselves when self-knowledge is given free reign. Most likely, you’ll recognise a lot of the names, and learn a few new ones too. Tusiata Avia is here, and Nathan Joe, Dominic Hoey, the stunning ensemble Ngā Hinepūkōrero, Sheldon Rua, David Eggleton, the Soakai siblings, Aiwa Pooamorn, Kiri Piahana Wong, Simone Kaho, Daren Kamali, Michael Moore, Arihia Latham, Tim Heath: the list goes on, too many to mention, each one a unique contribution to a vital scene.
Rapture is big enough, broad enough, varied enough and good enough to be worth the cover price even if you only get to half the poems in it. And with slams and jams popping up regularly in different venues around the motu, chances are if you make it along to one, you’ll see some of these poets working their magic, using their words.