Friday, April 12, 2013

China, Part 1

Between 15 and 24 March, I was lucky enough to participate in the Bookworm International Literary Festival in China. This was my first big writer's festival experience and I still have not absorbed it all. Being continually referred to as 'one of the writers' was very unnerving, but something I believe I could become used to.

'When I first saw you, I thought "who is
this plonker?" Then I realised it was
part of an act.'
Photo from Bookworm Festival
I performed my show, 'Meta', at the Bookworm bookshops in Beijing and Chengdu, at an LGBT community centre in Beijing and at the University of Nottingham Ningbo. I also delivered a performance poetry workshop and made a visit to an international school. Each event was distinct and taught me something new about myself, my act and creativity in general.

For those who haven't seen it, 'Meta' is a 45 minute performance piece that ties together 12 poems, most old but a few new. I incorporate the story of Narcissus into the mythology of the poet and question what motivates me to write poetry. Free from the slam format, I use costume and props to add to the theatre of the show. The show bounces up and down emotionally and I find it quite draining, in a good way, like a spiritual workout.

Some of the things I learnt:

Poetry still has the power to engage

Before I went to China, I appeared on Ross Solly's show on 666 ABC Canberra. After chatting about my upcoming trip, I read 'We Are the Poem'. It was an Outside Broadcast and there were a few people waiting to join Ross, a diverse group ranging from a Canberra Raiders rugby star to a finance guy to cover the markets. They were talking quietly during my chat, but as soon as I started the poem they all stopped and listened. There is something about rhythmic words that attracts attention.

Why I am a performance poet #1: Engaging with the audience

I get great satisfaction, that warm heart feeling, from having people watching me as I perform: seeing their emotions follow the pitch of my performance, hearing their laughs and, if I am lucky, seeing their tears. This is why writing poetry on a page is never quite enough for me. (Which is quite fortunate, as my poetry, sitting alone on a page, is never quite interesting enough for people to read. It gets lonely. I need to take it out to cheer it up.)

More than this, some of the best times were after performances, when I would answer audience questions (once they had got over the 'what was that?' moment). These questions ranged from 'does poetry matter' to 'do you have Narcissistic Personality Disorder in your family'. (Answer: other than in me personally, no).

Why I am a performance poet #2: It's all about the music

I love music. It plays an important role in my life and is with me almost constantly. But, here's the catch: I am tone deaf. I can only sing the notes that fall between the keys and I can't play an instrument beyond the 'Smoke on the Water' riff on guitar.

I realised, though, my love of music is one of the major motivators for me to perform my poems. I try to capture rhythms, rhymes and sounds to create musicality in my poetry. I didn't fully understand this until it leapt from my mouth in response to an audience question.

Surprise can be powerful

As far as I could tell, my show surprised most of the people who came to see it. They might have been expecting a poetry reading or a typical collection of slam poems. They didn't expect a performance with characters and a theme.

I was satisfied with how well this worked. It appeared to engage the audience and elicited a lot of emotional responses. My favourite moment was when one of the audience members said quite loudly: 'Is he alright? Is this part of the act?'

Gotta give it your all

One challenging aspect was the variation in visible audience responses. My first gig in Beijing was attended by 100 people, mostly English-speaking ex-pats, who laughed at all the right times and some of the wrong ones. My university gig, however, was mostly Chinese-speaking students who were learning English for business. Furrowed brows were more common than laughs.

I found it difficult to give a consistent effort to each show. At one point, I even considered cutting out a poem and skipping to the end when I, quite wrongly it turns out, thought I was losing the audience.

I don't know how actors on Broadway or bands on tour are able to give it their all every night. But I have resolved to do this for my performances. Even if I happen to lose most of the audience I owe it to the people I am reaching, and to myself, to put everything into each gig.

Next post

Enough about me...in my next post I will talk about some of the other authors I met in China and provide links to their amazing works.

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