on the relationship being poetry and performance

recently, i’ve received some feedback about my performance of a poetry reading with dancers, music and video design.   the comments have given me pause to consider my practice as both a writer and performer and to position this contextually in the traditions and contemporary practice of black poets.

my practice stems from my witnessing writers directly or loosely associated with the ‘black arts movement’ in the u.s. where i am from.  such luminaries as amiri baraka, ntozake shange, larry neal, david henderson, jayne cortez and others turned in some remarkable work reading to such artists as cecil taylor, ornette colemen, william parker etc. the articulation of this practice was/still is considered as the contemporary expression running through the harlem renaissance and such poets as langston hughes who often read live with musicians and, in a bit of a tangent, can be seen in the works of the white poets (kenneth patchen, kenneth rexroth, allen ginsberg, anne waldman, etc) who performed with either rock, jazz and/or classical musicians/composers.

particular to african diasporic aesthetics, it is critical to note the importance of the griot and that tradition stemming from continental african communities that combine story-telling with performance and how that has been called upon through ‘blood memory’ by the black artists noted above and others.

i share this now as i’m finding some comments about my needing to ‘act’ and to, in essence, not be seen as a poet reading.  i find this comment on my work quite reductionist for two reasons:

(1) i am not an actor, have never taken acting classes and, therefore, do not want to impugn a very challenging art form with amateurish efforts at memorization and movement that are not rooted in my practice and my intent in creating performance work; and

(2) more importantly, a poet is a poet and reading poetry – alone or with other artists – is the performance of the poetry, something quite distinct from acting and, in my case, a tradition made contemporary by other african diasporic poets in north america.

i put this out because i think it time we consider the importance of the poet, and of the poet as performer.  i’ll close this with the words of two choreographers/dancers i’m now working with – jesse dell and aria evans – who write:

“Rich with imagery, sensation and texture Charles’ work is a goldmine for movement generation, embodying his work seemed innate to our bodies.  As we have begun to understand Charles’ process we have been able to use his process to inform our own.  Movement is a part of Charles’ research that is not generally shown in his performance work.  We used his movement improvisations as a catalyst to inspire our own movement vocabulary.”


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