As I set to work on my first (written) poetry collection, I have been thinking of my task as trying to find a body for each poem. A physical form; something that will allow to speak and act from the page with as much presence as if I delivered it myself. After nearly 20 years speaking my poems aloud on stage, I’m not so comfortable on paper (or screens). My poems feel disembodied.
How do you convince a reader to come along and give some of their precious time to your words? In performance, the actual voice and body, and the air we share, does most of the convincing. It says, ‘We are here. We are connected. We share this’. It’s a simple but profound transaction, and the audience has already showed up to listen. They are already there. On the page, I need to substitute that connection with something else: line breaks or word choices or commas – and that seems like a poor trade-off. But it’s necessary, I can see why a critical reader wants to be convinced that we are, in fact, here together.
So many textual tools can feel like the complete opposite of embodiment. They are small, inconsequential marks, that can be read many ways. They can be interesting, exciting, and also alienating. Poetry as text, to me, does not feel like a language that is easily shared; or at least, its shared-ness is complicated. When we physically share space, it often feels fine to hear a poem in a language we don’t know. We listen, we hear the ebb and flow of the voice, we hear the emotion, we hear the real person within the poetry. We are surprised by how much we do, after all, understand. But by the patterns of readership of much contemporary Australian page poetry, it might seem that the language of poetry is particularly resistant to being shared by people with widely or even slightly divergent backgrounds and experiences. That’s not to say it is all inaccessible; but most of the readers are other poets. They want to be challenged. In another sense, they are also an audience that is already there, with their own ideas of where ‘there’ is.
The awkwardness I feel working on this book is perhaps a disconnect between my familiarity with performance, a literal embodiment of the poem, and my lack of a language to describe or explain what I am doing in that performance. Without any formal performance training, I couldn’t exactly set out my intentions for each piece, and therefore its difficult to translate these hazy and instinctive performance choices into textual choices. I’ve heard that page poetry is framed by the silence of the white page, like song is framed by the silence it breaks. In the real, embodied, person-to-person world, I’m very comfortable with silence. On the page, not so much. I struggle to cut, to condense, to stop talking over that white space. Into the silence of the white page, all sorts of nefarious comments come creeping… “This poem has no urgency or interest. This is not what poems look like. Maybe I have nothing to say. Maybe I’m not a poet.”
The community of spoken-word has been, for me, a miraculous support network that usually carries me through these doubts before they can get too much of a hold on me. I’m just beginning to feel part of a wider community of published poets too, who are every bit as supportive and inspiring as I try to become a better writer. It’s just that the feedback takes a little longer to return once you throw the words out there. Perhaps it’s not any tangible, textual details that I’m missing in these poems, but the bright, vivid attention of the audience themselves. The way their thoughts and stories arise silently in their listening, and fill the space with sudden, urgent significance.