Performance Art

It’s become a distant memory by now, something that’s nearing twenty years old but which still sticks with me. 

I have never been the most confident of ‘performers’ when it comes to doing readings. I have said this in the past.

I read very quickly and I’ll fumble around with words and the WORST is when I realize there’s a misspelling or wrong word or that I need to take a curse out and have to think on the fly. 

The funny thing is that I ENJOY reading my stories. 

The more I have done it over the years the more I have put into the ‘performance’ aspect of it. It allows me to put more life into it. To wake my characters from the page and to to lead the listener down the path. 

THAT is the fun of it, but I’ll get back to that. 

I remember, though, a disastrous performance in the winter of 2006. 

I was part of an arts group that put on events in Flint, Michigan. I had been with them for a couple of years and loved being around so many brilliant, and creative people. We were really a part of the revitalization of the arts scene in the city and it felt great. 

I was part of a show called ‘Used’ that was about recycling and trash and all of that sort of thing. I had written a story, I can’t even remember it off the top of my head, that I really dug and that it turned out others liked it too. I found out that one of our members, an artist, wanted to pair with me for a performance of my piece. He never spoke to me about it in any depth, or what the plan was. 

I just knew that he and his band were going to put music to my back and I was going to read my story in front of them. 

Weird, but neat. 

I had never done something like that before. 

I hadn’t even really seen it done. 

It’s something I knew about, that I knew happened, but had never seen, so this was new ground for me. 

The event came and it was wonderfully realized and a busy night. 

I was nervous and exhilarated to read. 

The time came and I pulled out my papers and got in front of the mic and the band got set and then NOOOOOOOOISE. 

A wall of noise hit me and I was put into shock because I hadn’t realized or been clued in to the fact that the band this artist had formed for this show was a noise-rock band. 

Thumping drums, jangled guitar. 

I pushed on and began to read and there was no way you could hear me over the noise. 

I pressed on and the louder they got I think the quieter I got and the faster I read so that in the end there was no way anyone really got anything out of my reading. 

As soon as I was done I hurried away from the mic, embarrassed and enraged, and let the band do whatever they were going to do. 

It set the tone for a night that was to only get worse but it also set in my mind that I was right to hate performing my work in front of people. 

Only, I wasn’t right. 

At all. 

And they weren’t all wrong. 

The artist should have planned with me. 

He owed it to me. 

I dunno if I didn’t pay attention, or wasn’t available, but that’s first and foremost is we should have had a plan. 

I should have been a sport and gone for it. 

I wasn’t ready to, at that point in my life, but I should have accepted the challenge and joined their choir of doom and lead it. 

I wish I had had it in me to really PERFORM the piece. 

But, again, I wish I had been clued in to the plan so I could perform it. 

Pulling a ZINGER on me wasn’t sporting. 

It may have made the band and artist look cool but it removed it from being a collaborative piece. 

And that sucks. 

I should have not let them ruin things for me. 

I should have just rushed headlong into it because there was nothing to lose at that point. 

What I didn’t see then, and what I see now, is that performing a piece, a story or poem, gives it life it doesn’t otherwise have. It’s an adaptation that you are directing and mastering. 

As words on a device or page it can only live within the minds of the readers. 

With a performance though you can set the tone, you can create the characters, and you can really ratchet up the mood and tone of it. 

Sure, you can totally blow it and fail, but that’s up to you and whether you give yourself to the piece or not. 

I have a friend that has a poem that has become his signature piece. I have heard it at least a dozen times over the years. With each reading though he has made the piece more and more a living, breathing thing. It’s a song on its own, a chant, a hymn, and he has made it a holy thing that he shares with the audience. 

That’s the power of performance. 


There is a reason that poetry has more power when you see the poets performing them.
There’s a reason why ‘street’ poetry and ‘beat’ poetry have that punch – because it fully involves the author as artist and lets them light the torch to lead the way. 

It’s not easy to perform, and to do it well. 

Writers and poets are not necessarily the most outgoing of the artists, but if we can learn to embrace the art form, and to exploit it, it because powerful tool for us to use and it shows us sides to our work we may not have seen before. 

In a reading a lighthearted tale can take on a tone of seriousness that wasn’t seen before. Or a horror story can really become horrifying if the performance is right. 

It’s not a thing you pick up overnight, not at all, but in time, if you give yourself to the work, and to the challenge, you can surprise yourself and realize how powerful your words really are. 

Speak it into life, friends, and if the crowd isn’t listening, scream it until they do. 

…c…

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