“Listen to me! Voice in the poetry performance space” by Dr. Karen Simecek

Yesterday evening I attended a talk on Poetry at Hull University by Teaching Fellow Dr. Karen Simecek from Warwick University. The event organised by the Philosophical Dept introduced by Professor Nick Zangwill, at Hull University. The event was described as follows:

PHILOSOPHY AND LANGUAGES RESEARCH SEMINAR

“Listen to me! The value of voice in the poetry performance space”

What happens when words are spoken/performed by another? When does this enable different voices and perspectives to be heard? When might such performance of words have a silencing effect? 

KarenSimecek

Dr. Karen Simecek 

Dr. Karen Simecek (University of Warwick Faculty Page)

Whether the talk/seminar was widely advertised or how far it was open to non-students, I know not. I was signposted it by a friend who just happens to be conducting research in the same building.

Karen Simecek’s interests lie in philosophy and the aesthetics of poetry, on the page and the stage, particularly in a performance poetry setting, and the potential that offers to change and shape society. She refers to poetry as redeveloping a ‘civic function’ (she argues that poetry has served this function in the past) She looks at the notion of ‘Sharing’ the ‘who is doing the sharing’, ‘authenticity of voice’ and her notions of a ‘plurality of intersectional voices’ : voices heard from all sections of society creating a wide variety of meaning. Karen also refers to ‘good appropriation’ where another’s work is re-voiced in a sympathetic or collaborative way and ‘bad appropriation’ where the original meaning or intent of the work is lost or changed, in favour of forwarding some characteristic about the artist.

Karen’s example to illustrate this was problematic seeing as she chose Strange Fruit. The song famously sung by Billie Holliday and also Nina Simone (which a listener clings to as the iconic version is a generational thing I think)  but originally a poem written by Abel Meeropol in 1937 who was as I discovered later, a white Jewish teacher from the Bronx who upon seeing a picture of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith was so moved he wrote Strange Fruit. To counter these ‘good’ versions Karen introduced Jeff Buckley’s version of Strange Fruit, she described his as being from a privileged white male position, the words of the song becoming drowned out by his focus on the qualities of the guitar sound.

I wanted to raise at the time, a whole bunch of questions and did so: was the issue him being white and affluent and not black and poor – suggesting that only someone who has known that kind of oppression and racism could write about such things.  Was not his version just a question of his style? And the one I didn’t raise the issue that this poem had transformed into something else when made into a song: we were comparing apples (the original poem) with oranges (the song derived from the text) I got thinking about the atrocities done to Hallelujah originally Leonard Cohen then Buckley, followed by a hundred thousand pale imitations in folk clubs the world over, then turned into a sugary sweet pop anthem by a Saturday night talent contest winner.

It is fair to say perhaps too much time was spent on this argument of authenticity, but in the current climate where people are accused of speaking for others, people afraid to speak publicly about anything that they have not experienced for themselves it was hardly surprising. To yet further illustrate this someone brought up the question of Rachel Dolezal the woman who represented a black advocacy organisation but who was born of white parents. I suggested that if she did the job well, represented the concerns of her client group, then does it matter the colour of her skin?  Maybe it is I with the idealised view of the world.

When writing poetry, fair and accurate representation of others may be very much on your mind, but where and how does your own voice impact on the stories of those that you are telling? What responsibilities do you have to the subject group, to the decisions over form and presentation, and what about an audience, must you do right by them?

Very generously I was given the floor to read my new poem Ode to the Ice milers. It was inspired by a lively conversation with a good friend who had just completed an official ice mile herself Allison Cuthbertson. I prefaced the reading saying that I couldn’t swim, and later added I hadn’t witnessed the feat, or any other persons partaking in an ice mile, or open water swimming of any kind. I then asked did my poem lack authenticity.

We may not be numerous

we may not be glamorous

no special outfit to insulate

the skin. the icy cold immersion

a battle of endurance begins

as endorphins flood in.

Swim.

stroke legs breathe

stroke legs breathe

To Read Poem In Full Ode to the Ice milers (pdf version)

Dr. Karen Simecek talked about something called ‘affectivity in the performance space’, how the performer uses their body through movement and gesture, the voice, the musicality of delivery, lyrical rhythmic quality, choice of words and language used, to convey something of themselves. Playing in full the Dizraeli piece ‘Celebrate’ from the Poetry Society youtube channel, recorded in a studio setting, Karen suggested that this was in someway the artist presenting his authentic self, she emphasised his accent and the language he used, repeatedly referring to his Bristol origins.

It was immediately picked up on that this felt like urban patois creep, the Yardie speak that has crept into common parlance in the last two decades.  Perhaps once thought of as dialect from the streets, just as likely to be heard in an upmarket wine bar now as a chicken shop on the high street, and also increasingly common in the school playground. This direct and dare I say tough way of speaking, has been appropriated and emulated by some spokenword artists and lends the words and performance a kind of street cred: some status and an associated value system understood and accepted by their audiences.

Watch ‘Celebrate’ by Dizraeli

There is also a convergence of different things happening exemplified in Celebrate, that are seen in other works of this ilk – which claim toasting, freestyle battling and more recently Slam poetry as their breeding ground – which muddy the ability to dissect the form from the words, from the delivery. All of this is  complicated by the blurring of the potential audience types, bringing rap and hip hop fans, R & B audiences and poetry heads together in one place, all to see a really good performance poet do their thing.

This cross genre appeal perhaps creating some plurality in the audience, but whether it does the same within performers, I don’t know. The more people who see poets may go on to poet themselves… it’s true that ‘everyone’ is a poet these days, such is the rise of spokenword: is spokenword the right vehicle with the ability to give everyone a voice: could or should anything be?

As I watched the clip on screen, I categorised the performance as follows: patois, broken rhymes, conversational, modern language with high or classic art referencing, mythologising modern life, undermine the hierarchy, elevate the everyman: all aspirational stuff, no wonder people seek to identify with it.

Right at the beginning of Karen’s talk she mentioned poetry as a ‘civic function’ and I immediately wrote down Brexit poets, Eco warriors, leftie Corbinistas. There is a brand of performance poetry, perhaps it has always been there – I recall one or two Atilla gigs where I felt like I was being told – that seeks to tell you what to think, the kind that rams all kinds of worthy values down your throat and tells you why they are right and some other group, invariably you, is not. Rather than a plurality of voices as Karen hopes for, there is the potential for an issue-driven binary of voices.

Rather belatedly I began to understand that some of the authenticity argument lay with the person performing the work, rather than how they and the work were being viewed and received by an audience.

Karen left us with a rather paradoxical idea around the statement ‘ write what you don’t know’

Writing what you don’t know can be both positive and negative, negative because it could represent a misuse of power, and positive because it enables an author to find a truth that is not constrained by the complications of real experience.

I very much enjoyed the talk and debating points after. I was thrilled, as I think would other writers –  who are often charged or indeed seek to represent the stories of particular groups – in the city be, that these questions we ask ourselves at the beginning and throughout particular projects, are being studied and explored in such depth.

(I’m reminded of the activist Olivette Cole – Wilson remarking last week in the OUTing The Past Conference in Leeds ‘I cannot speak for the BAME communities – as the promotional material proscribed – “I can speak only for my own experience” )

Poets and writers can be asked or alternatively themselves seek immersion within a group and produce a work that somehow reflects/represents/embodies –  all those words that raise warning flags – the experiences of others. How the work is presented, how it is then used by others, particularly but not exclusively by those in positions of power, represent an ongoing concern for writers.

Fears over silencing voices are entirely valid, but so are the fears of censorship, of writers being so concerned of causing offence, that they no longer write about anything of any important. Or if they have to preface their work with sensitivity warnings and disclaimers then I believe the writers and works will be all the poorer for it.

If I as a total non-swimmer – I am however extremely adept at sinking –  cannot write about ice-swimmers who is going to do so?

———————————

I do not see myself as an authority on poetry or philosophy or aesthetics. I write and perform poetry and attended the talk given by Dr. Karen Simecek which provoked this response. If I have misrepresented any of Dr. Karen Simecek’s ideas then please do contact me readers have the right of reply below.

Additional:

The only thing I wanted to add about my talk (something that got lost a little in the way the Q&A went) is that my focus is more on who we should ask to give voice to a poem that has already been written and what spaces should be created to facilitate that. So the issue is not really one of censorship, since I wasn’t trying to make a recommendation for whether a work is to be performed or not but more that there can be a silencing or empowering effect depending on who is giving that work a voice.

The morally worst works can be reclaimed by the groups they target, or other perspectives added to the original by encouraging a range of voices to perform the work. I think I got a bit drawn in to the discussion on who can write or what one ought to write where my main focus is what happens in the performing of the works. Dr. Karen Simecek

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