Ask the Expert
answers from Ben Mellor on Performance Poetry
How did you first get involved with performance poetry?
When I was about 14 our school took us on an Arvon course, which really opened my eyes to poetry, but I was already acting in a youth theatre and screaming down a mic in a grunge band so the writing and performing fell together naturally. It wasn’t till I was 17 that I performed my first poem in public though. My A-level English teacher had got me to write a poem in response to Carol Ann Duffy’s Psychopath for my coursework, and I ended up reading it at the Poetry Café in London as part of the Poetry Society’s young poets launch.
I write poetry and go to poetry nights but have never performed any of my work. I'd like to but am worried it'll sound completely different out loud. I'm really nervous. Can you give me any advice?
‘Leap! The net will appear’. It’s massively cheesy but it’s true. Go to a warm, friendly open mic where they will be receptive to new readers (there are loads around, look on Write Out Loud), and just try it. If you’re worried about how you sound practice in front of a mirror, or the cat, first. Even better if you have a friend/partner you can read to and get some feedback, that might make you feel more confident. Some people prefer to have the text in their hand to hide behind, but if you want to learn it try recording yourself and listening back to it on headphones as you’re doing other things. It’ll get you used to hearing your own voice too, which I still find disconcerting to this day!
Who and what inspires you most to do what you do?
This question is almost impossible to answer because it’s so broad, and influences and inspirations fluctuate over time. Generally though, I’m usually inspired to write about things I want to speak up about; injustices that anger me, hypocrisies and contradictions (my own included) that make me laugh. But also things I think we should celebrate, and stories I want to tell about people and places that aren’t often heard about, or that present values that run counter to the mainstream myths and messages.
How do you become a beat-boxer? Got any tips?
The track that inspired me to learn to beatbox was Saul Williams’s Twice the First Time. He does a really simple beatbox at the beginning of the track and I thought, ‘I could do that’. So I taught myself that beat, and it became infectious. I would do it everywhere, particularly the shower (great bass) and on my bike (good for breath control). I listened to people like Rahzel and tried to copy what they did, and later on went to workshops with artists like Baba Israel and Jason Singh. The only way to learn is by doing it, either on your own or with others. Copy the people you love till you develop your own style, go to live shows, workshops or just watch videos on line. There is a fantastic online community with loads of video tutorials and even a phonetic alphabet of beatboxing at www.humanbeatbox.com.
How powerful can poetry be?
It depends on your definition of powerful. I think poetry is very powerful on a personal level; it can, and does, change peoples’ lives. But is it powerful enough to change history, to change the world? I don’t know. People are fond of quoting Auden in this debate, who said ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. But he went on in that poem to say ‘it survives, a way of happening, a mouth’. Great poetry, like great protest songs, can sustain the human spirit and nourish those who bring about change. And arguably, social change is only possible through individual transformation anyway.
What are your three top tips for anyone wanting to perform their own words?
- Learn it. It’s possible to read well from the page, but in order to really perform a piece I think you have to know it by heart, inside out and back to front so you can experiment with rhythm, tone and cadence. Also, constantly looking down at the page stops you from making…
- Eye Contact. It’s the main vehicle for conveying the energy of your work, and if done well it can make a room full of people feel like you were speaking to them each alone. If you find it difficult to make eye contact at first you can direct your gaze just over peoples’ heads, but it’s kind of obvious you’re avoiding them. It’s much more powerful to do it for real, and that just comes with…
- Practice. Alone at first, then to your nominated first listener/viewer (friend, partner or pet, see above), and most importantly live. I’ve been performing some of my pieces for years and I still find new things in them, new ways of saying them and new challenges in performing them. Also if you’re going to use a mic it’s good to get used to the equipment, and not just the mic but the stand! Having to fumble around with that can destroy your confidence before you’ve even opened your mouth.