Uncomfortable Poets / by Lenni Sanders

At the standard spoken word night there will be a real range of styles from those that energetically perform words learnt to those finding comfort behind a notebook. There will be people who have stood up in front of an audience for years and give off that feeling of comfort on stage and others, more nervous, who the audience offer that comfort to with kind listening ears. However people present their work there is, in the spoken word scene, a focus on the language. How the audience hear the writing maybe influence how they perceive it but it’s still the writing itself that lies at the very centre of the experience.


As poets, it’s natural that Lenni and I had to be very conscious to put the focus of our performances onto the experience rather than the text. Moving from poetry, where hours of writing is presented on a stage, to performance, in which we create an experience live with participants, has been a fun and challenging task. How far we’ve come in how we see our work can definitely be seen in how we devise it. For our first performance we sat down together and riffed a poetic script that we thought would lead the participants through the feelings and thoughts that we wanted to convey. It was only when we started to turn this script into the actual performance that we realised how limiting that was. Our years of writing and reading poems in our own spoken word habitats was showing through — something had to change.


With the help of Keisha Thompson and Matt Fenton at Contact Theatre, we dramatically slashed the script and put the emphasis on sharing an experience with our participants. We wanting to engage with, rather than present to, our audience. It was unsettling for two poets. I couldn’t rely on the usual spoken word unspoken understanding of no heckling. If it went badly, I couldn’t just go back to my seat without making eye contact and sit quietly. We were in an environment we hadn’t been in before with all the usual performance nerves and then an equal dose of new performance nerves. After about eight hours of performing Empty Kitchen, we realised that this new buzz of the unknown whilst performing was what we wanted more of. For artists that had worked in a medium where you have all the control, to take on a form in which you handed a lot of that over was exciting and new. It felt as much like playing as it did performing.

From there, our focus on experience has far outweighed our instinct to create written content that we can comfortably recite. We want to make ourselves a little bit nervous. Create spaces for the participants to change direction and contribute. We try to make it feel like we are all performing together, breaking the authority that allows us to feel safe in spoken word circles.


I still perform poetry the same way as I did before, walking up behind a microphoneand reading my words whilst trying to stop my right leg (always my right leg) from jiggling with nerves, but working with Lenni on iOrganic gives me a space to explore and experiment. I think what makes it so fun is that we are both so willing to properly investigate ideas and then make them practically happen. We continue to devise performances that make us nervous when we realise exactly what we’ve put together and that it’s something new, but that doesn’t stop us making them. We are uncomfortable poets that try to make spaces in which audience members feel comfortable participating. We genuinely need our audience, not just for figures for funding bids, but so that we can create the best performance possible.


Harry