Luke Wright argues that the best poetry, like music, only comes alive on stage
At Poetry International I will be debating with my fellow live poet Lemn Sissay, who will argue that performance poetry is dead, that maybe it was never even born in the first place. I will argue that it is very much alive and thriving.
Performance poetry was an alien concept to me until, at the age of 17, I went to Colchester Arts Centre to watch punk legend John Cooper Clarke perform with the Independent's poet-in-residence Martin Newell and young gun Ross Sutherland. Until that day in 1999, poetry was just the dusty stuff I had read in school.
The poetry I saw that night wasn't about "feelings" or ancient history. Instead, I heard stuff about getting beaten up outside a chip shop, boy racers, the pop charts, drug-taking. The poems were more like lyrics, I thought. After that night I abandoned my guitar and my rubbish indie band, and set about becoming a performance poet. Within a month I had sought out Ross Sutherland and we formed an alliance that we called Aisle16, recruiting other young poets along the way.
Performance poetry has enjoyed (or suffered) a few bouts of brief popularity since the 1960s. First it was the Mersey Beat poets dropping brand names into their work and performing alongside pop stars; next was John Cooper Clarke and the punk generation; he was followed by ranters such as Attila the Stockbroker (who graced the cover of Melody Maker). Then, in the mid-1990s, someone decided that poetry was "the next rock'n'roll", and Murray Lachlan Young became the "million-pound poet" with a short-lived record contract from EMI. Performance poetry hasn't died after these flashes of media attention; it's just gone back to its sweaty underground rooms and got on with it.
The new generation of live poets are better placed to make a living from their passion than poets were ten or 20 years ago. A flourishing "poets in schools" programme provides them with their bread and butter and plants the seeds of enthusiasm in future audiences. And opportunities to perform are increasing by the day, with clubs opening across the country. The growth of "slam" - the competitive art of poetry, a bit like a rap battle - has given clubs an exciting way to present poetry and attract new punters.
Aisle16 began collaborating on projects in 2004 and our last show, Poetry Boyband - a satire on ourselves - presented our poems with a digital visual background and mixed in elements of choreography, character comedy and traditional theatre staging. We have taken our work in this new format to international theatre festivals such as Divadelná Nitra in Slovakia, but we still rant out poems in the cabaret tent at Glastonbury every year. This summer I took a solo show to Edinburgh, where it was listed as comedy, received five-star reviews from national papers and sold out for much of the run.
The success of performance poetry in these other mediums proves that it is not dead, just homeless. It hasn't yet got its own section in the Edinburgh Festival programme and is lumped in with theatre at performance festivals. But this will change. Performance poetry will get some breaks over the next few years. It'll probably get called "the new rock'n'roll" again. It will not die. Performance poetry is a weed that can live inside other art forms and still stay true to its roots.
Luke Wright is appearing at Poetry International 2006 on 28 October, 2pm, Purcell Room, South Bank Centre, London SE1