Page versus Stage Poetry – 3 myths and a personal conclusion

“That’s a *page* poem, not a stage poem.”

Go to enough spoken word workshops and open mics, you’ll eventually hear someone make a comment similar to the one above. They may be referring to their own work or someone else’s. Either way, it’s a puzzling, maybe even infuriating statement. Especially if, like me, you came to performance poetry after years as a secret scribbler. Or even if you’re an accomplished submitter and publisher of your work in the print or electronic media. What does it actually mean? How does a page poem differ from a spoken word poem? Are there a new set of rules? Will you be able to learn them? Have you wasted your time with iambic pentameters?

Here are some myths I’ve encountered that have since been busted for me by more experienced page and stage poets.

Myth 1. A spoken word poem should be three minutes long

When writing page poetry, we rarely focus on how long it takes to read the poem. Once we enter the spoken word arena, we eventually hear someone bemoan that their poem is shorter/longer than three minutes. After a while, it becomes an implied objective – the haiku lovers among us start stretching for those extra stanzas whilst the epic poets hack away at their rhymes. This is not necessarily necessary. This myth probably originates from competitive poetry slam rules that state competitors get three minutes to deliver a poem before starting to lose points. However, there are many forms and venues of performance poetry other than slam, where much shorter or longer pieces would be welcome, as long as they are entertaining, meaningful and cohesive. Where audience engagement counts more than scores and points. If you intend on competing in slams, you might want to use your allotted three minutes to best effect. However even in a slam competition, I would argue that an effective and well-shaped two-minute piece would score points over a poem straining to reach three minutes.

Myth 2. Rhythm, meter and syllable counts only matter when you’re writing for the page

Attend a traditional page poetry class, a teacher will eventually explain “feet” (one “beat” or the smallest unit of measure in a poem – usually consists of one stressed and one unstressed syllable – the “iambic” feet is an example — a light stress followed by a heavy stress) and “meter” (pattern of beats or how many “feet” appears in a line – a “pentameter” has five feet on a line). Whilst spoken word appears more informal and colloquial, both in use of language and rhythm. It just needs to sound good, right?

What I learnt: traditional poetry forms have something to do with the natural rhythms of our speech and language. Teaching ourselves these forms can can help us use rhythm and syllable count more consciously to evoke feeling and tone during performance. For example, the iambic pentameter is common in English poetry because:

“the length of the pentameter matches the breath capacity of our lungs. The iambic foot has wide currency for a similar “natural” reason. It is the paramount sound in any string of English words, thus it is the most fluid, the most uncontrived sounding meter.”
— from “A Poetry Handbook”, Mary Oliver

Ms Oliver goes on to explain using shorter lines gives a feeling of anxiety or urgency, whilst longer lines give a feeling of languidness or perhaps, importance.

Think the iambic pentameter is old-fashioned? Check out the first verse of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”:

His PALMS are SWEATy, KNEES weak, ARMS are HEAVy 
There’s VOmit ON his SWEATer alREADy, mom’s spaGHETTi
He’s NERVous, but ON the SURFace he LOOKS calm and READy 
To DROP BOMBS, but HE keeps ON forGETtin 
What HE wrote DOWN, the WHOLE crowd GOES so LOUD 

Myth 3. Some poems are page poems, and others are stage poems – and never the twain shall meet

We bring our poems to a workshop, only to ask plaintively – is this a stage poem, or a page poem? Do I perform it or shall I publish it? Which category do I use?

There are helpful guidelines, for example:

  • Highly abstract poems that benefit from contemplation or multiple readings are probably more suitable as page poems
  • Poems written to be performed and heard, that benefit from dramatization are probably more suitable as stage poems

However, all rules and guidelines are regularly broken at your nearest open mic. I’ve seen an extremely accomplished performer provide meaning and nuance to a very abstract poem – by providing a different and appropriate feeling and tone to every line of the poem. And I’ve seen highly dramatic poems translate beautifully onto the page through the sharp and judicious use of imagery.

The dichotomy between page and stage also doesn’t take into account the wide range of publication options and performance choices. A poem doesn’t necessarily need to appear in a print tome, with illustrations, as a cartoon, as an audio CD, with musical accompaniment, or as a YouTube video. Furthermore, ‘Spoken Word’ in Melbourne is made up of a great variety and styles of open mics and performance venues. This is reflective of the range of audiences and performers. If the words are spoken, then it is “spoken word” including poets who read their rhymes straight off the pages of their chapbooks, poets who sing their poems out, poets with rap-style delivery, freestyle poets or indeed the poet who delivers a perfectly timed and choreographed slam-style poem.

Conclusion: The lines between page and stage poetry is blurry. Each benefits from the skills developed practising the other.

What I’ve eventually discovered is that the line between page and stage is very, very blurry. The guidelines are helpful, but in the end the poet is the final arbiter and judge on how they wish to polish or edit their poem.

One useful tack is to keep multiple versions of a poem with differing emphasis for the medium used. That sometimes when a poem is judged by peers and teachers as being “only for page”, it is actually lacking clarity and dramatization and even the page version would benefit from editing. Likewise, a draft that is “only for stage” may be lacking depth or structure. Most of all, I’ve learnt that I don’t know enough about either side of the tall, wide fence, and every time I’ve been forced to scale the wall, both kinds of my poetry gets richer.

Choose the publication or performance medium that helps your poem come alive. And why limit yourself to one or the other? Take advantage multiple mediums, find out which works for you.

This applies as well to readers and audiences: the same poem can sometimes confer different layers and highlights in different forms. Seek out that album of the poet reading your favourite page poem. Ask to see your favourite video on the page. Go on, live a little. Cross the categories.

Waffle Irongirl