Perspective on Performance Poetry

An interview with Clint Anderson, a university lecturer in UHH’s English Department and Dean of Studies at Kamehameha about his point of view on the art of performance poetry

Staff Writer Holly S. Trowbridge
Photo Courtesy of Clint Anderson

Clint Anderson

How did you get into performance poetry?

A: “I’m an English major and I suppose it was a combination of different things. My mom pushed me academically and she always had me reading things. In college, I think it’s part of being a part in the hip-hop scene in the ‘80s and ‘90s, you know underground and pop. Actually, I kind of got pulled into a couple slams because I used to write a little rap and a little poetry. I ended up winning some of those which really encouraged me to the extent that I might have a talent for performance poetry. At the time, it gave a voice to some of the social issues I wanted to express, so I saw it as another vehicle for educating.”

How did you get involved with performance poetry?

A: “In terms of teaching performance and slam, it’s one of the things I taught in high school as well. It’s really one of those things that students gravitate towards because it’s kind of unfringed, new, and hip. It also pulls in from a bunch of different genres. There’s comedy, hip-hop, street poetry. It’s a place for a bunch of different styles to merge. And something you have to consider with performance poetry and slam poetry, in particular, is the audience. It’s not just a poetry reading but it’s a support group for poets. A lot of times it is cathartic for people to share feelings, but it doesn’t really engage the audience, so you have to focus on the service or impact you are having.”

What are some of your tips for performing such an intimate artistic style?

A: “I’ll just go back to the simplistic answer which is to consider the audience, which changes. If I’m at the university, or at a high school, or a particular cultural event, the tone will change and the impact changes, so in that sense the poems written for particular audiences might not work well for other audiences. That’s one of the biggest pieces of advice. The other is to have a goal with your poetry. It should serve some greater purpose. I think anytime you are gifted with someone’s attention, you owe them something.”

How do you think being involved with performance poetry helps you in everyday life?

A: “It helps on a couple of different levels. I think in my administration position, speaking in front of larger groups helps me on a confidence level. When delivering a message sometimes, it helps to incorporate little poetic elements, whether it’s imagery or metaphor. It helps people connect on a deeper level than simple prose might, or a direct speech might.”

How does poetry in general help you in everyday life?

A: “Well I think writing and performing, and the idea of being an artist really enhances and expands your worldview on different topics because through writing and performing, you are able to explore different topics that have been discussed ad nauseum in different and fresh, exciting ways. It brings a new spin to traditional ideas and it also offers commentary on newer ideas as well.”

What is your goal for performance poetry or teaching performance poetry?

A: “I think I would want students to leave feeling that they are artists because I think even students who write poems don’t consider themselves true artists. I think they might just be doing it for the assignment, or attempting poetry to some degree, but I think the recognition that you get from a performance piece, and being able to share that, and the reaction that you get really bolsters confidence. We watched a piece earlier where if other people acknowledge that your writing is a poem, then you are a poet. As far as a personal goal, I think just expounding on creativity, getting it out there into the world, and creating a venue for people to share thoughts, emotions, feelings, concepts, whatever they may be. My underlying goal would be to educate, of course.”

Why do you think it is important to learn performance poetry?

A: “There’s a difference between poetry for the page and poetry for the stage. Poetry for the page, you can revisit. A lot of times you can reinterpret it and it works differently when you’re seeing words. You are bringing your own kind of voice and narration to that piece, whereas a performance piece, it is direct. Because it is a disposable art, it has to have an immediate impact. So it can’t be something that can be revisited or reevaluated, it exists in that space and for that moment. Then the bulk of it is gone and maybe some ideas linger, but it’s done, so what emotional experience is taken away from your poetry?”

Is poetry destined to be performed?

A: “Historically, I would have to answer yes. If you go back to some of the earliest stories, like the Greeks, everything was evolved through oral tradition. Most cultures derived from oral tradition, which embody a lot of the elements of contemporary poetry. think the essence of poetry is embedded in the orality, like the idea of mo`olelo in Hawaiian culture.