Young Poets and Performance: An Interview with the Organisers of Knee Deep

Microphone on stage, by Zach Den Adel (reproduced under CC BY-ND 2.0 licence).

Microphone on stage, by Zach Den Adel (reproduced under CC BY-ND 2.0 licence).

For young poets based in the North East, the Knee Deep workshop held as part of Durham Book Festival will offer an opportunity to develop poetry for performance rather than for the printed page. READ caught up with the two organisers, Jasmine Simms and Tess Denman-Cleaver, to find out why performing poetry can bring a fresh impetus to creative writers. 

Jasmine, you’re a poet based at Durham University, while Tess, you’re a PhD student with a background in theatre. How did you two meet and start collaborating?

Jasmine: Knee Deep is a project by Tender Buttons performance company, for which Tess is Denman-Cleaver is artistic director. Tess and I met at the Dead [Women] Poets Society event, which I organised along with some friends as part of Durham Book Festival last year. During the event, I spoke on Stevie Smith – a huge artistic influence for me, and one of my favourite poets. It just so happens that the Knee Deep project also takes its inspiration from Smith – most particularly, from the many coastal walkers which appear in her poems. Tess consequently invited me to be Writer in Residence for the project, allowing me to join her down at the Stevie Smith conference at Jesus College, Oxford, where Tess led a fascinating workshop on approaching Smith’s writing as raw material for performance texts. Now, after a full year of thinking, reading, writing and reflecting, this Durham Book Festival event will mark the beginning of a year-long process of activities and collaborations. The whole project will culminate in a performance piece written by Tess and performed by Tessa Parr.

After a full year of thinking, reading, writing and reflecting, this Durham Book Festival event will mark the beginning of a year-long process of activities and collaborations

Tess: I was keen for Tender Buttons’ Knee Deep project to be a framework that could support a writer who shared similar concerns, stylistic approaches or inspirations. When I attended the Dead [Women] Poets Society event I was really impressed by Jasmine’s work, and glad to hear about her interest in Stevie Smith – who I think is a much overlooked poet.

Knee Deep explores what it’s like to write poetry for performance rather than for the page. Isn’t poetry more something we should enjoy privately, through the medium of the book?

Jasmine: In terms of our work, Tess and I seem to represent the two sides of the ‘performance poetry’ coin. Whilst Tess is a performance artist, whose writing is created with the end point of performance in mind, I am what is sometimes referred to in the industry as a ‘page poet’. I write my poems for the page and, whilst I enjoy reading them whenever the opportunity arises, on the page is more or less where they live.

The birth of the contemporary ‘performance poet’ has done a lot to break this binary. Poets, such as (too choose a popular example) Kate Tempest, write poems which live as much in the performance as they do on the (published) page. I remember my amazement when I first encountered Tempest, through a video on Channel 4’s Random Acts. Even my Dad, gazing over my shoulder, who has very little interest in poetry in general, was awestruck. There was some particular quality to what she was doing – impossible to pinpoint exactly – which was impossible to ignore. It certainly had all the best qualities of both poetry and performance art, and it certainly couldn’t have been done any other way than how she was doing it. When Tempest was presented with the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry, for me, this represented the coming together of two worlds in the UK poetry scene (‘performance’ and ‘page’), and like many, I delighted in it.

Photograph of performance poet Kate Tempest, standing at a microphone with her arms outstretched

When Kate Tempest was presented with the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry, this represented the coming together of two worlds in the UK poetry scene: ‘performance’ and ‘page’. Photograph by villunderlondon (reproduced under CC BY-ND-2.0 licence).

Tess: Ever since I studied twentieth century poetry as an undergraduate I have been especially interested in those poets who write with a sense of the sound of words as well as the meaning. Even when we read alone, in our heads, the sounds of words are part of that experience, and I think that performing one’s work in public or considering the act of speech inherent in the written word can benefit one’s poetic practice – even if the words are primarily meant for the page. I also believe that the idea that writing is meant to be experienced privately is a fairly new notion, which ignores the presence of oral histories in different cultures – including ‘our own’, here in the North East. I am a particular fan of Basil Bunting – a North East poet who advocated reading aloud, since the sound of the words carry the meaning as much as the symbolic function of the language.

You’re working with young local poets for Knee Deep. Why do you think performance is a useful way to help aspiring writers?

Jasmine: Despite all of the achievements of the contemporary ‘performance poetry’ genre, not least in breaking down social and cultural barriers, Tess and I both feel that the genre is now at risk of settling into something of an orthodoxy. Depending slightly of course on where one goes, popular performance poetry (particular amongst younger people) in the UK and US does seem to be converging towards a particular aesthetic – a certain rhythm, with increasingly familiar cadences and modulations. I suppose you could even say that performance poetry is perhaps developing its own cliches – albeit cliches of form, rather than content. I continue to look to always look to performance poetry for the most fresh and inspired subject matter.

This is where we hope that our workshop, and the opportunity to perform as part of Durham Book Festival, might be useful to emerging and aspiring young poets in Durham. Tess and I both want to emphasise the importance of finding a mode of performance which meets the needs of the poem. Just as ‘page poets’ have long acknowledged the phenomena of poems choosing their own forms (for example, when you start out writing a sestina, but realise some way towards completion that it really wants to be a sonnet), I believe the same is also true of poetry and performance. Poems demand their own ways of being performed and communicated. Stevie Smith was particularly famed for her various and specific ways of performing her poems – sometimes singing them, and sometimes even instructing her readers (on the page) to do the same! For a contemporary example of this somewhat magical quality, I would point to performance poet (and fellow Yorkshire lass), Jemima Foxtrot.

If the poem demands a particular mode of performance (I never consciously chose to be a ‘page poet’, but simply found that the poems I was writing demanded a particularly plain, unfussy way of reading), then it stands to reason that the poet has to really know their own writing; to be able to see it, understand it and hear it in different contexts, enough that the essence of it becomes somehow very apparent and familiar to us. There is a certain confidence that one gains when this stage is reached. I believe it is the same disarming quality we find in Kate Tempest; a poet who really knows what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it. It commands attention, in the best possible way.

What techniques do you use in preparing poetry for performance?

In our workshop for young poets in Durham back in June, which focused on generating new content using the ‘sea’ as a point of inspiration, we experimented in using defamiliarisation as point of departure. Together we translated extracts of poetry from unknown languages, using ‘Meri’ (‘Sea’) by Estonian poet Kalju Lepik, as raw material. Creative translation exercises such as this are often used by poets as a way of getting to the core of a poem. After all, a poem in translation is still the same poem. Its essence is somehow preserved.

For our workshop in October, in preparation for the upcoming Durham Book Festival event, we will use a process of defamiliarisation again, but this time as a way of getting to know our own writing, in order to learn how to perform it. Hearing our work read or performed in different voices, at different pitches, rhythms and tempos, in different settings, all helps us to understand what is essential to the poem, which can be seen as a sort of blueprint for how to perform it. Rather than simply performing or reading our work in the style of those around us, we hope to experiment with finding ways of performing which come directly from the work; the poem as a guide to itself.

Photography of Marsden Rock, near South Shields in the North East of England.

Marsden Rock, near South Shields in the North East of England.

Why did you choose the sea as the theme for this event?

Jasmine: The sea was chosen as a theme for this project, I believe, for several reasons. Partly because it is fitting with Tess’s research interests as part of her PhD. And partly, relatedly, because it features so often in Smith’s poetry. Tender Buttons is based in Newcastle, Stevie Smith hails from Hull, and it is for these reasons, too, that the project has focused particularly on the North Sea. Really, Knee Deep is a project interested not so much in the sea itself, as it is our relationship to the sea. The poem we used as material for the workshop in June, Lepik’s ‘Meri’ , is a love poem addressed to the sea. The question which we keep coming back to, as a sort of mission statement for the project, is of what it means to stand knee deep in the sea; half-in, half-out.

Tess: the sea is somewhat of an obsession for me – from Stevie Smith to Virginia Woolf and Ann Quin, I am drawn to writers who write about the sea – and have been making work that in some way features the sea for some years now.

Lastly, how can people get involved in Knee Deep?

flyer-for-knee-deepIf you are a young writer/performer (aged 14-25) based in the North East of England (including as a student), there is still time to send us your work, for the chance of being included in a performance as part of Durham Book Festival, as well as participating in the (free) accompanying workshop on Monday 10th October (4:30pm-7pm). In order to allow as many people the chance to apply as possible, we have extended the deadline to midnight on Sunday 2nd October. More details for how to apply can be found on the poster.

Tickets to the event itself, which takes place on Saturday 15th October at 18:30, can be found here, on the Durham Book Festival website. And you can stay up to date with the Knee Deep project and its events over the coming year here, or by liking the Tender Buttons Facebook page.

Finally, if you are a young poet aged between 12 and 29, and based in the North East, we urge you to get involved with Cuckoo Young Writers.

Knee Deep is just one of several poetry events running at Durham Book Festival this year. Other events include a celebration of Poetry from the North, a live performance of war poetry, and an evening with the Festival Laureate, Helen Mort


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