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Opinion Screening out the art of communication

TIM WELLS takes issue with poets mumbling from a mobile at spoken-word gigs

OVER the last few years I’ve noticed it’s become a thing for poets to read from mobiles. Not me, I’ve still got the sort of Nokia that any self-respecting lag can smuggle round the nick. Not only that, I need bins to read the screen.

While I have the older person’s correct disdain for technology, it’s not just that which riles me. People are face down in mobile phones wherever I go, all the time. Stage space just isn’t established when you see one on stage. I don’t think you’re taking the time to talk to an audience when you’re mumbling into a screen. I don’t think you’ve taken care and precision over your writing when you’re scrolling through your phone, though I do like the irony that the scroll is an outdated form of reading.

One result of so much information being online is that hardly any of it is believable. At least a sheet of paper or a notebook is a physical thing that shows there’s some substance to your work, or something to be challenged if not.

It’s not just the millennials' tech, though — there are decent poets utilising and exploring technology in interesting ways.

Ross Sutherland and Amy Cutler both deliver engaging, entertaining and erudite work, but there’s a lack of eye contact between the poet and the audience when all we can see is the top of your head and your downy cheeks reflected in the glow of your device. No eye contact, no connection, no trust and no-one’s listening to you any more. The younger people in the audience are already on their mobiles.

In the 1980s us ranting poets had an unspoken, but enforced, rule of “no paper onstage.” I didn’t quite agree with it and it fell out of favour as we got older due to memory and eyesight — they don’t get any better, whippersnappers — and we relied more and more on paper.

Personally, I’ve long believed that for the quackademics the difference between a “poet” and a “performance poet” is a regional accent. I think that for many of us there should be paper on stage, the BBC won’t think it’s literature unless they see it and us working class poets need to overcome the page. Even if we read by heart, it’s useful that the page is seen to be stepped over.

In 1968's Bomb Culture, Jeff Nuttall wrote: “The only thing preventing poetry becoming a mass commodity (as it had been in medieval times, when it was oral, before it became the prerogative of literacy) was orthodox publishing … The current popularity of Beatles lyrics, Lennon’s poetry, public poetry readings, the popularity of a lyric like A Whiter Shade of Pale, indicates that the old trade-cry of the literary agents and publishers — ‘Too obscure for the general public’ — meant simply 'Too obscure for me, hampered as I am by a public school, Oxbridge conditioning.' I once asked poet Edward Lucie-Smith why his year at Oxford turned to the Movement poets for their example. He replied: “They were the only contemporary poets we knew.”

They’re old examples, but we’re in a similar situation. Spoken-word poetry has fought hard and built an audience, let’s address it. Reading from a mobile phone is something an individual does, great if you’re liking an Ian Duhig joke or swiping left to Sophie Cameron on Tinder.

But a poetry audience is communal. Give yourself the respect of having confidence in your words and the audience the respect that you do so. Clarity of voice and purpose, as well as eye contact, mean you’re not phoning it in.



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