Performance Poetry – Dances With Words.

By  | May 14, 2014 | 0 Comments | Filed under: Poetry

When you think about performance poetry, your imagination probably trips back to the 1950s and the days of those smoke-filled coffee houses, beatniks at their bawdiest, black turtleneck sweaters and black berets. You think of bongo drums, improvisational jazz, hip, cool, groovy. Beat poetry. William S. Burroughs. Allen Ginsberg. Jack Kerouac.

That was then.

Performance poetry today in some ways is not much different. Hardcore performers/slammers/jammers will argue that simply reading the poem is not a performance, but instead merely a recitation. Performance poetry, they will argue, should push the boundaries of what poetry should be. It should be and often is, more or less, a theatrical interpretation of that poet’s work, designed to elicit a response, any response, from the audience.

My first exposure to performance poetry was an Open Mic night in 1999 at some now long-defunct, yes, coffee shop in Elora. The poet-performer, as he read his original poems, bobbed and ducked and weaved around the room. While I can’t speak for the rest of the audience, I will say that, yes, I applauded, more for the poetry itself than the performance, which at that time, I’m sorry to say, I found pretentious and self-indulgent.

While performance poetry is more than a recitation of one’s poetry in a public setting. The trick is to not simply recite the piece, mumble a weak “thank you, thank you very much…” in to the mic and shuffle off the stage; OWN THE POEM!! Give it the same (or more) passion that inspired you to write it in the first place! Give it life, and emotion!! But don’t get silly about it. Respect your work and, most of all, respect your audience. Yes, they deserve to hear/see your interpretation of your own work, but they also deserve to appreciate the poem on its own merits.

So, once you’ve mastered the art of performance poetry venture a step further and compete in a poetry slam. No. it’s not a bunch of writers down on the floor wrestling with paper (and in some cases, probably losing the match). Slam Poetry is nothing like that. Poetry slams are competitions at which poets read or recite original work. In some cases prize money is awarded to the winning poet.

Performance poetry in the Region of Waterloo has witnessed a surge in popularity in the last decade. While coffee house reading series come and go, Slam Poetry organizations have emerged to take the reins in the realm of Spoken Word events in this area. The KW Poetry Slam ( is a monthly spoken word competition open to any and all in the Waterloo Region. The group stages monthly slam competitions and competes in slam competitions at the national level. Elsewhere, Guelph Spoken Word ( began promoting slam competitions a decade ago, but has grown to provide monthly spoken word workshops, in addition to its own slam team.

Consider this an invitation all closet poets, all storytellers, the teachers and the students and anyone who understands the importance of engaging, dynamic, fun art. Come to a slam, read at an open mic, check out a poetry slam. Chances are you just might like it.



Bill Ashwell has been a member of the Cambridge Writers Collective and a volunteer tutor with the Literacy Group of Waterloo Region since 1995. He was a contributor for FM 98.5 CKWR’s Monday Night with the Arts radio program and has served as Literary Coordinator for the Cambridge Arts Festival. His work has been published in the Writers Undercover Anthologies, The Cambridge Wartime Scrapbook, and in Ascent Aspiration Magazine’s Aguaterra Anthology of poetry and fiction. In 2007 Bill was awarded the City of Cambridge’s Bernice Adams Memorial Award for Literary Arts.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *