Jem Rolls – a tall, intense performance poet with over two decades experience – first performed his poetry on stage at the age of 31. He began in London, took his work to Edinburgh, and has spent many summers performing on the Canadian Fringes.
Here he explains the art of the performance poet, and touches on the life and challenges that come with it.
What is performance poetry?
“It is a very, very free medium. There are no set rules. You should mistrust anybody who does put rules, definitions, categories upon it. That freedom gives you an awful lot of fun.
Looking people straight in the eye as you’re performing, and the simple physicality of the body, is surprising, very surprising, for a lot of theatre people.
You want to be able to do things on stage that people have never really seen before.
You are trying to develop a whole arsenal of vocal, verbal, writing techniques to keep people surprised.
I think performance poetry is about having lots of strong lines, so if you try to make the moments strong it makes holding people’s attention for the hour a lot easier.
It is about text, voice, face and body. All of these things have to work, and I think you’re not really a performance poet until you’re using all four of them.
I have been doing performance poetry for a long time and I’ve got progressively more technical. I have always, always done exceedingly physical shows, effectively more physical than most. Shocking for the audience the activity and speed. A lot of performance poets will only have 25% of the amount of words I use in the same amount of time.
The thing about performance poetry is that you can’t sit back and wait to be offered something or get to a certain level and think that’s enough.
Really if you sit around waiting for things to be offered you generally wait a long time and end up hungry.
When I first started doing this it was more like an off-shoot of the folk tradition in lots of places, although I would say that is probably not the case any more.
Some people use the handle ‘spoken word‘ and put it like that. I don’t really like the phrase ‘performance poetry‘ because it has too many syllables, but ‘spoken word’ always seems a bit dull to me.
So there is no great name for it although ‘slam poetry’ in a sense works, but I am not really a slam poet. That is a very energised style especially when people are good, and lots of them are very good indeed.
In ‘slam poetry’ there is a small ‘p’ for politics. Basically it is young people and communities articulating themselves in a free way and trying to do it in a way that people want to hear. They are the spokespeople, the genuine spokespeople for communities, for they are the articulate people.
I would say ‘performance poetry’ is essentially a young person’s thing. It is big. It is going to continue getting bigger and it is spreading virally amongst teenagers lots of whom want to be able to do this stuff and they find it very, very exciting. It is very easy to access the process of it, because it is just thinking and talking.
There is nothing to really exclude you.“
Why the Canadian Fringe?
“Canada is the perfect medium for a performance poet but before me none had tried, and it took quite a while for anyone else to try. There have been a few who have cropped up and done the odd fringe but very few have done the whole tour.
Usually what I do is write a new show and I do it for the whole tour. It only makes sense to me to do it that way because it takes so much work to get a show up to speed – to the point where you are happy with it.
The Canadian audience is not infinite at all. Basically you want everybody to think they can come to your show – old, young, whatever their backgrounds – that is the only way you can function. The big fringes are big but you still can’t exclude whole swathes of your potential audience.
A lot of the fringes go on for eight or ten days, and I’d be there for two weeks – two week hops across the country.
Some of the fringes I organise my own venue within the fringe and have a show every night. In Winnipeg I was on at 7.30 which was perfect. In other places the time varies so you can have good time slots and bad time slots. If you’re not on at set times you don’t get into the actual rhythm of doing it.
Most years I have some problem with my voice especially when my voice is getting used to it because I don’t perform much, or at all, in the winter so it is a bit of a shock to the system each time. Air-conditioning can really stuff you up.
It is like doing a half-marathon while shouting every other day, or most days, so you end up super-fit with the lungs of a mountain goat.
Physically it is gruelling but the point is that I am actually getting to do the thing I wanted to do – be a performance poet in a way that functions, and where there’s an audience for it.”
How does the Canadian Fringe compare to the Edinburgh Fringe?
Ultimately I can make a living in Canada, and it is very hard to make a living at all in Edinburgh.
Edinburgh is ludicrously tough…I know people who have done really well in Edinburgh, and there’s generally some luck involved, and I’ve know brilliant people do terribly. Most people out there struggle and I have no idea how I will do.
The thing about Edinburgh is you have to decide why you’re doing it. I’m really doing it for the aesthetic challenge. Most people who do it are happy to lose money if they are advancing their career in other ways. There are more producers, more people who can help you out production wise, than anywhere else on Earth where the English language is spoken, apart for perhaps New York.
Edinburgh is three weeks on the trot – a really, really full on three weeks. Winnipeg is also full on – it’s an intense, exhausting, chattering, exhilarating experience – and Edinburgh will be like that but more so.”
Who are the best performance poets – the Americans or the British?
“I always say that if you put the best of the Americans up against the best of the British performance poets it might well be that all the American acts are better than the British acts but you will probably rather watch the British acts because they will be fantastically more varied.
The whole slam way of doing it is a great homogeniser – it is almost as conventional as the 12-bar blues.
There are a lot of people trying to break out of that formulaic way of doing things.”
Have you ever sold any books or recordings of your work?
“No. I’ve never done that. I’ve never sold anything at all. Basically because if you do that it becomes something else. It would take me a long time to edit a poetry book to a point where I was actually happy with it and thought it was any good. To be honest it’s because I am not that impressed with most poetry books, and I am not that mad about my own work on the page…because they all start on the page.”
The link that follows is to a piece written by Jem Rolls on his blog (there is also more about his life under the profile section on the same page): the nakedness of the performance poet
My thanks to Jem Rolls for entrusting me with this interview in the early days of The Phraser.
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2018