Jem Rolls is a performance poet with nearly two decades of experience. He was born in 1962 and first performed his poetry on stage at the age of 31. He began performing in London, then took his work to Edinburgh before a decade on the summer Canadian Fringes.
Here he explains the art of the performance poet:
“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 to be had.
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 that 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.”
Thanks to Jem Rolls and the Farnham Museum where the interview took place.
In the next section of the interview Jem talks about performing at the Edinburgh and Canadian Fringes.