Evolving Spaces: Poetry, Performance and Permeability

By Charlotte Smalley

Of course, since its roots from Ancient Grecian oration, poetry has a connection with performance. Its intricate attention to rhythm and metre make it ripe for verbal expression. Contemporarily, poetry finds its home on a page more often than a stage, is studied scrupulously in schools or relished at leisure alone. However, with the rise in mainstream media of spoken word or ‘slam’ poetry, the form begins to hold hands more fiercely with performance once again. Beyond such verbal exploration, poets continue to evolve the literary space through interdisciplinary experimentation, such as dance and materiality. This defamiliarisation with traditional form demands a renewed perspective from the reader, a freshness in our understanding of what constitutes ‘literary’. Poetry springs from the page to traverse so many innovative realms – read on to hear more about some of the wonderful people facilitating its escape.

Spoken Word

Naturally, spoken word – given its current prevalence – deserves a mention. Owing much of its development to African culture, performance poetry makes intimate and extravagant use of euphonia and prosody. It has seen significant progress through the Beat Generation in the 1940s onwards, where the act utilised its musical attention as a vessel for conveying emotional context. Its evolution grew through the Black Arts and Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s, with voice functioning as an externalisation and articulation of what needed to be heard; a political galvanisation of the poetic. As such, it transformed to a vehicle for linguistic liberation, its focus on phonaesthetics giving way to a rawer essence of communication.

An undeniably influential example is Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’, unapologetic and unassailable in her words and her oration:

Similarly, spoken word poetry paves the path for an expression of vulnerability in the face of social issues. One of the most prevalent avenues for this is the Button Poetry collective, based in the US. The group’s Youtube channel boasts a slew of young and talented poets, demanding to take up space by breathing a beautiful authenticity from their written words into the external framework performance poetry heralds. Below you will find a few examples to ignite inspiration:

Blythe Baird – When the Fat Girl Gets Skinny – YouTube

Siaara Freeman – The Drug Dealer’s Daughter – YouTube

Darius Simpson – We Don’t Die – YouTube

Additionally, if you’re in search of a Surrey-based audience for your own work, look no further than Solar Sisters of North Street in Guildford and its regular ‘Poetry and Pizza’ open mic nights. Friendly and appreciative (plus freshly-baked pizza) – sign up for an April slot now!

Dance and Movement

Beyond the verbal, the literature of dance is also finding its place; Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa’s Cane, Corn and Gully (2022) is sensitive to the choreography of language. The work uses movement to explore and release the narratives of enslaved Barbadian women; Kinshasa composes hieroglyphic labanotation* in harmony with her poems, manifesting movement from the prosody* and an interrogation of oppression.

You don’t have to be a dancer to decipher these instructions, just knowledgeable of labanotation technique. If you are able to translate these symbols, please let us know in the comments what meaning you are able to draw from the movements!

In a more overtly artistic avenue, Swansea-based Àfrica Ollé weaves poetic movement with textiled fluidity, dissecting the notions of gender conformity through multi-media manifestations. I was fortunate enough to witness a display of their work in a ‘Queer Reflections’ event in collaboration with the ‘On Your Face’ project and the Glynn Vivian Gallery of Swansea. The work involved Ollé purposefully roaming the room, scrunching and unfolding and wrapping and shedding a patchwork outfit-cloak-metamorphosis, taking the positions of stereotypically feminine and masculine poses, ultimately questioning and deconstructing the boundaries gender identity presents. Unfortunately, the dynamic nature of Ollé’s work renders it nearly unrecordable, granting permanence in the experience and asking the observer to absorb the work purely in the moment. However, you can view photographs of the work through Swansea Art’s website

Physical Materialisations

As evidenced from the above examples, voice and movement can serve as materialisations of language. However, poetry also finds routes of materialising from the page silently. One such example is the elegiac collage of Anne Carson’s Nox (2010). The work (it would be reductive to name it a book) takes shape as an accordion-folded scrapbook, a physical epitaph for Carson’s brother. In its physicality, Nox transcends the chronicle-isation of grief and instead offers pure memory, a loving compilation of poetry, photographs, letter fragments, definitions, and quotations.

See an ‘unboxing’ of the work here: Presenting Nox by Anne Carson – YouTube

In a lighter sensibility, Chris Ware’s Building Stories is constructed as a graphic novel in box form, spanning a number of documents: broadsheets, comic books, newspapers, posters – an experimental structure presenting a multilayered story resistant to chronological or even logical orders of reading. This arrangement demands re-reading, re-understanding, re-calibrating the interlocked levels of deliberate directionlessness in order to engage with the narrative Ware simply describes as “[following] the inhabitants of a three-flat Chicago apartment house: a thirty-year old woman who has yet to find someone with whom to spend the rest of her life; a couple who wonder if they can bear each other’s company for another minute; and finally an elderly woman who never married and is the building’s landlady”.

See an ‘unboxing’ of the work here: Building Stories Chris Ware Unboxing – YouTube

My final spotlight shines upon the University of Surrey’s own Astra Papachristodoulou and her works in sculptural poetry. Papachristodoulou uses bio-resin, beeswax, and more to entrap and enmesh her poetry, its artefactual presence asking the reader to reconsider how they move through and understand the work. It commands interactivity and intricate attention, realigning the relationship between reading and reader.

[Image from her website: Astra Papachristodoulou | Poet + Artist | London (astranaut.co.uk)]

You can also see videos of her sculptural work and film poetry via Astra Papachristodoulou – YouTube

Poetry is constantly shifting to assert its permanence: whether that be through performance, movement, sculpture or the very nature of the ephemeral itself. Works such as these subvert the restrictions of the written word and gift the reader a poetic process rather than mere poetic permeability. Perhaps you dance to spoken word or write lyrics in the sand – let us know how you free language from the confines of the white page in the comments below!

*Key terms:

Labanotation – a system of diagrams used to record and analyse human movement.

Prosody – the patterns of rhythms and sound used in poetry.


Born and raised in Southampton, Charlotte Smalley is currently undertaking her doctorate in Creative Writing at the University of Surrey. Her earliest prose piece, Polly’s Surprise Party, written at the wise age of six, has been heralded as a masterpiece by her mother. Since such success, she wanders and wonders the realm of poetry and its hybridised possibilities, morphing psychoanalytic theory with experimental form.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s