a cross between elvis and johnny cash

word-wonderland-picAfter performing at La Mama Poetica and Dante`s over the last week as part of the 2009 Overload Poetry Festival, Overland Overloaded’s Ben Pobjie contemplates exactly what he expects from a ‘poetry’ audience, apart from the disgusted walk-outs he’s come to love:

After performing at Dante’s as part of “Takin’ It To The Streets” at the Overload Poetry Festival Launch, a poet approached me with the most surprising compliment I have ever received.

“You’re like a cross between Elvis and Johnny Cash,” she exclaimed.

I honestly did not see that coming. I could understand using one or the other in a “cross between” comparison – as long as the other half of the equation was something like “Peewee Herman” or “Ted Bundy”. But the two combined? Astounding.

And reassuring, because to be honest I wasn’t quite sure how I’d gone over at that gig. ben-pobjie-pic1Oh yes, there were laughs, but there also…not-laughs, if you get my drift. Audience pockets of quietude that made the insecure part of me suspect they were sitting stony-faced and not amused in the least, and the slightly less insecure part of me suspecting they were just confused – a state, I admit, which is not unnatural for anyone listening to my work, especially for the first time. There could, of course, be a horrid mixture of the two – confusion and non-amusedness both stemming from a deep sense of disgust. In any event, it makes one a little uneasy. The laughs I did get salved the unease, obviously, but the feeling I was alienating half the audience persisted.

This is where a comedian has it hard compared to a dramatic performer or “serious” poet. Because when you’re not supposed to get an audible reaction, you can convince yourself that they’re loving it. The more silent they are, the more engrossed they are, the line will run. But when you’re doing comedy, the judgment is instant and brutal. Either they will laugh or they won’t, and if they’re not laughing, there is no way to kid yourself that you’re winning them over. Instant feedback. Instant euphoria, or instant devastation. It’s the great attraction and the great horror of comedy at once.

Which got me thinking, what kind of audience do I really want? Comedic spoken word of my type is tricky – the great appeal of the poetry scene is that audiences are mostly up for anything and pretty welcoming of weirdness, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to like everything, or necessarily get on board with strangeness, even if they’re terribly polite about it.

And the trouble with a real poetry audience such as I had the other night is that they really are expecting poetry. They’re not expecting bizarre rambling monologues full of rape jokes and 1980s sitcom non sequiturs. They may well say, “what the hell? This isn’t poetry”, and they’d probably be right; most of what I do isn’t. But luckily a great number of them usually end up disregarding such questions and simply reacting based on whether it’s funny or not. As I said, the appeal of the poetry scene is that you don’t feel locked in to formats or structures of performance.

BUT there are definitely many poetry folk who feel that it’s not quite…correct to do something that has no purpose beyond entertainment.

Although the funny thing is that if you get a bunch of people along to a poetry gig, it’s often the non-poets who have the most preconceived ideas. I’ve noticed this at slams; if a non-poet is made a judge, they seem to be more likely than a poet to mark someone down for not conforming to a narrow definition of poetry.

So I want an open-minded audience. I don’t want an audience who’s thinking “poetry or bust”. I don’t really want an audience who’s thinking “stand-up”, though – a stand-up audience is usually the most narrow-minded of all. Do a tight five in a stand-up venue and it’ll be three minutes before they even start listening to the jokes, so confused will they be that you’re doing the observation-conversation-Dave Hughes thing they’ve been expecting. Not that they can’t be won over, but it’s an effort to get them to go along with something a bit different from what they usually see.

So what we’re looking for is an audience of some intelligence, without preconceived notions, and a willingness to laugh.

Overland Overloaded

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  1. I reckon we’ve got to give the audience a bit more credit. I don’t think it’s possible to have unbiased/open-minded listeners (and that’s not exclusive to poetry). Wednesday night at the NSC slam the winner was a first-time reader whose poem not only was crap, but he didn’t read it well either. He was scored highly because when the audience started heckling, he dished back as much as he was taking. The pure entertainment of that got him across the line. It’s quite dissapointing for other great performers on the night (Gabrielle Everall for example) but if anything to me it means people are already tired of their preconceptions, all we can do is hope for an audience with open expectations.

  2. Hey Ben. I would argue that the kinds of responses you get from your audience are perfectly appropriate. The quality or standard of poetry should not be judged by the type of reaction elicited. That poetry (or non-poetry in your case, haha), can create a response; that is the mark of its value. An audience without preconceived notions can’t be surprised, shocked or delighted. Comedy will not work without preconceived notions. Willingness to laugh? No. I will go away now and think about what an audience should ‘behave like’. Congratulations and big respects to you and everyone else who has the gumption to get up there and take a chance. Cheers.

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