Friday, 16 October 2015

The time I stripped for poetry

I'm at an interesting point in my career as a performer. When I started out, getting on stage and performing my work was enough of a challenge in itself. In those early days, the biggest obstacle I had to get over was my own insecurity, my fear that I was going to fuck up, that I'd never hold an audience's attention. For a long time, I would only perform five minute sets, usually managing to cram in three poems with very little between them before the inner voice saying  people were sick of me chased me off the stage. I remember finishing my first twenty minute set and feeling elated simply that I'd managed to resist that voice so long.

Now, I'm at a point where I can hold that voice off for entire shows. Howl of the Bantee went on for fifty minutes (sometimes an hour, depending on how it was going, to be quite honest). I'm more adept at talking to the audience in between poems: often there are things I do on stage which are more like bits in stand-up than they are like poems, and I improvise a lot more as well. I've gotten better at what the theatre-maker Daniel Bye calls 'meeting the audience'. I'm less concerned with just being able to remember my poems and stay on stage long enough to read them. I've reached a level of proficiency where that simply isn't as much of a challenge anymore. 

So to keep things fresh, to keep things from going stale, I have had to find new ways to challenge myself in performance, new ways of meeting the audience so that gigs don't just become rote by-the-numbers mouthing off. New ways of making myself vulnerable to give the work some energy. And that's how, a month ago, I wound up stripping at the end of a poetry gig. 

The purpose of my disrobing on stage wasn't (just) to titillate the audience, obviously. I'd got the idea from seeing Ernesto Sazerale do a stripping bit of his own when we performed at Queer'Say in September. My set that night finished with a poem I've never truly felt I dramatised properly in performance, 'Rejection:Letters'. It's a poem I've enjoyed doing whenever I've got it out (pun intended) during my shows, but I've always felt it needed something extra to fully work as a performance piece. Interestingly enough, when I recorded it for my YouTube channel a while ago, I opted to perform it on a bed, in my bra and pants, so I always had a sense that some degree of nudity would help: 

It was only after watching Ernesto, however, that I thought actually stripping would add something to the poem. As I mooched around Bethnal Green the next day (I had to stay in London both for Public Address production meetings on the Monday, and because I had a hotel to review on the Sunday), I blocked out the piece in my head. It seemed to me that the logical thing to do would be dress in clothes that allowed me to remove one item per stanza (maybe I ought to say per verse for the kinky resonance).

What is it that makes you so reject me?
Is it the dimensions of my belly?
Then you've never ran a hand around its rim:
it gives in ways that taut and muscled skin
can never do. Don't take this just from me:
come, feel it move beneath you like a captured sea.

For the first verse, I decided, I'd wear a button-down shirt. This would allow me to start unbuttoning it during the performance, which would signal to the audience that something unusual was afoot. I could easily slough the shirt at that point with a simple shrug of my arms, and this would allow me to display my belly to the audience during the parts of the poem where I emphasise its zaftig  dimensions. 

Am I too pale? Would you prefer me with a tan,
turned brown from UV light or bottled sun?
Well, want that if you like: but bronzed-up flesh
won't turn from pink to red with every scratch.
Pale, though, my skin becomes a palimpsest,
written, overwritten with the text
of nights when fingers grasp and grip and squeeze,
and mornings when the eyes and lips that tease
are repaid with flirting slaps and feigned offence.

For the second stanza, I decided, I'd remove my bra. A front-fastening bra would be ideal for this, but I don't have one, and I wasn't going to buy one just for this performance (though I may buy one for future use, not least because the idea of writing off lingerie as an expense for tax purposes has a certain appeal). After experimenting with what  I already have in my wardrobe, I decided to use an unwired, vest-style black bra, partly because there would be less faffing with clasps (the technology will always let you down, as it may or may not say in the Moscow Rules)...

Are you frightened by the vicious things I say?
Know that the angry girl gets put away
when I'm offstage, far from the battlefield:
in the bedroom, this girl likes to yield,
to kneel and crawl, submit and be in awe.
Oh, I'll fight back, I'll call you worse than bitch,
but only to be conquered, to make you punish
 me more forcefully, to take me to the brink of tears
and push me over, so that, with one sob, I'm yours.

...and partly because it would allow me to wrap the rolled-up piece of underwear over my neck, towel-style, letting me do a bit of peek-a-boo work with my nipples and forearms before discarding it toward the end of the third verse.

Or are you put off by what you cannot see?
The part by which you'd damn the whole of me,
consign me to your 'won't fuck' category:
define me male and say you don't do guys,
and say that what I feel is but disguise?
Then I won't argue:
                                can't, with one I only pity
for fixating on the smallest bit of me
(both figuratively and literally).

The poem's big reveal would come at the start of the penultimate stanza, though the reveal would only be partial. On the first line, I would unbutton the denim shorts I had worn for the performance and allow them to drop to my feet before stepping out of them and delivering the rest of the poem topless, with 'what you cannot see' the only piece of me which remained covered throughout the piece (this is one way in which my piece differs from Ernesto's poetry-stripping, as he goes the full Monty). 

If it were something else then I'd try to persuade
you that the meat you'll find on me's the highest grade;
that you could write a sonnet on my skin
and I'd weep sweetly with each lyric beat:
but if you define me by my lack of quim,
call me false or call me incomplete,
you imagine part but don't perceive the whole.
Forget my cock: you'll never see my soul.

What did I learn from the experience? Well, for one thing, that I could  do it; for another, that stripping requires a lot more thought and consideration than one might casually expect. Even something as simple as deciding what clothes to wear and how to remove them required both planning, and trial and error in rehearsal, and I wasn't doing anything particularly fancy - no pole-dancing or complex burlesque moves. Another thing is that once you've started taking clothes off on stage, it becomes something of a game of chicken between yourself and the audience to see how far you'll go: you have to challenge yourself, a little bit, at each stage of the reveal. But this also sets up a dynamic that you can usefully frustrate: once you've dropped the first two bits of kit the expectation in the audience is that you may actually go the whole way, and deliberately not doing that for the end of the piece, leaving the part you cannot see unseen, effectively dramatises the frustration of being reduced solely to a set of genitals. 

It's also a way of bringing the body very powerfully into a piece of performance poetry and blurring the lines between it and performance art, which I've previously blogged about. This is something I'm exploring in a different way for my Public Address piece. There's no stripping involved in that, but in many ways it involves a more radical reimagining of the relationship between the audience and my body as a performer. How so? Well, I don't want to say until at least after tomorrow's gig in Plymouth, so for the moment all I can say is that you'll need to come to one of the shows - and, if you want to sit at the front, make sure your throwing arm (and trigger finger) are in good working order...

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