Let’s Talk About Performance

by Mike Saye  ·  November 28, 2012

John Tucker as Zeus, who loves the lightning, in Prometheus the Fire

The performance of poetry is something we tend to let fall to the wayside during the writing process. In my experience, reading a poem out loud to anyone, even an empty room, quickly exposes—shall we call them infelicities? – in the work. I think a performance course should be mandatory in MFA programs, but I don’t know if they exist outside theater programs. MFA directors the world over please take note. Yes.

Art on the Atlanta Beltline is an initiative that reconceptualizes the way Atlanta functions as a community. It’s part of the Atlanta Beltline project (here for info) and part of what they do is offer art and cultural performances throughout various parks and trails in the Atlanta area from September though November. I had the good fortune to attend a performance in the Historic Fourth Ward Park called Prometheus the Fire, which was produced by Trevor Jones and the Collective Project.  Prometheus the Fire is a re-telling of the Prometheus myth with various performers/storytellers acting and reciting their parts, which consists of adaptations of Aeschylus, snatches of Lord Byron and other poetic renditions of the myth, in a modern Greek-style amphitheater overlooking a beautiful lake. It was free too!

When I entered the amphitheater, I found (excuse my crappy Iphone photos)—poetry on demand! I’d tell you the name of the poet who wrote my poem (I chose the topic of fecundity), but I didn’t get his permission to do so. It took him about 15 minutes to write a poem, which was actually pretty good – not trite, not unconsidered – part of the deal was he read it to me – quietly, on the side, like a confession. We wore our cold weather caps; I lent an ear. It was almost intimate, a charming experience.  I got to keep the poem.

Historic Fourth Ward Park: That’s a dragon in the lake.

My point in all of this? Poetry read aloud, poetry performed, personal poetry. All in the course of a couple of hours. Performance matters.

I think my favorite reader is W.B. Yeats. Yeats tells us here that he will not read his poetry as if it were prose, and indeed, I love the chant-like way he recites The Lake Isle of Innisfree. Can you imagine thinking of your own poetry as if it were a thing to be chanted? Do you think of your work like this? I’m asking seriously. Leave a comment and let me know. The way we conceptualize our work affects what we write and how we write – yeah, obviously. But, are we allowed to think of our work as something to be chanted? It’s a bit old-fashioned – and creepily religious – but what of that?

Two lone poets, blustery day, writing the good write

The Yeats link has a few different poems that he recorded for the radio in the 1930s. There are two versions of The Lake Isle of Innisfree. Don’t miss the second version which starts at six minutes into the video. I think the second version is the stronger of the two readings – more emphatic, more passionate – but the difference is subtle. Did Yeats’ ability to perform his poetry affect the writing of his poetry? Is performance merely an adjunct? I have no idea. What do you think? I know there’s power in it.


Mike Saye is a first year MFA student at Georgia State University studying poetry and he is delighted to be there. Leave some comments. Talk to him about stuff.