Whips, Wordsworth and Wales: Mab Jones on What it Means to be a Performance Poet
May 9, 2012
The Fresh Outlook
It’s not taught in schools and not all poets approve. Could performance poetry be the key to keeping poetry alive?
Mab Jones is a performance poet based in Cardiff, who recently travelled to Japan to perform at the annual Kansai St David’s Day Society, a festival established to celebrate all things Welsh. She explains her profession to The Fresh Outlook, and recounts tales from her travels to the east…
What I do mostly is perform.
That’s my main focus rather than writing itself, though I enjoy both. But it’s performing, engaging with an audience, making them laugh, making them think, making them feel.
I work on the burlesque circuit, comedy circuit, spoken word circuit, poetry circuit, cabaret circuit. Sometimes I have to be quite tame – maybe it’s a gig for kids or something. But sometimes I don’t have to be and I carry a whip.
In my role as the poet-in-residence at the National Botanic Garden of Wales I plan to be more of a Wordsworth-type poet – wandering and meandering and musing and write about daffodils, probably as I’m crushing them with my boot heels!
I write about things that have happened to me or people that I know. Usually it’s what you could call social commentary with a comic edge. I like to make people laugh but I also like to talk about things that might seem harsh. I’ve written a poem about a girl who becomes a prostitute. It’s a true story. And I’ve had people die in some of my poems because it’s true; people do die. But I try to make things tragicomic.
There’s quite a bit of friction between what I call page poets and stage poets. Page poets quite often are academic poets as well, perhaps working at a university. I like a lot of page poets – I just wish they could appreciate stage poets back for what we do. Page poets shouldn’t think they’re the be all and end all; after all, the printing press has only been in existence for a few hundred years. Performance poetry is in the spirit of the troubadour or the minstrel, and that is actually a much older tradition. And it’s getting people interested in poetry again.
So we should embrace all poetry. Nothing should be excluded. We should enjoy everything!
The Kansai St. David’s Day Society, based in Osaka, sprung up as a result of the Panasonic factory that was recently based in Cardiff. It’s a Japanese company and a lot of people came over from Japan to work there. Many of them came to Cardiff and they have got very fond memories of their time in Wales. Embarrassingly, some of them spoke much better Welsh than me.
The Japanese workers had a strange kind of friendship with Wales, one that the festival hopes to retain. There was Welsh cake tasting, an exhibition of pictures, videos and poems, and a male voice choir of 30 Japanese men singing Calon Lân and Sospan Fach and the national anthem in perfect Welsh. It’s strange to see, but really lovely.
These people have a fascination with Wales and Cardiff. Many are interested in the traditional aspects like love spoons, and harps. Even Tom Jones is too modern for what they’re interested in.
I didn’t do my usual comic verse at the festival. I wrote some poetry versions of the Mabinogion and I had six artists do illustrations for them. It was more traditional than what I usually do but it was fun. And I couldn’t help putting a bit of humour in there. The Mabinogion tales themselves are so surreal. I chose the ones that had some linear narrative, because it is just a whole other world to them. It’s not just the Celtic world, but it’s also the past where there are rules that even I don’t understand, so to a Japanese audience it would just seem like gobbledegook.
I haven’t always been this confident in my vocal abilities. I used to suffer from selective mutism.
I remember when I went to high school, I would talk in school but not at home, and then vice versa for a bit, and then I just stopped speaking altogether. I didn’t really start speaking again until I went to Japan for the first time ten years ago, so at university I had no friends.
It’s an anxiety related disorder. There are no rules for it and it’s quite complex. It all revolved around speech and being able to express myself and when it happens you can’t get your words out. You want to. You’d love to. But they’re stuck. And there’s a big knot of tension in your stomach. It’s a physical pain.
I remember reading about this thing where Japanese children suddenly went silent in their teens, but I didn’t associate it with myself because I believed what others had said – that I was just weird and odd and strange. I’d already internalised that. It has only recently become labelled as selective mutism and it’s too late for me.
But it’s not too late for others.
By Sophie Yeo
[Image courtesy of Mab Jones]