How To Speak Poetry – Dave Lordan

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To hear Dave Lordan performing his piece go here.


The Four Honesties
The honesty of wind: everything must whistle by, everything must blow.
The honesty of sea: everything must churn, everything must flow.
The honesty of sun: everything must feed the fire, everything must glow.
The honesty of earth: everything must go to seed, everything must sow.


What is poetry and what brought you to it?

“Poetry” is what some linguists call a floating signifier; it means all sorts of things to all sorts of people. I’m not that interested in most of it. I’m attracted by different poets at different times. As a schoolboy I loved the curriculum poems of Yeats, Keats. Eliot and Kavanagh. As a college student it was 1950s and 60s work of Ginsberg, and the 1970s and 1980s work of Paul Durcan. Latterly it’s Rumi, Blake, Trevor Joyce, Shelley, Mangan, Celan, Rexroth, Pavese, Pasolini….If I had to name a favourite set of poems it would be the Pearl Poems of Barry McSweeney and this  is my favourite poem:

Dark was the Night and

Cold was the Ground

(Barry McSweeney)

Pearl, beautiful lustre,highly prized gem,

Precious one,finest example of its kind.

Dewdrop,tear of Mary,reduced by attrition,

to small-rounded grains.

Pearl in the Barage up to her waist,

Pearl in the wildmint.

Pearl in the wind-spilled water.

Pearl flecked in the sunlight,one

foot here,one there,knuckles on hips

on the stile, all angles and charms.

Pearl adrift in the rain through the whispering burn.

So much sighing at her own distress:a-a-a-a-a-a.

Pearl looks in the mirror of the molten water,

Sticks out her tongue and all you get

is a splash on the path.

I looked into the face and was humbled once again.

Lipstick, she said,on a slate in the rain,

is a complete nobody to me.

I’d like to square meal daily

for me and my mum.

With the caveat that there are of course exciting exceptions,  much of the contemporary poetry I come across just seems like pale imitation of long past poetic achievements to be honest. Tellingly, very few people outside the art seem all that interested in or engaged with contemporary poetry.  Over the course of the last century, and gathering pace in the last twenty or thirty years, what you might call engaged intellectuals, or living minds, seem to have migrated away from poetry and towards critical theory, literary non-fiction, and, to a far lesser extent, fiction. A kind of feedback loop has occurred that means that very few genuinely interrogative thinkers from outside of the field, I mean people like Zizek and Dyer, who are not exclusively career academics, take any interest in contemporary poetry. This glaring absence of external critical engagement betrays an absence of something being present within contemporary poetry for external critics to engage with. No art or any other kind of human activity can survive or regenerate in such an interrogative void. The brains of our time are not looking at poets much now because, truly, there’s not much to look at a lot of the time.

Below are a few quotations from “How to Speak Poetry”.  Choose the one which most resonates with you.  Explain why – and whether or not there is merit in his position (both as it relates to the page and/or the stage).  

“Do not act out words. Never act out words”.

“There is no more stage. There are no more footlights. You are among the people. Then be modest. Speak the words, convey the data, step aside”.

“This is an interior landscape. It is inside. It is private. Respect the privacy of the material. These pieces were written in silence. The courage of the play is to speak them”.

“Speak the words with the exact precision with which you would check out a laundry list.”

“Do not work the audience for gasps and sighs. If you are worthy of gasps and sighs it will not be from your appreciation of the event but from theirs. It will be in the statistics and not the trembling of the voice or the cutting of the air with your hands.  It will be in the data and the quiet organization of your presence”.

“Avoid the flourish. Do not be afraid to be weak. Do not be ashamed to be tired. You look good when you’re tired. You look like you could go on forever. Now come into my arms. You are the image of my beauty”.

I’m not getting any resonance.

This is what presently resonates with me.

Some would contend that whether writing for the page, or reciting on a stage, poetry is all about performance.  How one presents poems on a page is a performance:  the line breaks, the punctuation, the visual impact of the poem in its physical form laid out on the page all amount to a kind of performance for the reader.  And, by the same token, how one presents a poem on a stage is a performance:  how the voice shakes or does not shake over the words, where and how the body moves, where the eyes look, the impact of language (both of the body, and in the speaking of the words) – all contribute to performance.  In light of this, is the distinction between the page and the stage a valid/necessary one?  Or is it better to conceive of the page and the stage as being two mediums among many in the spectrum of performance and how one can and does present poetry?

Sometimes I’m not sure if the most revealing distinction between page poetry and stage-poetry isn’t so much  a matter of aesthetics but of career ambitions and trajectories. If you study the performance poetry circuit you will find that the most ambitious ones ones are using it as an apprenticeship for and an opening into some more sustainable position in the performing arts or the performing arts media. If you study the existence of pagebound poets you will find in most cases that poetry is an adjunct to a university position. That’s not a judgement by the way, just an observation. Everyone has got to a make a living. Something which I certainly struggle with because I have to work to make a living too is how to keep my art, rather than my work in teaching or whatever at the centre of my life. I don’t think everyone can succeed in that balancing act, I know that sometimes I don’t.

I’d also say the best page poets writing in southern Ireland at the moment, people like Kevin Higgins, Billy Ramsell and Kimberly Campanello also have far better stage presences, by some distance, than a lot of the performance poets I know of. There are other poets such as Anamaria Crowe Serrano and Melissa Dieme whose unconventional work in page poetry I really admire and who, as far as I know, aren’t stagey types atall. Graham Allen’s online life poem Holes is the most advanced and original work of poetry I’ve come across by an irish based poet recently, and strictly speaking it’s neither stage nor page. I only know the Dublin scene of performance poetry and that, with exceptions who know who they are, has become pretty boring and repetitive. A lot of one-trick ponies around and when I go to events I often hear the same people reading the same poems as I would have heard three or even five years ago. And a lot of performance poems, if they are any good atall, are only good the first time you hear them. In fairness, it’s simple-minded stuff, most of the time. And the fact that it so often, in its own context, comes across as original or exciting is as indicative of the decline of public intelligence, that is of a low level of consciousness among both performers and audience, as it is of anything inherently dynamic about the art – something which is hardly surprising after forty years of a reactionary intellectual climate.  In Often, the soppiest sentiments get the loudest cheers. It’s like 1950’s sugar pop a lot of the time.

I was ‘performing’ poetry from the early 90s and it was helpful in terms of gaining recognition and even work at festivals and the like when the performance poetry label became fashionable a few years back. I have five or six poems that fit the performance poetry bracket quite well (simple-minded, crowd-pleasing entertainment) and I have learned them off and trotted them out all over the place and had a lot of fun doing so, while earning a few bob to put towards time for the serious writing.  Every performance poet has their own charms and their own tricks and they use them over and over again just like I do. Performance poetry can be good entertainment, but there’s only one or two performance poets who I have been impressed by the second time I saw them. Let’s face it, generally speaking, other kinds of writing are a lot more challenging and, to me,  a lot more fulfilling as well. I suppose I see playing at being a performance poet as a kind of vacation from real writing I take now and then, where everything is pleasingly sunny and uncomplicated compared to the shadier and less easily navigated climes of fiction, theory etc.

While there is at least plenty of critical writing done by page poets about other page poets, there is no such thing atall as performance poetry criticism, at least not in a formal sense. Again, this is probably because there’s not all that much to think about most of the time. You can easily cover the fundamentals of irish performance poetry in one 45 minute lecture – I often have. It a pocket-sized artform, all told.

I think, for me, performance poetry is more seriously useful as a pedagogic tool in engaging young people with literacy difficulties and in encouraging self expression among teenagers – which is a really good thing. In the long term its best legacy may be in the education sector.

I also really feel that performance poetry is something to pass through, particularly for young people, rather than get stuck at – but I have that attitude to other genres as well. I like what Bernard Henri Levy says about this ‘I take the genres the way I take taxis, I take them where I want to go and then I get out’. Poetry of any kind isn’t my taxi at the moment, but who knows what will happen down the line.

What advantages come with being able to think/engage/interact in more than one language?  What disadvantages are tied to having access only to your mother tongue?  If you don’t consider the first to be an advantage or the second to be a disadvantage, why not?

To paraphrase Woody Allen on Bisexuality, Bilingualism means twice the chance of a date on Saturday night, in most places.

How do you speak poetry? (In other words, take the word butterfly and do whatever you want with it).

dave lordan
Dave Lordan is a writer, editor and creative writing workshop leader based in Dublin who has been shaking up the irish writing scene with his passionate, risk-taking writing since the early noughties. He is the first writer to win Ireland’s three national prizes for young poets, the Patrick Kavanagh Award in 2005, the Rupert and Eithne Strong Award in 2008 and the Ireland Chair of Poetry Bursary Award in 2011 for his collections The Boy in The Ring and Invitation to a Sacrifice, both published by Salmon. In 2010 Mary McEvoy starred in his debut play Jo Bangles at the Mill Theatre, directed by Caroline Fitzgerald. Wurm Press published his acclaimed short fiction debut First Book of Frags in 2013. Also in 2013, in association with RTÉ Arena and New Island Books, he designed and led Ireland’s first ever on-air creative writing course. He also edited the anthology New Planet Cabaret in association with RTÉ Arena and New Island books, as well as Issue 22 of The Stinging Fly, Ireland’s leading literary magazine, for which he is a contributing editor.  He is also co-prose editor of the transgenre experimental arts website He recently designed and led the Heart in Mouth community writing festival in association with Fingal Libraries, and the Wraparound perfomance poetry and creative literacy programme in Irish secondary schools in association with Poetry Ireland and the JCSP school libraries programme. He teaches contemporary poetry and critical theory on the MA in poetry studies in the Mater Dei Institute as well as providing teacher training courses in Teaching Creativity there and elsewhere. He teaches a workshop in experimental fiction for the Irish Writers Centre and creative writing for Co Wicklow VEC and the Big Smoke Writing Factory in Dublin. Alongside creative collaborator Karl Parkinson, he makes up the popular performance poetry duo Droppin The Act and he is a renownedly passionate performer of his own work which he continues to read at festivals and venues in Ireland, England, Italy and Canada. Follow him @vadenarol and
This entry was published on February 19, 2014 at 4:07 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

2 thoughts on “How To Speak Poetry – Dave Lordan

  1. Pingback: The Four Honesties | DAVE LORDAN

  2. Pingback: A Week in Words: Feb 23 | A Dreaming Skin

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