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‘Zones of Avoidance’ – a live literature performance

What would your understanding be of a ‘live literature performance’? Is it the same, or related to ‘performance poetry’? Could any poetry, when read or recited in front of an audience, be performance poetry?

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity of seeing a live performance of Maggie Sawkins’ Zones of Avoidance which won the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry last year. It’s billed as ‘multimedia live literature production’, and with Mark C. Hewitt as director I had an inkling of what that meant. I knew it would be staged in some way. I suspected that the performance aspect would have little to do with the use of ‘trained actors’, or slam poetry, or a poet dominating the audience with sheer force of personality.

Mark is a writer, theatre maker, producer, director and all-round talented person who I know from Lewes Live Lit, the umbrella for all kinds of poetry activities in Lewes over the years. It’s he who organises the regular workshopping groups with Mimi Khalvati, and whose one-man show ‘Expiry tbc’ I really enjoyed a year or so back.

The performance I saw was actually a dry-run before its London debut, at The Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone, with the last performance taking place this evening. Certainly more than a rehearsed reading, as the piece had been performed quite a few times, it was nevertheless a ‘be prepared for anything’ kind of show. It was a small, invited audience and we’d been warned that not all aspects of the production would be happening (such as some lighting effects), also that we shouldn’t be alarmed if there were unscheduled moments or re-takes. In fact, there were no interruptions. Much of the material was read confidently from memory, all the technical aspects seemed to work (or work well enough for the impromptu venue). I loved the intimacy of what felt like a private view.

I knew the subject matter was based on the poet’s experience of her daughter’s drug addiction and her own professional work with recovering addicts. So I knew it wasn’t going to be ‘light’ entertainment. But I have to say I found the whole experience mesmerising. The trouble with trying to describe the dramatic elements of something like this (to someone who wasn’t there) – the props, the lighting, the use of projection/audio tracks, how the poet/performer changes position – is that you end up with a list of features which can, out of context, sound a bit periferal or mannered. But it wasn’t like that – the staging was absolutely integral to the piece.

The poet’s delivery was matter-of-fact, deadpan even. There was humour. And pathos. And most of all the frustration, anger and desperation of a mother having to stand by as her daughter self-destructs. It was moving, but not maudlin. Occasionally, between poems we heard recordings of addicts in recovery, speaking about their experiences. Some poems appeared on film. The whole production was carefully paced, giving us the audience time to take in what we were hearing and seeing: a muted, ordered presentation of a sad story of utter disorder.

Do go see Zones of Avoidance if you’re able to. I came away with the book which contains the whole sequence (not all the poems are in the performed version). I’ve added it the The Reading List, so in due course I’ll be talking more about the poems.

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  1. I just got a notice of your comment on the cobweb. Unfortunately, Windows 10 refuses to open links that come through my email, so I’ve gone all round the houses to write on your blog. I’m so pleased that you like the cobweb, and it was a real inspiration that post of yours, on ‘envy’. Every week I look for a gift from anywhere that will give me a hook to write a post around. I don’t know about stamina. Desperation is what it feels like some weeks as Sunday comes nearer, I’m not short of guest poets, but the trick is to give them the context of an argument about why poetry matters to me. It’s odd to think I could not have imagined writing that last sentence 3 years ago. All it takes is a moment of ‘success’, a moment of recognition. Which is why I get tetchy when people start dissing poetry comps. Like anything else it has to be worked at. I have a poor track record of acceptances from submissions. For some reason I’ve managed a 50% hit rate in comps this year. Half of them have yielded highly commendeds or better. Big lift, every time. Gives me the energy to write the cobweb, and write the reviews and get myself on open mics. One day I may find out what it takes to persuade someone to take on a collection. I reckon that at nearly 73 I need to be knocking on doors, but I’m not sure how it works. Apart from the squeaking hinge getting the grease. Whatever. Thanks for your comment. It’s one of those heartening things that tops up the tank with gas xx Fogs

    • Hi John – sorry it was a mission to get here and thanks for your perseverance! I appreciate your kind words. I see your name all over the place, you definitely have a nose for what comp judges are looking for! It is funny that there do seem to be a few people who regularly do well in comps, but are less visible in the mags, and vice versa. I go through phases myself. I am guilty of ‘dissing comps’ but I do enter quite a few, although each time I try not to think of all the money it’s costing and tell myself it goes towards ‘feeding the poets’. One thing that does annoy me is when a comp is promoted to high heaven to get entries but then when the results come out they don’t bother to shout about them or give the winners any airtime. Which looks a bit like poor after-sales service. Anyway, that’s a bit off topic. Nice to see you here and no doubt we shall meet at a reading sometime 🙂

  2. I would take ‘a live literature performance’ to mean that the organisers have found yet another amusing way to avoid using the dreaded word ‘poetry’, though that’s what the audience would get.

    • Ha ha! Oooh that’s a bit cynical, isn’t it?? Tee hee!

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Robin Houghton 2021