by CLAIRE PALZER, University of Vienna
“This is Claire Palzer interviewing ……… for the Poetry Off the Page project.”
This is how over sixty interviews conducted by the Poetry Off the Page (PoP) team have begun, albeit with different researcher names, since the project was launched in 2021. Poetry off the Page is a five-year project, directed by Dr Julia Lajta-Novak and based at the University of Vienna. One of the principle aims of the project is to investigate the significance of anglophone poetry performance in British and Irish literary history from the 1960s to the present day. Much of this research depends upon interviews as part of its methodology. Indeed, interviews with poets, organisers, and other participants are a common tool and resource in studies on poetry performance. This blog entry provides an overview of the ways in which interviews have been used in studies of contemporary poetry performance and focuses upon the use of oral interviews in academic publications in the UK context. Interviews with poets are vital records of past poetry performances. Sometimes interviews are the only available means of approaching a moment in poetry performance history or to access specific information. Poets’ testimonies further foster the understanding of what poetry performance is and has been; interviews help researchers explore an under-researched and under-documented practice.
The study of contemporary poetry performance has been characterised by its interdisciplinary methodology since its emergence in the 2000s. This methodology is necessary not only because poetry performances themselves require an interdisciplinary toolkit for analysis (cf. Novak’s Live Poetry), but also because research into poetry performance frequently analyses not only the performed poetry – through audio or video material – but also the performance’s context, given that poetry performances are a situated practice. Research draws on ephemera such as flyers, posters, and paperwork, pre-existing accounts of events, as well as new interviews (cf. Virtanen 14). It is the substantial contribution of interviews to the study of poetry performance which my blog entry is focused on.
The genre of interviews contains a wide variety of disparate interview types and formats. They can be conducted by the researcher or by others, including other researchers or journalists; they may be conducted and recorded in written or oral form; the types of questions and answers can range from questionnaires over semi-structured qualitative interview to informal conversations. Nicky Marsh, Peter Middleton, and Victoria Sheppard, who conducted extensive interviews with poets in the UK between 2002 and 2003, described the potentials of interviews as follows:
Interviews enable the researcher to test hypotheses by asking questions that appear to lead to the core of the phenomenon and by listening to the poets measure the accuracy of these directed investigations. Interviews act as a sampling device, catching diverse information that can be taken at this stage to represent larger bodies of data yet to be found, and they give the poets an opportunity to begin to put on record their own tentative articulations of this history. Interviews also provide oral nuance that can be analyzed fruitfully if the exact contours of idiomatic expression are carefully respected in transcription. (Marsh et al. 48)
This summary indicates the disparate purposes and uses of oral interviews, which I explore below. All the literature reviewed in this blog includes the use of material from oral interviews conducted by the researchers themselves.
Documenting Poetry Performance Histories
One central reason researchers of poetry performance draw on interviews in their scholarly work is to add context to their work which would otherwise be unavailable to them. This often helps compensate for the dearth of information available about individual poetry performance events, or about the history of poetry performance at large. Due to the general lack of critical attention paid to the practice, there is little published information to support claims about events or a poet’s craft in performance. In 2006, Marsh, Middleton, and Sheppard, writing on the changes in oral poetics in Britain since 1965, note that:
Since the proliferation of readings and other more performative, theatrical, and musical forms of poetry events has not attracted historians, much of this work is already lost – neither recorded nor reviewed, despite its evident importance for poetry, for both poets and audiences. This inattention is itself an integral part of the phenomenon. In our view, histories of English-language poetry of the past 60 years are so much based on the study of printed texts that they miss one of the most important forces at work in the shaping of poetry at all levels of its form, meaning, and genre. (Marsh et al. 46)
With little sustained historiographic work dedicated to poetry performance and limited access to past events through recordings, ephemera, or interview material, research remains difficult. As Katie Ailes, writing 16 years after Marsh et al., notes:
I was conscious of the lack of publicly accessible information concerning contemporary spoken word poetry in the U.K. Because of the ephemeral nature of the genre, collecting and archiving data regarding the history of the scene, event records, and poets’ styles in a sustainable manner presents significant challenges (Performance and Perception 43).
This is not to say that no available material exists. Indeed, Ailes herself mentions the Spoken Word Archive created by the important poetry performance organisation Apples and Snakes (Performance and Perception 43). The Spoken Word Archive contains flyers, paperwork, as well as video and audio recordings of poetry performances from the organisation’s 30+ year history. The PoP project is collaborating with Apples and Snakes and we will be adding our collected interviews to the archive in the future. However, the Spoken Word Archive is London-centric, and many areas in the rest of the UK and Ireland remain under-researched. This London-focus is being redressed by researchers who, like the PoP team, consciously try to account for different locations in their interviewing work (cf. Ailes Performance and Perception; Casey). Diversity in other demographic factors also plays a role in interviewee selection. Time and financial constraints as well as repository guidelines also affect interviewee selection (Silva 14). Additionally, not all poets approached by researchers choose to participate in the interviewing process and some withdraw during the process for various reasons (Silva 14).
Conducting interviews with people who have participated in the poetry performance world forms a vital contribution to oral as well as written history of the practice, whether the interviews are framed specifically as oral history interviews or not. Historiographic approaches are common in poetry performance research and focusing on interviews can be one way of accomplishing this. One of the earliest works in which history-writing is a central aim is Nathan Penlington’s unpublished MA thesis, Don’t Need English Lessons to Learn Our Lines: The Unspoken History of Performance Poetry (2000). In his 2017 introduction, which is available online, Penlington explains that his work was the result of a year of interviews with poets active in the performance poetry scene in the UK from the 1950s to the early 2000s (2). He describes his study as “50,000 words of oral history, cultural history, and archive” (2) and makes a point of placing his participants’ recollections at the centre of his work. Their words are crucial to his study and make up the majority of the available text.
Significant forays into tracing and writing these histories have been made in recent years, including a number of chapters in the edited collection Spoken Word in the UK (English and McGowan). In section 1, “Background to spoken word in the UK”, contributions on the historical development of poetry performance in various regions of the UK include interview material as well as drawing on the authors’ own experiences (cf. Thompson; Larkin; Johnson; English). Pete Bearder, in his work Stage Invasion: Poetry & the Spoken Word Renaissance also draws on interviews with practitioners to contribute to his overall arguments about the poetry performance scene(s). In Ireland, where the poetry performance scene is even more neglected by academia than in the UK, one of the most significant contributions to the writing of its history to date is by Paul Casey, organiser of the long-running Ó Bhéal event series in Cork. In his essay, “Oral history | Spoken Word Poetry in Ireland: 1990-2014”, Casey foregrounds the interviewees’ responses, similarly to Penlington.
Even academics whose primary research interests are more specific, frequently understand their work as contributing to the larger uncovering of poetry performance history. Hannah Silva, a writer, performer, and researcher, implicitly understands the interviews they conducted as part of their doctoral project as a resource for future researchers, describing them as “a unique record of poets discussing this craft in depth. Many of the subjects covered in the interviews are not part of this thesis, and many of the interviewees have so far been neglected by academia” (12). Ailes, whose thesis focuses on the notion of authenticity in poetry performance, says of her own process that she:
gathered information not only on the subjects most pertinent to this thesis but also those which I felt might be useful for the public record and future researchers in this field: for instance, the local history of participants’ scenes. Given that the analysis in this thesis only scratches the surface of the data gathered, it is my hope that future scholars will draw upon it to further the growing body of scholarship in this field. (Performance and Perception 55)
Ailes touches here on a hope that the Poetry Off the Page team shares, namely that while our interviews may be specifically attuned to the research strands of each scholar, material collected within the interviews will provide a rich source for future academic inquiry.
Longevity of Interview Material
It is important to note here that most of the interviews mentioned in this blog post are currently unavailable, despite researchers’ desire to make their work available to future scholars. Most, though not all, researchers want their oral interviews to be of use for posterity. However, in reviewing sources for this blog post, I was struck by how few of these collections were accessible at the point of writing. There are technical, legal, and financial challenges involved with preserving and publishing interview material; these barriers are particularly difficult to surmount given the lack of institutionalisation of poetry performance research. In some instances, videos or audio recordings were initially made available but have since been removed from their repositories, such as Pete Bearder’s videos which were previously available on Vimeo, a video hosting website. Other recordings, such as the ones compiled by Penlington, exist in analogue forms; his interviews are stored on cassettes and mini-discs and the text of his thesis as well as his collected images are all on floppy discs; all these would require digitisation in order to be made more accessible (2). Some recordings have been lost or temporarily misplaced after their initial use, such as those done by Marsh, Middleton, and Sheppard (Marsh). In other cases, poets have withdrawn the interview recordings or asked for them to only be available to the researcher and not the wider public (Silva 14).
Some scholars have made their interview recordings available or are still in the process of doing so in collaboration with their respective repositories. Most of Hannah Silva’s interviews are stored in a catalogue titled ‘Black British Poetry in Performance’ within The British Library’s ‘Sounds’ archive (Silva 7; 13) and can be listened to in the Reading Rooms. Katie Ailes’ interviews are due to be stored at the Scottish Oral History Centre in Glasgow, although, as of November 2023, this process is still ongoing (Ailes “Archive”). However, the blog that was part of the “Stand Up and Spit” project exploring the Ranting poets of the 1980s still has its interviews available online (“Really Sayin’ Somethin’”).
Understanding Poetry Performance Through Participant Perspectives
Beyond documenting and archiving the histories of poetry performance, interviews can be used to gather information about individual events. Sometimes this relates to more practical and factual knowledge; researchers who require material or information about a performance must return to the source: to the poet(s) who performed, the organiser or venue manager, the people attending the event etc. Such interviews can recover details that not accessible elsewhere. This reflects a more traditional understanding of the interview as a “pipeline for transmitting knowledge” (Holstein and Gubrium 113).
However, often researchers conduct extended oral interviews as a part of an attempt to understand the world of their interviewees. As the sociologist Uwe Flick states, “[q]ualitative research aims at understanding the phenomenon or event under study from the interior” (65), namely the interior of the interviewee respondents in the case of interviews. Knowledge is not simply accessed in the interview, but rather it is constructed by the interviewee and then reconstructed in the interview situation with the interviewer again (cf. Holstein and Gubrium 114). Poetry performance researchers take different epistemological positions as regards their interviewing practice and the role of the interviewee; often these are left implicit, particularly when the interviews are not the central object of study. An exception to this is Helen Gregory’s elaborations on her work’s interactionist stance in her ethnographic work on slam poetry in the US and UK (107–13).
Overall, in poetry performance research, there seems to be widespread implicit agreement that taking poets’ and organisers’ understandings of their craft and practices into consideration – or even as a starting point to one’s work – is a valuable approach. I would argue that this is related to contemporary poetry performance being a group of practices still in the process of being defined and negotiated, both within the community and in the academy. Interviewee responses contribute to and shape researchers’ overall ideas and can help them formulate arguments about individual aspects of the poetry performance world. The extent to which these responses are incorporated in the research varies depending on the approach used.
Given that poetry performance usually involves the poet performing their own work, the poet’s artistic and economic choices, their practices, and opinions are frequently relevant to poetry performance studies of even individual performances and poets (see Deirdre Osborne’s “The Body of Text” or Novak’s “Performing Black British Memory”). Here, interviewee responses provide important input but do not make up the majority of the critical work. In other cases, poets may be asked to speak as experts on certain topics, such as in Jack McGowan’s PhD thesis, in which seven performance poets speak to various research interests of McGowan’s, namely poetry performance and the academy, poetry performance and affect, poetry performance and the use of space. These interview extracts serve to underpin his arguments. Hannah Silva’s doctoral work explores the role of voice in poetry performance in general, as well as specifically in the analysis the work of three poets, namely Salena Godden, David J, and Lemn Sissay. Silva draws together her own observations of the poets’ performances with statements provided by the poets about their craft. For instance, Silva brings Godden’s comments into her interpretation of Godden’s work:
When she was twenty, Salena Godden’s fantasy stage name was: “Salena Saliva Gloopy Godiva God Bless Goddam Godden”, because she wanted a name that would take up all the letters on the billboard (interview). Although she now goes by Salena Godden, “Salena Saliva” stuck for a long time. As well as conjuring up the grainy physicality of her vocal performances, this visceral evocation of bodily fluid chimes with the content of many of her poems… (158).
Likewise, insider perspectives are frequently sought by interviewers in relation to current definitions, terminology and developments. In Julia Novak’s Live Poetry: An Integrated Approach to Poetry in Performance, interview material is drawn on to “reflect current practices in live poetry” (13). Novak draws on poets’ reflections on their own practices and asks them to define their own use of terminology (30-33). This concern with terms and labelling is also part of Silva’s work (29-34) as well as the PoP interviews. Consideration in relation to definitions, and who does the defining, is a serious issue within the poetry performance community; this applies to the terminology used to refer to the field itself (Ailes Performance and Perception 17–18) and the designations used by, or on behalf of individual poets and their work (cf. Ailes Performance and Perception 20-21; Marsh et al. 59). Many of the scholars I have cited here are also members of the poetry performance world; by including other poets’ voices, they are able to register experiences outside of their own. For researchers who approach poetry performance from the outside, paying attention to the perspectives within the community facilitates research that is more attuned to the practitioners.
Finally, I would like to turn to researchers whose work is more clearly aligned with ethnographic practices and who engage in more extensive analysis of the interview data. In these studies, the interviews become the primary, or one of the main, objects of study. These interviews are often qualitative, semi-structured oral interviews. This means that a list of questions is prepared by the researcher ahead of time but that spontaneous additional questions can be asked to suit the specific participant and the flow of the interview. Semi-structured interviews are frequently used due to the “expectation that the interviewed subjects’ viewpoints are more likely to be expressed in an openly designed interview situation than in a standardized interview or a questionnaire” (Flick 150). In ethnographic studies, more detailed descriptions of research methodology, including data collection process, approach to analysis, and ethical issues, are provided.
For instance, in Helen Gregory’s work on poetry slams in the UK and the US, data analysis makes up the entire second section of her thesis. Gregory employs qualitative analytic methods (discourse analysis and thematic analysis) as well as quantitative analytic tools (content analysis). Gregory is also notable for explicitly dealing with the question of epistemology in interviewing. Kate Fox, in her study of resistance in solo stand-up performance by Northern English women, uses thematic analysis for her interview data in combination with an autoethnographic creative practice and a content analysis of 260 newspaper comedy reviews (cf. Fox). Katie Ailes, in her work on the performance of authenticity in UK spoken word poetry (Performance and Perception), uses thematic analysis to engage with the interview material collected and then exemplifies her findings by engaging in literary analyses of performances of poems of events that she has also observed and participated in. Ailes theorises her multi-method approach and outlines her process, including participant selection, ethical concerns, her interview schedule, as well as data analysis in great detail. Her thesis therefore provides an excellent starting point for researchers of poetry performances considering using interviews in their work. All three researchers used processes that allowed them to develop and test their hypotheses against the data collected.
This blog post has provided an overview of work undertaken in the field of poetry performance in the UK using interviews as a method of knowledge production. Interviews provide both a vital contribution to the documenting of poetry performance histories as well as to the analysis of individual performances, poets, or aspects of the poetry performance world. I have also highlighted some of the difficulties of archiving and maintaining interview material, which makes building upon previous work even more of a challenge. In a subsequent blog post, I will explore the PoP interviews in more depth, including the development of our interview guide, the experiences of the interviewing process, and the use of interviews in our work.
CLAIRE PALZER is a PhD researcher at the University of Vienna in the Poetry Off the Page project. Her doctoral work focuses on spoken word poetry in Ireland from the 1990s to the present day and the particularities of this performative and situated art form. She has conducted over thirty interviews to date with participants in the Irish poetry performance scene. Other research interests include Irish Studies more broadly, historical fiction, cultural memory, feminist, and queer studies. She is also a published poet.
To cite this blog post:
Palzer, Claire. “The Role of Interviewing in Poetry Performance Research.” Poetry Off the Page, 1 Feb 2024, https://poetryoffthepage.univie.ac.at/the-role-of-interviews-in-poetry-performance-research.
Ailes, Katie. “Spoken Word Interview Archive.” Katie Ailes, 4 Mar. 2019, https://katieailes.com/oral-history-archive/. Accessed 1 Feb. 2024.
—. The Performance and Perception of Authenticity in Contemporary U.K. Spoken Word Poetry. 2020. University of Strathclyde, PhD dissertation.
Bearder, Pete. Stage Invasion: Poetry & the Spoken Word Renaissance. Out-Spoken, 2019.
Casey, Paul. “Spoken Word Poetry in Ireland: 1990-2014.” The Stinging Fly: New Writers, New Writing, vol. 2, 2022, pp. 221–30.
English, Lucy. “The Democracy of Poetry: The Bristol Spoken Word Scene.” Spoken Word in the UK, edited by Lucy English and Jack McGowan, Routledge, 2021, pp. 88–105.
English, Lucy, and Jack McGowan, editors. Spoken Word in the UK. Routledge, 2021.
Flick, Uwe. An Introduction to Qualitative Research. 4th ed, Sage Publications, 2009.
Fox, Kathryn Elizabeth. Stand Up and Be (En)Countered. 2017. University of Leeds, PhD dissertation.
Gregory, Helen Fiona. Texts in Performance: Identity, Interaction and Influence in U.K. and U.S. Poetry Slam Discourses. 2009. University of Exeter, PhD dissertation. ethos.bl.uk, http://hdl.handle.net/10036/84703. Accessed 1 Feb. 2024.
Hedayati-Aliabadi, Minu. Slam Poetry: Deutsch-US-amerikanische Studie zu den Ansichten und Handlungsweisen der Akteure. Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden, 2018. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-658-19587-8. Accessed 1 Feb. 2024.
Holstein, James A., and Jaber F. Gubrium. “Active Interviewing.” Qualitative Research: Theory, Method and Practice., edited by David Silverman, Sage Publications, 1997, pp. 113–29.
Johnson, Adrian. “The New October Poets.” Spoken Word in the UK, edited by Lucy English and Jack McGowan, Routledge, 2021, pp. 51–62.
Larkin, Steve. “Suffering Fools: The Survival and Adaptation of British Absurd, Comic, and Satirical Traditions in the Era of Poetry Slams.” Spoken Word in the UK, edited by Lucy English and Jack McGowan, Routledge, 2021, pp. 27–40.
Marsh, Nicky, et al. “‘Blasts of Language’: Changes in Oral Poetics in Britain since 1965.” Oral Tradition, vol. 21, no. 1, 2006, pp. 44–67. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1353/ort.2006.0016. Accessed 1 Feb. 2024.
—. “Re: Blasts of Language/Poetry Off the Page Query.” Received by Claire Palzer, 29 Nov. 2023.
McGowan, Jack. Slam the Book: The Role of Performance in Contemporary UK Poetics. 2016. University of Warwick, PhD dissertation.
Novak, Julia. Live Poetry: An Integrated Approach to Poetry in Performance. 2011.
—. “Performing Black British Memory: Kat François’s Spoken-Word Show Raising Lazarus as Embodied Auto/Biography.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing, vol. 56, no. 3, May 2020, pp. 324–41. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1080/17449855.2020.1737184. Accessed 1 Feb. 2024.
Osborne, Deirdre. “The Body of Text Meets the Body as Text: Staging (I)Dentity in the Work of SuAndi and Lemn Sissay.” Crisis and Contemporary Poetry, edited by Anne Karhio et al., Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 230–47. Accessed 21 Nov. 2023.
Penlington, Nathan. Don’t Need English Lessons to Learn Our Lines: The Unspoken History of Performance Poetry. 2000. Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London, Unpublished MA thesis.
“Really Sayin’ Somethin’.” Standupandspit, 14 July 2015, https://standupandspit.wordpress.com/interview-videos/. Accessed 1 Feb. 2024.
Silva, Hannah. Live Writing : A Psychophysical Approach to the Analysis of Black British Poetry in Performance. 2018. University of Stirling, PhD dissertation, https://www.proquest.com/docview/2307299625?parentSessionId=qNAS9Yks6SWG5EFGvBUo14uYhNVH1HrlfnqhO5f8%2FoQ%3D&pq-origsite=primo&accountid=14682. Accessed 1 Feb. 2024.
Thompson, Russell. “Biting Back Against the Fascist Octopus: The Story of Apples and Snakes.” Spoken Word in the UK, edited by Lucy English and Jack McGowan, Routledge, 2021, pp. 17–26.
Virtanen, Juha. Poetry and Performance During the British Poetry Revival 1960–1980. Springer International Publishing, 2017. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-58211-5. Accessed 1 Feb. 2024.
Wade, Stephen, and Paul Munden, editors. Reading the Applause: Reflections on Performance Poetry by Various Artists. Talking Shop, 1999.
© Header image by user TheAngryTeddy on Pixabay.
 One form of using interviewing as a scholarly practice in poetry performance research that I will not be delving into in this blog post is when the interview is the entire critical work. Examples include Lucy English’s interview with Clive Birnie of Burning Eye Books, a publishing house focused on spoken word poetry (2021); the interviews with poets Adrian Mitchell, Roger McGough, John Mole and SuAndi in Stephen Wade and Paul Munden’s Reading the Applause: Reflections on Performance Poetry by Various Artists (1999); or the two full transcripts of interviews with Allen Fisher and Denise Riley in Juha Virtanen’s Poetry and Performance During the British Poetry Revival 1960-1980: Event and Effect (2017).
 See Flick’s description of the expert interview format (165–69).
 Other forms of participant questioning are used, if less commonly. For instance, Minu Hedayati-Aliabadi, working on German and US poetry slams, draws on semi-standardized questionnaires, semi-standardized observation sheets as well as group and expert interviews (114).
This work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.