Live Writing: A Psychophysical Approach to the Analysis of Black British Poetry in Performance - PhDData

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Live Writing: A Psychophysical Approach to the Analysis of Black British Poetry in Performance

The thesis was published by Silva, Hannah, in September 2022, University of Stirling.


This study redresses the scarcity of critical engagement with poetry in performance. My case studies are ‘black British poets’. I argue that the poet’s use of voice, gesture, presence, breath, prosody, improvisation, introductions, commentary and asides can be analysed as part of live writing. I demonstrate that the analysis of poetry in performance requires multiple methodologies and analytical approaches. I provide a correction to existing models and approaches to analysing poetry in performance by selecting methodology in response to the poet’s work and the contexts and heritages that inform their practice. I use ‘live writing’ as a lens that can be applied to all poetry performances, from the poet who quietly reads to the poet who recites whilst dancing. This study reveals that performing poetry is a psychophysical act that engages the poet’s entire (a)liveness.

The first contextualising chapters consider the place of performance within British poetry as a whole, and how labels such as ‘spoken word’ and ‘fixed-identity’ can be used to exclude. ‘Live writing’ is discussed in relation to poststructuralism, the avant-garde and black British poetry. Chapter two, “Ways of Listening” demonstrates how a legacy of analysis founded on Saussure’s differentiation between langue and parole has impacted literary criticism and ways of listening, revealing that even recent analyses of poetry in performance re-prioritise the page. Finally, in chapter three, the potential meanings and origins of ‘British spoken word voice’ are considered and its attributes analysed using pitch-tracking software.

Drawing on methodology from literary criticism, performance studies, sociolinguistics and musicology, the second half of this study is dedicated to analyses of live writing by Salena Godden, David J and Lemn Sissay. I analyse their work via the aesthetics and histories of hip hop, oral literature, Brechtian theatre, and Geneva Smitherman’s discussion of black semantics, specifically ‘talk-singing’ and ‘Signifyin’. Godden and David J are influential British poets whose work has not previously been analysed within or outside of academia. Lemn Sissay has been more widely discussed; I provide a unique contribution by analysing his use of gesture and voice, asides and commentary (or ‘performed palimpsests’) in relation to Bertolt Brecht’s writings on defamiliarisation. The study concludes with a discussion of Sissay’s The Report that refocuses my use of the phrase ‘live writing’.

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