Jenny Smart: Do you consider yourself a performance poet, or just a poet who happens to do performance?
Simon Banderob: I would consider myself a performance poet. There was a time when I would write just for the page, but that was really intermittent. I'm not particularly proud of anything I've written from that time. Only felt like I was hitting my stride when I started writing things that were meant to be spoken aloud.
JS:What was it that captivated you about slams, or performance poetry in general?
SB: I don’t think I’d ever seen anything like it. I’d seen people monologue before— my background is in theatre —but I’d never seen people perform in verse in their own voice. It was so honest and real and really creative at the same time. It’s so simple. It seems like such an obvious ideas, but I’d never seen anything like it.
JS: You mentioned your background is in theatre. Did performance come before poetry, or were you doing them separately before melding them together?
SB: I have been writing for a long, long time. I’ve also been performing for a long time in my life. Performance poetry is a recent melding of the two, but I think theatre came first. I started being in school plays consistently when I was in grade three. I don’t think I was doing creative writing on my own until grade eight. They were both separate for a while, but theatre is definitely older for me.
JS: Do you also write scripts for drama?
SB: Especially when I was in high school. I loved writing sketches. That’s what I would do on the weekend: I would get up and go to the computer, and would just hammer out a sketch or two. It was something I absolutely loved doing. I do that from time to time. In the Christmas holidays last year, I wrote a radio play in rhyming verse about the trial of a poet who tries to reinvent free verse. That’s not the bulk of what I do now. Most of what I do now is some short stories, but it’s mostly poems I tend to perform on stage.
JS: What are the main differences between writing a script to be performed and writing a poem to be performed?
SB: I think with a script there are more conventions, particularly surrounding who is speaking the piece. Especially if it’s a dialogue. There are multiple characters and they are most likely different from you. You have to imagine their different perspectives and their backstories. Why they say and do the things they do. Also with drama, it’s acting— there’s action. There are poems about actions, but mostly it’s a more didactic art form. It’s more about telling. Even the most vivid poem is essentially telling, whereas on stage there can be total silence along with action at the same time.
JS: When you’re performing as a poet, are ‘you’ speaking or do you consider the speak of the poem to be a character?
SB: I can’t actually think of a time when I’ve written a poem in a voice that was not mine. In some pieces maybe I’ve adopted a little bit of a persona. The first performance piece I ever wrote— “Democrazombie —does feature a lot of zombies voices crying out for brains. I have other voices I’ve used to characterize, say, evangelical preachers or carpet bag salesmen. But those are just caricatures. Ultimately, it’s just me talking.
JS: Do you think about the performance as you write the poem, or do you write then figure the performance out after?
SB: Truth is, I don’t really have a set process and that’s why I like to workshop my poems with other people before I perform them. I find that the performance I gives is formed by the words and the word combinations that I come up with. They suggest a particular performance. I probably should be more conscious of that, but for now I just find a series of words or ideas that evolve into something vaguely coherent. I follow a performance to suit that. So I guess the text comes first.
JS: How is writing a poem intended for a performance different than writing a poem intended for the page?
SB: Most of the things I write end up being good for the slam format because I often think about language in terms of how things sound. When I’m looking at what I’ve written, I’m really interested in seeing what are the particular consonants, where are the internal rhymes, how it sounds. That’s a big thing I focus on. Whereas for the page, I find it a huge headache— how am I enjambing this thing? I worry a lot about enjambment, which I really shouldn’t. People almost never read my poems unless they buy my chapbook. When I’m imaging the words, I’m not thinking of them as pieces of text. I’m thinking of words as sounds: what the best combination of sounds attached to words attached to ideas is going to be. Essentially, my biggest motivation in writing is writing something that just sounds nice.
JS: Once you have memorized the poem, do you feel like it comes off the page? Having the poem in your head, does that change the way you think about it as a piece?
SB: I’ve written poems out on the page, and then I’ve worked really hard to memorize them. I read them over and over again, and I realized in speaking them aloud that there are particular lines that don’t make sense. Or it’s missing a line. Often the way I come up with ideas is by walking. I like to walk up on Mont Royal and think about the poems. Often just muttering improvised verse under my breath, which probably makes me look really crazy. But that’s just part of my writing process. Just listening and hearing how it sounds. So in that way, some of the poems are first born spoken, and then I have to ruse to write them down to see— does this work? The take it back off the page.
JS: Do you have any specific goals going into CFSW (Canadian Festival of Spoken Word) this year?
SB: I’m really excited because it’s the first nationals I’ve ever been to. I feel so fortunate that it’s going to be right here in the city of Montreal. At the same time, I’m not feeling hyper competitive about this which is weird. This is a massive tournament and it is a competition, but I know that I’m not a very experiences slammer. I’m honestly looking forward to hearing other slam poets perform, as I am excited about performing for a national audience. My biggest goal for CFSW is to have a good time and meet poets from all over Canada.
JS: In terms of the competitive aspect, what do you think about the slam convention of using numerical scores on poetry? Do you find it helpful?
SB: I think scoring a poem from 1-to-10 is the stupidest thing that’s ever been done to poetry. On the other hand, it’s also been the best thing ever. It’s absolutely ridiculous to give something as inflexible as a number to a piece of artistic work of self expression, but having that competitive aspect to it really made slam poetry more accessible. It’s made it a lot more exciting and it’s brought more people to hear and write poetry. It can be really discouraging to get a score that doesn’t feel good. What the judges say is not necessarily even reflective of what everyone else s thinking.
JS: I know you’ve also been a judge at a poetry slam. What kind of criteria do you use? What kind of poem would you give a ten to?
SB: A poem that just leaves you weeping and overcome with emotion, something that really moves you or really challenges your ideas, something that stops you and alters something, really profoundly— that’s what I think a ten ought to be. So when I’m listening to things and judging, I was thinking: ‘How close is this poem to that idea?’ I’m not even expecting to hear a ten because a poem like that is really rare.
Poems I would consider to be tens would be: “My Darling Sarah,” by Shane Koyczan and “The Crickets have Arthritis.” Also, “Birdcage,” by C.R. Avery. There aren’t that many poems I would consider tens, and I think that’s a good thing. That ideal should be hard to reach and we should strive for it.
JS: What advice would you give for people thinking of trying slam?
SB: To those who have never slammed, the only advice I can give is to go to a slam. Go to a slam as soon as possible— don’t just go to one slam. Go to multiple slams. For those who are thinking about performing, I would say the only way to know it is to experience it. Just push yourself up on the stage and do a piece. Even if it’s really short. Even if it’s a haiku or a limerick. It doesn’t have to be a slam at first. It doesn’t have to be in a competitive space. It could be an open mic. I know poets who have written on the page and have never performed before. I’ve been there for their first performance and they’ve just dazzled me. There are really good performance poets out there who don’t even know they’re performance poets yet. The only way you can discover that potential is if you try. Don’t be afraid of sucking! You have to suck before you suck less, and you have to suck less before you’re good, before you’re great, before you’re Shane Koyczan or someone.
Simon Banderob is a performance poet and member of the 2013 Throw Poetry Collective Slam Team. He studies Theatre and Political Science at Concordia. He has just released a chapbook called Plecostomus Now andwould love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org, unless you are pretending to be a Nigerian Banker.