Performance poetry steps into the literary limelight

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 March, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 March, 2004, 12:00am

Performance poetry carries a stigma. For many, it conjures images of bereted and black body-suited poseurs drawing spurious parallels between the humble paper clip and the geopolitical leanings of successive White House governments.

That vision is, on the whole, wrong.

Performance poetry, as the many first-timers who watched Five New Scorchers at the Fringe Theatre last night found out, is about ordinary people giving you a glimpse of their world. Five New Scorchers featured the works of, unsurprisingly, five Hong Kong poets: Mani Rao, Timothy Kaiser, Kavita Jindal, Gillian Bickley and Martin Alexander.

The themes covered ranged from bus window-preening and comparative tai-tai conversation, to the post-handover expatriate exodus, middle-aged biking and the perils of being young and on a moped in Spain. Oh, and death - there was a fair bit of that.

The crowd, which appeared to be made up of many performance poetry first-timers, found that on the whole there was a good balance of material from what was a fairly eclectic mix of poets. Sue Shaw, an Australian teacher who had harboured some reservations concerning the world of performance poets, said the show had been a bit of a revelation.

'It's great to experience it - we don't often get the opportunity to sit and listen to poetry these days. It's something we all hated at school, but it's good to come back and relive it when you are a little older,' said Ms Shaw.

It was a rare privilege to hear a poet read a piece in the way they had envisioned when they wrote it. 'Gillian actually read a poem that one of my students tried to read for me. I was heartened to see that my take on it wasn't so far off,' said Ms Shaw.

She was also impressed by the fact the poets were willing to share with an audience something that was at its core so deeply personal. 'I think it was great. Some of it would have been better kept in quiet circles, at home, but most of it was really good and very enlightening.'

Canadian John O'Brian, who is director of the Hong Kong Government Records Office, had seen a little performance poetry in his home country.

'I've seen it in Vancouver and in Victoria in coffee house type situations,' he said. 'But they are the West Coast of Canada, and they've always been pretty open to underground types of activity, but Hong Kong is a little different.

'That said, when you have a theatre called the Fringe, you kind of expect some fringe activities.' The idea of opening the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival with a group of five relatively unknown poets was a brave step, but the right one, he said.


An Evening With Maxine Hong Kingston. 6.30pm at the Foreign Correspondents' Club. $165. Share a drink while discussing the author's latest book, The Fifth Book of Peace.

The Last Secrets of the Silk Road. 6.30pm at the Helena May. $100. Alexandra Tolstoy discusses the book she wrote after her 7,000km trek across China and Central Asia by camel and on horseback.