Beat This: some thoughts on Portsmouth, NH’s Beat Night

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One of the things I wanted to do this summer was visit more literary events in Portsmouth, NH. So a couple of weeks ago I went to Beat Night for the first time, at its new and possibly temporary home at 3S Artspace.

As soon as I walked in (late), I knew it wasn’t the usual poetry reading. I have been to a great number of poetry readings, in pubs, bars, seminar rooms, lecture theaters, libraries, and arts centers, so I think I know something about how they usually go. The ones in libraries, lecture theatres etc. tend to have a lot of respectful hush and polite applause; the ones in bars and pubs are noisier and bustlier as the poet mumbles into a sound system that’s generally not up to the job. But I’ve never been to one with a band on stage, the atmosphere of a gig, and an audience visibly enjoying themselves.

That what was happening at Beat Night. Here’s how it works. There’s a poet, reading a poem, at a mic. So far so usual. But behind the poet, literally and figuratively, there’s a band, cranking out some funk. Or blues. Or melodic jazz. Or making up some weird tone-poems of their own. Because before each reading at Beat Night, the poet asks the band for music that to go with the poem—sometimes specifying a mood, sometimes a musical style. The poet starts reading, the band finds its way into a rhythm, a mood, a melody; the poet reads, the band becomes ever more assured in the landscape they’re creating; until eventually the poet stops, and the band slowly winds their piece down… Until the next poem, when it all happens again: the same process but not at all the same results, since the poems are different, and the music too.

The effects are pretty darn interesting. The performance is multi-layered, and the audience can think about it in many ways. You can focus mainly on the poet/poem, letting the music filter into your mind as a kind of mood-maker: this might be a hard-core poetry fan’s way of doing it. Or, you can reverse that approach and concentrate on the music first, tuning in and out of the poem as it sounds less or more interesting: this has the advantage that, if you don’t like the poem, you can just get with the noise! A third option is to focus on the interplay between music and poem, how they are working off each other, contrasting, harmonizing, conflicting. That was the approach that I found myself taking most often: trying to figure out how the music and the poem can go together, to make a performance that is neither one nor the other, but a fusion.

I was still figuring it out by the end. There’s no doubt at all that the music makes the whole thing more fun; who doesn’t like live music? And poetry borrowing some of that energy and fizz, to attract a sizeable audience—including LARGE NUMBERS OF PEOPLE UNDER 40!!—is great. More power to the Beats. But on the other hand, I had the definite suspicion that some rather weak poems sounded a lot better than they ought to have, thanks to the skill of the band. Well, that’s all right: every open mic poetry reading has its share of weaker poems, and I’d rather have some good music to listen to alongside them. At its best, such as when Johnathan Stoker (pictured blurrily above) read his meandering, well-paced poems of comic anecdote, music and delivery seemed well-matched and made a nugget of pleasure. And I’ve been to too many poetry readings where nuggets of pleasure were vanishingly rare.

I’m still thinking about how the method ought to work, or can work at its best, to make a piece of art that’s part words, part music, and all its own thing as well. Performing at Beat Night isn’t like writing song lyrics: the poet writes first, separately from the music, trying to make the poem work on its own merits. This sets some problems. A poem—a good poem—has to have its own rhythms and melodies: it should be a kind of musical “score” in itself. The band can’t know that score in advance, so the word/music fusion that comes must be pure chance. The band’s music might boost the poem’s own music, or it might destroy it. As a poet, I feel defensive about the sounds of my poems: I don’t want them trampled on. But as an occasional performer, I feel excited about the sparks that could grow on stage at Beat Night, that I could never generate with only my own voice.

The best way to figure it out, of course, is to have a go. The next Beat Night is a special on September 17th, when 7 poets will be competing in a heat of The National Beat Poetry Festival. I hope to be there to learn more about it – and if I’m early enough to sign up, I’ll have a go at the open mic part myself.