Engineering Log: How to Format Performance Poems Like a Playwright

When a poem is written for the stage, how the hell do you confine that sh*t to the page?

The poems I’ve performed at ProvSlam (Providence Poetry Slam) were written for that audience in that space. Some in that time as well.

I don’t really have any memorized anymore. I used to, back before I realized they weren’t really slam material. But when I read them aloud I was still very physical and expressive and … well … a performer.

I take dramatic pauses, make weird noises that can’t be spelled, and make faces at the audience to build on certain points.

I wanted to make them available for a wider audience. So last year I got serious with myself and figured out how.

How to spell the sounds that have no spelling. How to edit some of these things just enough that they work as pure audio recordings. How to do a video recording that doesn’t lessen the edge of being on stage while still allowing for the digital viewer not to miss a word or sound or face (still in progress on this one).

In doing research to figure this all out I looked to the age of verse drama (Shakespeare and Marlowe, et al.) which isn’t what you’d call rich in terms of telling you how to add extensive stage directions for the purposes of characterization. I also came across the radio play Killing Him by Yehuda Amichai which weaves a great deal of poetry into the overall dialogue but has enough prose interjections to leave you wondering whether it’s more play than poem.

So then I turned to my shelf of scripts. I was “An Actor” (or going to be) at one time so there’s quite a few plays and musicals in my home (though not nearly as much as there used to be because reasons), one of which is the book of Into The Woods. I also “dug” through some old papers of mine and found a copy of a one-act play I’d written my senior year of high school the which made a grown man cry three times — just saying.

Between these sources I mapped out my preferred way of formatting performance poems that allows you to have as many characters and stage directions as you dang well please. You can use it using any verse form you like, and (if you happen to assign a different verse form to every character which is something I’ve always wanted to do), so much the better.

To make this I took my fully-formatted performance poem HelmetKid and stuffed it chock-full of footnotes explaining how it’s all put together. To see this and other performance poems without all the footnotes, and with examples of other things you can do for longer/more elaborate pieces, I got plenty of examples for you in my collections-in-progress The Saga of Sven & Other Poems (may get renamed My Life is Not a Rom-Com) and Only Handle It Once.