Not too long ago, I was having a conversation with some fellow poets on a piece I had just performed, when somebody said I had a type. By type she meant there was a particular way in which I performed my pieces; a stance, a way of enunciation and intonation, a certain judiciousness of gestures. So much so that every time I went up, they knew the way I would deliver my piece.
That was certainly some constructive feedback, and I got some great ideas on how to better modulate my voice, how to use my height to cover space on stage etc. But what was a revelation to me was the next comment, which said that every time I went on stage, they expected a dark, brooding, melancholy sort of piece.
That is when I knew I didn’t just have a type. I was being typecast.
As a poet, you walk a fine line between writing about things and events that mean something to you, and becoming predictable. It’s really difficult and at the same time very important to maintain this balance because if you don’t write about things that resonate with your soul, you will come across as shallow and insincere. But, if you don’t innovate, if you don’t try exploring a new avenue, you run the risk of becoming somebody who harps on about the same old jaded themes.
To understand this better, let’s take the two themes which make up the bulk of poetry ever written – love and loss. There are pages upon pages filled in an illegible hand because the star struck young lover couldn’t wait to enumerate all the alluring aspects of the object of his/her affection. As a result, we are swamped with long and florid descriptions of eyes deep as oceans, dark hair blowing in the wind like storm clouds, sensuous curves like mountain valleys and so on. Similarly, poetry on loss (which in common parlance, seems to be understood more as break-up poetry), has common themes of desolation, desperation and occasionally, depression. These pieces written by numerous jilted lovers move through the usual phases of disbelief that it could’ve happened to him/her, a thorough detailing of their inadequacy in facing up to a world without the presence of their lodestar, anger at the way they were treated, and finally, exhortations of the “I will survive” variety with promises to everyone within earshot that they are now stronger and better off.
It gets so that you could just switch faces and you’d still hear the same words. There are many times when I have seen people lose interest in the piece and the person on stage and delve to find deeper meaning in their phones. I must admit to being guilty of that myself on occasion. It’s not fair to the poet, but then the poet isn’t being fair to the audience either.
Here’s the conundrum, in today’s poetry scene there is a high volume of churn, which means that there are a lot of new people who come in for a while looking to experiment with this cool new medium. As a result, there is always a mix of people who have been writing and performing for a while and have understood the need to write and listen to something different, and those who are just dipping their toes in the water, who think that the comparison of human anatomy to topography is deliciously new and thrilling along with an audience that wants to consume the same old rehashed words and turns of phrase.
What we do need to understand is that this use of clichés is at times a necessary evil (much like that phrase itself). I have used them in my own early work, and still turn to them on occasion. Because it was only once I exhausted my own ears and eyes with their use did I feel the need to experiment. Only once I heard 20 other poets writing about similar themes using similar words, did the epiphany strike me. There is not a lot of uniqueness about the experiences that I have gone through. There are others who have faced the same things, be it exulting in love or drowning in sorrow at loss. There are others who have tried to rail against social evils, and to write about the beauty existing in nature. When we get down to it, a lot of it has been done before!
So, if there is often no uniqueness to experience, is there a way to be unique? Is there a way to express yourself that doesn’t come across as the lyrics to a generic 80’s love song? In my experience, there is. But it only comes with practice and experience. It doesn’t just have to be the eyes and hair that captivated you. You could even miss a person’s pimple or scar. Rather than all the usual gooey crap, bring out the little absurdities that made your relationship and your experience unique. The more you start thinking beyond the obvious, and reading and listening to people who explore their emotions differently, will you realize there is an entire world of expression open to you. One that lends itself better without the use of clichés.
Poetry is an emotional response, an outpouring of feeling. As a spoken word performer, I do not subscribe to many of the frameworks outlined in ‘classical’ poetry. But even honest free-form poetry needs work. It needs to be engaging as well as honest. We’re all sympathetic listeners. But even sympathetic listeners have a tolerance limit. There is only so much we can take about your love life (or its lack) without losing interest. Now, if you were to put on a different lens and imagine the forbidden love affair between a cat and a canary, you have my attention.
So use those clichés, but only for a bit and then drop them like hot potatoes (just like that phrase). Poetry is a journey to the far reaches of your inner self and the exploration of so many things you don’t know and are afraid of. Let it be that fantastic. Do not make it as dull and predictable as your office commute.