Features Guest Column Published 18 September 2014

When Voiced Out Loud

Poet and performer Claire Trévien is the author of the pamphlet Low-Tide Lottery and The Shipwrecked House, which was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and has now been turned into a one-woman show. She discusses the challenges of taking poetry from the page to the stage.
Claire Trévien

I imagine that with most spoken word shows, the knowledge that the poems will be performed is at the heart of the writing process. In a case of why make life simple when it can be complicated, I first wrote The Shipwrecked House as a poetry collection before being offered the challenge of transforming it into a show.

I hadn’t set out for the poems to become a show, but that’s not to say that performance was something I did not consider when drafting and editing the poems. I’ve long seen poetry readings as an intrinsic part of my editing process, a way of testing out what works and what fails when voiced out loud. In the land of slightly pointless titles I guess I fit the mould of ‘page’ poet more comfortably, but it’s a label I’d prefer to take with a pinch of salt.

Promoters like to make differentiations between ‘page’ and ‘stage’ poets, and perhaps there are some stylistic differences borne out of the preferred end medium. However, to corner any modern poet into being just one or the other does feel hopelessly old-fashioned: ‘stage’ poets publish their beautifully-crafted work in collections all the time, ‘page’ poets are no longer the elbow-patched shy-mutterers you might expect. The diversity of voices and methods is one of the things I love best about poetry: there’s a poet and audience for almost everyone out there.

All this is to say that I wasn’t a stranger to performing my own work, but The Shipwrecked House isn’t a straightforward poetry-reading: there’s a set, a soundscape, even a perfume. I had to remember how to act again, something I realized was a lot harder for me to do with my own experiences than with a stranger’s words. Other than translating the odd play here and there, I’d never actively written for performance either, and found myself writing incredibly clunky segways between poems. In some cases, my director Tom Chivers and I found ways to embrace the stilted nature of my words. In other cases, rehearsals prompted me into re-writing the text, sometimes on the fly. I expect it will keep evolving as the tour progresses, something I wouldn’t have permitted myself to do with a playwright’s words.

In the end then, transforming The Shipwrecked House has felt less like a case of corseting poems to a different format, and more like a freeing process of transformation. Knowing the poems won’t change on the page gave me leave to dress them in different outfits, experiment with their form, introduce them to new senses. When The Shipwrecked House came out as a book I’d felt like I’d abandoned my baby in a forest. Premiering the show this July felt like watching my baby, now turned adult, learning how to drive.

The Shipwrecked House is touring the UK from September to January 2015, beginning in London at RichMix on the 21st September, and playing Canada Water Culture Space on the 13th November, before going to Bristol, Exeter, Norwich, York, Newcastle, Bridport, and Oxford.

The Shipwrecked House is available from Penned in the Margins.

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