Back in May I attended one of Lloyd Robinson and Matt Macdonald‘s God Damn Debut Slam, at the Banshee Labyrinth in Edinburgh. I won – first time that’s ever happened, tho the GDDS isn’t as cut-throatedly competitive as some of the other poetry slams I’ve been involved in – it’s more about the supportive than the competitive.
So, I got invited back and last night I did my first ever, paid feature slot. Big night for me. I read four poems called, respectively – “The Tree”, “The Batteries”, “These Words” and “Guantanamera”. The video above is of Guantanamera. My wife, Ann, filmed it on her iPhone so it’s not exactly cinema quality but I think it does the job.
I want to try, where possible, to get some more of my readings on video. This is for a couple of reasons – firstly, because it helps when you’re pestering people for gigs if you’ve got videos you can easily show them (i.e. on YouTube), so they can get an idea of what you’re like as a performer. Secondly, because the best way of assessing, critiquing and improving my own performance is for me to watch it back on video.
It’s not a terribly comfortable process. Like many people, I am no great lover of the sound of my own voice, when it’s been recorded and played back to me. I’m fine with the way my own voice sounds from inside my own head – it sounds like Gregory Peck from in here – it’s just the way it sounds to the rest of the world that I don’t like. And I’m no great fan of looking at myself on video either.
But, if you don’t analyse and you don’t look for ways to improve, you’ll never get better. So I’ve been spending some time this afternoon looking at things like eye contact, body language/position, whether I was using the mic so that it was picking up properly etc. Of course, it helps that it’s been pis*ing it down outside – makes ‘working’ on something on the lap-top that much more appealing.
The poem is (yet) another attempt to write for performance rather than for the page. It seems to have been a moderately more successful exercise, in this instance, than it was with “The Future“. Leastways, the feedback people have been kind enough to give me, on the occasions when “Guantanamera” has been performed, has been pretty positive. I think “Guantanamera” is closer to being ‘finished’ finished that ‘The Future” is/was. It helps that it (sort of) has a point to make, whereas “The Future” is mostly a list of images (which could, potentially, go on and on.)
The poem focusses a lot on Cuba. Ann and I have visited the island 3 times now – 2007, 2013 and 2015. It’s changed since we first went – back in 2007 the effects of the Período Especial were clearly still being felt – while in 2017, the new economic liberalism was obviously paying dividends to someone, there were new buildings (a lot of them, hotels) going up in Havana everywhere you looked. We also got married in Cuba, on 18 January, 2013.
So, Cuba has its place – in my affections and in my personal history. But the poem’s not about me (very few of my poems are). It focusses on Cuba because I believe that the Cuban Revolution was (past tense) about as close to a genuinely social revolution – i.e. a revolution rooted in the needs and interests of ordinary people – as anyone’s ever managed to get.
Which isn’t to say that everything about the Cuban revolution was good (in whatever subjective sense), it wasn’t. But – as Saul Landau writes – from 1959 through the to the ate 1980s, the revolutionary government “accomplished its major goals: sovereignty and independence, equalizing income and fostering social justice. Thanks to the revolution, Cuba was transformed from an informal United States colony through 1958, into a proud nation.”
The poem uses the figure of a young girl (The word “guajira“, from the best known lyric to the song, “Guantanamera” means “country girl” in Spanish), to represent the need for popular change to be truly representative of the interests of everyone. It tries (a bit) to challenge the “imperial’ reading of history – which says that the only actors that matter are the Kings, Generals, Admirals etc. – instead of the ordinary people (“Not just about those men in uniforms, driving in their jeeps along the road to Santiago”).
After the elections on 8 June this year, I updated the text to include some more UK-centric references – “New Labour”, “When Blair met Bush/Before Thatcher was elected” etc. We have an example of a (potentially) popular movement in the UK, right now, in the shape of the movement behind Jeremy Corbyn – though, sadly, much of the focus is still on Corbyn as a the leader, rather than his popular, mass of supporter as =being the enablers. But that’s British politics and the British media for you.
The poem ends by saying that events in political history (for example, the opening and eventual closing of Camp X-Ray) come and go but unless changes are genuinely popular – i.e. driven by a mass movement of people, rather than political/ruling-class oligarchs – then they will, ultimately, fail. (Of course, popular change isn’t necessarily ‘good’ change, depending on your position and PoV. The Brexit vote, for example, might be a considered an example of popular or populist change – but that doesn’t make it any less of a potential disaster.)
I don’t think it’s a bad poem exactly. It’s gauche and it lacks subtleness. I think the main problem is the voice – “I want you to remember”, “because some things last” etc. It’s telling, not showing – which makes the whole thing seem preachy. It’s trying to wrestle with some fairly big, broad ideas and that, in and of itself, is probably part of the problem. I think poetry works better when it zooms in and focusses on the detail[s] and the individual[s], rather than trying to cover the entire canvas. But, I always believe, you have to tilt at the big windmills – life, death, revolution etc. And, in the event you don’t succeed, you just have to follow Beckett’s maxim from “worstward ho” – “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Video the results. Learn from them.