I have to admit I had my reservations when my publisher first broached the idea of transforming my poetry collection The Shipwrecked House into a show. Firstly, the collection wasn’t designed for performance (though certain poems worked very well at readings), and secondly I wasn’t sure what the hybrid proposed might entail: not a spoken word show but something other, a theatre show with poetry, a poetry show with theatre.
When I look at spoken word shows, the pattern generally seems to be to create a show first, and then adapt it to the stage. There are some exceptions, such as the excellent work that JayBird Live Literature does. Doing things our way around, with the text already there made life undoubtedly more difficult. We pruned the collection back considerably, picking poems we felt we could mould into a narrative, finding poems that shared characteristics while bringing a new energy to each other. Reading poems out loud that had been previously contained to the page became a new method of editing. In some, such as ‘Poem in Which You Ask How You Can Tell Real Pearls from High Quality Fakes’ it was as simple as reversing the line order in a stanza. I cannibalised stanzas from poems and remounted them in different ones. This probably sounds like a horrific process for a poet to go through, but it was actually quite refreshing: as I knew the poems existed in their original format I felt freer to play fast and loose with them.
What we didn’t want was for this to be a straightforward poetry reading: context, poem, context, poem. So we’ve decided to make the most of the possibilities theatre can bring us, while keeping poetry texts as their core. Audiences can expect an imaginative set thanks to Gary Campbell involving all sorts of pulleys, a haunting soundscape thanks to Oliver Barrett, and, a personal favourite, specially commissioned scents thanks to Sarah McCartney at 4160 Tuesdays. My hope is that ‘poetry’ audiences will get a new dimension to the book, and that ‘theatre’ audiences will enjoy a different way of performing poetry.
Claire Trévien is the Anglo-Breton author of Low-Tide Lottery (Salt, 2011) and The Shipwrecked House (Penned in the Margins, 2013), which was longlisted for a Guardian First Book Award. She edits Sabotage Reviews and, with Gareth Prior, the forthcoming anthology Other Countries: Contemporary Poets Rewiring History.
The Shipwrecked House will tour to London, Bristol, Exeter, Norwich, York and Bridport. For details of the tour and tickets, visit Penned in the Margins’s website.
Photo by Field & McGlynn.