Prose from Poetry Magazine

The New Perform-A-Form: A Page Vs. Stage Alliance

Sixth in a series of eight manifestos.

by Thomas Sayers Ellis
The performance body, via breathing and gesture, dramatizes form. It makes it theater. It makes it action. It makes it living, alive, as in “get live,” as in “all the way live,” as in lyric. The idea body, via text and thought, flattens form. It makes it fixed. It makes it language. It makes it literature, an imagined living, as in artifice. The work of the performance body is not without craft, control, or form. It is not lowly. The work of the idea body is not without attitude, improvisation, or flow. It is not closed. A perform–a–form occurs when the idea body and the performance body, frustrated by their own segregated aesthetic boundaries, seek to crossroads with one another. This coupling, though detrimental to aspects of their individual traditions, will repair and continue the living word.


The old style of representing “likeness” is over and perform–a–formers, though appreciative of metaphor and simile, etc., no longer need either to express nuance in poetry. The matrimony of page and stage insists on eliminating the false functions between the line and the limb. All rhyme schemes reborn as gesture, all gestures as sculptural integrity.


A perform–a–form line breaks many times, verbally, before it breaks the last time visually. If written, it is written more like blood than bone. If spoken, it is spoken more like stutter than song. Perform-a-forms do not lie (on the page or on the stage), frozen in little boxes or voices, unable to interact with the reader or listener, as if on a table in a morgue.


Perform–a–formers seek a path around both academic and slam poetry; to eliminate the misconceptions between them; and to balance the professional opportunities (in publishing and employment) opened to each. The utterance, paged or memorized, is only a schema in need of diverse modes of respiration.


Against the narrowness of linearity, a perform–a–former will subject its own composer-sition to the rigor of audience participation. You can’t workshop a perform–a–form, but you can participate in its creation and correction. Able to surrender to the collective sensibility of community, not the critic’s scalpel, the last great perform–a–former was Sekou Sundiata.


A well-crafted perform–a–form will continue to pour after it is written or performed. This pouring, akin to echoing, should reclaim the original attributes of poetry from nature and cinema. Despite history, the perform–a–former seeks carnivorous wholeness, a gluttonous diet of the anatomy of the art–i–verse.

And while it is rare to attend a poetry festival or a conference and see poets (established and emerging, white and black, gay and straight, academic and non-academic) being treated as equals, consequently it is even rarer to discover literary editors and publishers open to “all” levels of class intelligence. The first task of activism of any perform–a–former is the removal of all one-dimensional judges of craft.
Originally Published: January 30, 2009


On January 30, 2009 at 3:47pm JeFF Stumpo wrote:
Barbara Jane Reyes pointed me here. There are various intelligent responses I'd like to have, but at the moment, it's simply, "Yes. This looks not to cobble together taxonomies but to create. This gets it right."

On February 9, 2009 at 4:34am Sean Smith wrote:
This link is to a you-tube video that is

something like an interesting mix of

perform-a-form. Plus it uses lots of

repetition making it sadly "head-


But part of developing ideas is studying.

So spend 3 minutes and study.


On February 19, 2009 at 2:15pm JeFF Stumpo wrote:
@ Sean: Cool vid. I was leaning purely gimmick until the moment a partial word on the left hand combined with a partial word on the right hand to complete a lyric. That moment signalled, for me, the real incorporation of the music - breaking down the words into syllables, represented both statically (written in pieces on the hands) and rhythmically (shaking or tapping number of syllables) and being conscious of a limited space (limited words, limited fingers).

I think the concept would have great promise outside of simply representing the lyrics to a song. Which is not to say that representing lyrics can't be done well or isn't a worthy performance in and of itself. But I'm imagining Flying Words taking this type of performance and going to the nth degree with it - creating original poetry in written and spoken English as well as American Sign Language, crafting musical and rhythmic elements that will only be understood by select portions of the audience, etc.

On March 31, 2009 at 7:33pm a-non... wrote:
Yes, TSE! Yes

But there are still great perform-a-formers among us. and some of them are brilliant, and many of them are women, and some of them are binding u-i-n-verse, and in (re)making the we's to which each might claim/denounce allegiance.

On September 7, 2009 at 9:25am TSE wrote:
So true...and I know I only scratched the
surface of the surface. Yes, most of them
are women...

On April 4, 2010 at 11:50am meliaa wrote:
which would u say is betta page os satge and why?

On November 6, 2011 at 11:30am Monique Avakian wrote:
Thank you, Mr. Ellis, for your leadership on this.

I'm a bridge builder and would like to see this divide end. After all, poetry is an oral tradition. Both sides offer value and poetry is for everyone.

I'd also like to see the discussion evolve further to include multi-media creation, performance and most of all publishing: poetry and music; poetry and art; poetry and video; poetry and performance; poetry and political activism; interactive poetry live; choral poetry with more than one voice; interactive poetry online; Skype poetry lessons; interactive publishing....

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 Thomas Sayers Ellis


Thomas Sayers Ellis is the author of The Maverick Room (Graywolf, 2005) and a chaplet, Song On (WinteRed Press, 2005) and his interview with Bootsy Collins appears in Waxpoetics #18. He lives in Brooklyn, New York and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and in the Lesley University low-residency Creative Writing Program.

In April 2014, Thomas Sayers Ellis was a featured writer for Harriet.

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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