Buddy Wakefield’s Gentleman Practice: Page Poetry vs. Stage Poetry

Caragana Ennis

Gentleman Practice by Buddy Wakefield. Image: Caragana Ennis.

Gentleman Practice is a book of poetry by spoken word poet Buddy Wakefield. Spoken word is a form of poetry that is meant to be performed instead of read, although some artists also publish written forms of their work. The book is comprised of long and short poems as well as snippets of thought and conversation that Wakefield has had and it is largely about his own personal growth. It is difficult to determine whether the printed form is a remediation of the spoken form or vice versa. Of course Wakefield wrote down the poems when he was first composing them, so in that way the written version came first. However, he was performing many of the poems in the book before it was published. Either way, the two versions are linked, but extremely different. Having experienced Wakefield’s poetry both in print and on stage, I see the value in both forms but believe that the poetry he has written is most effective in spoken form. While a printed poem is unchanging and reading it is a solitary activity, a performed poem is changeable, interactive, and alive.

Buddy Wakefield performing. Image: Andi D.M.B. Literature Junky: The Nomad Poet-Buddy Wakefield. 2011. Literature Junky.

Each time Buddy Wakefield performs a certain poem, he performs it in a different way. This ranges from leaving out a word or saying ‘somebody’ instead of ‘someone’ to adding or forgoing multiple lines or even diverging from the original version of poem entirely. In one performance of the poem ‘In Landscape’, for example, Wakefield stops the poem entirely to talk about how he and is partner have chickens and their constant struggle to keep them off the porch (West Side School). In a performance of the poem ‘Jean Heath’, he makes a more transformative change to the poem.  He changes the line “I got a hunger for ya / I got a hunger for ya / but I never / but I never / but I never really came through” (Wakefield 52) to “I got over ya / I got over ya / and you better believe I’m gonna pull through” (RPinPDX). It’s a small change but it represents complete transformation and influences the poem as a whole. These changes and additions allow the poem to grow and change with the artist. The changes can be as simple as repeating a word a second time for emphasis or as extreme as stopping the poem to talk about something he is thinking about in the moment. Seeing the poems live is a constant surprise. Even if you have read the poem before, you can’t predict how Wakefield will be moved to perform it that day.

Reading from Gentleman Practice is a solitary activity; however, watching Wakefield perform his poetry live is a communal one. When reading his poetry, you can control the pace at which you absorb the words and spend as much time analyzing the various metaphors and sound devices as you’d like. Seeing the poems performed live, however, is a completely different experience. Wakefield responds to the audience and the audience responds to him. Not only is the performance spontaneous, it is completely interactive. He may pause longer when he can tell the audience is completely absorbed, or continue to joke and improvise when the audience is particularly amused. He sometimes even speaks directly to audience members that he notices for one reason or another, even occasionally bringing audience members onto the stage to accompany his poetry with music. This allows the audience to experience the poetry collectively. They are being constantly surprised by Wakefield and he is being constantly surprised by them. The poems change in the interaction between audience and performer. Although you can spend more time analyzing the poems when you read them in print, you miss the collective experience that is unique to a live performance.

Although Gentleman Practice has undeniable value as a book, I find that the poems within it are most impactful when they are performed on a stage by the man who wrote them. In a book that is largely about self-transformation and growth, it is fitting that the poems be shared in a way that is also subject to constant change. When Buddy Wakefield performs, he can choose where he will pause, the emotion he will put into a certain line, and where he will speed up, forcing the audience to struggle to keep up. The body language, tone of voice, and emphasis that Wakefield employs when performing give the audience more information about the poem’s meaning and intent than they would get reading it in print. The poem becomes a living thing rather than a fixed piece of writing. It almost seems as though the book was written to mimic a spoken performance. There are little stories between longer poems that mimic the spontaneous banter he may deliver on stage. He spells certain words in a way that mimics the way he pronounces them when speaking (such as ‘ya’ instead of ‘you’) and in one poem, even leaves over half a page blank to represent a long pause in a spoken performance (Wakefield). In some ways, his poetry is a continuation of oral tradition, when poetry was spoken rather than written and experienced collectively rather than read in solitude. It seems that the printed document is merely a way to keep record of a collection of poetry that is, in its truest form, constantly changing.

Works Cited

RPinPDX. “Buddy Wakefield “Jean Heath”.” 26 April 2011. YouTube.com. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qSfm1dM9jMw>.

Wakefield, Buddy. Gentleman Practice . Long Beach : Write Bloody Publishing , 2011.

West Side School for the Desperate. “Buddy Wakefield – In Landscape.” 10 April 2013. YouTube.com . <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eNGm2OTInIw>.

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