Performance and reading

The performance of a poem or a play is a powerful demonstration of how dynamic reading can be. The poet or actor makes the writing come alive in similar ways to how the imagination gives vivid shape and energy to words when we read.

M. NourbeSe Philip and D-Empress Dianne Regisford are two poets for whom performance plays a key role in the communication of their work. Whereas Philip uses only her voice and body to put her message across, D-Empress involves sculptures and other props in her multimedia and multisensory performance pieces.

The following clips show the different effects of these approaches, and demonstrate the extent to which words gain energy by being breathed, chanted, whispered, and sung.

Here, M. NourbeSe Philip reads from her experimental poetic epic, Zong:


In this clip, D-Empress performs ‘Hersto-rhetoric? Na so today!!!’:

One of Britain’s leading poets is Linton Kwesi Johnson, who pioneered dub poetry as a literary form, and whose work appears on albums as well as in published collections: read more about him here.

LKJ will be in conversation with Prof. Paul Gilroy in Oxford on 26 April (Gulbenkian Lecture Theatre, St Cross Building, Manor Road). The recording will be posted here soon afterwards. Watch this space!

Linton Kwesi Johnson on stage, 17 March 2007 By ismocritico666 (CC BY 2.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Linton Kwesi Johnson on stage, 17 March 2007 By ismocritico666 (CC BY 2.0) via Wikimedia Commons


  Does the performance of a poem change anything for you? Are some poems better when they’re read out loud?
  How is the experience of reading a play different from seeing it performed?
  Watch M. NourbeSe Philip or D-Empress Dianne Regisford performing their work. What are three words that you would use to describe the experience of their poetry?

Cite this: “Performance and reading.” Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds, 2017, Accessed 13 April 2018.

More on reading

Approaches to reading
Reading and reception
Identifying with literature