“these kinds of playful things”: (Dis)connection in Online Pandemic Performance Poetry

July 9, 2024
Jade Palmer

On July 6, 2021, the Poets Corner Reading Series held an event on Zoom featuring poets Ian Williams and Jane Munro hosted by Adrienne Drobnies. After Drobnies reads Williams’s bio, Williams says, “Muted now how about now can you hear me now? I still can’t see you, only your name. Your voice is breaking up” (“Jane Munro and Ian Williams” 01:08:55— 01:09:05). Drobnies tries to interject with solutions to his technical difficulties, but Williams continues speaking without answering her. After a few minutes of this exchange, Munro’s laughing face periodically appears on the screen, projecting joy into the tense atmosphere. In the event description uploaded to the Poets Corner website and the YouTube recording of the event, the organizers describe how Williams’s performance “plunged us into a panic as we scrambled for our Zoom controls and fretted that he was having technical difficulties, until we finally clued in – it’s a poem!” (Trainor). Williams was delivering a performance poem that satirized the troubleshooting conversations we have all had on technology like Zoom. The distinction between “real” conversation and performance at this event sparked confusion, which then curiously transitioned to laughter and enjoyment. This blog post will trace this transition in order to show that Zoom skewed how we interpreted conversation and performance during the pandemic, highlighting how the participants experienced disconnection from each other and then connected over a shared experience of that disconnection.


The Poets Corner Reading Series event featuring Jane Munro and Ian Williams

Poets Corner Reading Series is a monthly poetry reading series based in Vancouver, British Columbia that currently runs hybrid events out of Fairleigh Dickinson University Library. For over ten years, they have been hosting events with featured readers, open mics, and question-and-answer periods. Their efforts for keeping poetry performance alive during the pandemic, which included hosting an online event almost every month for the whole two-year period, were commendable.

Since Poets Corner was so committed to preserving poetry readings during the pandemic, it is the perfect reading series to catalogue in SpokenWeb’s Archive of the Digital Present for Online Literary Performance in Canada (COVID-19 Pandemic Period). The ADP collects and stores data about events presented by literary organizations between March 2020 and March 2022, when pandemic restrictions and experience were at their most overwhelming. The ADP thus offers scholars a valuable resource for conducting research about this uncertain and unique time in literary history and allows SpokenWeb to publish work focused on how “listening, presence, community, temporality, mediation, context and space” operated during this time (SpokenWeb). SpokenWeb members have also conducted interviews with the coordinators of these organizations to offer a behind-the-scenes look at the difficulties and pleasures of running these events.

I came across this video while cataloguing Poets Corner’s events, and it was the event description that caught my eye, particularly the organizers’ realization that “it’s a poem!” (Trainor). I wondered how a poem could be so unreadable in the environment in which it should be most expected and figured there must be something unique in the video to explain it.

I was right.

As I watched the performance, my hand clapped over my mouth and anxiety coursed through my body. But the most prevalent feeling I experienced was the joy of discovering something. Unearthing such a unique artefact of the pandemic was invigorating and re-instilled in me the whole point of the ADP project: to showcase what innovation and love for literature was present in a time we experienced as rife with absence and to assert that these events should be studied. I hope the following analysis shows scholars the exciting research possibilities the ADP database offers.

Jason Camlot and Darren Wershler, in their “Theses on Discerning the Reading Series,” state that “[r]eading series are historically situated phenomena that can be framed to reveal critical significance at the individual, local, national and international levels.” In the spirit of this thesis, I will explore the interplay between the “individual” performance’s breakdown of communication and larger understandings of communicative norms and creativity during a global pandemic. Three questions will guide me: how does Zoom change how we experience performance and communication? How were the feelings of community that are so central to reading series and performance poetry affected by pandemic restrictions? And what do we find when we focus on what was allowed and encouraged by the shift to online readings?

This analysis will proceed in three sections. Firstly, I will use Kevin G. Barnhurst and John Nerone’s analysis of the newspaper’s form in The Form of News to characterize Zoom as a relatively unreliable medium and to show how mediums affect how an audience interprets the content it disseminates. Secondly, Irving Goffman’s work on the conventions of human communication, Forms of Talk, will highlight how Williams and Drobnies’s exchange goes against many conversational rules to suggest that these rules are moot in the online medium of Zoom. Thirdly, Claude-Hélène Mayer and Lolo Jacques Mayer’s chapter in The Palgrave Manual of Humour Research titled “Humour as a Coping Strategy for Employees in Remote Workspaces During Covid-19” will provide show the widespread importance of “relatability” in pandemic humour and Munro’s reaction to Williams’s piece. Featuring thousands of events presented by hundreds of reading series from across the country, the Archive of the Digital Present database is not only a platform on which to experience the thrill of discovering unique performances that a viewer may not have otherwise come across, but a valuable resource for understanding performance, the pandemic, and resilient human creativity.

The Importance of Community

Pandemic restrictions disintegrated many notions of community. We were encouraged to spend as much time as possible in our homes, separated from other individuals beyond our immediate “bubble.” Social distancing was enforced by posters on walls, decals on floors, and signs in windows. Communal experiences, such as work and school, became solitary endeavours. People came to see themselves and others primarily as vectors of disease, from whom we needed to be protected by using physical barriers like masks.

Camlot and Wershler suggest that “[m]aybe as much as ‘poetry’ itself, ‘community’ is a frequent justification for the institution of a reading series,” a reading series being “a serial event where people gather to present literary work.” Tom Kew, in his examination of performance poetry scenes in the United Kingdom, identifies audience reception as the defining property of performance poetry, as performance poets use techniques such as eye contact and dramatic movement across the stage to capture their audiences’ attention (32). Kew also echoes Camlot and Wershler’s expressions of the importance of community to the poetry reading when he writes, “[t]his intangible sense of togetherness, of empathy and, ultimately, of shared joy, underpins the art form of performance poetry” (39). Williams’s “performance poem kind of thing” (Trainor) that explicitly addresses the second-person “you” with lines such as “No, I don’t have what you have / I’ve never had that option / I’m telling you it’s not here” (“Jane Munro and Ian Williams” 01:09:56–01:10:05) thus directly implicates the reading series audience and is extremely reliant on the sense of community that is so deeply threatened by pandemic restrictions. Can poetry readings exist without this sense of community? Can performance poetry exist during the pandemic, if the feeling of “togetherness” that defines it is missing?

Disconnection in Zoom as Medium and Form

The Poets Corner Reading Series shows that organizations and individuals still tried to foster community, albeit a different sort, through online readings hosted on Zoom. The popular medium of Zoom was certainly not perfect for hosting these events, though, as highlighted in the beginning of Williams’s piece in which he seems to be having technical difficulties:

I can’t understand what you are.
Say that again?
You keep getting cut
off before
getting cut off
by. (“Jane Munro and Ian Williams” 01:09:06–01:09:19)

The poem does not ask the recipient of his work who they are, but what, as if the technology defamiliarizes personhood. Williams’s choppy delivery effectively emulates the audio signal “getting cut / off before” a sentence’s meaning is completed, therefore also defamiliarizing the way we interpret the speech of these disembodied beings. Both Williams’s poem and his delivery thereof suggest that communication on Zoom is enacted by unfamiliar, even non-human, entities, in a syntax and cadence unlike our own, which emphasizes the distance between community members.

To further understand why this faltering of communication happens, we must first contextualize Zoom as a medium. In their analysis of the newspaper in The Form of News, Kevin G. Barnhurst and John Nerone define a medium as “something ‘in between,’ something that mediates among and connects other things” (2). The newspaper, for example, connects concerned citizens with current events, sports fans with the scores, and investors with the stock market, while Zoom connects bosses with employees, teachers with their students, and family members with each other. To expand on Barnhurst and Nerone’s practice of defining mediums, I would also question how accessible and reliable they are. Before digital media took over, individuals could easily stay up-to-date and connected to the world through the newspaper, as it was cheap and readily available. While the newspaper can be negatively affected by rain or other physical damage and can be rife with poor writing and typos, the newspaper would never suddenly cease to be readable or vanish out of the reader’s hands. However, that is what we have all experienced Zoom to do. While it crucially allowed for individuals to continue working, students to continue learning, and families to keep in touch, Zoom’s flaws are undeniable. Its audio can cut out in the middle of an important sentence. Its video may freeze familiar faces in sometimes terrifying in-flux poses. It often completely drops calls so the remaining participant is left staring at their own face on the laptop screen, brutally aware of how alone they are. During a time like the pandemic when connection to others outside of one’s household was severely lacking, struggling with a bad medium for connection was potentially more disappointing than not connecting with people at all, as it highlights, rather than circumvents, physical separation.

Barnhurst and Nerone describe the newspaper’s “form” as its “persisting visible structure . . . includ[ing] the things that are traditionally labelled layout and design and typography” (3). Regarding “form” as a concept more generally, they note how it “structures and expresses . . . environment, a space that comfortably pretends to represent something larger: the world-at-large, its economics, politics, sociality, and emotion” (6). Form thus influences the newspaper reader’s perception of the world by claiming to be an accurate reproduction of it. If Zoom’s content is the faces of friends, family, and poets, its form is the computer screen, the audio and camera controls, the “End Call” button, anything that mediates how this content is disseminated. If typography counts as form in the newspaper, then lag and missed sentences would be comparable to blacked-out or indecipherable text of the newspaper. If form not only reflects life but influences it, Zoom is simultaneously an indicator of the lack of physical connection during the pandemic, and, when it fails, the cause of that feeling of disconnection. It is indeed “some kind of echo / from the system” (“Jane Munro and Ian Williams” 01:09:19–01:09:24) that prevents Williams from understanding and connecting with who, or what, is on the other end of the call.

Disintegration of Communicative Norms

Williams’s poem is constituted by a series of questions, which in typical human communication, are often followed by answers. When he asks, “Say that again?”, Drobnies can briefly be heard trying to interject (“Jane Munro and Ian Williams” 01:09:11–01:09:14), but Williams continues performing. Later on, Williams, still seemingly struggling with hearing other participants, asks, “is it my connection, you think? / I think it’s yours” (01:09:24–01:09:28), and Drobnies worried face appears on screen as she says, “I— I’m not sure—” (01:09:28–01:09:31). Drobnies barely finishes before Williams cuts her off, which “plunged [her] into a panic as [she] scrambled for [her] Zoom controls and fretted that he was having technical difficulties” (Trainor).

Had this been a face-to-face conversation rather than a performance of a poem that emulates one side of an exchange, it would have gone against many of the conventions of conversation outlined by Erving Goffman in his seminal work, Forms of Talk. Goffman describes conversation (which he calls “talk”) in terms of questions and answers, or, more generally, statements and responses that are often (but not always) carried out by a pair of two speakers. In order for this two-part conversation to run smoothly, the recipient of the statement must assure the speaker that their “signal” has been properly received by providing reassurance such as head-nodding and small interjections that display comprehension and engagement, and by providing a topical response at the appropriate time. These expectations between two speakers in a conversation are, as Goffman writes, the “very fundamental requirements of talk as a communication system” (12). Goffman goes on to define talk as a ritual that “enforc[es] the standards of modesty regarding self and considerateness for others generally enjoined in the community” (19). Talk, then, is a formally understood system of statement and response that has wider implications on human relationality and the power to decide who is in or out of a community.

Goffman would define Williams’s posing of the question, “Say that again?” as a “request for a ‘rerun,’” which indicates that the sound of a speaker’s words “did not carry or that although words could be heard, no sense could be made of them,” requiring a repetition or rephrasing of the words (10). The question is odd, considering Drobnies had not spoken recently, but she nonetheless cordially responds with a quick “hi” to show “that the question was correctly heard, and that it was not intrusive, stupid, overeager, out of order” (61). If we understand Williams and Drobnies to be in conversation with one another, Williams’s continuation, then, remarking “you keep getting cut / off before” (“Jane Munro and Ian Williams” 01:09:13–01:09:19) that seemingly addresses Drobnies as the second-person “you,” rejects the politeness Goffman’s theory prioritizes, which compares interruption to physical harm. As he writes, “[t]o interrupt someone is much like tripping over him; both acts can be perceived as instances of insufficient concern for the other” (37) and “to decline a signal to open channels is something like declining an extended hand” (18). If “a basic normative assumption about talk is that, whatever else, it should be correctly interpretable in the special sense of conveying to the intended recipients what the sender more or less wanted to get across” (10), this exchange has failed.

Why, then, did Drobnies not express anger or offence?
Because she has presented online events before and therefore knows that Zoom is an unreliable medium.

Why did Drobnies think it was a conversation rather than a performance?
Because troubleshooting conversations, such as the ones parodied in Williams’s work, are so common in an unreliable medium such as Zoom.

Many people have said, or at least have heard something like the phrase, “I still can’t see you” (“Jane Munro and Ian Williams” 01:08:58–01:08:59) while talking to someone on Zoom. It is therefore the unreliability of the medium of Zoom that made Drobnies panic, because seeing the form of Zoom primes a presenter to expect the disconnection described previously. Drobnies’s reaction to Williams’s performance reveals that Zoom skewed spoken communication; on this platform, we simply did not know whether our statements or responses in “talk” were being properly received, how we should react to deviances from the “rules” of conversation, even whether we are having a conversation at all. Here, the conventions of communication, not just the agents of it, are thoroughly defamiliarized.

This exchange may not have been an effective conversation, but it was an effective performance, because it was and is incredibly affective. In order for Drobnies to have a visceral reaction and to thus arrive more viscerally at the poem’s critique that the pandemic skews communication, it had to be possible that Zoom was mangling the performance. Delivered in a live space with no chances for such drastic technical difficulties as are experienced on Zoom to present themselves, the poem’s parodic elements would be apparent immediately, and all dramatism, part of what makes the work a performance piece, would be lost. Williams’s performance is effective not in spite of Zoom’s restrictions as a pandemic performance form, but because of them, and Zoom is therefore not only the medium through which the work is disseminated and the format through which it is received, but a central feature to the poem and its performance.

Community Building Through Relatability

To more convincingly prove whether Williams’s performance was effective, we must analyze the audience, since, according to Camlot and Wershler, “[t]here is nothing on the recording medium, intentional or otherwise, that is not data.” When Williams performs lines like, “Is it my problem? / Some kind of echo, maybe change your speaker . . . I don’t think it’s me, but you never know” (“Jane Munro and Ian Williams” 01:09:29–01:09:42) and “Are you getting a signal? I can try, where do I find / I’m not on my phone, I don’t see it . . . where are you / looking?” (01:09:47–01:09:58), the other featured performer, Jane Munro, pops up on screen, her laughing face briefly replacing Williams’s as the focal point of the performance. In an in-person reading, laughter would be ubiquitously felt, almost unignorable. On Zoom readings, however, audience members are almost always told to mute themselves or are muted automatically in order to avoid any unwanted or irrelevant interjections in the performance. The fact that Munro is unmuted goes against Zoom etiquette, but it also provides an often unseen window into the world of the Zoom audience and how at least one member thinks this particular performance is hilarious.

Claude-Hélène Mayer and Lolo Jacques Mayer’s chapter in The Palgrave Manual of Humour Research on “Humour as a Coping Strategy for Employees in Remote Workspaces During Covid-19” examines pandemic humour on a workplace WhatsApp group. The authors identify the key themes of the jokes shared at the beginning of the pandemic, such as the faltering of women’s work-life balance, the degradation of physical appearance, lifestyle changes, the restructuing of romantic and familial relationships, and the wish for a cure (294, 299). The work shows how humour helps people cope with difficult situations, while maintaining some sense of community and personal well-being.

Williams’s work does not fit into any of the themes identified in Mayer and Mayer’s study, though its research objects, such as a meme of a very old, white-haired woman with the caption underneath it reading “five days after home-schooling” (298) and a satirical joke about how talking to one’s furniture is normal and to only contact the psychiatric association if the objects reply (297), share something with Williams’s work: the reason they are funny is because they are relatable. In Mayer and Mayer’s study, these images and jokes only got replied to on the WhatsApp group because other members had experienced or felt the same thing, such as the feelings of haggardness and fatigue brought on by home-schooling, or the inclination to talk to houseplants due to social isolation. Munro likely laughed at Williams’s line “I can try, where do I find / I’m not on my phone, I don’t see it” (“Jane Munro and Ian Williams” 01:09:48–01:09:53) because she had said similar things, or at least heard someone else say them, while on Zoom. Williams’s poem’s representation of relatable scenarios of disconnection fosters a feeling of connection that allows for laughter as catharsis during what was both a global and personal crisis. William’s use of relatability is thus central to making his performance cathartic and community-building, and was brought on by a shared experience of Zoom’s flaws.


Williams’s poem operates under the assumption that people attend poetry readings to feel a sense of community and that being disconnected on Zoom is a relatable, pandemic-era experience. Zoom’s fallibility as a communicative medium is therefore not only necessary for Williams’s work’s ability to elicit a visceral reaction, it is also the reason why participants had a moment of joy together during this iteration of Poets Corner and why community was maintained, despite all obstacles. A person is more grateful for connection after its absence, hence the audience’s laughter when they realized Williams had been there all along.

Williams also recognizes the unique performance opportunities offered by Zoom. Once he finishes performing, after a small sigh that suggests he is shrugging off a heavy performance façade, he says, “I really wanted to do that. I don’t normally do . . . performance piece(s). But this poem begged to do it, and I don’t know how long we’ll have Zoom to do these kinds of playful things. This is probably one of the last few Zoom events that I’ll do” (“Jane Munro and Ian Williams” 01:12:36–01:12:59). Williams’s remark suggests the pandemic and its restrictions on performance pushed him out of his comfort zone, to do something beyond his typical poetic practice. William’s personification of the poem as something that can “beg” speaks to the aliveness and eager creativity in a time that can be seen as overwhelmingly full of death. Finally, Williams’s description of Zoom as a site to conduct “playful things” implies there is a joy in repurposing our negative experiences into something that brings us together, in persevering beyond performance constraints to produce something that could not have been produced without them. Williams’s poem therefore sheds light on how performance is dictated by and relies on the medium it is presented through, how communication disintegrates in online spaces, and how poets have a way of connecting and innovating through performance despite the most tribulating circumstances.

How has Zoom impacted other online pandemic-era events? If typical aspects of “talk” are not applicable in online spaces, what kind of talk is? What are the new rules for online communication, and have they been present in other online poetry readings? In what other events have poets capitalized on pandemic restrictions to create innovative performance poems? There are many more avenues of research available in the Archive of the Digital Present database, and more truths about performance, the pandemic, and humanity’s resilience that are waiting to be discovered.

Works Cited 

Barnhurst, Kevin G and John Nerone. The Form of News: A History. Guilford Press, 2002. 

Camlot, Jason and Darren Wershler. “Theses on Discerning the Reading Series.” Amodern, vol. 4, 26 Mar. 2015, https://amodern.net/article/theses-reading-series/

Goffman, Irving. Forms of Talk. U of Pennsylvania P, 1981. 

“Jane Munro and Ian Williams | Featured Readers, Poets Corner Reading Series July 2021.” YouTube, uploaded by Poets Corner Reading Series, 6 Aug 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AqoS-ycJvq4&t=4206s

Kew, Tom. “Performance Poetry, Covid-19 and the New ‘Public Sphere.” Wasafiri, vol. 36 no. 1, 17 Feb 2021, pp. 32-41, https://doi.org/10.1080/02690055.2021.1840776

Mayer, Claude-Hélène and Lolo Jacques Mayer. “Humour as a Coping Strategy for Employees in Remote Workspaces During Covid-19.” The Palgrave Handbook of Humour Research, edited by Elisabeth Vanderheiden and Claude-Hélène Mayer, Palgrave Macmillan, 2021, pp. 289-308.

SpokenWeb. “Home.” Archive of the Digital Present, https://adp.spokenweb.ca/

Trainor, Kim. “July Reading at Poets Corner: Novel poets and the Solace of Poetry.” Poets Corner Reading Series, 23 July 2021, https://poetscorner.ca/events/july-reading-at-poets-corner-novel-poets-and-the-solace-of-poetry/

Jade Palmer

Jade Palmer (she/her) holds a BA Honours in English and creative writing from Concordia University in Tiohti:àke/Montreal. Her poetic practice and research interests are intertwined, writing historically-grounded poetry as a means to understand how one’s past, personal and cultural, influences one’s present desires, regrets, and “what if” ponderings. She was the recipient of the 2023-2024 Concordia Creative Writing Award in Poetry.