Creating a Spoken Word Community

I like to joke sometimes that “Durham University Poetry Slam Team” sounds like an oxymoron. Durham Uni, as the little sibling of Oxford and Cambridge, has the same amount of ambition squashed into its over-priced and falling apart college accommodation and plays host to an inferiority complex I’ve occasionally witnessed first hand. The stereotype might not be totally true but it’s not the sort of place where spoken word is expected to live and thrive. Looking back on my second year, however, I think it’s safe to say we managed it.

Establishing a spoken word scene within the university was an ambition shared by myself and a handful of others. When we started, I don’t think we realised that what we were really laying the groundwork for was a community.

At the end of my first year I got a position running our poetry society. We were a handful of poets with a lot of ideas and a very small budget. It was long road ahead; very few places, I’m sure, have Hamlet read out at their open mics. It perhaps ought to be considered a charming eccentricity that Shakespeare can follow a three-minute slam poem in a room full of fairy lights.

At times it we felt like we had no idea what we were doing. We could only cross our fingers and pray that people would like our events and that we could actually scrape the money together for the university team to attend competitions.

Our slam team started as a group of oddballs meeting weekly in my moth-infested basement. (As an aside, I can wholly recommend terrifying your teammates with your fortune telling as a first-class bonding activity. Poetry works its own magic, too.) Within the course of the year, and with a bit of help, we went from strangers to a team. A team of small-time slam champions no less. I can only hope it manages to stick, even after I’ve graduated.

The scene helped me on a personal level, too. In the space of five years I’ve gone from being home taught due to severe anxiety, to hosting almost all of the society’s events. I’ve enjoyed it more than I can say, although it’s come with its fair share of sleepless nights.

One of our main successes as a small university society was in creating the kind of events that weren’t just for those with an established interest in poetry and spoken word. Our Open Mic nights have always been informal, we have haikus, a little bit of comedy, the occasional bit of music. They became a great place to gather interest for our more intense events.

For a lot of young people attending our events their only knowledge of spoken word came from parody and we were a pleasant surprise. I think the open format ensured we could remain social enough for students, a relaxed alternative to boozy nights out. This, while being valuable, is not particularly unusual for the student poetry scene.

Thorn, an independent arts platform based in Durham and London, is a little bit more extraordinary. It was created by Durham alumnus Katie Byford and has continued to host events in the year since her graduation. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Thorn and attending many of those events, from independent film screenings to writing workshops, they’ve always tried to bring something exciting to Durham.

The first event I had a chance to help organising involved live music, spoken word poetry and canvasses that the audience used to create collages. The way that poetry mixes freely with music, visual art and invites the participation of the audience means that Thorn has something for everyone. Its Thorn’s ingenuity, their willingness to push boundaries and experiment that make them successful in attracting the crowds.

I remember looking around during their last event of the year and seeing people from almost every facet of my life. Which, while surreal and vaguely horrifying, does prove my point. Even at the small scale, local poetry nights and events, there are amazing things happening and fantastic talent being showcased (certainly, DiVerse is also proof of that). It doesn’t always take a long time to put together, either. Regularity, determination and a bit of ingenuity go a long way.

Reaching out is essential. Our poetry society alone couldn’t have done half as much as it did without collaborating with other societies, local businesses, the student body, and increasingly, local people reaching out to attend events or give us a hand. Over the course of a year we’ve formed friendships, creative partnerships, and introduced an awful lot of people to spoken word. And really, what else can you hope for as a poet but making things a little more interesting?



First Published July 2018