Spoken word is dead: long live poetry?

Poetry as we know it has been re-made. As we approach the second quarter of the century, we may well all be done with the term ‘spoken word’. Arguments over page and stage are redundant. Slam is standard, and former slammers are attending writing retreats, doing creative writing degrees and performing in theatres, art houses and galleries. Yet, as we arrive at this historic intersection of literature and performance, I can’t help feeling bored.

The labels ‘performance poet’ and ‘spoken word artist’ have been variously worn by people who were not allowed to call themselves poets.

The labels ‘performance poet’ and ‘spoken word artist’ have been variously worn by people who were not allowed to call themselves poets. These may have been punk, dub, or hip-hop MCs, comic poets, poets of colour, or those wedded to the discipline of performance. Each successive surge of the grass roots has built new audiences for poetry and elaborated successfully on an ancient tradition of live verse.

But such labels are quickly abandoned by artists as they mature. Why? Because spoken word is infantile. Spoken word is not a destination, it’s a beginning. Slam competitions and rowdy events in clubs and pubs are fun. But they are no place for serious art.

Slam competitions and rowdy events in clubs and pubs are fun. But they are no place for serious art.

Have you absorbed this narrative, even a little? Haven’t we all? I have interviewed over 100 spoken word poets while podcasting, and later researching my book: Stage Invasion: Poetry & the Spoken Word Renaissance which was released with Out-Spoken Press last year. My research has led me to the firm conclusion that spoken word (a name that superseded British performance poetry in the early noughties) is on the way out. As someone who has spent many years trying to describe stage craft, and the manifold ways this enhances and elaborates written verse, this causes me concern.

In March this year, Spoken Word Educators & Academic Researchers (SWEAR) was established at the UniSlam festival in Birmingham. This is a watershed in the discussion around performance poetry. Given how thriving the scene is, it is amazing it has taken so long. Page-centric poetic dogmas have dominated our educational institutions since English poetry became the subject of formal study two centuries ago.

This has left us without much of a language to describe how professional poet performers can – with the precision of tuning forks – make a crowd shudder with tears, laughter and clenched fists (some early inspirations for me were Mark Gwynn Jones, Benjamin Zephaniah and Kat Francois). Another consequence of this neglect is that pockets of experimentation and expertise get ignored or forgotten. The sub-genre of stand-up poetry, for example, has received almost no discussion, despite the fact that many brilliant artists have dedicated their lives to it (see John Hegley, Rob Auton, Kate Fox and Connor Macleod to name just four).

Such poets didn’t drop out of thin air of course. Stand-up poetry (and UK spoken word more broadly) has deep roots in the alternative cabaret scene of the eighties. Here poetry existed alongside drag acts, comedians, musicians and theatre troops. Anything could happen in alternative cabarets, with costumes, props and a manic experimentation. As Jonny ‘Fluffypunk’ Seagrave remembers:

You’d have things like Ian Saville, the socialist magician…and Randolph the Remarkable who used to pick up a washing up bowl with his stomach…and poetry was part of that…and it certainly wasn’t coming from the canon.

The poetry of alternative cabaret had less of the emotional range and sincerity than we associate with spoken word today. Yet its spirit continued into the nineties and noughties with acts like Rachel Pantechnicon (the comic surrealist drag act of Russell Thompson). Thompson, who served as an Apples and Snakes London Programme Coordinator (and has since gone on to work as an archivist for the scene) laments that spoken word, for all its greatness, has ‘lost some of its experimental edge’.

There can be no props, costumes and stage personas if we absorb the assumption that poetry is not a performing art.

Could it be that there is too much poetry in spoken word? There can be no props, costumes and stage personas if we absorb the assumption that poetry is not a performing art. The fire-side tradition dissipates into the cerebraliterations of “readings” and “recitals”. The ritual theatrics of shamanistic shape-shifting fall into the darkness.

What motivates this argument is not romantic nostalgia, but a concern for the professional survival of the scene I belong to. As stand up poet Thick Richard puts it: ‘”I think what has held the poetry thing back for so many years is the reluctance to improve to meet the standards of other forms of entertainment”‘. I concur.  Too often I have seen punters leave at the interval, never to return. Poet Jem Rolls calls spoken word’s recent literary turn ‘the revenge of the normal’. Add to this a cosy and accepting culture of emotionally sophisticated first-person narratives, and “normal” becomes a toxic combination of ethical high mindedness, and safe, genteel, literary behaviour.

Poets have a long history of leaving poetry in order to do poetry.

When Thick Richard was a double act, he had a partner in crime called Bob Moyler. Moyler subsequently left the poetry scene and now does comedy stage shows involving a robot that reproduces (mis)recorded scripts of Hollywood blockbusters in what amounts to a form of experimental poetry. Could it be that the avantgarde cabaret tradition of breaking conventions is migrating out of stage poetry altogether? Almost definitely. Poets have a long history of leaving poetry in order to do poetry. As neo-Dadaist and cultural historian Olchar E. Lindsann explains:

For most of the nineteenth century, most of what we retroactively identify as “sound poetry” was presented as satire because you can get away with it. If you wanna do something really fucking crazy, just call it comedy and your chances of getting it past just went up about five hundred per cent.

It is not my intention here to regurgitate page vs stage. As someone with a creative writing degree, I’m not qualified to do so, and frankly, we all have better things to do with our lives.  Nor do I mean to defend spoken word carte blanche. Indeed, there is much I would like to see change. Recent trends towards a prevalence of identity politics, “trauma porn” and the aped American cadence of Button Poetry YouTube channel, for example, are stifling the art of creativity. If we are not doing anything new, we are not being creative. This is also true of adopting the writing conventions of accepted literary norms.

it is vital we champion the “high art” of stage poetry – a destination that can take a lifetime to master.

As we file politely towards the post-spoken word era, we should remember that there remains an asymmetry between the (still-emerging) performance community and the larger and better financed world of literature (spread across hundreds of university departments, arts bodies and publishing houses). In this context, it is vital we champion the “high art” of stage poetry – a destination that can take a lifetime to master. The literary awards and broadsheet articles celebrating those who have made poetry so popular in recent years, do not mention – or wish to support – the stages so many of them grew from. In these conditions, it is easy to see how the low hanging fruits of performance poetry can be basketed, and held up symbolically, in ways that ultimately reinforce those who continue to define poetic value.

Ultimately, people will define their work as they please. So I will finish, appropriately, by talking only of myself. I am a spoken word poet. My words are physical (involving warm ups and breathing exercise), vocal (with beatboxing and other forms of musicality), theatrical (inhabiting onstage personas) and interactive (bants).

When I’m on stage, the poetry I practice is a performing art. It has been a great privilege to experience and write about its distinct sub genres, traditions and practices. It is musical but not music, theatrical but not theatre, literary but not literature, comic but not comedy. It is spoken word poetry.

–Pete Bearder

 

Pete (the Temp) Bearder is an author, spoken word poet and musician. His new book Stage Invasion was described by Ian McMillan as ‘the book we have all been waiting for’. Pete is a former National Poetry Slam Champion and his work has been featured on BBC Newsnight, Radio 4 and The World Service. petethetemp.co.uk

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