Spoken word. Performance poetry. Storytelling. Slam poetry. Live literature. There’s been quite a bit of coverage of all of these forms over the past few years and as a spoken word artist/performance poet/storyteller/live literati type I am all for getting new, eager ears interested in this work. Looking at the number of performance poets who have begun their careers in the glare of an open-mic pub light and gone on to perform under the sweaty spots of a black box theatre rather than the other way round, it seems that this is now the natural career path for poets in this country. But is this also the case in other countries, or are there places where performance poetry has enough legitimacy as an art form in its own right to access audiences and funding without packaging itself as theatre? If so, why don’t we have that in the UK?
Ray Antrobus, a progressive and important player in UK’s poetry scene, was recently invited to tour Chicago with his poetry and made an active decision to choose performance poetry over theatre: ‘I lost quite a bit of my hearing and became moderately deaf in both ears. I was 15 and played a lead role in a play and kept missing my cues because of my deafness. I was too ashamed to tell people of my problem and quit it all together. I discovered spoken word poetry five years later and it works perfectly for me. I don’t have to rely on anyone else, it’s just me, words and you. I love that.’
It’s this unscripted, spontaneous connection with the audience that poets seem to feel might be lost when that poetry becomes part of a theatre show. I definitely feel there is an added pressure when something is labelled as a ‘show’ for it to be polished, professional and only to engage directly with the audience as long as it serves the main story. Mainly, that can be a good thing, but it does create a different dynamic. Hollie McNish, a poet who has no previous experience with theatre but has just begun a residency at BAC, says that speaking to the audience is very important to her. ‘I only write poetry about things I feel or that happen to me, so talking to the audience shows that the words are real emotions and feelings rather than a ‘set’ or an ‘act’- this is probably a main reason I feel funny about trying to put my words to theatre – cos I’d want to shout out ‘this really happened!’ or ‘this was a real thought’!’