A revolution has taking place in the way we consume poetry. It is debateable if we can now call performance poetry an emerging art form at all. Spoken word now has its own section in the Edinburgh Fringe brochure. Festival punters need no explanation. At places like Glastonbury, Latitude and Shambala, poetry will regularly command audiences of thousands.Theatres are catching up, embracing a broad canon of ‘spoken word theatre’ shows that until only a few years ago were a new frontier for live literature. Poets are an increasingly common feature at schools, conferences and political events as social commentators and facilitators. As spoken word finds new ways to educate, entertain and inspire, why are so many people seeing the value in spoken word for pleasure, pedagogy and protest?
This autumn and winter I am taking my multimedia spoken word theatre show Pete the Temp vs Climate Change to theatres across England. It is produced by Reanaissance One, with dramaturgical support from theatre director Leo Kay and outside eye from comedian Simon Munnery. In touring it, I am constantly reminded of the growing enthusiasm for the medium and its value in getting people talking about different issues (in this case climate justice and direct action).
Outside of touring I work two days a week as a spoken word educator in Curwen School, a comprehensive primary in Newham, East London. It is a year-long placement with the Spoken Word Education Programme which places resident spoken word artists in schools as part of the teaching staff, building long term relationships with students and finding new ways to engage young people with words and the communities that gather around them.
My journey to becoming a professional poet started in 2006 when I went to a Hammer and Tongue poetry slam, put on by its founder Steve Larkin. In watching poets like Elvis Mcgonnagal, Mark Gwynn Jones and Taylor Mali I found something intellectually, musically and emotionally engaging. Hammer and Tongue was started off the back of a benefit fundraiser for the ‘B52 Two’, who sabotaged a British bomber plane headed for the Iraq War. As its name suggests, it was founded on a belief in the efficacy of spoken word as a vehicle for social change. Time and again, this is shown to be true. At Edinburgh this year, for example, poet Danny Chivers’ show Arrest that Poet was voted one of the top three spoken word shows at the Fringe.
Spoken word promoters, whether they identify as such or not, are social activists. Participatory spaces of speaking and listening, where ideas and opinions can be circulated, are in short supply these days. Through changing into a secular society, have we lost our spaces of communion? Two years ago at Glastonbury, the poet, rapper, playwright and Mercury Prize nominee Kate Tempest talked about the need for “spaces where we can feel shit together”. I believe the role of the performer is to engineer moments of collective empathy. In an individuated world of digital media, spoken word provides spaces of collective dialogue and reflection – or even public oratory. These things make it particularly suitable for demonstrations or protest sites. Whether it’s climate politics, sexual politics or the politics of the washing up, spoken word gives us one of the last surviving arenas of unmediated free speech. We all have a voice – a tool for us to give an account of ourselves and the world as we see it.
Increasingly, practitioners are finding avenues to engage new audiences with one person, often multimedia shows. Spoken word theatre succeeds because of its naked authenticity. The author is the performer. The poet’s life and truth is the content. In the live setting, there is also an intimacy between the audience and performer, in dialogue with each other. At its best, it has all the spontaneity of stand up comedy. But it does not limit itself to the path of the laugh. Often it traverses a broader range of emotional landscapes. It can be a skilfully orchestrated piece of dramaturgy while simultaneously having the simple attraction of someone telling their story in their own unique voice.
In her show Razing Lazarus, former World Poetry Slam Champion Kat Francois recounts her journey to Granada to uncover the story of her dead relatives’ involvement in the World War One. Bought to life with poems, dramatic monologues and chat with the audience, it was the most memorable and moving telling of history I have seen, and I say this as a history graduate.
There can be nothing more urgent than reclaiming the narratives we move within as a people. Tending to the stories of the tribe has always been the role of the poet. Philosopher Jacques Ranciere wrote about how power maintains itself through “a specific regime of speaking” with representational power to name, frame and interpret the world.
Rafeef Ziadah is a poet who grew up in a refugee camp and now works for War on Want in London, campaigning against the attacks on Palestine. As a spoken word artist she has reached hundreds of thousands of people with her message:
“I can get up and do a speech full of statistics and the way it [spoken word] touches people and affects people on a human level is just completely different.”
The young spoken word artists of today are the articulate citizens of tomorrow. My work with the Spoken Word Education Programme has shown me just how urgent and valuable artistic communities are in allowing space for teenagers and children to tell the world as they see it, a way that steps beyond the landscape of words fenced in by advertising, political rhetoric and the school curriculum. Poetry has enriched me with the voice to tell my story. It has also plugged me into communities and audiences where that story can be told.
Sometimes the actions we need are words. All the activist stunts I feature in my show were carried out by people getting face to face and talking, exchanging information and finding ways to express their collective voice. A Colombian human rights activist once said to me that “culture is the one area they cannot suppress us”. How can spoken word, and the arts more generally, give voice to what is marginalised? In the increasingly oppressive regime of “anti-terror” legislation, giving a speech in Trafalgar Square – about anything – without the Mayor’s permission can get you arrested (even unamplified). David Cameron is now pledging to roll back the European Convention on Human Rights and move against people who hold “world views” or “ideologies” of “non-violent extremism”. As police powers look set to mitigate the peaceful protest of groups like Occupy, UK Uncut or climate activists who speak out against the actions of big business, who decides what extremism is? Let’s get together and talk about that.