Features Published 23 August 2012

The Power of the Word

Spoken word on the Fringe.

Colin Bramwell

In the past spoken word has not been that well-represented at the Fringe, certainly not in comparison to stand up, but things are changing. The inclusion of a spoken word section in this year’s programme for the first time gestures towards the increasing popularity, and worth, of this mode of live art.

Undoubtedly this has been helped along by accessible modes of performance like rap battles and poetry slams, which help ensure that spoken word willl be no longer consigned to a niche audience. Last year, Luke Wright’s show, Cynical Ballads, combined social commentary and literary history into an impressive and affecting hour that was predominantly poetry. It was illusory to find Wright’s show in the comedy section—it felt like an attempt to categorise an artist by using only one shade of his work—but leaving issues of marketing aside, Cynical Ballads grasped the artistic possibilities of spoken word performance, and showed how it could be as valuable, and popular, as theatre or live comedy.

Of course, the dividing line between performance poetry, theatre, stand-up and storytelling is often exaggerated. Just as it is reasonable to judge a stand-up comedian on his storytelling abilities, so it is fair to take into account a performance poet’s stage presence or sense of humour. Mark Grist and Shane Koyczan – two performers with shows at the Underbelly this year – are very much a part of this world; the former is most famous for his rap battling skills, and the latter is the winner of prestigious slam poetry competitions in both the USA and his native Canada.

Shane Koyczan

However, neither the ‘talk rocker’ nor the ‘rogue teacher’ delivered wholly successful shows to my mind. Perhaps this had something to do with the change in environment for both performers. Poetry slams and rap battles are more spontaneous affairs. However, an Edinburgh show will invariably be judged on certain principles.

For example, a word often used by reviewers which has become the bane of most comedians: structure. When you compare the structural deficiencies of both shows, an interesting chiasmus appears. Koyczan is an affable and friendly performer, but at the most  he spent only around five or ten minutes talking to the audience. He devoted practically all of his time to reciting his poetry. Grist, on the other hand, spent far more time describing his journey from English teacher to internet phenomenon, and mainly used his poetry to illustrate these events.

Koyczan’s poems were so intense and emotional that his show lacked much-needed breathing space, and the show felt in real need of more of his likeable patter; Grist, if anything, needed to make his show more poetry-heavy, because often it seemed as if the poems were afterthoughts to the trajectory of his personal story.

The most exciting thing about reviewing performance poetry is that one gets to engage with aesthetic criteria of poetry as well as that of performance. Of the utmost importance is the quality of material. Koyczan’s thematic framework never strayed from the same touch-points of childhood, nostalgia, and romance. He was not without his moments of insight, but practically every poem struck the same tone and the whole experience was uniform. Grist’s poetry, on the other hand, had a tendency to be overly blunt  and too reliant on rhyme.

The synthesis of poetry and performance in work of this kind is of equal, if not greater, importance. Both Koyczan and Grist were confident in their delivery, however they shared difficulties in translating their specific performance backgrounds into an hour at the Fringe. In a rap-battle, vulgarity and rhyme are absolutely central, but when Grist used the same sort of vulgarity in Rogue Teacher, he seemed vaguely embarrassed—perhaps this was due to his new context. Slam-poetry, by definition, only has a short amount of time in which to make its impact, so it needs to display a certain amount of technical virtuosity from the start. Koyczan’s opening set of poems drew the audience in through their emotive nature and Koyczan’s strong grasp of rhythm: however, as time went on, his poems changed neither their emotional tone, nor their cadences. Around halfway through, after his fourth repetition of the same exact rhythmical formulation, the formula started to feel a bit tired. 

Mark Grist

Luke Wright’s show last year was lent an abiding sense of relevancy through his choice of a topical subject matter. Ultimately, Wright managed to both satirise and depict the state of contemporary England, as well as point forward to some kind of function for poetry in the coming times. Koyczan and Grist instead choose themselves as subject matter. This is not an invalid decision for them to make—no artist should be forced to talk about socio-political issues, and self-exploration has always been a fruitful avenue for poetry. Still, both shows suffered from the lack of a much-needed turn outwards.

Even when Koyczan’s poems  did not involve himself as the central subject—a eulogy for a friend, a fond description of his grandfather’s kindnesses—nevertheless referred subjects back through himself, to the extent that they were unable to step out of the entire malaise created by his show. Any outward relevance was expressed in the form of obvious morals. You are beautiful, it gets better, love is wonderful: not disagreeable sentiments, but, if Yeats was right about poetry coming from the quarrels we have with ourselves, then it is up to the poet to produce something that a reader, or audience, can argue with or about. A poet must be more than just a motivational speaker.

Although Grist’s show was centred around a personal journey, there were parts which came close to social commentary—his description of a man in charge of our educational system, for instance. Throughout there were several interesting threads that one could trace; explorations of dichotomies between authority and artistry, the effect of internet celebrity on self-perception. It was a shame that these things were not explored in more depth. They seemed like ideal subjects for poetry (or at least more intriguing topics than, say, ginger-phobia). If Grist stepped out of the progression of his story, and allowed himself leeway to comment on it from a position of perspective, then his show would be all the better for it.

Although neither Grist nor Koyczan quite hit the mark with their material, their presence on the Fringe and the increasing amount of spoken word performance out there is encouraging. The more performers encouraging us to deal with poetry the better; and, all criticism aside, both of these shows did have the potential to be very special indeed. Perhaps they needed to be considered more as cohesive ‘shows’ by their creators, especially when vying for the sort of audience that will attend a piece of theatre or a stand-up gig without a second thought. Within the ballpark of the Fringe, spoken word provides an interesting intermediary between theatre and comedy; moreover, it can bridge this gap while simultaneously asserting its own separate qualities.

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Colin Bramwell is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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