The Queer’Say events celebrate the power of the spoken word. Here Laura Macdougall introduces a series of interviews with performance poets, and considers why this medium is so popular.
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In May, Kate Tempest’s award-winning spoken word epic Brand New Ancients finished its sell-out tour (it made her the youngest ever winner of the Ted Hughes Award), and Tempest also launched her debut album, Everybody Down. Meanwhile, Tris Vonna-Michell was nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize for his solo exhibition Postscript II (Berlin) in which he explores “the flexibility of meaning that exists between the image and the spoken word”. Rumours also circulated that Kanye West is planning to release a three-hour-long spoken word album … May was also the month in which the first Queer’Say event took place in London. A showcase for queer spoken word, Queer’Say features live performances followed by interviews with the artists.
The above are just some examples of how spoken word (or performance poetry) is demonstrating a dramatic rise in popularity over the past few decades. But what is spoken word? How does it relate to other art forms, what is it like to be a queer performance poet, and what is it that has given rise to what some have been calling a ‘renaissance’? Every culture had an oral tradition long before the advent of writing. Most people will have heard of the epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey (ascribed to the Greek poet Homer), and the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. Though still a topic of debate among classical scholars, it is generally agreed that these works were composed as part of an oral tradition and were not designed to be written down. They would have been performed by bards of rhapsodes at festivals and gatherings, often as part of a competition. So the resurgence in popularity of spoken word poetry since the late 1980s is something of a renaissance, but the modern equivalent has been adapted to the demands and concerns of today’s contemporary audience: the American poet Bob Holman has described it as the “re-emergence of the oral tradition in the digital age”.
Until recently, poetry has arguably been the preserve of academia, studied in the classroom and printed in literary magazines, perhaps viewed by many as inaccessible and exclusive. Poetry of this sort can exist purely as text on the page, and can read in silence. But – as its name suggests – the performance poetry that has developed over the past twenty-five years is poetry designed for the stage; the words and their delivery are inseparable. This is also poetry that cannot exist without an audience, seeking not only to entertain, but also to engage; the creation of a connection between poet and listener is vital.
Performance poetry has often been criticised as verse that is ‘dumbed down’, lacking in the subtlety and craft that characterise the literary techniques of poetry. Yet the variety of art forms that have influenced today’s spoken word (from hip-hop to rap, theatre to folk storytelling, beat poetry to written poetry) combined with the diversity of practitioners and their individual performance styles produce works of art that can be powerful and surprising, funny or tragic, exotic, erotic and earthy, raw and honest, personal yet universal. The best performance poets are both talented lyricists with an understanding and appreciation of rhythm and pace who engage in complicated word play and rhyme and demonstrate a deep knowledge of the power and flexibility of language.
But spoken word is not just about providing entertainment. Often heavily influenced by current events, politics and injustices of race, religion, class or gender, through their poetry the artists often provide incisive, powerful social and political commentary and challenge us to think about the issues affecting today’s society. This is poetry that is populist and democratising, and contagious, as can be seen by videos of spoken word poets that have gone viral in recent years.
In America, poetry slams are legendary, conferring an almost rock-star like status on the victors, and many American poets are also YouTube stars (see, for example, Sarah Kay’s ‘If I Should Have a Daughter’ and Denice Frohman’s ‘Dear Straight People’). Passion for spoken word in the UK hasn’t quite reached that level, though there are stars like Tempest and Dean Atta, and there are now spoken word tents at festivals, and, in London at least, you can probably find a spoken word event taking place on every night of the week. In both countries, the younger generation – habitual social media users who are ever more politically aware and engaged and often have something to say – see spoken word as a powerful medium for expression. Their voices might otherwise be dismissed, ignored or overlooked, but spoken word and the creation of a three-minute video online often affords them a means of social protest.
Yet it’s not only young people who are turning to spoken word as a means of expression, and the spoken word scene appears to be one of the most diverse in the performing arts world, encompassing men and women, from teenagers to OAPs, of all races and sexualities, religious and racial backgrounds. Prior to the next two Queer’Say events, I wanted to find out more about what it’s really like to work as a spoken word poet in London today, and how poets’ queer identities might affect their work. So I have spoken to some of the best practitioners out there about how they approach writing and performing, about the role of social media and how they see the art of spoken word developing in the future.
The next Queer’Say event takes place at the Canada Water Culture Space on 4th July. For more information, and to book tickets, click here.
Other queer spoken word events in London are Incite Cabaret, which takes place monthly at the Phoenix Arts Club on Shaftesbury Avenue, and Bar Wotever every Tuesday at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. There are also semi-regular events during festivals such as LGBT History and Black History months (February and October respectively). There are also organisations like Rukus and queer-friendly spaces such as Velvet Tongue, an erotic poetry night.