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In The Beginning Was …

No set. No music. Just you – and the mic. No wonder spoken word performers are taking the cultural world by storm

  • Words
    Victoria James
  • Live draw
    Lucy Jones
- 10 minute read

In the small space of the ADC bar, a student poet is standing alone speaking into a mic. As he finishes his poem, the room bursts into applause. This is Speakeasy, an opportunity for everyone, from experienced poets to novices, to try out this electric form: spoken word.

Indeed, from Hollie McNish (King’s 2001), whose latest published work, Nobody Told Me, has just won the Ted Hughes poetry award, to George Mpanga (King’s 2010), better known as George the Poet, who was recently invited to pen a tribute to Sir Mo Farah, Cambridge’s spoken word author-performers are ensuring that poetry is hotter than it’s been since Byron sold 10,000 copies of The Corsair in a single day and became literature’s first rock star.

Yet despite the millions of hits on YouTube, packed audiences at hip London venues and invitations to address parliament, this is an art form that frequently tackles resolutely unglamorous subjects, from the demonisation of migrants to breastfeeding babies in grim public loos. And its big ideas are enacted in intimate spaces: small gig venues or even someone’s room, via the computer or phone screen. Spoken word is tearing up the rulebook on what poetry is and what it can do.

“It’s not quite acting and it’s not quite being yourself,” says Megan Beech (Newnham 2015). What people love about spoken word is the idea that it is fleeting. Spontaneous. It has sparked the popular imagination.”

Beech is a PhD student at Newnham, but she’s also a poet, whose collection When I Grow Up, I Want to be Mary Beard was one of The Guardian’s ‘Best Books of 2014’ – but its poems didn’t begin life in print, but in performance.

“I have page fright, not stage fright,” says Beech. “I don’t like to commit to paper. Poetry should be rowdy. Unexpected.”

Sharing the pain

This is not the poetry of the textbook. Spoken word junks ponderous hexameter in favour of vigorous, supple rhythm (and occasionally rhyme) that has the immediacy of speech. It draws as much on the traditions of hip hop as it does on the Romantics. And it’s performed direct to an audience, with nothing more than a microphone as intermediary. At its finest, it’s an adrenaline shot to the heart.

“Audiences like a less rehearsed piece,” says Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan (Queens’ 2013), winner of numerous poetry slams and whose work has been viewed more than a million times on YouTube. “When you hear somebody talking about something they care about, it’s just more personal. It’s like they’re sharing something with you, and it creates an implicit agreement: I will listen to you sharing that personal pain.”

Manzoor-Khan’s poetry sprang directly from her pain – thanks to the unexpected suggestion of a College welfare officer.

“In my second year as an undergraduate, my mental health was in a bad place, and the welfare adviser said to me: ‘What’s the thing you’ve always wanted to do, but never tried?’” That thing was performance poetry, so when Manzoor-Khan found her way to an open-mic event at the ADC, it was a transformative moment.

“I’d written a lot for myself in the past. It’s always been part of how I process my emotions. But with spoken word you’re given this platform where everyone has to listen to you. And that was a platform I didn’t feel I’d had before.”

This summer, her platform was the national finals of the Last Word Festival poetry slam, held at London’s Roundhouse. And her This is Not a Humanising Poem was placed second. It’s a powerful denunciation of the idea that Muslims need to be made relatable and recognisable, to win acceptance in Western societies. “This will not be a ‘Muslims are like us’ poem,” she warns. “Instead, love us when we are lazy. Love us when we are poor. Love us high as kites, unemployed, joy riding, time wasting, failing at school.” The lines “if you need me to prove my humanity, I’m not the one who’s not human” drew rare, mid-performance applause from the audience. The poem went on to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s The World Tonight, and now Manzoor-Khan finds herself invited to perform everywhere from music festivals to mosques and youth clubs.

Spoken word

Political poetry

One of Manzoor-Khan’s inspirations is the American poet, civil rights activist and intersectional feminist, Audre Lorde, who famously declared: “I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood”. And the current prominence of spoken word poetry is closely associated with politics, self-expression and the passion of the millennial generation.

Spoken word is “about having a message, it’s definitely politicised,” says Beech. And there’s no mistaking the political alignment of its practitioners. “I don’t see any right-wingers wowing crowds with performances about not letting women have abortions,” she says. But it would be a mistake to see spoken word as the exclusive cultural property of urban millennials. Ely Lyonblum (Hughes Hall 2012) is a performance ethnographer who has worked within the spoken word community of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Though the cultural identity of the region, as presented to tourists, is “geared toward the Scottish and Irish connections of maritime Canada”, he says the city boasts a vibrant spoken word community associated with historically Black neighbourhoods and LGBTQ+ activism.

“Every night,” Lyonblum explains, “poets were invited to speak their minds, speak truth to power, demonstrate their commitment to social justice, advocacy and to marginalised communities.”

And while personal, lived experience and opinion are the core of spoken word, Lyonblum believes that, collectively, the practice gives voice to an entire community.

“The events served as a place for anyone to express themselves. In this way, spoken word operates in a similar way to a protest or a community meeting.”

Spoken word

A viral phenomenon

One thing that spoken word practitioners have in common, from Nova Scotia to Newnham, is the central role of technology. “Spoken word has a huge technological presence,” says Lyonblum. “While spoken word is still meant for a live audience, it has enjoyed tremendous success online and participates in the ‘viral video’ phenomenon.”

“I think YouTube has a lot to do with it,” agrees Fay Roberts, change manager at Cambridge Assessment and Artistic Director of Spoken Word at the largest Edinburgh Fringe organisation, PBH’s Free Fringe. Roberts provides platforms for people to perform and be published in Cambridge and nationwide, including the In Other Words Festival and the Cambridge Bard initiative. “Slam poetry has a time limit of three minutes, which is perfect for sharing,” she says. “And it’s intimate, too. Look at Hollie McNish. She’s right up there in the top echelons of spoken word, and the straight-to-computer-monitor performances that she did were so impactful.”

McNish, winner of the 2009 UK poetry Slam Championship, has reached an audience through YouTube that many writers and performers can only dream of. Her poem Mathematics (a smart and passionate unpicking of migration statistics, asserting that “most times immigrants bring more / Than minuses”) has been viewed more than two million times. Embarassed, in which McNish rejects the cultural shaming of breastfeeding, reached 1.4 million. “So no more will I sit on these cold toilet lids / No matter how awkward I feel as she sips / Cos in this country of billboards hoarded with ‘tits’ / I think I should try to get used to this” it concludes, defiantly.

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Democratisation of structures

“I was asked by a teacher at a gig to put my poems on YouTube so that he could use it in class,” says McNish. “So I did! That’s the only reason I started.” For her, the particular gift of video is its accessibility.

“Tickets can be expensive and going to venues you’re unsure of can be intimidating. But YouTube is not intimidating. It’s free and can be accessed by a lot of people, as long as you have the internet. So yeah, I think it democratises these media and cultural structures a little.”

Making spoken word as accessible as possible is essential, says Fay Roberts, who battles to find venues in a city where obstacles include everything from lack of wheelchair access to anxieties that revising students might be disturbed. “Accessibility isn’t just physical, but socio-economic,” she says, explaining that spoken word can reach out and touch all parts of society, “the homeless; those recovering from addiction. We’ll accept anyone – all art is welcome.”

In the fens, you’re just 10 miles from Cambridge, but the poetry being produced there is often rural, natural, historical, elegiac.

Spoken word poetry’s newfound prominence at the heart of contemporary culture is associated chiefly with the young, urban and politically engaged slam scene. George the Poet, who blends poetry with rap, has collaborated with Nike and Formula One and been shortlisted for the BRIT awards, while also running school workshops in underprivileged communities.

Yet as Roberts has found, the form is as diverse and rich as its traditional counterpart. “For example, there is a huge difference between city and rural. In the fens, you’re just 10 miles from Cambridge, but the poetry being produced there is often rural, natural, historical, elegiac – about a single bird feather.”

Indeed, drawing distinctions between poetry for page or for stage seems increasingly pointless. As scholar-poet Megan Beech observes, writers have been performing their work for a very long time indeed. Dickens gave condensed performances of A Christmas Carol. “It’s about four hours to read, but he got it down to one and a half. He cut out pages from the book, added in dialogue, stage directions.”

Each generation of poets finds its own voices and its way to an audience, and it seems a sure bet that the canon studied by future Cambridge students and scholars of poetry will include the work of its current crop of spoken word practitioners.

They will find in its videos and printed pages an experience that Roberts describes as “ephemeral, visceral – you feel it in the moment”. “Poetry should make you want to get up off your chair and stomp and shout,” says Beech. With spoken word here to stay, the lecture halls and libraries of the future may prove rather noisier than they are now.

Live Draw : The illustrations are inspired by the work of student poets who took part in Speakeasy – the long-running and hugely successful poetry night – held on 8 October in the ADC Theatre Bar.

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