"So. Are you a page poet or spoken word poet?"
A poetry enthusiast asked me this recently at a local open mic night, and when I said: "Maybe a bit of both" he said "Cool!" - but he was clearly suspicious, and a little disappointed in me.
BOTH?! It's like coming out as bisexual. People don't want 'both'. They want you to fit into the specific box they've got all ready for you in their heads.
Poetry does seem to fall increasingly into these two camps: the page and the stage. Page poets write to be read/published - and to be noticed by the poetry establishment, whereas 'Spoken Word' or performance poets write to be heard - heard there and then, at that moment, at that venue, with that audience hanging (they hope) on their every word.
I do worry about Spoken Word. Although I respect it for its welcoming, democratic ethos - the way ANYONE can take the mic, I do worry that Spoken Word relies too much on two modes: 'soapboxing' and 'self-revelation'.
Have you noticed how Spoken Worders rant a lot? - about people who did them wrong? About the wrongs of the world? There's nothing wrong with any of this. There's a lot to rant about. We NEED ranters. But a whole night of soapboxing, angry poets chills my blood and makes me want to rush home and... watch Glee or something.
Likewise listening to Spoken Worders reveal WAY-TOO-INTIMATE stuff about themselves, as if the stage was their confessional or their therapist's couch, just makes me cringe and want to crawl under the table. I know that sharing pain can be powerful and empowering - it's an admirably brave and cathartic thing to do. I also know it can be vitally political. But I also know I'm not alone when it comes to the cringing bit... but maybe I'm just way too English for Spoken Word.
But actually the problem, for me, as a poet with a different kind of poetics, is AUTHENTICITY. Too much Spoken Word, though exciting and provocative and necessary, seems chained to this idea that what it does has to be AUTHENTIC. i.e. it has to be the TRUE SELF SPEAKING TRUE STUFF - with that self getting a very immediate validation from the audience. (And the more private and intimate the experience related, and the more the speaker appears to be exorcising their past pain, the more the audience appreciates it and validates it - and, in some of the gigs I've been to, has done so while completely ignoring the quality - or otherwise - of the poetry).
There are great Spoken Worders out there. I'm not dissing them. And I know I'm unfairly generalising about the scene. I have learned - and will learn - a lot from it. I just wonder if Spoken Word is in danger of getting stuck in this mode of authenticity - that some spoken word gigs are in danger of becoming lurid jamborees of competitive victimhood - and that because of that it's going to burn itself out, or worse, get boring - or, even worse than that, become a live, wordier version of Reality TV.
What's wrong with irony? What's wrong with trying out voices which are NOT your own? (Or, dare I say it, speaking in a voice that's NOT the hip-hop-inflected London English which - inexplicably - seems to be some kind of a guarantee of 'realness' for a lot of participants in the UK Spoken Word scene?) What's wrong with OTHERING your voice? What's wrong with LYING? SARCASM? BEING INSINCERE? MAKING UP STUFF?! What's wrong with NOT meaning it? What's wrong with using other people's experiences, other people's vocabulary? What's wrong with jumping OUT of the self, AWAY from the self?
Are the words we've wrenched from our gut necessarily the most interesting?!
This is one reason why I can't jump into the Spoken Word box. My 'voice', whatever that means, is dispersed among other voices in the poems I write. My voice is too unreliable, too inauthentic. Maybe this means I'm not 'real'. But I like that.
P.S. No offence is intended by this blogpost - it's just to provoke thought and discussion... feel free to comment below.
Welcome to The P-Word (where I hang out to dry all my blogposts about poetry: writing it, reading it, performing it, teaching it).