Spoken word has revolutionised poetry events in the UK.
Whether you call it spoken word, performance poetry, or live literature, the simplest way to describe the art form is as poetry written to be performed. Although the work may also be published, spoken word focuses on the way the words are communicated to an audience, and can draw on theatre, music, comedy and even magic.
The spoken word scene in the UK is vibrant and demonstrates that poetry can be accessible, fun, and inclusive. Spoken word nights are bringing new, culturally diverse, young audiences to poetry: Bang Said the Gun describe their events as being ‘for people who don’t like poetry’.
The flexibility of the art form means the events can take place in non-traditional venues – poets often just need a mic and an attentive audience – so events can be organised in spaces where audiences gather anyway. One recent project in the bar Shunt in London involved poet Joe Cohelho serving a menu of poems alongside cocktail orders.
Although Open Mic nights across the country allow anyone to have a go, spoken word by professional artists can fill traditional arts venues: ‘Something I Said’ was a weekend of spoken word at the Southbank Centre organised by Tilt which took place at the end of October. The popular one-person show often works best in a theatre space with sound and lighting, for example the Edinburgh Showcase shows, Something Dark by Lemn Sissay and Inua Ellam’s The 14th Tale.
Poets talk about influences from diverse sources: traditional oral art forms, the Liverpool Beat poets like Roger McGough, and rap and hip hop. Spoken word continues to stretch boundaries and re-invent itself. A new hip hop, graphic novel show called The Rememberers is being produced by Apples & Snakes. The audience is invited into a graphic novel set in the future, post-environmental disaster, to hear a story told through integrated spoken word and illustrations. My Place or Yours is a digital project involving writers from across the country collaborating online as well as at live events. Performance poetry in translation is an area of study for poet Bohdan Piasecki, while Lucy English teaches performance poetry at the University of Bath Spa.
Spoken word goes hand in hand with participation given the appeal to young people, and teachers are drawn to activity which engages students with language, reading, writing and speaking. It can also be an opportunity for less academic students to shine.
Slam poetry is a genre of its own – short poems performed within a time limit, with judges commenting on the work and the audience selecting a winner. Hammer & Tongue is one organisation specialising in slam in the UK. The form is loved and hated in equal measure, and some poets are subverting the concept through ‘anti-slam’ events where poets deliver their best pastiche of a slam poem to get the lowest score or rate the judges for their comments.
Spoken word can work around the world. Talk to us so we can help you design successful events and involve the right people for your project.
Learn more and see videos and biographies of artists at Apples & Snakes.
Sinead Russell is Senior Literature Adviser at the British Council and a Trustee for Apples & Snakes.