Comparing the U.S. & U.K. Spoken Word Scenes

Hello folks! So in late March/early April three of the four Loud Poets organisers went to the U.S., myself included, and participated in the spoken word scene there. I was back on the East Coast for a visit home, during which I took part in two poetry events and taught two spoken word workshops on my undergraduate university campus. Doug Garry and Catherine Wilson were two members of the University of Edinburgh team that won the U.K. UniSlam this January and earned a place at the annual CUPSI competition in Austin, TX. Team Edinburgh (which in addition to Doug and Catherine included Rachel Rankin, Lewis Brown, Jyothis Padmanabhan, and coach Toby Campion) went to CUPSI in early April to compete, and ended up winning the Spirit of the Slam Award! (And while we were off galavanting, Kevin Mclean was holding down the fort in Scotland running LP solo – thanks Kev!).

The first slam took place in the U.S. in 1984, and while of course the format has spread worldwide since, arguably the U.S. has the most developed national infrastructure for spoken word in the world: there’s a vast network of regional slams all funnelling into the annual National Poetry Slam. Funnily, though, I didn’t actually start performing spoken word until after I moved to Scotland in 2012. Now that I’m a full-time spoken word researcher, I was very interested to see how the scene in the U.S. compared with the scene I’m familiar with in Scotland. This post outlines some of the similarities and differences I perceived between those environments, based on my experiences, and includes an interview I conducted with Catherine about her observations at CUPSI. I should note that this in no way constitutes a scientific study: I’m only writing from my own very limited experience of the U.S. scene as I saw it through two events on the East Coast, and second-hand through Catherine’s comments. For a more comprehensive account, I would recommend reading Helen Gregory’s 2008 doctoral dissertation “Texts in Performance: Identity, Interaction and Influence in U.K. and U.S. Poetry Slam Discourses,” which is freely available online here.

The first event I participated in whilst in the U.S. was the The Fuze: Philly Poetry Slam on Friday, March 25 at Studio 34 Yoga in West Philadelphia. This event consisted of an open mic, a feature (which that night was the faith-based collective True Voices Philadelphia), and a slam. The caliber of the event was very high from all of the performers, with some seriously stirring work shared. One of the joys of that night was experiencing poet and pastor’s Clarence E. Wright’s performance, which was equally powerful and eloquent. I can’t find footage of the piece he did that night, but here’s another strong piece of his:

I was struck by organised the regional slam network was; that particular night (The Fuze) could send one team to Nationals, and the only way to qualify for their team was by racking up a certain number of points through competing in multiple slams throughout the year. The slam in which I competed was the “Last Chance” slam: it was the second-to-last slam before semifinals, so if you had not competed at all in the past year, this was your last chance to enter and rack up enough points to still be a contender. I’m glad I didn’t win the slam (I placed third, with five poets competing), as if I had I would have taken away one of the other poets’ last chances to qualify for the Fuze team. Since Scotland is obviously much smaller, our rules for Nationals qualification are much simpler (you win a slam, you qualify), so it was a bit intimidating for me to experience the more competitive atmosphere of a larger arena. The other poets were totally lovely, though; there was no trash talk or cattiness whatsoever.

Performing at the Philly Fuze Slam, 25 March 2016.

Performing at the Philly Fuze Slam, 25 March 2016.

The other major difference between the Fuze slam and your typical spoken word event in Scotland was the demographics. I was one of two white performers on the stage that night; the rest of the poets, hosts, and musicians were people of colour. In no way was I made to feel unwelcome at the event or as though I was interrupting a safe space; folks were incredibly welcoming and kind. But participating in the event did make me more cognisant of the way in which spoken word in the U.S. has tended to be dominated especially by people of colour and others from historically marginalised communities (see Susan Somers-Willett’s scholarship for more on this). As the genre has spread worldwide, it has been used (appropriated might be the word some would use here; I’m reluctant to call it that) by others, as is arguably the case in Scotland, where the population and literary scene are very white. That’s a much larger discussion that I won’t delve into here; suffice to say that it was interesting being the minority at an event at which I am normally in the majority, and it shifted my perspective on a couple things.

 

The second event I attended was the monthly Port Veritas show at Bull Feeney’s in Portland, Maine. This was a lovely show at a lively Irish pub in downtown Portland which consisted of an open mic then a feature set. On the night I visited, the feature performers were Emily Rose Kahn-Sheahan and Ben Clark, who were touring new work with Thoughtcrime Press. I was blown away by their performances: Ben’s writing evoked his rustic Nebraska upbringing, beautifully twisted and ominous, while Emily’s writing captured the madnesses of being female in this age, both of them performing strongly and clearly. Although it’s difficult to pick any favourite pieces, Emily’s intricately crafted “Cake” has stuck in my memory and is well worth a watch:

Although Port Veritas was very different demographically from Philadelphia’s The Fuze event (Maine is about as white as Scotland, and the participants at Port Veritas reflected that), there were some similarities between the two nights which I also recognised as familiar from my experiences in the Scottish scene. First—and I mean this in the best of ways and include myself—spoken word nights attract the weirdos. By this I mean the social misfits, those who feel as though their voice isn’t wanted in mainstream discourse, those who find community and safety in attending nights with others who feel similarly marginalised from or ill-fitting in the world. This means that spoken word nights are also strongly bonded communities of friends sharing intimacies and trusting the audience to catch them. There was something so comforting about travelling across the world and still finding that spoken word generates strong communities wherever it happens.

Organiser Nate Amadon opening the show at Port Veritas, 5 April 2016.

Organiser Nate Amadon opening the show at Port Veritas, 5 April 2016.

Related to that, I found that at both of these events, respect for the performers and encouragement of new voices was paramount. I walked in the doors of these events knowing no one, a weirdo with no one to vouch for me, and was warmly welcomed onstage. Each host encouraged the audience to cheer loudly and support their peers, and both audiences gladly obliged. At Port Veritas, the host Nate Amadon issued a statement at the start of the night which served as a blanket trigger warning and free speech protection: he told us that we were free to leave the room at any time if anything made us uncomfortable, but that heckling the poets was not acceptable, and that if anything said onstage made us angry or feel unsafe, we should approach the hosts following the performance. It was clear that there were policies in place to protect both the performers and the audience members with the end goal of encouraging dialogue rather than censoring anyone, which I very much appreciated.

 

Team Edinburgh with their Spirit of the Slam Award at the end of CUPSI 2016.

Team Edinburgh with their Spirit of the Slam Award at the end of CUPSI 2016.

The ways in which spoken word events handle these often tricky issues of safe spaces, free speech, and dissenting voices were also major points of interest for Catherine Wilson when she was participating in CUPSI as a member of Team Edinburgh. I interviewed Catherine upon her return to Scotland, and her comments reveal differing attitudes towards the social function of spoken word in the U.S. and U.K., and different rules and social norms around spoken word events. Here’s what Catherine said:

KA: What similarities and differences did you perceive between the U.S. slam scene and the U.K. slam scene?

CW: For one, the noise. Even the Loud Poets were startled by the level of volume in America.

Getting onstage in the U.K. is usually a casual affair of clapping, sometimes cheering and occasional shouts from your friends at the back. Climbing onstage at C.U.P.S.I. was full of shouts, cheers, woops, screams including: “GO IN POET!”, “TAKE YOUR TIME, YOU GOT THIS!”, “REMEMBER WHY YOU WROTE IT!” and “DON’T BE NICE!” with its responsive chorus of “BE NAAAAASTY!”

This is all fun and games until you remember another difference between the two slam scenes: in the U.K. time starts from when you start speaking, in the U.S. it starts from any interaction from the audience, which could include a pointed look, a laugh, a smile, a nod and so on.

Judges are similar to that I have encountered before: five members of the audience. However, they are required to get onstage at the beginning so all team members can see if they think they are a fair panel. They are also handed whiteboards and pens and have to show the audience (and poets!) their scores. In the U.K. scene I’ve encountered, judging is a quiet job – judges sit in the audience and mark scores which are handed over to the host. These aren’t read aloud or known by the poets.

In our first prelim I was handed a show-me-board and asked to assign a numerical value to poems. The audience then made their feelings clear on the scores as they were read out from lowest to highest. Heats became a cycle of hosts saying “I have a 8.9.” (cue booing) “A 9.2.” (audience would say “HIGHER!” or “okay…” or “THAT’S A NUMBER!”).

There is a different climate where judges are the bad guy. The poet and host is loved, but if the judge gives anything less than a 9.1 at any point they will be screamed at. Scores are also altered, they remove the poet’s lowest and highest score. It doesn’t matter, therefore, if you get a 10 and the rest of your scores are in the low 8s or if you get a 4 but the rest of your scores are in the 9s.

Dotted around the audience would be coaches, doing maths and adding up scores in notebooks. This was a competition to be taken very, very seriously. And it was. Going one second over your grace period: automatic penalty, using a prop, even accidentally: you’ve lost yourself 2 points. This isn’t the poetry slams I encountered and helped organise in Scotland: a fun, yet a little tense, evening of poetry and the arts. This was high level tension with many rules that people took very, very seriously.

KA: Did the poems you performed at CUPSI seem markedly different from the poems other teams were performing?

CW: Our poems were worlds apart from what we saw whilst out there. Jesse Parent, poet and coach of the University of Utah’s team, commented that the main thing that set us apart was the ‘use of joy’ in our poetry. Poetry out there was commentary laden on the issues young people face in modern America: from racism, sexism and rape culture to stigmatisation of mental illness and transphobia and homophobia. The work out there was very much reacting to systems that oppress or hurt people. It was all heartbreaking, and it was harder to find a happier or just funny piece than you would in the stages in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Whilst in a workshop on the history of slam as part of the programme, we were asked what slam poetry was not. Members all agreed that slam was not, and could not be, sub-textual, subtle, or in any way indirect about its meaning. Thirty minutes later we send Douglas Garry onstage: a poet whose work is full to the brim of metaphors. This is poetry that gives you the time to think about what it means. This, to Americans, was not slam. Slam was direct, to-the-point and slightly obvious. If the poignancy wasn’t immediate, people weren’t sure about it. (Katie note: Here’s one of Doug’s pieces, below.)

At the same time, people were fascinated by us: our so-called “breath of fresh air” that wrote poems just for the joy of writing poems, not to tackle a system or argue with a bad situation. I became intricately more aware of all the humour I put in my poetry, or the time I dedicate to building an area of the poem not directly linked to the conclusion. When I talk about my father in my piece “Copycat” I don’t jump in with saying “I never met my father”, I build all these humorous metaphors and anecdotes about life as someone who copies other people, and then twist it to apply it to the situation I have with my father.

Whilst the twist was still very present in American slam, people didn’t take such wandering ways to get to it. The tragedies and hurt was obviously presented from the get go.

KA: Was the social atmosphere similar to or different from U.K. slam? Was the competition fierce? Were people intense or did it all feel friendly and community-oriented?

C.U.P.S.I. put a real emphasis upon community. At the beginning of every single prelim, heat and round, a statement was read aloud that stated it was our job to ‘love each other fiercely’. The whole of the university was filled with around 400-500 poets bumping into each other and telling each other how much they loved their work. If a poet walked offstage crying, there were always other people there to offer a hug and some love. After I got offstage doing a piece about my sister, who was killed when I was three months old, nearly a whole team rushed over to offer hugs and hold me.

If a poet broke down onstage, there was real empathy in the voices of the people in the audience.

There were also harsher elements. Because these poems are so close to people’s hearts and on such heartbreaking and life changing topics like race and gender and so on, when there was disagreement it was so much bigger than anything I’ve encountered here. There were, as I say, around 400-500 poets here, so there were obviously so many more voices in the debate. But they were also all liberal and well-educated in slam ethics and politics, so debates over intolerance or immoral language in a poem quickly became a very large debate, both online and whilst poets were onstage.

Nights I run in Edinburgh, mainly Soapbox and the LitSoc slams, have a pretty solid no-booing policy. This used to be read aloud, but hasn’t had to be, as British audiences are more quiet and awkward about their anger. I’ve never been boo-ed or watched someone be boo-ed in the U.K.. Anger over language or meaning of a poem would be an exchange by the angered and the poet after the poem or the night, not during the piece.

In C.U.P.S.I. people were more direct about their anger. I saw people walk out and hiss poems whilst the poet was onstage. This isn’t something I can necessarily comment on being better or worse than British attitudes. I would always let a poet finish and talk to them later, having being raised in the scene I was. I have only walked out of poems in a very subtle not-drawing-attention way, and haven’t really spoken to poets about their work angering me. But this way also means people are usually too shy to actually talk about their upset later. We’re very conflict-shy, especially in poetry. When poets lie or say intolerant things, we often simmer silently. This way was a clearer way of showing upset, but it also stopped the poet from finishing properly, which meant if they were to try to redeem themselves, this would be harder. It is, again, harder for me to comment, as the poems at C.U.P.S.I. in question weren’t something that personally affected me.

KA: Thanks very much for sharing!

 

There’s a lot more to say here—on safe spaces and free speech, on how globalisation of an art form can be appropriation (or not), on slam ethics and the social function of slams—but those topics merit longer discussions which I’m out of room to do here. For now, I think I can speak for both Catherine and myself when I say that it was a fantastic experience to participate in spoken word events in the U.S., and that we’re both now much more cognisant of how the social function of the art form varies across different cultures.

If you’re interested in hearing more about the regional differences between the spoken word communities within a country, I recorded a vlog with the tremendous Glasgow poet Sam Small where we talk about the variations between the Edinburgh and Glasgow scenes, which will be posted next Monday (May 2) on the Loud Poets YouTube channel. If you subscribe to the channel, you’ll be notified when that video is posted, alongside our other vlogs and poetry videos. Thanks, as always, for reading, and big thanks to Catherine for contributing to this post!

Poets: What differences have you observed between the U.S. and U.K. performance poetry scenes, or between the scenes in other different cultures?

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3 responses to “Comparing the U.S. & U.K. Spoken Word Scenes

  1. Reblogged this on The Carpenter's Sparrow and commented:
    Definitely worth a read for any US or UK poet.

    Like

  2. A lot of your observations ring true for my experiences of these two scenes as well. Thanks for this interesting post, Katie and Catherine!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m not surprised, Americans in general are known to be perceived as aggressive. From my experience, that just means we’re passionate about sharing stories about what effects us/others.

    Like

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