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Archiving Spoken Word: Some Thoughts

Hello everyone! I’m writing today on the subject of archiving and documenting the contemporary spoken word scene in the UK.

As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I’m currently working on my PhD at the University of Strathclyde researching the performance of authentic selfhood in UK spoken word. I’m using an oral history methodology to collect data for this research – I’ve been conducting interviews with spoken word artists, event organisers, publishers, critics, and others engaged in the scene since May. To date I’ve collected over 60 interviews, and by the end of my data collection this month I’ll likely have approximately 70.

A major motivation behind my PhD has always been to contribute to a more rigorous critical culture around contemporary spoken word, as I’ve observed that unfortunately that seems to be lacking. There are several reasons I think that’s the case – one being that this is a relatively new (whilst also ancient) art form, one being that it’s been often considered low art (cough cough Harold Bloom calling slams “the death of art”), and one being that the scene has tended to be rather grassroots and underfunded.

There are other reasons as well which I won’t go into here, but all of these factors have contributed to a culture in which it’s been unfortunately rare to receive a well-informed, in-depth review for one’s work, to have awards for achievements in the field which are judged by experts and carry real weight, or even to have a standardised language to discuss the structures and practices in one’s own work.

The interviews I’ve been able to conduct with artists and others in the field are therefore wonderful occasions for me (and, I hope, for the interviewees) because they’ve allowed us to have deep discussions about their creative processes, the complex politics of this art form, and its history and future.

They’ve also been rewarding because I know they will be archived and thus serve as a record of this boom period in our art form. The Scottish Oral History Centre in Glasgow will be archiving all of these interviews, which will carry different levels of public access depending on the artists’ wishes. I’m delighted about this, as in order to build this critical discourse we need to understand the breadth of opinions and experiences in our scene (Again and again in this research process I’ve been struck by the diversity of approaches to our form – homogenous we are definitely not). I’ve learned so much through these conversations, and I’m sure those who access the archive once it’s public will as well.

My data collection and archiving pertains to critical materials: conversations about craft, etc. But there’s another question here: how do we archive the actual art? Ours is an inherently ephemeral art form: spoken word poets are performance artists who (generally) write with the intent to perform material live to an audience, and thus publication and archival is usually not a consideration in the creative process.

Today on Twitter, several of us engaged in documenting and archiving the UK spoken word scene got into a discussion of how to best go about this work. The lovely and extremely hard-working David Turner of Lunar Poetry Podcast has written a blog post summarising those discussions and suggesting some routes forward, which I’m linking to here and I’d highly recommend reading: https://lunarpoetrypodcasts.com/2017/11/10/legacy-building/ 

David’s post excellently covers many of the practical issues around archiving, and I don’t have anything to add there. I do want to muse briefly on the questions of why we archive and a few things to keep in mind around it.

One thing it’s important to remember is that the act of archiving is inherently political, particularly given the ephemeral nature of our form. I know several poets who have actively resisted their work being fixed in any way, including rejecting opportunities for print publication and for their live performances to be filmed. For those artists, their work is only meant to exist as a live communicative act between them and their audience, and thus to record and archive them would be to bastardise their work and disrespect their wishes.

I bring that up as a reminder that archiving – though we may think of it as a dusty, bland process – can actually be controversial. As well, the question of who is doing the archiving and who can access the archive is of course very political. If those building the archives are all of the same demographic or geographic background, they/we are likely to miss entire communities, leaving an incomplete history with no record of swathes of artists. As one of the few academics researching spoken word, I have been incredibly conscious of my privileges and what work I have tended to access. When inviting poets to participate in interviews, I worked to ensure I wasn’t simply interviewing my friends or those with similar experiences or styles to myself – but there is always more that can be done to ensure academic work and archive building is less biased.

There is also the important question of accessibility. Spoken word has long prided itself on being an accessible art form, both in terms of the affordability of being an artist (you don’t even need a pencil) and lack of a requirement for any formal education in poetry to practice it, as well as the accessibility of the work itself to a wide range of audiences. For any archive to be expensive or otherwise involve a barrier to access it would undermine many of the core tenets of our form. I’d speculate that this is a factor behind many artists publishing their work via free, Internet-accessible mediums such as YouTube (there are of course other factors there as well, and a discussion to be had around the sustainability of careers when the primary publication vehicle doesn’t net a profit, but that’s another subject). But given that YouTube can’t serve as a permanent or reliable archive of work, it seems important to find others which are longer-lasting but equally as accessible.

Wrapping up here, as I’m conscious this is already a long post (I’m in thesis-writing mode so brevity is a challenge right now!) – I think that documenting the scene and curating diverse and comprehensive archives is vitally important to developing a critical discourse within our field. This should include not only holding and recording conversations around creative practice, but also the poems themselves. However, we need to be mindful as we go about this work about the wishes of the artists regarding whether or not they wish their work to be fixed and preserved in our living art form. I should emphasise here that I’m not a librarian nor do I have much experience in information and library sciences, so I’m not writing with any expertise in that field! Any ideas folks have to contribute are of course more than welcome in the comments.

Thank you as always for reading! David’s article contains links to several documenters of our scene, which I’d highly recommend you check out.

 

PS. Last week I read US poet and scholar Javon Johnson’s new book “Killing Poetry: Blackness and the Making of Slam and Spoken Word Communities.” It’s an excellent exploration in US slam culture, particularly as it pertains to the performance of race. I may do a full review of it soon, but in short – if you’re interested in spoken word and want a critically rigorous but accessible text on it, I’d highly recommend reading it.

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Self-Care during Edinburgh Fringe

Hello again, everyone! As I mentioned in my last post, it’s nearly time for this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe. While I couldn’t be more excited about the show I’m performing in this year (Loud Poets) and the opportunity to see other artists’ shows, I also wanted to write a post acknowledging some of the more difficult elements of the Fringe. The Edinburgh Fringe is the largest arts festival in the world, which means it’s a thrilling confluence of international artists, complete with opportunities to network and soak in various styles of performing arts. It also means that it can be overstimulating, exhausting, and expensive. This being my third year performing at the Fringe, I’m by no means an expert, but I have accrued some tips for artists – and for festival-goers – on how to have a healthy Fringe. I’m sharing them here in the hope that they may be useful for others based in or travelling to Edinburgh this August.

  1. Make sure you eat!

This might seem obvious, but I can’t stress it enough. The first year I performed at the Fringe, I lost 20 lbs over August because I transitioned from a generally sedentary life to one where I wasn’t getting enough sleep and was on my feet flyering and performing all day. Trying to save money meant I sometimes didn’t eat as much as I should have. But I learned my lesson: skipping meals leaves you exhausted and grumpy, and that’s no fun! This year I’ve stocked up on granola bars and I’m planning lots of big batch, easy-pack meals that I can store in my fridge and grab on my way out the door (I highly recommend egg-broccoli-cheese mini quiches and fajita bowls with rice, beans, veg, and cheese). And make sure you always pack a water bottle, especially for shows in those sweaty cramped venues. Staying fed and hydrated doesn’t need to be pricey, and it is essential!

2. Plan in advance…

The Fringe doesn’t sleep – there’s always shows on to go see, flyering to do, social media to be updated. It’s easy to get caught up in the mentality that you must always be working! While there is a lot of work to do to keep a show afloat, I’ve found it to be more productive for me to plan the shows I want to see and the times I want to flyer in advance. That way, each morning when I wake up I have a plan to tackle, rather than facing a wall of stress and anxiety but being unsure of how to get everything done. This also goes for planning your other work – giving yourself blocks of time to get certain pieces of work done, and other blocks of time for every-day tasks like laundry and dishes.

3. … but be flexible enough to go with the flow.

You never know when an opportunity will pop up, or a performer will fall ill, or some unexpected non-Fringe related work will need to be done ASAP. Over August, it’s simply impossible to stick to a schedule 100%. Plan ahead, but be easy enough to go with the flow of whatever’s happening on that particular day.

4. Find your happy place.

I mean this one literally and metaphorically. Literally: find that place in the city where you’re happy and return there whenever you need it. If you’re an extrovert, that might be the Banshee Labyrinth at midnight with loads of pals and a pint. If you’re more introverted, like me, that might be a quiet close off the Royal Mile where you can retreat if you need 5 minutes to yourself in the middle of the chaos. There’s a garden near the bottom of the Royal Mile which is always peaceful where I love to go if I can spare the time to sit and breathe and eat. In the metaphorical sense: if you have a meditation practice, remember to take the time to be present – or if you don’t, now might be a good time to start! Go in your mind to the beach, or to a blank space – whatever floats your boat and brings you some calm.

5. Take care of your body.

With the chaos that the Fringe brings, it’s easy to stop all the habits that keep you going – to take on the “Well, it’s OK to not exercise or sleep and just live on chips and cider for a month” mentality. And – hey, a little bit of that is unavoidable. But try to keep self-care habits going to the extent you can. Last year’s Fringe, I did 10 minutes of yoga backstage at every Loud Poets show, and it helped so much. I know some Fringe performers who bought an inexpensive one-month pass to a spa in the centre of Edinburgh and went there for swimming and massages whenever they needed it (reminder to self: ask them which spa and sign up!). And again, don’t forget to eat and stay hydrated!

6. Remember this is just one month – life goes on!

This is a tip I’m borrowing from fellow Loud Poet Catherine Wilson. It’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of the Fringe and to forget that there’s normal life after it. Try to schedule in something once a week that has nothing to do with the Fringe – maybe going to see a movie, or spending the morning in a quiet park, or Skyping with family, or visiting a friend and playing with their cat all day (let’s be honest, this is top of my list…). Remind yourself that normalcy is still there under the chaos!

***UPDATE: A few lovely folks commented on social media with more useful suggestions:

“It’s important to maintain a proper schedule for eating and sleeping – this stops your body clock from going haywire. Even if it’s knocked off from your usual timing, try to eat and sleep at the same times each day to maintain a semblance of normality.” – Sam Irving, comedian

“Ask for help if you’re struggling with anything, from low attendances to flyering to general wellbeing. You will feel like you can’t ask anyone anything because everyone is busy and doing their own thing, but conversely this means loads of people around you know what it feels like to be in your situation, so they know what will help, so ask them.” – Andrew Blair, poet

“My tip is be forgiving of yourself if you miss certain shows you wanted to see/can’t fit everything in. I never manage to catch EVERYTHING I want to see and, since Time Turners aren’t real, I had to learn to say: oh well!” – Carly Brown, poet

“Having given this some more thought, I think the best way to stay healthy is to try and discover (then rediscover when you forget) that you chose this presumably because you love it. You can be in love with something or someone and get fucked off and irritated with it or them on the regular. But when it’s good it’s fucking great, no? And natural for humans to seek it out. So you aren’t weird for wanting to do this. If you’re a performer you love to perform, you’re seeking that out. And if you do it a lot, you’re likely to find it. At the Fringe, you get to do it loads, surrounded by people looking for that too. So many of them. It’s exciting.

I reckon self-care is also about your attitudes to your work. The Fringe is such a good change to stop being afraid of it, to allow it to change. If you’re a spoken word performer, you get to constantly interrogate your own writing. And editing’s a form of love too. I’m going into this Fringe being so delighted to keep searching my writing for new methods of delivery, to keep making it better, and enjoy the moments of intimacy that you’ll only get from one audience ever, for the solitary hour that you’ll share together (and try to accept that each audience is different).

Which is a gushy way of saying, use it as an opportunity for a really big search of your work, of its meaning in objective and personal dimensions. Don’t let things stay static, or give the same performance every night (it’s pretty much impossible to do this anyway) – embrace every show being different, test things out, try and write down what you’re learning. You’ll come out of it better at being in love.” – Colin Bramwell, poet & actor

 

For my fellow Fringe folks – hope this tips are useful to you! If you have any other advice, please do comment it below. Thanks for reading, and have a fun and healthy August wherever you are! – K

Spotlight on Process Productions

Hello all! Just a quick post today to introduce you to a resource on UK spoken word that I’ve found really interesting and useful. The lovely London-based poet and filmmaker Tyrone Lewis has been interviewing UK poets about their practices and local scenes and turning these interviews into documentaries which he posts on his YouTube channel Process Productions. These documentaries are freely accessible to all and contain some fascinating insights from the UK’s top spoken word artists. In our art form which so rarely receives the critical attention it deserves, these interviews are a great resource for thinking critically about our craft, how we build communities, and how to challenge ourselves to innovate.

The first documentary, ‘NEW SHIT! The Open Mic Documentary’ focuses on the role of the open mic in scene building and supporting emerging artists. It’s linked below:

Tyrone is currently working on a series of episodes focusing on the poetry slam, entitled ‘Scores Please?’ Episode 1: Welcome to the Slam, and Episode 2: It’s All About Style are linked below. Disclaimer: Tyrone kindly interviewed me and several other Loud Poets for this series while he was up at the Edinburgh Fringe last summer, so you may see a couple of familiar faces 🙂 

Hope you enjoy, and do check out the rest of the Process Productions YouTube channel – it’s a great resource not only for documentaries but for poems as well! -Katie

Tips for Memorising Spoken Word Poems

When I first began watching spoken word, it always seemed incredible to me that poets could memorise entire sets of material and perform them live what seemed like effortlessly (same goes for actors and musicians). I wondered how they held it all in their heads, and how they could still seem like they were telling a story for the first time even though they knew it word for word! Now that I’ve been performing poetry for about two years, I generally perform most of my material off-book. When I first started, it was pretty intimidating (and I still get very angry butterflies in my stomach every time I perform a new piece off-book the first time), but thanks to advice from other performers and techniques I developed in my own practice, it’s gotten much easier to learn and perform new material. So, here I’d like to share some of the memorisation and performance techniques that have helped me along the way, in case they’re useful for other folks.  More after the jump!

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Being an International Student in Scotland

Hi folks! Today I’m posting something different. I was asked recently by the UK-US Fulbright Commission to speak at a conference for Holyrood Events in Edinburgh entitled International Students: Creating a Home Away from Home. They wanted to hear the perspective of an international student in Scotland on the joys and challenges of studying here and the benefits international students bring to Scotland in addition to their economic value. I wrote the following talk for them and delivered it at the conference this morning (Feb 24, 2016). The conference was fantastic: it was chaired by Henry McLeish, the second First Minister of Scotland, and opened by Humza Yousaf, MSP, who spoke eloquently on the need to bring back the post-study work visa. It was incredibly empowering to hear government and institutional officials discussing immigration in positive terms and advocating easing the restrictions which the U.K. Home Office is currently ramping up. So often as international students I think we can feel isolated and powerless, so it was good to hear that on the issue of immigration, Scotland remains internationalist and that there is universal cross-party consent at Holyrood for facilitating international students’ journeys here and their ability to stay following their studies.

My talk is below. I would welcome any comments you have on it, especially from other international students perhaps facing similar challenges. Thanks, as always, for reading!

 

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2015: Year in Review

It’s nearly the end of 2015: time to reflect on what’s been a whirlwind year of new experiences, new work, and new opportunities. I learned so much this year about making, supporting, and critiquing performance poetry, from the perspective of the poet, the organiser/host, the promoter, and the critic. Here I gather some of my favourite moments of 2015 and project ahead to an exciting 2016! Read more after the jump.

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Becoming an Ambassador for Scottish Poetry Library

So excited to announce that Carly Brown and I will be piloting the new Scottish Poetry Library Ambassadors program this year! We’ll be tweeting, blogging, and sharing news about the SPL’s programs and how to get involved, as well as taking your ideas about events and programming that you’d like to see. Carly wrote a post for her blog that sums up some of what we’ll be doing and what the SPL has to offer – check it out, along with the rest of her great work! -Katie

Carly Brown

I’m excited to announce that I’ll be joining the Scottish Poetry Library team as part of their brand new Ambassadors program. The poet Katie Ailes  and I will be sharing information about the library on social media and also bringing you news about poetry events happening all over Scotland. You can follow us on Twitter at @SPL_Ambassadors and follow the Poetry Library at @ByLeavesWeLive.

What is the Scottish Poetry Library, you ask?? Well, it’s a pretty great place…

The SPL is an awesome national resource and an advocate for the art of poetry. It is one of three poetry libraries in the UK and their mission is to bring the pleasures and benefits of poetry to as wide an audience as possible. They do this in lots of different ways including:

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Upcoming Performances

Hello blog readers! I’m writing to share with you the dates I’ll be performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this August! I’m very excited to be performing with two great artistic collectives.  Continue reading

Halah Mohammed has posted the second part of our interview on her blog: read here!

Un-blocking Freedom Of Expression

Part 2

“How has your journey been with the Fulbright?”

“There is something really interesting about being an outsider and deeply studying an art form of another culture. I’m not looking at really established artists. I’m looking at people who have different day jobs and are doing poetry on the side because they love doing it. Also, performance poetry hasn’t gotten a lot of traction in academia yet. Partially because it’s new and because it’s perceived as low-brow art. I understand where that perception comes from but I still think performance poetry deserves more critical attention.

I’ve been welcomed (into Scotland) completely. I’ve never felt the sense of ‘what are you doing here?’ or ‘You’re from the States so you can’t perform at our Open-Mics!”. It’s never been that way at all. For me as an academic and an artist it’s been really good to have a dual identity because…

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The wonderful poet Halah Mohammed interviewed me a couple months ago about my poetry background and practice. Part 1 of the interview is here! Check out the rest of her interviews with spoken word poets around the world on her website, https://unblockingfreedomofexpression.wordpress.com

Un-blocking Freedom Of Expression

“When I was in third grade we had a teacher named Tom Smith who was eclectic. He wanted to focus on the arts, so we did a ton of poetry. We all memorized Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, all 18 stanzas [chuckles], and we learned about the Italian Renaissance as well as the Harlem Renaissance. We took a field trip to Harlem, which for third graders from Pennsylvania is something that is not normally done…He didn’t end up teaching us much from the standard curriculum, so the administration didn’t approve and he left the school a couple years after I had him. But he was absolutely amazing and started that love for art and words with me. Then, I just started casually writing for a while and kept at it ’til now [smiles wide].”

“What has poetry given you?”

“I’ve always primarily been a dancer. I started dancing at the…

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