Tag Archives: Slam poetry

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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Loud Poets have a Patreon!

Hello everyone! I’m writing to share some big news: this weekend Loud Poets launched a Patreon campaign! If you’ve not heard of Patreon, it’s an excellent crowdfunding platform which allows supporters to pledge regular contributions to artists they appreciate. This gives these artists a more sustainable income (in oppose to one-off crowdfunding campaigns which are tied to single projects), which can be a huge help given the usually unstable prospect of arts funding and project fees.

Loud Poets have been working for the past three years to provide a platform for spoken word in Scotland through organising monthly showcases in Edinburgh and Glasgow, writing solo and collaborative pieces, working with musicians and filmmakers on innovative projects, and touring within the UK and internationally. We’ve done all of this so far with no funding, just ticket revenue, project fees, and merchandise sales. However, we’re now working to pay our artists what they deserve and to become a more sustainable organisation so that we can continue doing this work long into the future. We also want to push the limits of our creative practices by making more innovative, professionally produced videos for our poems and sharing them online freely and accessibly to folks who can’t access our live shows.

If you’re interested in learning more about this work, and about the rewards for patrons who support it, you can check out our campaign by following this link to our Patreon page. There’s a launch video that explains the work we’re planning to do and how you can be a part of it. We’re also running a special competition where folks who sign up before Saturday can win the chance to commission a new poem, so if you’re interested do check that out. Huge thanks to everyone whose supported us thus far; we can’t wait to bring you more poetry! – Katie

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

Reflections on Publishing Homing

Last night I had the pleasure of performing at Vineyard Arts, which is a lovely biweekly arts group taking place in a church space in Partick. That evening—a very rainy one, even for Glasgow—the attendance was fairly low, and the folks who showed up were mostly fellow spoken word artists. I realised that most of the pieces in the spoken word set I’d prepared would be familiar to most of the folks in the room, so I decided to scrap it and instead read from my collection, Homing. It was a surprisingly lovely experience: I almost never read publicly from Homing, since most of the time I’m booked as a spoken word artist and expected to perform off-book.

Th experience of sharing poems from the book reminded me of the experience of putting Homing together last spring—it’s hard to believe it’s been out for nearly a year! The whole process, from the initial idea to drafting to printing to selling the books, was such a whirlwind journey in which I learned a huge deal about the process of funding, compiling, publishing, and marketing a poetry collection. So, here I reflect on that process and on some of the realisations it gave me about my own work and creative practice.

Cover photography & design: Perry Jonsson Art.

Cover photography & design: Perry Jonsson Art.

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Vlog with Sam Small: Regional Differences in Spoken Word

Hello everyone! I’m just catching my breath after two whirlwind tours with Loud Poets in the past three weeks, first to the Brighton Fringe, then to the Prague Fringe. Both festivals were fantastic, and I’m so grateful to the team of poets, musicians, and our videographer Perry Jonsson for working so hard to make our shows the best they could be. Now back to research, writing, and preparations for Loud Poets’ month-long run at the Edinburgh Fringe this August!

Rather than a blog post, today I’m sharing a vlog I recorded with the fantastic Glasgow-based poet Sam Small back in February. We chatted about whether or not there are regional differences in spoken word styles across Scotland, including discussing the effects of globalisation and technology on the art form. Thanks to Perry for filming, and to Loud Poets for curating this great vlog series! Please do check out the rest of the videos up on the Loud Poets YouTube channel while you’re there, including many more vlogs plus lots of poetry! Hope you’re well, and thanks for watching!

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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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.

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Best Scottish Poems of 2015: A Response

Update: there’s a great discussion going around this post where I linked it on my Facebook artist page – check it out here and please do join in! -K

 

Yesterday the Scottish Poetry Library released its annual list of the Best Scottish Poems of 2015, a selection curated this year by novelist and poet Ken MacLeod. It is a fine list containing a variety of excellent pieces, and my hearty congratulations go out to each poet named there. In no way in what follows do I mean to question the merit of these excellent poems, or MacLeod’s judgment in choosing them. However, upon reading through the selections this year I was disappointed to see that not a single performance-based poem was selected, and reading MacLeod’s essay accompanying his selections it became clear that only text-based, print-published poems were considered in the pool for selection. This frustrated me because I feel that this selection method passes over the rich offerings in performance-based poetry produced over the last year in Scotland, and reflects a blind spot towards one of Scotland’s richest literary traditions. In this post I will address why this is frustrating to me and encourage that the pool might be widened in future years.

 

A wee disclaimer: I’m writing this with the utmost love for the SPL. It’s my favourite haven in Edinburgh and I think the folks there do wonderful work encouraging and supporting poets and lovers of poetry. I also think the SPL usually works very hard to publicise and support all sorts of poetry across Scotland, so this seems more a rare instance of oversight for them than symptomatic of bad programming (more on all the great work they do later).

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Writing Collaborative Performance Poems

One of my hopes for the new year was to try out new ways of writing and performing, and the start of 2016 has happily involved just that: I’ve been composing and performing lots of collaborative poems! Before this year I’d never written collaboratively before. Writing poetry had always been an intensely solitary event for me, involving plenty of quiet and months over which to edit, but never other people, at least not until I had a draft I was happy enough with to show friends. Writing team poems doesn’t allow for that kind of solitary reflection or leisurely time frame: it means composing, editing, and rehearsing in real time with a group of other poets who may have radically different composition techniques from your own. For me it’s been a rewarding challenge and has yielded some of the most exciting work I’ve done in a while. Here I discuss some of the unique challenges and joys of collaborative writing I’ve discovered, as well as some tips I’ve found for working well in a group and creating innovative work.

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Why ‘Slam Poetry’ Is Not a Genre

My last post responded to the way media sources were misconstruing Sarah Palin’s endorsement speech for Donald Trump as “slam poetry.” I gave several reasons why I consider that use of that term to be inaccurate and rather rude, including that the use of ‘slam poetry’ as shorthand for rambling, incoherent utterances misrepresents a field of poetry generally characterised by tight performances and accessibility. One of the primary reasons I was frustrated with the way this term was used, though, is that ‘slam poetry’ is not a valid term, because it cannot accurate describe an artistic genre. In this post I argue that ‘slam poetry’ as a genre in and of itself does not exist, and suggest some other terminology which more accurately reflects the field of contemporary performance poetry. More after the jump!

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