It began as a mistake.
About six years ago I did something that would forever alter the course of my life. Poetry was always my dirty little secret, something that I did on the side while I tried to concentrate on making it as a ‘real’ writer. But in-between the music reviews and the aborted novels, I found myself spending more and more time scribbling little bits of verse. And then I was asked to read a couple of my poems at a live event above a pub in my home town of Hull.
It was a total disaster. Nerves got the better of me and I decided to have a couple of drinks in order to calm down, but it just made things worse. My hands shook as I struggled to focus on the lines that I had written. The event was attended by a bunch of people who considered themselves to be authorities on poetry, and I was mercilessly mocked and heckled by them throughout the reading. Half-drunk, I responded by offering one of them outside, and the night descended into chaos.
It was a defining moment. I felt humiliated and defeated, and it could have gone either way at that point. I was on the verge of sacking it off, of never doing it again and forever consigning my poetry to the dust-bin of creativity. But I didn’t. Instead, I decided that I was going to get good at it. I decided to put some time and effort in to learn my stuff; I was going to show those bastards.
Cue 80s style training montage with an uplifting tune with a catchy synth-line.
A couple of weeks later, a good friend of mine, who also happened to be the front-man in a band, asked me if I fancied doing a couple of poems before they went on. To this day I still don’t why I agreed to it. When I got up, I performed the poems and shut my eyes and waited for the beer to start flying, but something totally unexpected happened. They applauded. They cheered.
Things accelerated quickly after that. After hearing Dan LeSac Vs Scroobius Pip on the radio, I checked out MySpace (remember that, kiddies?) and discovered that there was a national spoken-word scene. And it was all based around the performance aspect of poetry. It didn’t matter if you didn’t have a collection out, didn’t have a reputation and didn’t know anything about the history and aesthetics of poetry. If you were half-decent and could record a MP3 and post it online, you could get a gig. Within one month of setting up a profile featuring some examples of my work, I was travelling down to London and taking part in open mikes.
I had never been to London before. It was all very Dick Whittington. I would save up and travel down, book a room in a dorm in a hostel in King’s Cross and then set out to the venue, A to Z clutched tightly in my hand. It was a mad period. Some nights were great, others not so great but it was always exciting and felt a little bit dangerous. After one memorable gig in Whitechapel, a gang of punks threatened to stab me after mishearing a poem about the commercialisation of punk and thinking it was some sort of attack on their lifestyle.
And it started to pay off. After about a year, Apples and Snakes, a performance poetry company, held auditions for a spoken word development scheme, and somehow I managed to get a place on it. Suddenly, my dirty little secret had become an occupation, and a whole world of opportunities opened up. I even got the chance to indulge some adolescent rock ‘n roll fantasies. Performing at a music festival and getting a good response from a crowd is the nearest I’ll ever get to resting my foot on a monitor and striking out a power-chord.
The modern performance poetry scene as we know it can be traced back to Linton Kwesi Johnson’s dub-poetry and John Cooper Clarke’s seminal punk performances of the 70s. There had been poetry readings before then of course, but these two tore the words from the page and put them into the ears and minds of the audience, with an unflinching and raw energy that continues to inspire today. And both of them are still writing and performing.
They also best exemplify the ‘page vs stage’ debate that has come to define the spoken word scene in some ways. Personally, I see it as a bullshit distinction – it’s all words after all – but performance poetry is often sneered at by the academic establishment who believe that it is somehow inferior to the ‘classic’ poetry that is to be only enjoyed by the privileged few. But it’s all just branches of the same tree.
Today, the UK spoken word/performance poetry scene is buzzing and vibrant. Only last week The Telegraph published an article entitled: ‘Is poetry the new comedy?’ (It isn’t; a couple of years everyone was calling it the new rock ‘n roll, and it isn’t that either). There are dedicated nights popping up all around the country. The ARC in Stockton-on-Tees is working with the Arts Council on a spoken-word project called Northern Elements that aims to encourage and develop performance poetry and spoken word nights at venues throughout the North. Burning Eye Books, an imprint set up by Clive Birnie specifically to publish performance poets, is looking to close that ‘page vs stage’ divide.
In many ways, performance poetry and spoken word is the ultimate recession-proof art-form, because it’s cheap and readily accessible. You don’t need to buy an instrument or to build an expensive set. You don’t even need a microphone or speaker if you can shout loud enough. And at a time when many people feel that they are denied a voice, performance poetry can give them the opportunity to articulate what they truly feel. And in a statement that may annoy many poetry purists, spoken word also makes for a good evening’s entertainment.
From a personal stand-point, it’s allowed me travel, to go to lots of different places and meet lots of great people. I’ve performed in theatres, schools, and prisons. I’ve even had a residency in a boxing club, and not a single person tried to knock me out to shut me up.
So now is a great time to get involved. In the words of Thurston Moore, go forth and thrash. Write a poem. Go to a gig or start your own night in the local pub. Publish a magazine or create a website.
It might just change your life.