Just so you know, this isn’t a ‘best of’ list.
Like most of the individuals who dabble with the dirty, pretentious circle-jerk that is modern poetry, I am a raging narcissist with a planet-sized ego, completely unable to fathom or grasp the concept that anyone could possibly be compared to anyone else.
So with that in mind, I’ve approached this list as though it were a kind of fantasy line-up for the ultimate gig, as well as a brief introduction to spoken word.
There are many, many great artists out there performing at the moment, including but not limited to, Tony Walsh, Kate Fox, Mark Grist, Mike Watts, Ash Dickinson, Mixy, Raymond Antrobus, and Martin Daws, so if you ever see them pop up at a venue in your area, do yourself a favour and go along – you won’t regret it.
Anyway, on with the list…
Without a doubt one of the most exciting performers, both in terms of content and delivery, working in Britain today, Kate Tempest is not only a great spoken word artist, but also a playwright and part of the band Sound of Rum.
With an intense, no-nonsense delivery, Kate doesn’t cover the themes typically beloved by rappers, spitting lyrics about weed and partying. Instead she tackles everything from modern retellings of Greek myths to her own takes on Shakespearean tragedies. Fiercely intelligent and uncompromising, Kate has been blowing away audiences since the tender age of 16 with her blistering rhymes.
She’s performed all over the world, even managing to win a couple of poetry slams at the famous Nuyorican Poety Café in New York.
Her play, ‘Wasted’, is currently touring theatres in Britain, so if it pops up at a theatre near you, then do yourself a favour and go and check it out.
One of the reasons that spoken word is currently enjoying a renaissance is due to the popularity of slam-poetry, a competitive poetry event that is quite similar in approach to rap-battles, although usually without the need to shout ‘bitch’ every two minutes.
I’m not overly keen on poetry-slams – trust America to turn something like poetry into a competition – but there’s no doubt that they are one of the reasons that the performance poetry scene has gained momentum over the past couple of years. They are also a great educational tool, and great for getting kids and young people involved with spoken word. Last year I was lucky enough to witness Richard ‘Dreadlockalien’ Grant deliver a workshop to a room of school-kids, and by the end of the session every single one of them had written and performed something.
Saul Williams is arguably the slam-poetry daddy. After winning several events at the Nuyorican Poetry Café (there’s that place again), Saul was cast in the lead role of the 1998 film Slam, a film about, yep, you guessed it, poetry-slams.
Although he has more or less taken the Gil-Scot Heron-esque route into music, there’s no doubt that Saul Williams is, for many, the quintessential open mic poet.
Benjamin Zephaniah is a poet, writer, lyricist, musician and trouble maker, and he also happens to be one of Britain’s most well-respected literary figures.
He began performing his poetry at the tender age of ten, before heading to London in his early twenties to rescue poetry from dead academia. His efforts to turn poetry readings into something more akin to a gig and make the form more accessible to audiences still reverberate through the modern spoken word scene. He was undoubtedly a shot in the arm of poetry, and he wrote about what he termed the ‘street politics’ of the time: high unemployment, homelessness and the rise of the National Front.
Today, he’s something of a national treasure, and is also a massively popular author of children’s poetry.
John Cooper Clarke
Well, what more can be said about Johnny Clarke, the man behind the hairstyle?
John Cooper Clarke isn’t a punk-poet. He’s the punk poet. He’s performed on the same bill as The Sex Pistols, The Fall, Joy Division, Buzzcocks, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Elvis Costello and New Order. His rapid-fire delivery is often imitated, but never bettered.
After spending most of the 80s in heroin fog, in recent years John Cooper Clarke has become something of a spoken word elder-statesman. The rehabilitation began in the 90s, and was cemented in the new millennium when a new generation of fans, including bands such as The Arctic Monkeys, began to champion his work. One of his most famous poems, ‘Evidently Chickentown’ was featured on the closing credits of the penultimate episode of The Sopranos.
He’s still touring regularly, and last year was the subject of a BBC 4 documentary ‘Evidently… John Cooper Clarke’.
A true icon of spoken word, I recently had the experience of hosting a John Cooper Clarke gig. He arrived about ten minutes before he was due to go on. He sauntered in with Johnny Green, his tour-manager and something of a punk legend himself. As I flapped about, panicking, they assured me: “We’re fucking professionals son, been doing this for thirty fucking years.” He stumbled onto the stage and proceeded to completely blow away the audience with a masterful set. To cap it off, turned out he was a really nice bloke as well.
Because, it's William Shatner…
After making his debut on The Johnny Carson Show with a bonkers rendition of Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, Shatner remarked that upon finishing his performance, he noticed that the host wore the same expression as Spock in the episode of Star Trek where he lost his brain.
Perhaps the highlight of his career was the bat-shit crazy version of ‘Rocket Man’ that he performed at the 1978 Science Fiction awards. Parodied by Seth MacFarlane in Family Guy, it is a truly mind-bending performance. Just check out the way he manages to finish his cigarette just as he stops speaking. Utter genius…