Speaking up for spoken word poetry

Fringe favourite Luke Wright, has the city at his feet. Picture: Jane Barlow
Fringe favourite Luke Wright, has the city at his feet. Picture: Jane Barlow
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THE ‘spoken word’ listing will be a boon for performers who don’t fit the comedy or theatre categories, says Jenny Lindsay

IN TERMS of enjoyability, many people, sadly, equate “poetry event” with “self-harm”. As a result, promoters of such events have often struggled to know exactly how to categorise themselves in the Fringe brochure. Before this year there were only two options: “comedy” or “theatre”. Neither have ever quite fitted. Bill yourself as comedy and you risk reviewers and audience members alike starting any critique of your show with: “It’s not really comedy, but…” With theatre, inevitably reviewers will observe that “it bears more of the hallmarks of a stand-up comedy show,” which may, you feel, miss the point of all the sweated blood that led to your one-hour creation.

So thank the Lord for the new category in the Fringe brochure, “spoken word”. As a promoter of “performance poetry” – itself a description that can make grown men blub – I always find that “spoken word” is a beautiful, inclusive, all-encompassing alternative description, which fittingly describes the variety of poetic, theatric and comedic aspects of shows whose main feature is words. Lots of words. Words with music. Words with animations. Poetic words. Funny words. Words addressed, with immediacy and skill, directly to an audience.

Spoken word, and its slightly sexier sounding cousin “live literature”, has been growing in popularity in recent years. Well-known authors recognise that live events enable them to engage with their readers, while poets can convert new audiences, who might hitherto have thought poetry was a euphemism for torture. A common feature of spoken word shows is the punter who sidles over to a performer at the end and whispers: “That was really good – I thought I would hate it!” Or, as my mother said after her first outing to such an event: “I really enjoyed that. I don’t have a clue what it was though. It was kind of theatre. It was pretty funny. It was kind of poetry… Hmm.”

“Mother, it was spoken word.”

“Ah…”

Spoken word, while lacking its own category, has always had a strong presence at the festivals – not just at the Fringe, but also at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. The EIBF’s Unbound series features showcases of spoken word nights from around the UK, as well as hosting the infinitely entertaining Literary Death Match, where well-known and new authors pit their words against each other in competition. This year will also see Scotland’s Makar Liz Lochhead take part in her first Poetry Slam for the BBC. Spoken word is branching out, so having a separate category makes sense.

There are 43 spoken word shows in the Fringe brochure, with helpful genres ranging from political to comedy, to enable the audience to have at least an inkling of what type of words might be spoken. Some shows feature a solo act, others are cabarets, and the performers range from well-known Fringe favourites such as Luke Wright to lesser-known acts or groups. Many shows incorporate music, animation, duologue, group poetry…

So, why not call it theatre? Well, one of the main features of spoken word is the interaction with the audience. Not audience participation per se, but most spoken word performers will address the audience directly, as if in conversation.

Indeed, the ability to cope with audience banter and the odd heckler is an inevitable part of being a spoken word artist. So, why not call it comedy?

Firstly, in spoken word the comedy is usually incidental rather than the main point of the story or poem. Comedic delivery is a sensible tactic to use to engage a live audience, but spoken word aims to raise more than a smile. It wants to raise eyebrows and maybe make you bawl sometimes too. As poet Richard Tyrone Jones has said: “Spoken word can be very funny, but it’s more than stand-up comedy; it’s stand-up emotion.”

Jones was the main driving force behind the inclusion of a separate spoken word section in the Fringe brochure. As director of spoken word at Peter Buckley Hill’s Free Fringe, which itself includes 50 spoken word shows in its programme, he felt it was time to have that reflected in the Fringe too: “I could just say [we need the section] because if we called it poetry, no-one would come, but seriously, I should say it’s because every city in the UK has spoken word nights – whether poetry, storytelling, rap battles or something in between… These are all performers who want to make you think and feel as much as to make you laugh.”

In other words, these shows are not simply comedy, or simply theatre, nor even simply poetry: they are spoken word, with the audience firmly in mind. Spoken word is a lot of words. In a really good order. I hope that helps, mum.

• Jenny Lindsay is an Edinburgh-based performance poet whose collection The Things You Leave Behind is published by Red Squirrel Press. She will appear alongside Liz Lochhead, Colin McGuire, Anita Govan, Jim Monaghan and Bram Gieben at Potterrow, 22 August, as part of the BBC Poetry Slam (20-24 August).