It’s National Poetry Day, so get yourself to a spoken word night, says Kit Finnie; you won’t regret it.
Imagine a place where you can be exactly who you want to be. Where you can wear what you please without strange looks from boring people. Where you can tell a room of people about your period pains and they will listen attentively. Where fairy lights twinkle in the moonlight and wonderful people drink or don’t drink and play guitars and talk about politics and possible artistic collaborations without pretension or cynicism.
Where, if you give it a month, everybody will know your name. Where, whoever you are, and wherever you come from, your story will be applauded. For real. A crowd will clap and cheer after you talk.
There is such a place, believe it or not, and, in pubs, and back rooms, and cafes throughout the country, it is secretly thriving. It’s called, depending on who you ask, spoken word, or performance poetry, or live poetry, or something else (what exactly to title it is one of the only major controversies of the thing).
You probably know, or have some feeling about what ‘spoken word’ is: maybe Kate Tempest, or the young women from Get Lit who were on The Queen Latifah Show, or Neil Hilborn’s OCD poem, which, as of now, has nearly 12 million views on YouTube. This kind of poetry – passionate, short, beautifully written monologues, delivered by a person with penetrating eyes – is just about breaking into the mainstream, as proven by the fact Nationwide has recently released an ad campaign featuring original poems by some spectacular people.
If this sounds repulsively twee, I know how you feel. When I first started meeting people who gushed about how magical and diverse and exciting spoken word is, my cynicism tic would get going, and I’d nod along while internally reminding myself to look out for indications of the opposite.
But then I had a conversation which made me realise there might genuinely be something different going on when poets walk onstage, as opposed to standup comedians, or lecturers, or musicians, or maybe anything.
This is what my friend said: “The spoken word scene is so unique. It’s the only one where being a white male is a disadvantage.”
Now, I’ve heard this from plenty of performers in many different art forms, who perceive that they might be getting passed over for opportunities in favour of others, depending on whose background has given them a more ‘interesting’ story to tell. This is potentially especially potent in poetry, when the art form gets translated to YouTube videos.
What is actually being shared across social media platforms isn’t a piece of writing, or even a performance, but an individual’s life story. If that story isn’t as provoking or illuminating as another, it’s likely to get passed over.
“It’s not that every poem is good. It’s that everyone, absolutely everyone, who walks on stage is subject to the same essential questions: what do you have to say, and how are you going to say it?”
But what interested me more about my friend’s comment was that spoken word might be ‘unique’ in this respect. Another poet reminded me of this: “When you’re used to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”
Perhaps, getting up onstage to perform poetry as a white man is different to other art forms, precisely because it’s so story based. Perhaps what my friend interpreted as a ‘disadvantage’ is actually just an indication that, maybe for the first time, he had become aware of his privileged position in the world. And perhaps – without wishing to be dismissive of the many brilliant white male poets out there – this is a good thing.
The great thing about poetry today is that it can become a place for everyone. At its best, it’s truly a safe space. And everyone is welcome, including those who are worried they don’t have a decent tale to spin.
The story of being a white man isn’t inherently uninteresting, it just becomes so because it’s bloody everywhere. And these places – pubs, back rooms and cafes – are where people are going, in increasingly large numbers, to hear those stories that are common, but are never told.
Because of this, spoken word, in my experience, and of the friends I spoke to, is unique. It’s not that every poem is good. It’s that everyone, absolutely everyone, who walks on stage is subject to the same essential questions: what do you have to say, and how are you going to say it?
Today is National Poetry Day in the UK. You could reread Tennyson. You could share a YouTube video of some slam. I could have listed 20, or 30, or 40 incredible poets who you should hear.
But instead of that, I wanted to encourage you to seek out the thing that makes poetry today unique: secret spaces where just one person talking into a mic can genuinely change and inspire you. Where privilege can, for at least a moment, be stripped back. Where no one has to justify their existence when they walk on a stage. It’s happening now, somewhere, in the back room of a pub near you.
Get Lit on The Queen Latifah Show:
Neil Hilborn, OCD:
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Kit Finnie is based in North London. When she's not writing poems and stories, she likes to spend time being her own worst enemy. Proof here: @KitFinnie She blogs at kitfinnie.wordpress.com