The Culture and New Wave of The Spoken Word

Music and literature have always had a unique relationship, with both composer and writer in a never-ending struggle to perfectly construct and record their definition of experience through seduction and mystery.
Spoken word can be used to describe a musical or term of entertainment, referring to works or performances that consist mostly of one person speaking or reciting literary work (published or unpublished). Music in spoken word, more often than not, plays a background or accompanying role enriching rather than overpowering the word. The work may be written by the speaker (sometimes improvised in performance) or originate from a renowned writer, but the key should always be to deliver the words in a natural voice. Though presented musically, the song “Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen)” by Baz Luhrmann, is an ideal example of this, as distinct from modern rap music where rhythm and melody is intrinsically interwoven into the overall performance. In entertainment, spoken word performances generally consist of storytelling or poetry, best exemplified by artists like Hedwig Gorski, the originator of performance poetry, British punk poet John Cooper-Clark, the monologues written by Spalding Gray, and the spoken word improvisations by Henry Rollins. In the 1980’s, the BBC began broadcasting British playwright Alan Bennett’s series of monologues called “Talking Heads”.
Spoken word as we understand it today in the western world—as a delivered performance—did not fully evolve until the late 1980s with the emergence of “poetry slams,” where spoken word artists would square off in duels (the equivalent of poetry’s X-Factor). Slam poetry and vocal events have been popular in India and Pakistan and many areas of the Middle East for centuries as part of the cultural ritual to weddings and other celebrations and festivals. In the United States, the competition of slam poetry arose in the 1980’s from rap music and competitions for rap vocalists. Like the previous Beat generation of the 1960’s, the common elements were political activism, social commentary and self-exploration. Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York City is one of the earliest venues where poets could go and protest in spoken word about the ills of society. Def Poetry on HBO became the most visible venue for slam-type protest poets, but the poets did not necessarily compete against each other for audience approval. Indeed, every nation perhaps has its own story and folklore on the history and emergence of spoken word artists through culture and song.
Spoken Word as a new wave of cultural expression, just like the writers of the Beat Generation, was adopted by the youth of college circuits to describe a performing art form that began with the Postmodern Art Movement. Spoken Word has become something of a catchall phrase to describe anything that doesn’t fit into the already established categories of performance arts such as music, theatre or dance.
Two prime examples of the explosion of the live spoken word circuit closer to my own home are the Glor Sessions, streamed live across the globe with poet and MC, Stephen James Smith. It takes place in Dublin City every Monday night, featuring a host of local and international writers and musicians in an intimate and impromptu setting. The success of the Glor Sessions has led Stephen and some of the performing artists and writers on to large European music festivals such as Electric Picnic. Dublin also has its own Poetry Slam in the guise of Literary Death Match.
Another example of spoken word flourishing is London’s BookSlam. Book Slam was London’s first true literary nightclub, featuring writers, live music and a Serbian DJ. Guests over the years have included the likes of Hanif Kureishi, Dave Eggers, Adele, Nick Hornby and Kate Nash. BookSlam was founded in 2003 by ex Everything But The Girl musician, Ben Watt, and author and Whittbread Book Award winner, Patrick Neate. Elliot Jack, promoter and producer, and Canongate’s Head of Publicity, Angela Robertson now run the event on the last Thursday of every month. This year BookSlam has taken its first step into book publishing with the release of an anthology of written material—appropriately, considering the subject of this article—inspired by music. The anthology features writing by Irvine Welsh, William Boyd, Hari Kunzru, Simon Armitage, and several other established and new authors.
For the record, Armitage chose to write a poem based on Joy Division’s “New Dawn Fades” to explore lead singer Ian Curtis’ suicide, Kunzru piece is based on “New Gold Dream” by Simple Minds, Boyd chose Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Tears of a Clown”, and Welsh went for Republic of Loose’s “Comeback Girl”.
And in the digital age of publishing, BookSlam’s first published anthology will be available as an ebook, multi-platform app, and audio download as well as hardback. The stories will also be available individually.
However, many more spoken word artists and poets have not chosen publish their work in book form, preferring instead to use video and audio recording and the reach that mediums like YouTube and live performance can deliver. Spoken word artist Hedwig Gorski rejected what she described as the “dull-drums” of book publishing in the 1980’s. What is very definitely clear about the place the spoken word movement has in our oral culture and literature today is its continued rise across the world in all languages. The new wave of self and digital publishing has given a voice to many writers without a formal academic background, and whether live on a stage of performance, or through digital and audio platforms of distribution, the modern writing community is embracing spoken word in a way not seen since before the days of the Guttenberg Press.
Believe me, this whole digital age of publishing is not all bad news for the book reader and purist. Now, more than ever before, there are more and more chances to get close and personal with local and international poets and authors. Check your event listings for literary events, slams and festivals in your local area.
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