Last weekend, I attended the DUCFS WKND Arts Showcase, hosted at the notoriously scenic Cassidy Quad at St. Chad’s College, where I had the pleasure to watch the performances of, and later speak with, four of Durham University’s spoken word poets: Charlie Spence, Celestine Stilwell, Eden Watkins, and Chloe Elliott.
St. Chad’s was looking particularly lovely, adorned with an impressive array of student artwork, with a cosy stage set up in the corner for the evening’s performances. The atmosphere was bustling. “For a uni that doesn’t do art and is very academic, there is a lot going on,” Celestine remarked.
A member of Durham’s slam poetry team, Celestine says she was delighted to find an outlet for her poetry at university, saying she didn’t really know there was “a world where you could do poetry, and just do poetry”. Charlie, one of the presidents of the DU Poetry Society, emphasises that while the Durham slam team is currently third best in the country and he is hopeful about its future successes, the point of it is to create a space just to enjoy poems. “We do competitions, we’re good, but there are moments when we’re not good, and it doesn’t really matter. It’s about enjoying it.”
[blockquote author=”Eden Watkins” ] “It’s not the performance, it’s the family.” [/blockquote]
On behalf of those of us who are more familiar with the written poem than the spoken, I took the liberty of asking these young talents more about their chosen creative form. The nature of performing is one that seems to resonate profoundly with spoken word poets, an almost social activity between poet and audience that, as Eden said to me, encourages a more forthright and sincere form of discourse. “There’s something about writing that you can hide behind,” he notes, “you can write a really obscure, dense poem about something that is true and important and personal, but you’ve used references or over-intellectualisation to disguise things.
[blockquote author=”Eden Watkins” ]“It becomes more than just a thought experiment in your head.”[/blockquote]
Chloe agrees, saying that sometimes, with the effort of writing “a truthful thing”, “I’ll say what I want to say, but I’ll have a resistance behind saying a personal truth. I think the poetry society and the slam team have really helped me say, ‘this is okay’.”
There is something refreshing, then, about being able only to hear a poem: “you don’t get to read it back,” Celestine adds; it is the immediacy of it that is important.
Chloe identifies that with the spoken word, poets have more autonomy over the interpretations of their poems. “The agency of it is really, really powerful,” she says, “Just being able to control the pauses and silences, stopping someone and saying, ‘Don’t progress with this line. I want you to stop here and sit in the wake of this moment.’” With some Barthesian sentiment, Celestine quipped that with written poetry, “it’s kind of like the death of the author, where you give it to somebody, and it’s theirs,” claiming that when spoken, she can hand her words over in a way that she feels does it justice, where “it becomes so much more yours.”
Charlie’s take is that the spoken word is a brilliant form of artistic appreciation: “I like watching and listening to poetry, and thinking ‘Oh, that’s a sick line’.” The exposure to different experiences is what he most enjoys, articulating that the immediacy of the spoken word is a game-changer, “because people have to listen.”
This particular event, unique in how it showcased not just poetry, but music and visual art as well, was met with resounding positivity from the poets. “I love that I’m performing in front of people who haven’t just shown up for poems,” says Eden. The DUCFS WKND Arts Showcase, he feels, is a celebration of the “huge diversity of creative students here”.
While Celestine expressed some anxiety about arts showcases like this, very different to DU Poetry Society events, where “the crowds you get are people who want to be there for poetry”, she also wonders if it is perhaps an unfounded worry about whether people are engaged or not, and notes the poetic satisfaction of an unfamiliar audience. “When you get an emotional reaction,” she says, “it’s just mind-blowing.”
Charlie is all in favour of events like this one, championing the idea of “brand new places, brand new faces” in this intimate venue, where people who don’t usually come to poetry events are perhaps being confronted with the spoken word for the first time. “And if you talk to them and one of them thinks they really want to do something like it,” Charlie says, “then you’ve won, haven’t you?”
Photograph: Julia Merican