Spoken word: why we write, why we speak

By Melissa Tutesigensi

Poetry is a timeless art form comprised of different styles, spoken word being a form of performance-based poetry. Although not a novel invention of this decade, in recent years it has had a rise in appreciation. With tents at music festivals, BBC television coverage, and performance poets being nominated for Mercury Awards, spoken word is undeniably a feature of contemporary British culture.

Needless to say, spoken word has existed for as long as humans have been able to communicate. In charting its origins, we see how Greek lyric as well as African American oral traditions have helped to shape spoken word into the form we recognise today. From the smoky coffee rooms of the beatnik generation to the strobe lit rooms of hip hop gigs, it has been forged from decades of people simply gathering together to share stories. Indeed, its evolution hasn’t happened in a vacuum. It has even contributed to political discussions. Take Gill-Scot Heron’s ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, which provided an effective slogan to aid the agenda of the Black Power movement of the 1970s. The simplest but most evocative form of expression still thrives in contemporary society.

Today, it is fair to say that our generation is on the cusp of a new wave. We have a multitude of writers using spoken word to share emotions as well as an important vehicle for socio-political commentary. Cecilia Knapp is the Resident Roundhouse Artist who writes in a confessional style drawing most of her poems from her own experiences. She speaks from the voice of the disenchanted youth and her poem ‘Why I Write’ was part of the BBC’s ‘Women Who Spit’ collection of spoken word. George the Poet has his origins in hip hop and uses this influence in his work. He has contributed to the discussion about the importance of social mobility. Kate Tempest, who also has a background in hip hop, brings classic narratives to a new audience: ‘Hold Your Own’ is a portrayal of the mythical Tiresias. She seeks to stress the importance of communicating to a varied audience as opposed to appealing to experts in the field.

Kate Tempest performing at the Tramlines Festival 2015
Kate Tempest performing at the Tramlines Festival 2015

These are only a small handful of British artists belonging and contributing to this growing genre. Spoken word artists past and present show that there are different motives for performing. Spoken word is a medium of art that can be used to cultivate imagination and feeling as well to empower a political movement.

Yet, such talent is not just trapped in the past or sitting in the cities of the South. Here in Durham we are not short of talented poets. The Durham University’s Poetry Society’s frequent Open Mic Nights at the Empty Shop proves this. In the hope of promoting the growth of spoken word poetry at a local level, I begin by considering two important questions: ‘why is performing important for the writer?’ and ‘what does spoken word poetry bring to the arts?’ So, as well as pondering these questions myself, I’ve been able to probe into the minds of fellow spoken word appreciators: Chloe Scaling, a first year Theologian; Nat Charles, also a first year Theologian; and Nelly Murray a first year Philosopher. They have been kind enough to share their thoughts.

Scaling values writing as a cathartic experience. She felt that her attempt to write songs as a thirteen year old wasn’t successful so turned to poetry.  She didn’t think about performance poetry until she watched the BBC’s ‘Women Who Spit’ collection and realised that poetry was meant to be performed. In school, she felt a sense of detachment to the poetry she was being taught. Contrastingly, the spoken word that she exposes herself to now is current and exciting. Scaling’s concern with the state of spoken word poetry now is that it is missing in the North of England and that it is “very much London-centric”.

Alan Bissett performs as part of Words Per Minute
Alan Bissett performs as part of Words Per Minute

Charles’ first motivation to write poetry was to impress a girl but then he began to enjoy it for its own sake. For Nat, all poetry should be read as it allows for “considerably more force and engenders a more political and personal view”. Like Scaling, Charles recognises the difference between contemporary spoken word to the poetry he read at school and thinks that this was due to the sense that schools don’t want to politicise young people too early. “Spoken word brings a dynamism to the art scene. In the past, poets gathered together and now more people are doing it. It is a great way to get into the mingling of ideas.”

Murray’s attraction to spoken word poetry came from her love of the force of the language and “how you can get so much in a short amount of time, ten lines can say as much as a whole novel”. She believes that performance poetry seems to be more about the performer than the poem and offers direct connection with the intention of the writer.

For me, I use poetry as an outlet. In a world where everything is so contained, it’s so easy to think that we don’t have any room to speak and that our lives are insignificant, not worth the story. Contemporary spoken word supports the idea that you don’t need a rigorous education in poetry to appreciate poetry itself. Spoken word grounds us. Vast changes in technology show that we can mould our feelings into anything using a variety of mediums accessible to us. Despite our modernity, we can go back to this elementary style of standing in front of friends and strangers to speak honest words.

Photographs: Very Quiet via Flickr; Simon Butler via Flickr; Neil Thomas Douglas via Flickr


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