Raising the curtain on… Spoken Word

In this new series, we aim to introduce you to some of the many forms of Performing Arts. In this first installment, we look at Spoken Word.

 

You might be familiar with the term “spoken word poetry”, but do you know what sets it apart from just poetry?

Spoken word poetry, often referred to as just spoken word, is the art of performance poetry. Spoken word poetry is written for performance, relying heavily on sound, intonation, vocal inflections, rhyme, repetition and wordplay to convey its message. Thus, it differs from traditional written poetry, whose meanings change according to the interpretation of the reader.

Spoken word is written not to just sit on a page, it demands to be heard.

Some argue that spoken word can be used as a blanket term for all forms of recited poetry, including the traditional poetry reading. I would argue, in its modern-day definition, spoken word is rooted in the jazz poetry of the Harlem Renaissance movement of 1920s America, which forms the basis of today’s hip hop, rap and slam poetry, which are all precursors to the modern day spoken word performance.

Slam poetry, said to originate in the mid-80s in Chicago, is a form of poetry that grew from the slam competition. The thing that characterises slam poetry is that they always carry a political theme, mostly based in identity but also encompassing race, gender, oppression and more. Due to its roots in Black America, slam poetry aims to give a voice to the marginalised, a space and a style for political complaints. This is the beginnings of the modern spoken word poem and often, it aims to speak out against forms of oppression, violence, injustice. The message is always clear; something needs to change.

Yomi Sode performing his piece ‘Memos’.

 

Of course, spoken word not only brings up discussions on the grand scale, but also deals with the personal lived experiences. Issues of body dysmorphia, depression & other mental health conditions, acceptance, love and rejection are all common topics in spoken word, topics that always feel individual but are strangely part of a shared experience.

Savannah Brown, a popular YouTuber and poet, with her piece ‘couldn’t care more’.

 

Though hard to pinpoint, spoken word can often be recognised by a characteristically continuous flow of words. There is a similar style that cuts across all spoken word poets and poetry, a tendency to stress words and never end the sentence. When it does end, it is normally for emphasis or to reflect a change in tone. Though this is common, it is not a prerequisite, and though the delivery of the performance often depends on the subject matter at hand, it isn’t hard to recognise spoken word poetry when you hear it.

Friend Zone, by Dylan Garity, which I first watched 4 years ago. Trust me, watch it till the end.

 

So now we’ve scratched the surface of what spoken word is, you’re interested in learning more, perhaps even trying to write your own poetry. This performing art form is nuanced and complex with its roots in voicing the marginalised and provoking change, but like all poetry, it is completely accepting. All subject matters are valid, and if you find it easier to write and relate to topics outside of the big headlines of politics, race, gender, etc. so be it. One of the best places to find more examples of spoken word is on YouTube, especially the Button Poetry channel, that has a great mix of poetry ranging from the light-hearted to the profound. If you’re interested in attending a live performance in KL, look out for the Poetry Café KL events, or events by If Walls Could Talk, who regularly showcase spoken word poets both local and international.

 

Finally, I can’t write an introductory article on spoken word poetry without including a piece by Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye, the first spoken word poets that I discovered. I’ll end with a quote from Sarah Kay from her 2014 TED Talk, which she repeated to an audience I was part of back in 2015 and has stuck with me ever since,

Poetry is like pooping. If there is a poem inside of you, it has to come out. Sometimes it can be difficult and take longer than you’d like (it may even be painful), but other times it can be really easy and happen much faster than you expected. But either way – it is important, and it feels so much better when it’s done.

Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye, long time collaborators, performing a duet piece called ‘When Love Arrives’.

 

Header image: Mwende Katwiwa performing at St. Lawrence University

 

By Neda Al-Asedi

Writer, feminist, theatre enthusiast, but most importantly a purveyor of the importance of performing arts, from dance to spoken word and all in between.

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