Updated: Apr 16, 2021
A brief history of spoken-word poetry & the perspective of a poet on his art, isolation, & seizing the opportunity to grow.
For a large part of everyday life, the economy, education, relationships, work, the pandemic has been crippling. Yet, for some artistic people -- whether writers, painters, or poets -- the pandemic also brought an abundance of the (normally coveted) time and space needed to do what they do best. Painters painted. Actors rehearsed. Photographers photographed. Writers wrote. And poets mused.
Among so many creative performers forced from crowded coffee shops or clubs - there are spoken-word poets. We spoke with one said poet to learn more about him, his art, and his perspective on the year.
But first, a little about this emotionally charged art form.
What is spoken-word poetry?
By its simplest definition, spoken-word poetry is poetry written with the sole intent of being performed in front of others.
First originating in the ’40s and ’50s with the American beat poetry movement. A forward-thinking group of authors in New York used their work to successfully mold the culture at the time.
Similar to rap in the subject matter which gave the poets a platform to vent frustrations about society, the tradition of spoken word, also called slam poetry, continued to draw a crowd well into the ’70s.
By this time, the UK's punk scene had gotten in on the craze, and poets like John Cooper Clarke and Linton Kwesi were making their mark on the style.
If you haven’t been lucky enough to see spoken word poetry performed, you're missing out on something special. It is so much more than just the reading of poetry. There is fire behind the words brought forth by the same emotion as most poets, but when on a stage, spoken word poets deliver their work with the energy of a soldier in battle and share with the audience the scars inflicted on them during war or the elation accompanied by victory. Essentially a writer on stage delivering poetry about life.
Today spoken word artists can be found around the world expressing themselves and speaking on everything from gender identity to social and personal issues and everything in between.
Andrea Gibson, an American poet and activist focuses on love, social reform, and politics.
Ocean Vuong, a Vietnamese-American poet writes about queer desire, personal transformation, and attention to detail. Emtithal Mahmoud and her family were displaced from their home in Sudan by war. Most of her work revolves around the trauma she endured and the history of her country.
I feel compelled to mention Temple University's Poetry Slam Team that was downright hilarious back in 2016 at the CUPSI semifinals, and of course Ashley August that’ll have you in tears from laughter. As diverse as spoken word poetry is so are the artists who write it.
"We're at this beautiful place right now where people are being forced to stay home and reflect, stay home and be creative."
The Poetry of a Pandemic
All over the globe, actors, musicians, comedians, and spoken word poets, have all been forced from the stage due to the spread of COVID-19. However, unlike others who perhaps don't consider themselves artistic people, many of these creatives found the stay-at-home orders to be a once in a lifetime respite, a time to solely focus on their creative crafts without the trappings of life as usual.
For one spoken-word poet, not much has changed. We had the chance to speak to a talented poet and musician that we've been following for years, Bridge818.
Daniel is his given name but he has gone by Bridge since he was a kid. Now he’s a 40-year-old who lives in Hertfordshire England. He was gracious enough to answer some questions about his art, life, and his perspective on life before and after the pandemic.
How do you think people, artists especially, are faring in this “new world?”
New world? Why? What's happened? Not much has really changed for me. I miss performing, but other than that I'm not really one to go out. I have a pretty simple life that doesn't involve too many people as it is. My only concern is that people are wasting this opportunity to do something new, to grow in new ways. I see a lot of people desperate to get back to the lives they hated, and that makes me sad.
Our world has become more isolated but open at the same time as people find new ways to communicate. How do you think this affects poetry in general and your poetry specifically?
I'm a big fan of isolation. You need that time alone to think, to come to terms with yourself, to come to terms with others. The moment you find love for yourself, you realize you don't need it from anyone else. That's when you break the chains and can finally be free.
We're at this beautiful place right now where people are being forced to stay home and reflect, stay home and be creative. Learn a new skill, learn an instrument that they've always wanted to learn. I see people all over my Instagram who's accounts have slowly gone from pictures of their lunch to videos of them playing piano, or posting their painting. It's such a wonderful thing.
"I'm a big fan of isolation. You need that time alone to think, to come to terms with yourself, to come to terms with others."
Before COVID, how often did you perform?
Three to four times a month. There's an amazing poetry night in East London that's called Spoken Word London, that was every fortnight. I'd get to that as much as I could, as well as a few other regular spots. The London poetry scene is really strong with some amazing artists and beautiful people. Big shout out to my friend from the scene, Dean McKee, who we sadly lost this year. A rare talent who'll be forever missed.
How old were you when you first started writing poetry?
I always used to write for the terrible punk and hardcore bands I was in, back in the late 90s/ early 00s. But I guess the first time I actively wrote something to be performed as poetry was around 31? I was really struggling with depression after a long-term break-up and it was good therapy for me.
When was the first time you performed on stage?
2012. I found this little poetry night at a cafe a few towns over from me. It doesn't run anymore but was a really cool night and the best vibe for a newcomer. So I decided to jump on the bus one night after work and give it a go. I spent the full 40min journey just practicing and practicing in my head, determined to not have to read off of paper.
The place was full with about 60 seats, and a further 20 odd people standing at the back. I got up, did my two poems, and then RAN off stage to the smoking area. I didn't really know how it went until people started coming up to me saying how much they loved my poems. The only two things I really remembered was that people seemed to laugh at the bits I wanted them to laugh at, and nobody got my Farscape reference.
What was your most memorable performance and why?
I once signed up for an open mic night, without realizing it was mostly for metal and punk bands. One of the band's before me was doing Rage Against the Machine covers, and the other had a bit of a Cro Mags thing going on. The crowd was pumped for that aggressive vibe. So, I rock up on to the stage... " Hi, I'm about to kill your vibe with roughly 10 minutes of poetry". A few people laugh, but mostly I'm looking out at a sea of confusion. Luckily I see a bunch of Star Wars shirts in the crowd. So I exclusively do a set of Star Wars and nerd based poems and won them over. It ended up being a fun night.
What is your favorite piece you have written?
I have this poem called Mario Begins, which is about how all of the Super Mario games are in Mario's mind, as he tries to come to terms with a relationship he couldn't save. The live crowd reactions for that one are some of my favorites.
If you'd like to enjoy some more spoken-word poetry online, visit Button Poetry.
Would you like to take your poetry to the stage (or webcam)? Join some spoken-word Meetup Groups! Here's is a directory for some of the largest spoken-word poetry groups near you.