Article written January 2012 to promote Poetry Slam, a multilingual spoken word night which I organised and performed at on 24 January 2012, at the Workshop, Earlham Rd, Norwich.
Poetry Slam! – the spoken word scene packs some punch
Spoken word is becoming a hard-hitter on the live performance scene. With artists such as Scroobius Pip and Luke Wright having recently graced Norwich with their presence, this art form (combining poetry, music, rap and storytelling) is gaining ground. In Norwich we are blessed with a literary scene that isn’t just vibrant, but thrumming and throbbing with creative energy, thanks to organisations such as UEA and Writers’ Centre Norwich, and our proximity to Latitude Festival, whose Poetry Tent is renowned as a hub of spoken word scintillation. But for those of us who are new to this growing genre, what exactly is spoken word, what is the scene like, where can you get a piece of the action, and why bother with it anyway?
Spoken word, also known as performance poetry, consists of a poet giving a poetry reading. But far removed from the torturously dry assemblies at school, where once in a blue moon a ‘real live poet’ would be dragged in and made to recite like a talking parrot, today’s spoken word is grungier, cooler. Several times when I’ve been watching performance poetry, I’ve felt like I’ve been witnessing the shoots of a new creative movement. Far from being fanciful, squeamishly self-indulgent and dull, this brand of poetry is politically astute, cynical, bawdy, snappy, playful, shocking, and even funny. For example, London poet Dizraeli spouts radical political lyrics, such as ‘Bomb Tesco’, and Zena Edwards explores everything from isolation to going on the pull in her work. UEA grad Luke Wright’s ‘Cynical Ballads’ turns headlines into hip-swaying but heartrending streetwise streams of lyricism. These and many other artists combine their poetry with music, rapping or beatboxing. The only way in which this resembles the poetry you were forced to swallow at school is that it has rhythm and rhyme. After that, think more of a grass-roots gig by some too cool to be true unknown as yet untainted by the music industry. Ta-da, you have spoken word.
The scene includes all sorts of different kinds of events, ranging from ‘slam’ events, where poets have to come up with poems on the spot and perform them, like a literary rap battle. Other readings are more organised affairs, where poets have a certain amount of time to wow, shock or move the audience simply with the power of their words. Open mics play an important role, although performance poetry isn’t confined to dive bars – the TV programme Def Poetry, which ran for years, helped boost spoken word’s profile. Now thousands of poets use the internet and You Tube to promote their work, and it is frequently featured on radio. In France, where spoken word is known as ‘le slam’, poets such as Grand Corps Malade release albums and tour the French-speaking world like pop stars. Norwich’s Hannah Jane Walker, who has performed at Latitude and the Edinburgh Festival to name but a few, is part of a project in which poetry is served up to avid customers from the cosy confines of a burger van. Spoken word is everywhere and delivered in some truly unique ways. Whether you encounter it in the bunting-festooned back room of The Birdcage, or from the Poetry Takeaway burger van, there’s something out there that will change your mind about poetry. Poetry can be cool. Poetry can be sexy.
Apart from The Birdcage and Poetry Takeaway, you can find places where the ever-multiplying breed of performance poets like to lurk all over Norwich. The Bicycle Shop and The Workshop are some other favourite haunts. Particular groups and nights meet/happen throughout the year, including the Norwich Poetry Club and HeadCRASH. The UEA Creative Writing Soc is a good way in to the strange underworld of spoken word, and if you’ve got money to spare, a ticket to Latitude this summer will also expose you to some heavy doses of poetic performance. On January 24th, some of your fellow UEAers are hosting a night at The Workshop on Earlham Road, where there will be poetry, alcohol, and an ambitious foray into multimedia malarkey. If you’re looking for a good night out that will make you titter, gasp and grin (for all the right reasons), get out there and find yourself some poetry. It won’t all be about daffodils, promise.