“Stage Invasion” manages to be a readable, academic survey of performance and spoken word poetry in the UK. Opening chapters explore the origins and history of oral poetry, noticing crossovers between musicians and comedians bringing different disciplines to spoken word, the democratic intents of slams and how spoken word and performance poetry events have been a gateway to an audience for traditionally marginalised poets who have gone on to become published poets, citing Jay Bernard, Kate Fox and Raymond Antrobus among others.
Pete Bearder works towards a definition of spoken word poetry as possessing “a name that betrays and re-presents a history of verbal arts that has existed under many names and many forms throughout history” that has “an emphasis on the spoken (or occasionally sung) performance of written texts” and includes “a heightened recognition of the audience’s role in the reception, ritual and community of performance… and emphasis on reading the poet’s own work, with value placed on identity and authenticity” with “a predominance of accessible language and vernacular speech” and “an innovative engagement with new technologies in the production, publication and dissemination of poetry”. It’s also a “multidisciplinary artistic heritage that incorporates ‘stand up comedy’, ‘dramatic monologue’, ‘storytelling’ and ‘rap’ alongside ‘literature’.” Spoken word poetry also has a “rhizomatic, grass-roots organisational structure, based on the do-it-yourself ethos that consciously seeks to widen access to the verbal arts.” Rhizomes are root stalks that enable new plants anywhere along its structure and is used to describe a leaderless organisation so spoken word has no hierarchy. Anyone can create a spoken word event with as much or as little budget as available and social media enables organisers and performers to reach a wide audience quickly.
Bearder notes that most spoken word poets reject the idea of performance, seeing it as a label that causes division between stage and page poets, a means of exclusion. This is chiefly explored through the lens of Rebecca Watts’ article in PN Review where she set out to explain why she wouldn’t review Hollie McNeish’s book. The article broadened to take a swipe at InstaPoets too but that’s beyond the remit of “Stage Invasion”. Bearder points out that Oxbridge educated Watts, who is not on social media, has access to social capital (i.e. connections and networking opportunities) that BAME or working class women poets don’t. He also notes that most spoken word artists also have other jobs, primarily in education e.g. tutoring workshops. However, school funding has decreased and so has income for artists. A 2018 Create London report shows the proportion of young cultural workers from upper middle class backgrounds at 33% but those of working class origins at 13%. Older poets, particularly those with caring responsibilities, have less opportunity to earn through gigging. This creates an additional barrier for those entering spoken word later in life, who are generally from already marginalised groups. Spoken word needs to find ways of overcoming these barriers so it’s not dominated by younger, middle class, white males. In an earlier chapter, Bearder points out that some who launched their publishing careers through slams no longer participate, which may reflect the additional responsibilities that can come with age and the lack of direct income from spoken word.
A chapter explores approaches to performance, the dichotomy of upper middle classes who tend to be rigid and read from the page (the page creates a barrier between reader and audience, whereas performers working from memory reduce the barrier) and lower classes who tend to gesticulate and move whilst performing. Curiously he cites T S Eliot as an example of the former. Virginia Woolf described Eliot’s idea of dressing down as a three, rather than four, piece suit, but Eliot was also an American trying to pass as an Englishman, therefore, his rigid performances were more likely to stem from self-consciousness, rather than class. He was still a poet with a day job. Better is the in-depth discussion of Hannah Silva’s performance of her poem “Prosthetics”, informed by Bearder’s background as a musician. This is followed by a chapter on audience and performer interaction looking at how spoken word artists can use rhythm, cadence and motor mimicry to enhance the audience’s emotional participation. It works the other way too: good artists can read clues from the audience and respond accordingly.
The chapter on politics explores poets who turn up on picket lines, at anti-fracking, environmental and/or social protests. The rhythms of chants promote solidarity, lighten the mood of kettled protesters and remind people why they were protesting in the first place. The poets deny these actions “preach to the converted”; they affirm, validate and provide a sense of community and support. There’s an in-depth look at Kat François’ “Does My Anger Scare You”. Each chapter has notes and there’s an extensive bibliography in the appendix which also cites online sources including interviews at https://vimeo.com/showcase/5871870.
“Stage Invasion” concludes that “Spoken Word… is a mature and complex cultural asset with its own canon and fields of expertise.” Bearder’s broad survey of the scene backs this up. He notes that while the scene is currently healthy, there are issues around income and diversity that need to be addressed if the scene is to maintain its maturity. Spoken Word merits further academic study and Bearder provides an excellent state of the art survey and groundwork.
This is the 92nd book review I’ve written this year. If I say I will write a review by a date, it will be written to that deadline, unless the book fails to turn up. It shouldn’t take my years of experience to point out that insinuating my deadlines are ‘ambitious’ or that I don’t know what I’m doing (even as a ‘joke’) reflects on you, not me.