|Posted on June 6, 2017 at 8:50 AM||comments (2)|
A Street in Bronzeville was published in August 1945. It hit Afro- America with the force of an atomic bomb. But it was by no means destructive. It was life-affirming for black people, who often felt a strong need to prove they were equal to whites because many whites were so blatantly disproving of this essential fact. Gwendolyn was important because she surpassed not only the expectations of whites about black people but whites themselves.
The first poem in the collection is “the old-marrieds.”
But in the crowding darkness not a word did they say
Though the pretty-coated bird had piped so lightly all the day.
And he had seen the lovers in the little side-streets,
And she had heard the morning stories clogged with sweets.
It was quite a time for loving. It was midnight. It was May.
But in the crowding darkness not a word did they say.
The speaker of the poem is omniscient, observing the absence of intimacy in an intimate setting. The eye of the poet is penetrating, as in a newsreel; the language pristine, almost mocking as the poem begins.
Whether Gwendolyn’s intention was to create a newsreel effect or not, she begins her most public announcement of herself as a poet by breaking with the past. This is neither a dialect nor sentimental poem; it is neither blues-infused, as Hughes’s work was, nor exotic. The characters in the bed are not the stereotypically hypersexual Negroes of the white imagination. They are sedate, mature, and sexually repressed. No one had imagined Negroes in poetry in this way before. They were surprisingly, refreshingly human. Indeed, Gwendolyn began with a surprising imaginative and empathetic leap. She was a young poet, twenty-eight, writing about middle-aged or elderly people. She was a relatively young wife writing about a couple who had been married for decades.
The poem opens with the conjunction “but” as if to indicate that the reader might be caught in a sentence that began a while ago. We are engaged not only in that poem but in a volume of poems. Gwendolyn suggests a street in Bronzeville with the phrase “crowding darkness”; she also suggests a claustrophobic darkness so close that it is intimate. But the couple in the poem does not speak, and they are not intimate in word or gesture. This disconnect is in spite of the romantic events of the day that should have brought them closer together. Even though it was the time for lovemaking, they do not make love. They crowd like strangers in a crowd of darkness, as each of the residents of Bronzeville may be a stranger in a dark crowd. with nineteen more portraits in verse exploring characters and landmarks of the community. After “the old-marrieds” come two popular masterpieces: “kitchenette building” and the aforementioned “the mother.” Wright had argued that “the mother” should not be published in the book, and the poem is still controversial today because the subject is so controversial. Gwendolyn could not have been a more revolutionary black feminist in the writing of and steadfast inclusion of this poem in her inaugural volume.
These two poems have a great impact—the former in its understanding of the day-to-day stresses of “drylongso”—or every day, ordinary black people—living in cut-up apartments with bathrooms separate from each unit, one bathroom per floor, five units sharing one bathroom; the latter in its understanding of the mother who has had an abortion (possibly more than one). There was no reliable birth control then beyond abstinence. Prophylactics were widespread, but unreliable. Abortion remains a hot-button topic today, even though it is legal. At the time the poem was written, though, abortions were illegal and dangerous, often performed in less than sterile conditions.
Abortions will not let you forget.
You remember the children you got that you did not get,
The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair,
The singers and workers that never handled the air.
The poem is a dramatic monologue. The speaker is a woman seized by guilt, anguish, and regret. The poem goes on in hypnotic effect offering a description of lives and people who might have been but will not. The poem is a plea for understanding of the mother’s action, a plea from her to her children who she says she has deprived of many detailed aspects of life. Her only defense is this:
Believe me, I loved you all.
Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you
|Posted on May 30, 2017 at 1:00 PM||comments (0)|
As the people of Manchester were coming to terms with the terrible attack on their city, there was one man - poet Tony Walsh - who found the words that the rest of the country was struggling to say.
As he read This Is The Place at a vigil for the victims, less than 24 hours after the atrocity, he showed how powerful poetry can be.
His words included: "Because this is a place that has been through some hard times: Oppressions, recessions, depressions, and dark times.
"And there's hard times again in these streets of our city, but we won't take defeat and we don't want your pity.
"Because this is a place where we stand strong together, with a smile on our face, greater Manchester forever."
Walsh's words tapped into a moment. In the last couple of years, British poetry has become a vibrant scene - propelled by social media, spoken word and self-publishing.
According to Donald Futers, poetry editor at Penguin, we're experiencing a renaissance in modern poetry: diverse, different and speaking to people "who maybe didn't think they were being spoken to by poetry before".
"We're seeing much more poetry being written by a more diverse pool of poets about a wider range of subjects," he said.
"Thanks to the internet, there's an unprecedented degree of cross pollination and dialogue [between poets] on social media and the big publishers are picking up on a much wider audience."
Last year, annual sales of poetry books in the UK reached almost £10m for the first time - up by 12% on the year before, according to Nielsen Book Research.
Performance poet Sabrina Mahfouz, author of The Things I Would Tell You: British Muslim Women Write, is taking part in The Last Word Festival in London. She says poetry is "occupying an important place" at the moment.
"I really believe in the political and radical potential of poetry. In recent years the need for people to access the truth that's inside themselves is even greater."
From George The Poet to Kate Tempest, poetry has its own spoken-word superstars and the popularity of 'Instapoets' like Rupi Kaur is clearly translating into book sales. The Canadian has over a million followers on Instagram and a self-published collection of her work is now on its 16th print run.
Robert Montgomery says society needs 'to argue for idealism again'
Street artist Robert Montgomery believes politicians could learn a lot from poets. His latest work, an Election Poem, can be seen on 2,000 billboards across Britain.
"Instead of appealing to the lowest common denominator of people's fears, politicians could be arguing for our ideals as a society," he said.
"We want to live in a fair, educated society, without discrimination and politicians could be arguing for the positivity of that. I think we need to argue for idealism again."
The Last Word Festival takes place at London's Roundhouse until 10 June.
|Posted on May 9, 2017 at 3:45 PM||comments (0)|
GRIME MC Kano has offered his congratulations to Anthony Joshua after becoming the king of the heavyweights.
Joshua stopped the legendary Wladimir Klitschko on Saturday night in front of 90,000 fans at Wembley Stadium, adding the WBA World title to his IBF crown.
After teaming up with Under Armour, Kano filmed his spoken-word tribute to Joshua named ‘The Road to Greatness’ at the Repton Boxing Club.
Meet Jaspreet Kaur, the artist using spoken word poetry to discuss everything from periods to mental illness
|Posted on May 9, 2017 at 3:10 PM||comments (0)|
Jaspreet Kaur is a total badass.
Not in the stereotypical way. She doesn’t ride a motorbike or open beers with her teeth.
Jaspreet Kaur is an inspiration. She’s tough. She’s no holds barred.
Her way of tackling the tough stuff? Spoken word poetry.
A teacher at a secondary school in central London, Jaspreet started doing performance poetry a year and a half ago, finally finding the courage to share the poetry she’d been writing for a decade.
Now, she uses the form to inspire women and affect social change, tackling everything from the stigma around periods and body hair to mental health and decolonisation.
‘I was just so intrigued to see whether or not anyone was able to connect with my words and if it was able to inflict enough emotions to trigger positive social change,’ Jaspreet told metro.co.uk.
‘The first poem I performed was entitled ‘Queens and Corpses’ which focused on the 60 million missing girls in India and the ongoing son preference in the South Asian community.
‘It sparked such a positive response and the spoken word journey has been snowballing since then’
Now, alongside teaching, Jaspreet performs her poetry on her YouTube channel and blog, Behind the Netra, and on stage at events, festivals, and rallies.
‘I feel that spoken word can be such a powerful tool to impact social change and protest against injustice,’ she explains.
‘We are a society that has conditioned ourselves to bottle everything in, we associate strength with silence, when it reality sharing our thoughts and feelings will help us as individual and as a society.
‘Poetry has helped me find my voice, so now I’ve got to share it.’
Jaspreet mainly focuses on issues of gender and women’s rights, using her poetry to remind everyone that sexism is still a thing and feminism is entirely necessary.
She’s not one to stay quiet or pretend injustice isn’t happening. She’s going to talk about it.
‘Although women’s rights have come a long way in the past 100 years, the idea that women are now completely equal and thus no longer need feminism just isn’t true,’ says Jaspreet.
‘Yes, women do have more social, political and economic rights than ever before — but the fact is, we still have to deal with the harmful side effects of gender inequality on a daily basis.
|Posted on March 24, 2017 at 1:05 PM||comments (0)|
21 March 2017 –
Poetry gives us hope, the United Nations cultural agency today said, lauding verse's ability to shake us from everyday life and remind us of the surrounding beauty and the resilience of the shared human spirit.
In her message for World Poetry Day, UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UESCO) Director-General Irina Bokova quoted from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
We have not wings, we cannot soar;
But we have feet to scale and climb
By slow degrees, by more and more,
The cloudy summits of our time.
“As old as language itself, poetry remains more vital than ever, in a time of turbulence, as a source of hope, as a way to share what it means to live in this world,” Ms. Bokova said.
“By celebrating poetry today, we celebrate our ability to join together, in a spirit of solidarity, to scale and climb 'the cloudy summits of our time',” she noted, in reference to Mr. Longfellow's poem.
UNESCO proclaimed 21 March as World Poetry Day in 1999, calling poetry a “a social need” which anchors people to their roots.
One of the main objectives of the Day is to support linguistic diversity through poetic expression and to offer endangered languages the opportunity to be heard within their communities.
UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity includes dozens of forms of oral expression and poetry, from the Tsiattista poetic duelling of Cyprus, the Ca trù sung poetry of Viet Nam and Al-Taghrooda to the traditional Bedouin chanted poetry of Oman and the United Arab Emirates.
World Poetry Day also celebrates poetry's power to aid peace. UNESCO's new Goodwill Ambassador for Artistic Freedom and Creativity, Deeyah Khan, has said, all art, including poetry, “has the extraordinary capacity to express resistance and rebellion, protest and hope.”
In her message today, the Director-General said that the spirit of solidarity created by poetry is essential to reaching the goals set by the international community to fight inequality, poverty and climate change.
“We need this to take forward the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, to implement the Paris Climate Agreement, to ensure no woman or man is left behind,” said Ms. Bokova.
|Posted on March 24, 2017 at 11:55 AM||comments (0)|
In our series of letters from African journalists, Yousra Elbagir looks at how Sudan's young poets are reviving the nation's tradition of lyrical resistance.
President Omar al-Bashir's government likes to keep a tight rein over Sudan's media and cultural institutions, with state-endorsed competitions and publications trying to replace a once-thriving poetry scene.
A heavy police presence in the capital has discouraged the spontaneous poetic outbursts that were once commonplace on the streets of central Khartoum or the tree-lined pathways of its historic university campus.
But in typical Sudanese fashion, coercion has only spurred resistance. Intimate gatherings and online forums have sprung like roses from the concrete.
NWN is one group that has successfully carved out a space.
Founded five years ago, the spoken-word poetry event has relied on mailing-list invites and donated venues to escape censorship and police intervention.
A platform for free expression, where Arabic and English-speaking poets enjoy what my friend Sara Elhassan describes as an open mic that is actually "open".
A luxury in the heavily guarded city, the event has survived raids, threats and scrutiny from National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), which reserves the right to disband public gatherings.
It has even resonated around the world when a video of a poetic performance in Arabic and English by Ms Elhassan went viral in 2014.
'More than a pretty face'
The poem, a response to a Sudanese professor's comment on television that he was unhappy about the unsatisfying levels of beauty exhibited by his country's women, put fresh air into the stale public arena of discussion and expression.
"Apparently, we're nothing but… pretty faces put on display, to be bought and sold, and later stored as after-thoughts. Pretty faces mounted and hung on the wall like deer heads. Prizes prized, till the novelty dies - then later casually thrown into conversations," reads an excerpt from the piece.
Each time these words were shared on Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter, social commentary, usually monopolised by politicians and academics, was broadened.
The performance not only represented a new era of debate but inadvertently paid homage to Sudan's history of oral poetry as a battle cry and assertion of identity.
In World War Two, famous poet and praise-singer Aisha Al-Falatiya took to the battlefield to support Sudanese soldiers fighting Axis powers under British rule, motivated by the prospect of independence.
The troops were cheered on by her lyrics, which likened the power of fascist leaders Hitler and Mussolini to "a foreign coin with no value in our market".
Once used to provoke national feeling, poetry is now used by contemporary Sudanese poets to wrestle with a conflicted national identity.
The Arabisation campaign under President Bashir has shaped the social landscape, leading popular culture in the East African nation towards the Arab world.
Grappling with African, Arabic and Islamic identities, many poets like Al-Saddig Al-Raddi turn to the nuances of their own heritage in resistance.
His political voice saw him censored and thrown in prison in Sudan. He now lives in London and is considered one of Africa's best contemporary poets.
Award-winning Sudanese-American poet Safia Elhillo tours the US, inviting audience members to ponder her complex concept of "home", weaving images of her grandparent's home in Khartoum with her childhood home in Maryland in both Arabic and English.
In 2015, Darfur-born Yale poet Emitihal Mahmoud won the Individual World Poetry Slam with a poem called "Mama". A tribute to her mother and striking recount of how she led their escape from their burning village in Sudan.
Similar to how olden spoken poetry transformed into folk songs, a whole genre of classic mainstream Sudanese music - known as al-Haqeeba - is rooted in the landmark poems of Wad Al-Rabi, Omar Al-Bana, Khalil Farah and Sayed Abdelaziz.
Spurred on by revolutions against British colonial powers, Al-Haqeeba took off in the 1920s and was the soundtrack for popular uprisings and cultured resistance in the capital.
In what can only be described as a modern renaissance, Haqeeba songs have recently been remixed by young Sudanese producer Sammany.
The collection, called Briefcase, has been played more than 250,000 times on Soundcloud.
It samples classic songs that borrow lyrics from love poems or poems on national pride.
The collection, blends reggae, electro and house beats with Sudanese music in a way that epitomises how many young people in the country feel: connected to their nation's rich culture but also mainstream global trends, sounds and tastes.
Just as its soldiers historically marched to lyrics of resistance, empowerment and heritage against foreign ruling powers, Sudan's youth now sing along to their own tune to fight censorship and control, with the world as their stage.
|Posted on March 2, 2017 at 7:55 AM||comments (0)|
The Camden Roundhouse’s popular The Last Word festival returns for a fourth year this Spring, with shows set to tackle the political and social climate in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency and Brexit.
From May 28 until June 10, performers, actors and artists are set to address issues including diversity, immigration, post-truth politics, mental health and even threats to London nightlife.
Highlights include a revival of South Londoner Sabrina Mahfouz’s critically acclaimed play, With a Little Bit of Luck, which travels back to a hot summer night when old-school UK Garage was king.
The British Egyptian poet and playwright is also set to address perceptions around British Muslim women in an evening called The Things I Would Tell You.
Identity will too be a theme in Coat, a show from British Nigerian spoken word artist Yomi, while Caleb Femi, the first young people's laureate for London, will present a show addressing migration, assimilation and London gang culture.
Elsewhere, Rizzle Kicks rapper Jordan Stephens will present his first spoken word show Rats with Wings. Details are presently being kept under wraps, but the show will offer Stephens' take on his experiences of moving from a life of excesses to one of simplicity. Last year, Stephens worked with the YMCA to launch a campaign to raise awareness of mental health issues in young people.
The Roundhouse’s artist-in-residence, Erin Bolen, will also present a piece about mental fragility, What We Leave Behind, themed around grief and loss.
Rachel Nelken, The Last Word Producer said, “I’m incredibly excited about this year’s The Last Word festival, fast becoming a key event in the UK arts calendar. The festival this year sees spoken word in all its forms; everything from one person stand up theatre shows, to a full on garage music rave in the Roundhouse’s iconic Main Space!
"The 2017 festival explores some really topical and important themes - migration, identity, gentrification, truth in a post-truth world, grief, loss and mental health issues. An annual highlight is our established Poetry Slam featuring the most amazing new poets in the UK. Also this year, we’ll be featuring some great new ‘gig theatre’ – for those who like their gigs with a theatre twist!”
Other established acts on the bill include hysterical surrealist John Hegley.
For more information, visit roundhouse.org.uk
|Posted on March 2, 2017 at 7:45 AM||comments (0)|
In paralyzing times, art can shake off the stalemate and set new wheels in motion. That's the hope of Chicago poet Kevin Coval, who will publish a new collection of poems this April, which features a foreword by Chance The Rapper. Titled A People's History of Chicago, the book chronicles "the history of Chicago through 77 poems, from before white folks arrived to the Cubs winning the world series."
One of the poems — "Baby Come On: An Ode to Footwork" — has been brought to life in a thrilling meeting of three hyper-lucid art forms: music, dance, and poetry. In the video above, Chicago footwork dancer Litebulb makes thunderbolt shapes in a corner-store over an impassioned reading of the poem by Coval, all of which is set to the final minutes of Chance The Rapper's brightly-hued “Everything’s Good (Good Ass Outro)." Coval's words seem to bounce off Litebulb's limbs — "Tip toe kung fu kick/ Then drag the foot in molasses" — as Chance's chipmunked ad-libs of "juke, juke, juke" circle them both.
"I am continually amazed at the ingenuity and genius of young people," Kevin Coval told The FADER over email. "Footwork is an extension of House, sped up in the rich and constantly evolving tradition of Black Diasporic movements. I wanted to tribute a dance culture I have witnessed in small and large spaces in the city that creates so much style and so much heartbreak."
"My initial thoughts on the poem were curious ones, interested in hearing how someone else's perspective from another part of Chicago would be like interpreting our culture," Litebulb told The FADER. "I was really impressed on how Kevin gave thanks to some important figures throughout the poem, and gave notion to certain signature moves only done inside of our culture. The overall video works well and gives a taste of what's it's like walking to the store for me, a Footworker, in Chicago."
|Posted on February 22, 2017 at 7:55 AM||comments (0)|
‘Black Man with the Black Hands’ is a poem by Tiana Marie Ford, and has been doing the rounds across social media
BLACK MAN with the Black Hands is a moving response to police brutality in America.
The four-minute video serves as a medium to celebrate and honour our black men from the past, present, and future, as spoke word artist Tiana Marie Ford performs the poem.
|Posted on October 21, 2016 at 4:05 PM||comments (3)|
The past few weeks the news has been focused on women and the issue of sexual assault. Presidential Nominee Donald Trump began a wave of outrage and speaking out with a video tape from several years ago. Donald was caught on tape bragging to Billy Bush about what amounts to sexually assaulting women because he is famous. Since that tape was released, numerous women have come forward about stories about being assaulted by Donald Trump. And on a larger scale, women have come forward with their stories of assault to offer a clearer picture of how common some of these instances are.
We are so empowered by all of the incredible women coming forward with their brave stories, and we hope this will create a positive and powerful dialogue.
But it’s important to note that men need to join the discussion too. It can start with pieces like this one by Steve Connell. He wrote and performs this powerful spoken word about men’s place and responsibility in the conversation about abuse.
We are the Lions
This is such a powerful piece, and what we love about it is that it takes responsibility. It encourages people to see and speak and act in order to stop violence against women, and that is such an important message. Steve starts saying that he doesn’t have a problem with talk and the occasional crude joke between friends.
“However, I do have a problem with violence and cruelty and rape and abuse. And even if we know it’s just me, it’s just you, it’s just a few harmless jokes between me and my dudes that still perpetuates culture where it’s easy to confuse the link between the jokes and the bruise.”
Steve uses the metaphorical story of a village where lions keep killing women and girls in the night. The men try to wait it out and protect women, but it doesn’t work. Finally, they realize the men are turning into lions and killing the women and girls.
“And if we aren’t the lions, we are on their side. Too often standing proudly in defense of the pride perhaps afraid that if we stand with women against the lion we will be devoured, and so ironically to prove we aren’t cowards we become cowards, to prove we aren’t weak, we become weak, to prove we are still lions, we become sheep.”
We appreciate this powerful message, and we hope everyone takes Steve’s message to heart. This is a problem that men need to speak up for as well as women.
If we’re going to fix this, it’s going to be together!
|Posted on October 21, 2016 at 3:35 PM||comments (0)|
ART CAN OCCUPY a space in society where it reaches out and engages people, inspiring those on the fringes to raise their voices for social justice and to become involved with prominent issues in the world around them.
That’s what the organisers of the Lingo spoken word festival believe, and they’re putting socially engaged poetry at the forefront of their festival this year.
Spoken word and performance poetry has grown in popularity in Ireland over the past number of years, with open mic nights, spoken word gigs, and poetry slams a common feature in cities across the country.
Lingo Festival was started two years ago to try to bring these disparate elements of the spoken word scene together in one place for a weekend, and to raise awareness of the role of art (in this case, spoken word poetry) in Irish society.
It will take place this weekend in Dublin city across multiple venues. The festival – now in its third year – hosts homegrown and international spoken word acts in a wide range of events.
Art for change
This year, one the central themes is focusing on art (in this case, spoken word poetry) and how it can be used as a vehicle for bringing about social engagement and change.
“The theme is to show how this artform and others can be used to affect real social change,” Linda Devlin, one of the festival organisers, told TheJournal.ie.
Linda is the only person of the festival founders who is not a poet in her own regard. Her background is in community involvement.
“At the start I think we all saw the transformative effect poetry could have on people and were thinking there was more we could do with this,” she said.
This year the festival will feature the likes of Blindboy Boatclub from the Rubberbandits and Panti Bliss, as well as other performers and poets who have used artistic expression to highlight prominent social issues.
Questioning the status quo
Sarah Clancy, a poet and community activist from Galway, will feature as this year’s festival poet laureate.
“They had this idea of the theme of this festival being about the power of poetry or the power of raising your voice for social justice this year,” Clancy told TheJournal.ie.
And I suppose that’s something that I’ve spoken up about on various different occasions in the past.
Clancy said that her poetry is “political”, not in the sense of party politics, but more in always questioning how things are.
“Art’s job – if it has a job – is to question the status quo, not to ever accept it,” she said.
She said that since the economic collapse, social movements – like the water charges protests, the marriage equality referendum or the recent Repeal the Eighth campaign – have had a strong artistic element to them.
“In some ways poetry is the perfect vehicle because it can deliver a message in ways that really affect people,” she said.
There’s a reason why people who have no use for poetry in their daily lives suddenly find themselves using it at funerals, or using it to mark ceremonies or quoting it.
Clancy said poetry can stand among other forms of expression in that it can be used effectively to inspire or mobilise people.
“People borrow messages in poetry all the time, even without realising it,” she said.
Last year, the festival played host to top international acts like Saul Williams and Holly McNish as well as a wealth of homegrown talent.
This year will be no different, and will see acts like US hip hop and spoken word artist Sage Francis (supported by Ballymun rappers 5th Element) and Canadian-Palestinian spoken word artist and activist Rafeef Ziadah take to the stage.
For Clancy, the poetry of Rafeef Ziadah encapsulates what she says about poetry being able to highlight social wrongs and inspire change.
“Probably one of the most powerful pieces of spoken word poetry ever heard is her We Speak Life Sir,” said Clancy.
The poem focusses on Ziadah’s experience in Palestine and the anger and sense of injustice she feels about the state of her homeland and the world’s reaction to it.
“It’s been seen close to a million times so it’s probably better than any news article,” said Clancy.
“You can read all the news reports you want but I think when you see a young woman reacting like that you can’t help but be touched by it.
It changes you somehow. And I think at its best that’s what powerful poetry can do, it can leave you a little bit changed.
Ziadah will be performing at an event on Saturday with Clancy herself. The event will also feature an extended original piece of work by Irish poet Sorcha Fox.
The festival features a range of events across Friday, Saturday and Sunday – some will be free and some will be pay-in.
Four top poets from the four corners of Ireland will be speaking tomorrow night at the Workman’s Club, followed by a poetry slam featuring the best artists in the country; there will be a workshop specifically for young children on Sunday; and there will be open mics for anyone willing to stand up and say a few words.
“This festival is about bringing together all the elements of spoken word in the country and the talent on offer,” said Devlin.
We want to get as many people as we can to come down and enjoy it.
|Posted on July 29, 2016 at 12:40 PM||comments (0)|
“Hera Lindsay Bird has attracted the biggest hoo-ha with a poetry book I can recall,” wrote one reviewer of the New Zealand-born poet, whose recently released debut collection has become a cult bestseller in her home country. And rightly so: Bird’s frank, outrageous writing – see, for example “Keats is Dead so Fuck Me From Behind” – is in turns bleakly hilarious and peppered with pitch-perfect similes (“the days burn off like leopard print”; “Love like Windows 95”). It has made me, like many others, more excited about poetry than I have been in a long time.
She may be half a world away, but her voice seems to speak to women of my generation regardless of geography. “I love it when people who don’t usually like poetry like my poetry,” she told an interviewer recently. “It’s a mean joke, like tricking someone into joining an improv troupe.” One poem, entitled Monica after the character from the 90s sitcom Friends, has been so popular that the website that published it, The Spinoff, received more hits than it has had in its history.
That her poetry is creating such excitement isn’t just about Bird’s talent and the way she speaks to a younger audience, although those are of course major factors. As Bryan Appleyard noted in a piece for the Sunday Times, the medium is seeing a significant revival of interest that has the potential to reach a level not seen since the Victorian era, and much of it thanks to internet culture and the 24-hour news cycle.
I don’t need to tell you that we are living in strange, interesting, and often horrifying times. Rev Dr Jane Leach’s Radio 4 Thought for the Day last week reflected on how people turn to poetry in times of crisis. Through our screens and news feeds, we increasingly witness acts of violence and horror that defy straight analysis. It’s no wonder that poetry is providing emotional succour where the bleak language of news reports so often fails. And in the process, it is going viral.
It’s an amazing development, considering that poetry sells so little – though this may be changing with the revival this year of the Penguin Modern Poets series – and is often seen as rarefied, opaque and elitist, the province of small readings and dusty corners of bookshops, the hobby of pretentious white men with hefty qualifications and little beards. As an art form, it is not just met with bafflement but often with disdain and even loathing, as Ben Lerner’s new essay The Hatred of Poetry discusses at length.
Poetry has long been viewed as inaccessible. There was a sense that you had to be privileged, educated, and “in the know” in order to discover it. Not so now, in these turbulent times. After the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Good Bones by Maggie Smith went viral (“Life is short, though I keep this from my children”), and then again in the wake of Orlando.
The killing of black men by police officers in the US saw Twitter users turning to Clint Smith’s what the cicada said to the brown boy, a poem that sums up structural racism with a gut punch (“but every time they swarm you shoot / get you some wings, son / get you some wings”); the fightback against rape culture has been reflected in the flocking of millions of readers to Patricia Lockwood’s Rape Joke.
Indeed, to hear the words spoken by the poet herself is an experience in itself, one that lends itself well to what you might call “virality”. It packs an emotional punch, but also allows us to hear voices and see faces that have long been excluded from the canon of what is considered “good poetry”, whether for reasons of race, or class, or gender, or sexuality. And so Hi, I’m a Slut by Savannah Brown has over 1m YouTube hits, as does Dominique Christina’s The Period Poem, Javon Johnson’s cuz he’s black and Hollie McNish’s moving poem about breastfeeding, Embarrassed. Shrinking Women by Lily Myers has over 5m views, Dear Straight People by Denice Frohman over 2m.
It is gratifying that so many of these writers and performers are women. Women have always written poetry, of course, as have people from all kinds of backgrounds, but only since the birth of the internet has there been the potential for historically excluded voices to reach so many people. Around 20 years ago a feminist poet might have performed for around 10 women in a half-empty café; now, her words can reach millions of women and girls across the world. With it comes the relief that someone is speaking your language. Kate Tempest and Hera Lindsay Bird speak mine. No doubt you have your own favourites, and if you don’t, it’s easier than ever to go forth and find them.
|Posted on June 2, 2016 at 1:25 PM||comments (0)|
Spoken word (or performance poetry as it’s also known) has been creeping into the public consciousness of late. Thanks to sites such as YouTube and SoundCloud, artists have found a digital platform on which to share their voice and their work. Performers such as Kate Tempest, George the Poet and Jess Green, and festivals such as Glastonbury and The Last Word, have also helped. Performance poetry is fast becoming a staple of the entertainment circuit.
Aside from the obvious entertainment spin that spoken word puts on this traditional form of literature, it’s now being (rightly) recognised for its positive impact on the mental wellbeing of performers. I often hear about new and inspiring ways that the poetic voice is being used to achieve this, engaging with people from all walks of life, across a range of sectors.
I lecture at Bath Spa University. In 2005 we introduced the first ever performance poetry module in the UK. We’ve seen a pattern emerge in terms of the reasons why students choose to study with us – and it’s not simply to further their poetry careers.
In many cases it’s to relieve stress, boost confidence or deal with a variety of mental health problems. One of my students, Kate Jeanes, credits performance poetry for helping her cope with her extreme anxiety disorder. Performing under the name Kathryn O’Driscoll, she tackles her issues head on with her poem,
Don’t look at my legs.
There are other great examples of this. The Spoken Word Education Programme, run by Goldsmiths University and leading performance poetry organisation, Apples and Snakes, uses poetry to raise children’s confidence, self-expression and leadership skills. The spoken word educators – a group of established performance poets – have been running the programme across six London schools for three years. Increased confidence has been noted as one of the key changes among participants. Perhaps, rather than for just a few chosen schools, the practice could be rolled out on a national level.
We’re now seeing many performance poets openly advocating spoken word and how it has helped to transform their lives. As Robert Garnham writes on his personal blog, in a post entitled, How Spoken Word Changed My Life:
I feel incredibly confident now with who I am as a person and how I conduct myself in life, because the experience of going on the stage and performing has seemingly validated the person I am.
As recognition of this value spreads, so does the range of sectors embracing the idea. Complementing conventional medical practices, Brighton Health and Wellbeing Centre now offers performance arts therapy. It’s one of the first NHS practices in the UK to integrate complementary therapies and healing arts.
Spoken word is expressive and free, enabling performers to speak openly and honestly about issues in a controlled and safe environment. The link between the arts and mental wellbeing is by no means a new phenomenon; it has long been recognised. But that’s why it’s so encouraging to see a rise in popularity of spoken word – opening up opportunities for many more people to benefit.
Other universities have followed in our footsteps by setting up performance poetry modules, so together we’re reaching a greater number of young people and helping them to overcome anxieties, fears and barriers.
Long may this growth continue, because if performance poetry continues to heal souls as well as entertain, it will always be a success.
Lucy English is reader in creative writing at Bath Spa University