When I was sixteen years old I discovered what many sixteen year olds discover…performance poetry. It was part of the ‘artsy’ phase I went through, at least I thought it was a phase but here we are six years later and, much like a persistent cough or an itch in the middle of your back, it hasn’t quite past. The sort of phase that means you listen to Leonard Cohen, wear a lot of striped tee shirts and carry a notebook around with you for a moment of spontaneous inspiration.
Like I said, not a lot has changed.
Performance poetry seems like a perfect response to the recent soco-political climate that we have found our selves in, the art form makes sense as a perfect type of protest. A lot of performance poetry available to watch online shows people re-appropriating their emotions, particularly anger, and formatting it as a piece of art.
“I am in a downward spiral of clickbait from performance poet to performance poet, falling deeper and deeper into this cyclone of words.”
It was from those days that my love of poetry first bloomed after learning that poetry was not solely something that only people long since dead once did; it was alive and well, still kicking and screaming as it had for all this time. One thing was sure though: it had grown with the times.
Jump forward to the present day, I am once more sat in my living room and again drinking coffee (of the non-decaf variety this time), eating biscuits and watching YouTube videos. I am in a downward spiral of clickbait from performance poet to performance poet, falling deeper and deeper into this cyclone of words. It started the way all good things do; with a TED Talk, presented by Sarah Kay on the topic of performance poetry. Kay begins her talk with a poem in which she is talking to a daughter that she says she may have in the future. It is a sweet hello, a call to arms, it is a promise to always be better than she has been. This is an inspiring message to hear through the clever word play and deep thoughts of what it must be like to raise a child; one line of Kay’s poem explains that, ‘I’m going to paint the solar system on the back of her hands so that she has to learn the entire universe before she can say “Oh, I know that like the back of my hand.”’
I have been hooked by slam poetry competitions. Like rap battles, they entail two poets performing original pieces and trying to see which one the audience responds to more. This is a fast paced, competitive aspect of performance poetry, with the same sort of intense dramatics as a game of Dingbats and you can see each poet trying to mentally read each word of a poem they have written. Regular performances of poetry allow for the poet to have their poem with them either physically or digitally (although a trick of good performance poetry is not to read off of something).
“Insta-poets’, people who share poetry on Instagram, appeared almost over night and allowed people to read and experience poetry easily as part of their everyday newsfeed.”
There has been a flurry in the past few decades of poetry being released and it has modernised itself for the 21st Century. ‘Insta-poets’, people who share poetry on Instagram, appeared almost over night and allowed people to read and experience poetry easily as part of their everyday newsfeed. Poets like Atticus, the faceless, anonymous Canadian poet who recently published his collection Love Her Wild and Amanda Lovelace, who self published her collection The Princess Saves Herself In This One before being signed by a major publishing house, have all become new wave poets that have found a strong footing in the literary world through the digital platforms available. Unlike prose, publishing poetry is difficult because it demands an amount of exposure to grab the attention of publishing houses. Self publishing is often an easier root and therefore does not rely on the already built ‘fan network’ that you have had to gain.
In 2014, poet Rupi Kaur published her first collection, Milk and Honey, which was an unapologetic celebration of femininity and the power of women. Her decision to publish through self publishing came at the cost of being able to enter into more traditional literary circles, or so she was warned. However, in an interview with The Guardian in 2016, she stated ‘[there] was no market for poetry about trauma, abuse, loss, love and healing through the lens of a Punjabi-Sikh immigrant woman.’ The following year, Kaur and Instagram had a disagreement with an image posted by Kaur on her own account that depicted her laying in an unmade bed with her pyjamas on and a small amount of period blood found on the bed linen. Outrage was caused, sensitive souls were offended and death threats were sent to Kaur despite Instagram backing down and apologising.
During the same year as her Instagram feud, Kaur re-released her collection and it climbed dramatically up the best sellers list. Milk and Honey is made of poems that are mostly a few lines of impactful words that are ripe with power and beautifully simplistic illustrations drawn by Kaur herself. All poetry is to be performed, to be read out loud as it is only when heard that poetry comes alive properly. Performance poetry is to poetry what Accapella is to music. With that in mind it is hard to imagine that performance poetry has not appeared more in the mainstream yet.
“This depiction of modern femininity is both alarming and armed, the idea of women being vulnerable and victimised is not new in our society and increasingly proves to be an issue.”
From my ‘extensive research’ of watching YouTube videos, I have noted that around 90% of the online poetry performances I have seen, which is quite a lot by now, are by female poets aged between 16-30 years old. The range of topics covered varies as well; from school to sexual harassment to self harm and suicide, these topics are all presented through emotional performances whether it be anger or humour and each is met with cheers, applauds and clicking (a resonant echo from the Beatnik age of performance poetry). Each poet I have watched perform has delivered each line with an amount of ferocity and perfection. Even in Sabrina Benaim’s Explaining My Depression To My Mother, with her shaking body and determined voice occasionally wobbling under the weight of her admission about her state of mind, we see the sort of demonstrative authority Benaim has experienced.
The poets can explore personal or societal issues in a way that is safe and as a way of processing and formalising thought processes and arguments that they have within themselves. Performance poetry gives people the opportunity to really expose their experiences and creative talents through fast paced and cleverly put together sentences that run from the tongue with the grace of a river. One poet I saw, Olivia Gatwood, performed a poem entitled Ode To My Bitch Face which is a critique of how Gatwood views her societies response to how woman look (or should look). The poem starts with Gatwood asking the ever attentive crowd, ‘Does everyone know what this term, resting bitch face is? Okay, so that’s a term coined by someone who was just generally unhappy with the fact that women aren’t smiling literally all the time.’ Gatwood’s poem turns into a piece about the violence women face everyday with pointed imagery such as, ‘…it’s hard to sleep pretty when there are four locks on the door and the fire escape looks like break-in bait. They will tell you home is safe zone no bitch face is safe zone.’ This depiction of modern femininity is both alarming and armed; the idea of women being vulnerable and victimised is not new in our society and increasingly proves to be an issue (*cough*Harvey Weinstein*cough*).
“Performance poetry may be the best way to combat this sort of mentality and behaviour as well as being able to ally ourselves with others and support people through difficult times and situations.”
My observations into the world of slam and performance poetry conclude that this type of art form allows for people, either performing or listening, to navigate emotions and experiences by allowing them to present these things as a form of literary creativity, often displacing themselves from the subject matter and able to wear a fictionalised persona or mask for themselves. Recent political and social events are marginalising people and systems of oppression are doing what they have done for centuries: oppressing people. Performance poetry may be the best way to combat this sort of mentality and behaviour as well as being able to ally ourselves with others and support people through difficult times and situations.
In this world of performance and words and masks that allow you to hide who you really are, there is an amount of freedom and room for expression that means that the poet can be honest. These voices often come across in anger but carry a message worth hearing; people are tired and change must take place.
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