Tuesday, December 08, 2009

from "The Inevitable Question" (in chapter 1)

Given all the variables involved, it is probably better to define spoken word as an activity or practice — something that one does — rather than as a class of literary product. I’d like to offer three basic criteria, which create a sort of framework for understanding spoken word, even though they are not universally applicable. The first one I have already mentioned: in spoken word, the performers are the writers. Occasionally a performer may present a text written by someone else, but this would be the rare exception to the rule. This is one indication that spoken word performers are appreciated, first and foremost, for their skill in composing words. Whether or not the text of the performance is ever written on paper, spoken word artists are primarily writers, not actors or singers. Another reason why spoken word performers don’t do more “covers” might be that spoken word events often have a cabaret atmosphere, with a relatively long list of participants, so that each performer is limited to a brief window at the microphone — typically five to fifteen minutes. With time so restricted, performers may be reluctant to spend it on the work of another writer. Furthermore, not only do spoken word artists use their own texts; they mostly perform them as their own texts: they inhabit themselves on stage — or at least, that is the effect of the performance.

The second criterion echoes my conclusions about the importance of the microphone in earlier in this chapter: spoken word is a communally interactive activity. In spoken word, there is usually a microphone for the performer to use, whether it is acoustically necessary or not, and if there is no microphone, there may be some other method of indicating that the participants will speak in turns. In most cases, the performers come from the audience when it is their turn and go back to the audience when they have finished, rather than staying in a backstage room separate from the audience, as in theatre. Furthermore, the performer nearly always addresses the audience directly, giving an introduction or some other informal speech that is ostensibly distinct from the work itself. All of these elements serve to establish that a spoken word performance is a collaboration between all the participants in the room.

If the first two criteria differentiate spoken word performers from actors, the third one differentiates them from writers who simply read their work: in spoken word, the performance is as important as the text. While a traditional reading is a performance, and I have heard it argued that any public reading of poetry should be considered spoken word, I think that these two activities demonstrate a fundamental difference in approach. Poets with more traditional (i.e. text-centric) attitudes towards performance commonly criticize spoken word by disallowing the performance as an evaluative criterion: “it may work in performance, but it doesn’t work on the page” (and therefore it’s not good poetry). From the point of view of spoken word this doesn’t make sense, since good performance is valued in itself — although most participants will agree that good writing is at least equally desirable. In a sense this last criterion presents a counterpoint to the first one: spoken word artists are not simply performers, but they are not simply writers either.

These three identifying characteristics parallel Bob Holman’s three rules for the creation of spoken word, which I heard him recite at a talk at the Banff Centre Spoken Word Program. Holman was closely involved in New York City’s initial boom in spoken word, but he seems to have concluded that, for him at least, spoken word is just another way of saying poetry, which is the object of all his energies. His rules are: 1. “Write the poem yourself.” 2. “Immediacy of our work balances the literature-longevity dynamic.” 3. “If you call it a poem, it is.” The second rule is vague but intriguing; I think what he is suggesting is that spoken word happens in the present — somewhat akin to what Nicholas Bourriaud calls “time-specific” works (after “site-specific”) — in other words, it is specific not only to the location but also to the crowd and the moment in which it happens, and this means that it has different aims and uses different tactics than literature that aspires to a long life on the page. The third rule avows an omni-directional openness in terms of form and content that could be applied to poetry or spoken word — although in the same talk, Holman also suggested a more rigorous test for identifying poems, by quoting William Carlos Williams: “If it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem.”


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