I took advantage of Apples and Snakes’ ‘Go and See’ grants and headed to London. My goal was to check out the London spoken word scene and see how it compared to my native Yorkshire/Lancashire. London’s always ahead of the curve, I reasoned, the cutting edge and the fashionable is always found in the capital. What am I missing out on?
I pondered Chill Pill, Tongue Fu, the Poetry Cafe and in the end, chose Jawdance. It’s a regular night (hosted, coincidentally, by Apples and Snakes) at Rich Mix, Bethnal Green: four invited performers and a generous open mic slot.
Rich Mix is a great venue: the lighting, the stage, the cafe-bar space all make a perfect spoken word setting. Already, I felt like I’d come to the right place. There must have been over 50 people in the audience with 20 ‘open micers’. I have never been to a poetry night in Yorkshire with those numbers! This is why you don’t get a spoken word scene in rural areas. And I learnt that, in London, half an hour is not early to sign up for the open mic! There are 8.2 million people living in London and I was feeling it. I snuck onto the reserve list and was the last open micer of the night.
The music pumped, the compere got us foot-drumming and with the first few ‘open-micers’ I was already impressed. There was a lot of passion on that stage . The body-language, gestures, pauses, comic-timing, stage-presence, the energy and verve of the performers was really something; and these are not easy skills to master. I’ve got to up my game, I thought. Back home, I’m often alone in having learnt my set; at Jawdance only about a quarter read from paper. Expert compere, Joelle Taylor, kept the evening zinging along. Northern organisers take note – the three minute rule is there for a reason! (Oh – and no one introduced their piece with ‘this is one of mine from the 1970s’. I’ve heard that at several events recently, yawn!)
There were three poem-films on the bill. A relatively new art-form that I’d been itching to investigate further. All three were good and I’d love to see more of these at literary festivals and open mic nights, a great way to spread quality spoken word. Films do change the mood though, moving the audience from participators to consumers. As a performer, it would be hard to follow one and have to reel the audience back in.
I was enjoying the evening enormously until I became aware of a slight leadenness in my ears, a certain punch-drunk feeling which intensified as the evening drew on. The influence of rap on performance poetry is well-documented; it’s an influence that, by and large, I welcome. God knows, the shuffling, paper-rustling fogeys mumbling inaudible villanelles needed a kick up the bum. Rap gives performance poetry its energy, confidence and glitz. It makes for arresting delivery but it’s also – there’s no other word – a bit shouty. And after a while this shoutyness becomes frankly annoying. Rich Mix has an excellent sound system, better than I’m used to anyway, every syllable was crystal clear and after a while I wanted to stand up and shout ‘I can hear you, we’re not deaf’.
And the strange thing about rap is that it only seems to have one beat. English poetry has a rich tradition of metre and different metres sound different; from the cheery ta-ta-tum of anapaests to the authoritative da-dum of the iamb. And yet every spoken-worder seemed to have the same rhythm. A ponderous, weighty end-stopping, which, after a while, feels like a small child hitting you repeatedly over the head. We’ve gone full circle to Pope’s criticism: ‘and ten low words oft creep in one dull line’, except we’ve now dispensed with counting to ten and just impose a rhythm, cutting the lines to the desired length with the subtlety of a chain-saw. This heavy end-stopped rhythm seems to say to the audience, ‘this is poetry you know, you can tell because the lines stop before the right-hand side of the page, of course, you can’t see the page which is why I’m chanting it for you, got it?’ Perhaps one of the reason this delivery is so popular is that the enforced rhythm, hammered onto whatever words happen to be in the poem, saves poets the bother of writing in metre – where the natural stresses on the words (e.g. toast-er not toast-er) define the rhythm.
I tend to use the words ‘performance poetry’ and ‘spoken word’ interchangeably. My personal definition has been something like: ‘poetry which is designed to be heard and which is well-performed’, which usually means learning it. Some poems lend themselves to being read in privacy and savoured on the page, while others beg to be out in public, at the centre of attention. Sitting on the tube after Jawdance, I thought, maybe I’ve been wrong about using those words interchangeably, maybe spoken word is not the same as performance poetry. Because the other thing I didn’t see enough of was those techniques that make poetry a joy to read – alliteration, consonance, assonance, rhyme. One of the tenets of modern poetry is that the words should in some way reflect the material: the sibilant S, the harsh violence of the K, the softness of n and m. Patterns of sound-meaning that turn a conversation into a work of art. Not, as Coleridge said, just words in their best order (prose) but the best words in their best order (poetry). And there were points in the evening when I thought, these are not poems, these are rants, this is stand-up comedy without the comedy, mere monologues. Where is the sound-meaning, the musicality that transforms it into poetry? The words so carefully chosen that they don’t just express an idea but sing it. Song lyrics don’t really need to be good because they’ve got a lead guitar, bass, keyboard, singer, drum kit and production team; poets haven’t, we’ve just got the best words in their best order. Many of the performers at Jawdance had jettisoned our heritage of spoken poetry, and in the process, left out those components which turn language into Art. I’m going to go back to saying ‘performance poetry’.
Of course, you can’t do what I attempted and judge a city’s ‘scene’ from one event, but I got a taste. I saw a scene that thrilled me with its passion and professionalism, the quality of the performances and production, all of which made it a cracking night out. This was my idea of a spoken word night, what I’d travelled 169 miles for. I saw some amazing spoken word in London but not enough poetry.