Different kind of post this week! Recently I was interviewed by Rebecca McBride, a journalism student writing an article on the Scottish spoken word scene. Since I haven’t discussed how I got into spoken word or my influences on this blog much yet, I figured I’d post the interview here. Hope you enjoy!
Describe for someone who has never heard of it what spoken word poetry is.
Spoken word is poetry specifically designed and intended for live performance. It’s meant to be engaging, entertaining, and usually emotionally moving in some way. Often spoken word is used for political and/or confessional material; spoken word poems have been called the new protest songs. In short, it’s kick-ass live poetry which defies any categorization of poetry as dead and boring!
How were you introduced to spoken word poetry?
The American slam poet Andrea Gibson was the first spoken word artist I heard live, in Maine back in 2011, and she remains my favorite spoken word poet. I then discovered so many more amazing artists through the internet—the web has played a major role in spreading spoken word globally.
How long have you taken part?
The autumn of 2012 was the first time I performed slam publically, when I was living in Edinburgh as an exchange student. I then returned to the US to finish my degree and was writing more page-style poetry for a bit. Things took off for me in the autumn of 2014 when I returned to Scotland and really started to engage with the spoken word scene here. Since September 2014 I’ve been writing, performing, studying, and organizing spoken word intensively. That’s also when I became more comfortable identifying as a poet.
What does it take to be a spoken word poet?
Many things and no specific things, in a way. It’s good to have performance skills: being comfortable onstage, confident in your ability to entertain the audience, and having the physical skills of posture, breath, body language, etc. I believe it was the brilliant Rachel McCrum who phrased it “you must be brave and crass enough to know you can entertain the audience,” and that captures it perfectly.
You have to understand the power of work and rehearsal: particularly when performing off-book, the poems don’t just appear full-fledged in your head. It takes ages of drafting, editing, memorizing, and rehearsing to get a poem successfully onstage. There aren’t shortcuts.
Especially as you perform more and more, it takes respect for other performers and promoters. As artists, we’re all part of an interdependent community, and it’s so critical to support each other’s work.
But above all that technical stuff: you simply need to have a story that you want to tell and that you believe needs to be told.
Best moment whilst taking part in an event?
Competing at the 2015 Scottish National Poetry Slam is a major highlight. It was the most high-profile slam with the largest audience I’d ever competed in. I’d been rehearsing for months and stressing over which poems to choose, how I’d perform them, worrying about forgetting lines, etc. Then when I took the mic for my three poems, the work paid off and they came together exactly how I’d rehearsed. I ended up placing second. It was not only a thrilling experience but also a reminder of the fact that if you put your back into it, you can do things you previously considered impossible.
Another highlight: I’d heard so much about Loud Poets when I was back in the US in 2013/2014 and hugely admired what they’re doing for the Scottish poetry scene. One of their rules for performers is that they must have their poems memorized, which makes the performances so engaging and thrilling. In October 2014 I competed in a slam in Edinburgh and ended up placing second, but I didn’t feel that my performance was up to snuff since I was still reading my poems from a book. One of the judges, the fantastic poet and Loud Poets organizer MiKo Berry, approached me afterwards and praised my work but encouraged me to get off-book—to perform fully memorized. He told me if I could do that, I could perform at Loud Poets. I started working on memorizing my material and in November 2014 I did my first set with Loud Poets in Edinburgh. I was terrified of performing three poems with no notes but the evening went off without a hitch. It was a proud moment to know that I’d successfully ditched my security blanket, and since then I’ve been performing all of my slam work off-book, which has given me so much more range to perform with my whole body.
I’m very thankful to only have blanked onstage once, which was last Friday at Loud Poets Glasgow and because I was performing a new piece I hadn’t rehearsed as much as I should have. I was able to recover the poem OK though, and luckily all was fine.
I’ve written about this in a post for my blog, but I had an experience with my poem “Swallow” where people were mis-interpreting it as anti-contraception and anti-abortion. As a pro-choice feminist, it felt terrible to know that people had heard an anti-women statement in my work when the poem was intended to be about giving women more power. I had to figure out whether to stop performing the poem, to always perform it with a disclaimer, or to edit it. It was stressful to me to know that some people had been offended or hurt by the message they were perceiving in the poem, since that was the opposite of the message I intended. In the end, I edited it and the new version clears up the ambiguity. Ultimately, although it wasn’t a fun experience, this was a good lesson in how audience members will interpret your poetry in different ways, that you can’t control their perceptions of your work, and that when writing about controversial topics, it’s useful to get feedback on the language in the poem before running it live.
Tell me about your first time performing.
I’ve been performing as a dancer most of my life, and I’d done some readings of my page poetry. But the first time I performed spoken word was in Edinburgh in the autumn of 2012. I believe it was at Soapbox, the University of Edinburgh Literature Society open mic event. Soapbox is one of the most welcoming, high-quality open mics I’ve found in Scotland, and it was the perfect place to try out spoken word on an audience for the first time. The first time I slammed was also with U. Edinburgh Lit Soc, at their October Slam in 2012, where I think I got out in the second round. I learned so much from that slam about live performance, and the next month I won the Lit Soc November Slam.
What is your favourite line of your own poem and your favourite poem you have written?
Hard question! I hadn’t thought of my favourite poems or lines before; I suppose all poets have favorite bits of their own work but it somehow feels arrogant to speak about them that way. A couple lines which I’m fond of:
in “Maybe”: “We played tug of war by me just feeding you more rope”
in “Dear”: “Let’s get coffee, so I can match your face to the Rorschach blots my mind has inked from long nights of staring at mirrors”
in “Brightest”: “Pennsylvania summer caught you in its teeth”
I think “Swallow” is my favorite poem of mine, simply because I feel that it tells a story not many others are telling and because I think I got the imagery and tone right. It’s a foundation poem of my sets and seems to be a favorite when I perform it.
What is your favourite poem someone else has written and your favourite line?
Agh, that’s impossible! In terms of favourite slam poems, it has to be one of Andrea Gibson’s poems, though I can’t choose a favourite and certainly can’t pick out a line!
In terms of poetry in general, I grew up reading Sylvia Plath and her work has had a massive effect on my writing. Right now Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” has been speaking to me – I know it’s a fairly popular one, but it’s popular for a reason.
What have you found most challenging about organising spoken word events in Scotland?
I haven’t done a huge amount of organising—I co-organised the Glasgow Student Slam in February this year with Aloud and I’ve been assisting with the organization of Loud Poets Glasgow, but I’m still quite new to the promotional side of the poetry scene here. I suppose one challenge is organizing events with rules that are satisfying to the majority of folks in the poetry scene. There’s no one group setting rules for how to run, qualify, and judge slams, and this sometimes makes organizing slams rather hairy since poets will disagree about how fair some practices are. As someone who’s new to this scene and wants to contribute to it rather than mess it up, it’s sometimes been a challenge adjusting to the fact that the rules aren’t listed but there will be some debate and anger if unspoken rules are broken.
On the other hand, you can’t make everyone happy. The diversity of opinions and the freedom with which folks express their perspectives is a positive in this scene, not a negative. Sure, it may make things difficult sometimes, but ultimately it means that we all care a lot about the space in which we make and share our art, and to have that level of care and engagement is fantastic.
Scottish people don’t tend to wear their hearts on their sleeve, particularly men, have you noticed this or has it been the opposite when people are given the opportunity to take part in spoken word poetry?
Really good question. Interestingly, there are more male than female spoken word poets in the Glasgow scene (which also seems to have more people of Scottish descent than the Edinburgh scene, which tends to be more international – GENERALLY, not as a rule). So it’s a more male scene, but it’s still often a political, confessional scene. I’ve seen as many men as women perform deeply personal work, so I don’t think there’s much of a gender split in terms of subjects covered. This is a generalization, though – it’d be fascinating to look at whether female spoken word poets tend to be more comfortable performing confessional work publicly.
Spoken word, like any art, provides an out – a means of expression outside of the parameters of everyday life. It’s a way to show emotion that likely wouldn’t be perceived as shameful. So perhaps that’s a reason why men might feel comfortable sharing confessional material in poems when they might not be in private conversations.
What would you say to someone wanting to get involved?
Do it! Performing live is scary as hell but so, so worth it. Tell your story and listen to others’ stories. It’s powerful stuff.