Archiving Spoken Word: Some Thoughts

Hello everyone! I’m writing today on the subject of archiving and documenting the contemporary spoken word scene in the UK.

As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I’m currently working on my PhD at the University of Strathclyde researching the performance of authentic selfhood in UK spoken word. I’m using an oral history methodology to collect data for this research – I’ve been conducting interviews with spoken word artists, event organisers, publishers, critics, and others engaged in the scene since May. To date I’ve collected over 60 interviews, and by the end of my data collection this month I’ll likely have approximately 70.

A major motivation behind my PhD has always been to contribute to a more rigorous critical culture around contemporary spoken word, as I’ve observed that unfortunately that seems to be lacking. There are several reasons I think that’s the case – one being that this is a relatively new (whilst also ancient) art form, one being that it’s been often considered low art (cough cough Harold Bloom calling slams “the death of art”), and one being that the scene has tended to be rather grassroots and underfunded.

There are other reasons as well which I won’t go into here, but all of these factors have contributed to a culture in which it’s been unfortunately rare to receive a well-informed, in-depth review for one’s work, to have awards for achievements in the field which are judged by experts and carry real weight, or even to have a standardised language to discuss the structures and practices in one’s own work.

The interviews I’ve been able to conduct with artists and others in the field are therefore wonderful occasions for me (and, I hope, for the interviewees) because they’ve allowed us to have deep discussions about their creative processes, the complex politics of this art form, and its history and future.

They’ve also been rewarding because I know they will be archived and thus serve as a record of this boom period in our art form. The Scottish Oral History Centre in Glasgow will be archiving all of these interviews, which will carry different levels of public access depending on the artists’ wishes. I’m delighted about this, as in order to build this critical discourse we need to understand the breadth of opinions and experiences in our scene (Again and again in this research process I’ve been struck by the diversity of approaches to our form – homogenous we are definitely not). I’ve learned so much through these conversations, and I’m sure those who access the archive once it’s public will as well.

My data collection and archiving pertains to critical materials: conversations about craft, etc. But there’s another question here: how do we archive the actual art? Ours is an inherently ephemeral art form: spoken word poets are performance artists who (generally) write with the intent to perform material live to an audience, and thus publication and archival is usually not a consideration in the creative process.

Today on Twitter, several of us engaged in documenting and archiving the UK spoken word scene got into a discussion of how to best go about this work. The lovely and extremely hard-working David Turner of Lunar Poetry Podcast has written a blog post summarising those discussions and suggesting some routes forward, which I’m linking to here and I’d highly recommend reading: https://lunarpoetrypodcasts.com/2017/11/10/legacy-building/ 

David’s post excellently covers many of the practical issues around archiving, and I don’t have anything to add there. I do want to muse briefly on the questions of why we archive and a few things to keep in mind around it.

One thing it’s important to remember is that the act of archiving is inherently political, particularly given the ephemeral nature of our form. I know several poets who have actively resisted their work being fixed in any way, including rejecting opportunities for print publication and for their live performances to be filmed. For those artists, their work is only meant to exist as a live communicative act between them and their audience, and thus to record and archive them would be to bastardise their work and disrespect their wishes.

I bring that up as a reminder that archiving – though we may think of it as a dusty, bland process – can actually be controversial. As well, the question of who is doing the archiving and who can access the archive is of course very political. If those building the archives are all of the same demographic or geographic background, they/we are likely to miss entire communities, leaving an incomplete history with no record of swathes of artists. As one of the few academics researching spoken word, I have been incredibly conscious of my privileges and what work I have tended to access. When inviting poets to participate in interviews, I worked to ensure I wasn’t simply interviewing my friends or those with similar experiences or styles to myself – but there is always more that can be done to ensure academic work and archive building is less biased.

There is also the important question of accessibility. Spoken word has long prided itself on being an accessible art form, both in terms of the affordability of being an artist (you don’t even need a pencil) and lack of a requirement for any formal education in poetry to practice it, as well as the accessibility of the work itself to a wide range of audiences. For any archive to be expensive or otherwise involve a barrier to access it would undermine many of the core tenets of our form. I’d speculate that this is a factor behind many artists publishing their work via free, Internet-accessible mediums such as YouTube (there are of course other factors there as well, and a discussion to be had around the sustainability of careers when the primary publication vehicle doesn’t net a profit, but that’s another subject). But given that YouTube can’t serve as a permanent or reliable archive of work, it seems important to find others which are longer-lasting but equally as accessible.

Wrapping up here, as I’m conscious this is already a long post (I’m in thesis-writing mode so brevity is a challenge right now!) – I think that documenting the scene and curating diverse and comprehensive archives is vitally important to developing a critical discourse within our field. This should include not only holding and recording conversations around creative practice, but also the poems themselves. However, we need to be mindful as we go about this work about the wishes of the artists regarding whether or not they wish their work to be fixed and preserved in our living art form. I should emphasise here that I’m not a librarian nor do I have much experience in information and library sciences, so I’m not writing with any expertise in that field! Any ideas folks have to contribute are of course more than welcome in the comments.

Thank you as always for reading! David’s article contains links to several documenters of our scene, which I’d highly recommend you check out.

 

PS. Last week I read US poet and scholar Javon Johnson’s new book “Killing Poetry: Blackness and the Making of Slam and Spoken Word Communities.” It’s an excellent exploration in US slam culture, particularly as it pertains to the performance of race. I may do a full review of it soon, but in short – if you’re interested in spoken word and want a critically rigorous but accessible text on it, I’d highly recommend reading it.

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