‘The Performance and Perception of Authenticity in Contemporary UK Spoken Word Poetry’ (University of Strathclyde, 2020)

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Abstract: Contemporary spoken word poetry events are often described as a platform for ‘authentic’ expression: emotionally charged spaces at which poets viscerally, honestly share their personal experiences directly with the audience. Scholarship into this genre generally concurs that ‘authenticity’ functions as an aesthetic and moral quality within the genre: that poems and poets perceived as ‘authentic’ achieve more success. However, ‘authenticity’ is not a singular, static trait but rather a rapidly evolving, culturally conditional, and subjective process relying on the dialogic exchange of performance and perception. This thesis seeks to clarify the discourse regarding authenticity within contemporary U.K. spoken word poetry by proposing a genre-specific taxonomy of ten strains of authenticity which are commonly performed, framed, and perceived in this sphere. These distinct, though interlacing, strains are the authenticities of origin, autobiographical self, narrative, persona, temporal state, emotion, voice, identity, motivation, and engagement. The thesis draws upon social scientific methodology, including interviews with 70 U.K.-based poets, to examine how each of these strains functions as an aesthetic and moral quality within the genre. It considers how individual poets may perform these authenticities as well as how the conventions of spoken word spaces encourage the perception of poets as ‘real’ people (rather than actors playing characters) sharing autobiographical narratives while fully co-present with their audiences. Ultimately, this thesis emphasises the constructed, subjective nature of authenticity by revealing the extent to which spoken word performances are pre-composed, rehearsed, and otherwise artistically wrought. It concludes by analysing the commonality of descriptions of spoken word poetry as ‘authentic’ in academic scholarship and popular media and argues that this rhetoric is rooted in stereotype and downplays the skill and craft required in this multidisciplinary art form.