PhD Abstract

‘The Performance of Authenticity in Contemporary UK Spoken Word Poetry’

Contemporary spoken word poets often utilise first-person voice to convey purportedly autobiographical narratives frequently regarding oppression and/or personal trauma. Reviews of this material generally highlight the ‘authenticity’ of the poetry, implying that poets are viscerally, ‘honestly’ sharing their personal experiences directly with the audience. Previous scholarship has concurred that, for audiences, the perception of the poem’s—and poet’s—’authenticity’ is a major factor in gauging its quality. However, ‘authenticity’ is an inherently subjective and culturally conditional factor, and the scholarship has lacked a deep analysis of how it functions as a critical factor within this sphere, particularly in the UK context.

This thesis seeks to remedy this gap by considering ‘authenticity’ not as an innate quality of this work—nor automatically assuming poems in this genre to be autobiographical or ‘true’—but rather as a constructed, culturally conditioned quality which spoken word artists may consciously perform. It draws from an unprecedentedly large interview-based study of 70 UK-based spoken word artists and producers. In order to clarify the discourse concerning authenticity as a performed and perceived quality within contemporary spoken word, this thesis proposes and describes eight distinct (though interlacing) strands at play: authenticity of origin, self, emotion, temporal state, narrative, motivation, voice, and identity. It describes how spoken word artists can project these qualities through their composition, performance, and marketing. It also draws upon performance studies theories including audience reception theory to analyse how the conventions of spoken word spaces and performances (i.e. lack of sets, costumes; use of actual names; seating performers in the audience, etc.) reinforce the perception of ‘authentic,’ unfiltered communication between poet and audience. And it considers how performers’ visible and audible identity markers (pertaining to race, gender, class, etc.) may affect the level of ‘authenticity’ audiences perceive in their performances, and how this may create a pressure on poets to compose certain material in a certain style concerning their identities. Ultimately, it concludes that while the performance and perception of ‘authenticity’ is indeed a core element of the spoken word genre, the critical focus on ‘authenticity’ as an innate factor has been detrimental to building a serious critical discourse concerning craft in this dynamic genre.