Performance Poetry vs Spoken Word

by | Jul 24, 2012 | Random, Words | 0 comments

In response to my post inviting requests for blog posts on specific topics, I was asked to share my thoughts on ‘performance poetry vs spoken word’. It has been a while since I was involved in the poetry scene and, therefore, I’m out of touch with what the trends, thoughts, etc. that currently exist within the scene. Having gone from regularly writing, performing, promoting and hosting shows, and doing a lot of poetry in corporate spaces, I’ve been on an indefinite sabbatical/ retirement, so my views might be out-dated and/or out of sync with those who are driving the word forward.

I remember discovering that you could get up on a stage and share your random words with an audience of people. It was at a poetry spot called Jungle Connection in 1999 in Doornfontein, Johannesburg. It was there that I first started getting onto stages and mumbling poetry. As the form evolved and grew in Jozi, so did I. And as we grappled to understand the art form and our role within that space, I struggled with the concept of ‘performance’. I have always written and found the act of verbal sharing a challenging one. I wanted people to just read the words.

Also, for a bit, I felt it wasn’t performance and merely just reciting of words that were written – dry, straightforward, simple. But, the more I did it, the more I learnt. Some poems are for the page and some poems are for the stage. Getting onto a stage in front of an audience sharing words is a craft in itself – rhythm, harmony, voice and mic control, tempo, emphasis, etc. I found my voice.

And, after I published my collections – Voices In My Head + And They Say: Black Men Don’t Write Love Poetry – in 2005, I also discovered that the stage is great marketing. I sold more books coming off stages than anywhere else.

One of my personal gripes, at this time, was what seemed like an attempt to separate what we were doing (and writing) from a poetic history that stretches back a couple of centuries. There was talk of ‘performance poets’ or ‘spoken word artists’ and it felt like what was actually being said was that we weren’t ‘poets’ like Dylan Thomas, or Neruda, or Walcott but rather these creatures that were different because we spoke words.

Words have been spoken and written for eons. Since I’ve stopped actively writing and performing poetry, these things concern me less. And the semantic debate about how to define these words seems less important. Performance poetry and spoken word are, for me, the same thing. They are also just simply poetry. I stress less about how to define and focus more on enjoying the work of my favourite poets. There are many and include Saul Williams, Bassey Ikpi and Carl Hancock Rux. I read, I watch, I listen for words of beauty that speak a truth, vulnerability, a life. Never definition.


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