Recently, I watched Esme Allman, one of this year’s Last Word Festival artists, perform her poem ‘Oil’ online. As she spoke of a soothing, intimate moment and appreciation for the natural world, soft guitar strums accompanied her words. It reminded me of the intrinsic link between poetry and music – how they compliment each other, how they are each other. Yet, in comparison to music, the power of spoken word poetry is often overlooked.
Music has always been inherent in poetry, from its origins as an oral tradition until now. Even when we read a poem on our Instagram feed, the words are composed in a way that sounds musical. Just as song lyrics are often poetic, poetry is musical, or indeed meant to go with music, such as Sappho’s lyrics, or Allman’s ‘Oil’ poem. However, spoken word poetry makes the poetic medium truly come alive. When the words lift off the page and reach an audience through performance, the vitality of poetry becomes eminent.
Spoken word poetry is at the centre of the upcoming The Last Word Festival with the Roundhouse Poetry Slam. This is a renowned event where poets deliver their most compelling spoken word performance to an audience and panel of judges – after several heats, a Champion is crowned at the final. The event is run by critically acclaimed poets and has produced performances that still linger in our minds today, such as ‘This is Not a Humanising Poem’ by Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan in 2017.
Manzoor-Khan’s poem is included in Nikita Gill’s book, SLAM! You’re Gonna Wanna Hear This, a collection of influential spoken word poetry. In the introduction, she challenges the widespread assumption that poetry is ‘an area of elite literature which is for the privileged few’, that it is ‘sequestered to the classroom’ (p. vi). Instead, she writes that poetry should be recognised
as ‘a language of fire, fury and freedom…for everyone’ (p. vi). Jack Prideaux, Senior Producer at Roundhouse, maintains this. He says that spoken word poetry is a ‘very accessible and immediate’ artform, ‘allowing performers to communicate their experiences and takes on the world with audiences in real time, without necessarily needing any training or access to equipment’. Spoken word poetry, like its musical counterparts, is for everyone.
People spend up to hundreds of pounds to go to a music festival or see their favourite artists live, and understandably so. A concert is a moving, unforgettable experience. However, spoken word performance is a unique experience, too. In March, I attended Southbank Centre’s Out-Spoken, a night of music and poetry performance (again proving how the two go hand in hand!) One notable moment was Rishi Dastidar reading the poem ‘Risk Patterns’ from his collection Ticker-Tape. The way the audience laughed at some lines and then gasped at the next was enthralling – Dastidar completely commanded the room. We can connect to music in concerts and festivals but poetry performance is a different type of connection – we may not dance but it feels like our souls do. A single voice can both fill the silence and let it sit with us in varying ways, making the air heavy or light with their words. Spoken word poetry can create an entire spectrum of emotions; it can paint a room full of people in all shades of feeling with just a few lines. Hence, the word ‘slam’ in slam poetry – its impact is forceful.
It is this impact that we need to hold onto. Performances at events like Roundhouse’s Last Word Festival remind us of poetry’s ability to unite us. With the prevalence of social media, poetry can be shared ubiquitously, making it more accessible than ever before. However, when we experience poetry through performance, we can engage with words in an unparalleled way. Spoken word poetry shows us that anyone can have a voice. It brings us together, and this is extremely important in our divided world. Poetry is a dynamic platform for expression and change, not an ‘elite’ practice as Nikita Gill emphasises. Like music, anyone can appreciate it and anyone can get involved. Poetry has no prerequisites – you only need your words. With this in mind for the approaching Roundhouse Poetry Slam Final, I cannot wait to experience this year’s inspiring voices.
The 2022 Last Word Festival takes place from the 9th -23rd June at Roundhouse. The events list and tickets can be accessed here.
Edited by Maisie Allen, Literature Editor