Despatches from the Poetry Frontline
Once every five years, one of the newspapers will run a feature on performance poetry – or spoken word, as the younger generation are tending to call it. The feature will tell how the journalist has stumbled upon an exciting underground movement in a room above a London pub. They will go on to say that the feisty material on offer has dispelled images of ‘young men in berets swooning over daffodils’ and convinced them that they have witnessed the birth of the new rock ’n’ roll. Our intrepid stringer may even have penned a swift verse and taken the mic in person. After this, however, the paper will never mention spoken word again until the five-year cycle next comes round.
Meanwhile, the poetry circuit simply shrugs and carries on. They’d wondered who that weird, drunk newcomer had been, ambling in last month like a plain-clothes policeman. Not that there’s such a thing as bad publicity, of course – it’s just the predictability of it all. In a way, the newspaper was right: they had indeed discovered the last untapped underground art-scene. And despite those cyclic features, despite the occasional crossover poet hitting the big time (Kate Tempest, Scroobius Pip), the genre does sometimes seem destined to be always the bridesmaid.
So why is this? Well, for a start it is almost impossible to earn of living from. The exceptions are those who, like Tempest, get Mercury nominations, or those who, like Murray Lachlan Young, are snapped up by a record company that think they have just stumbled upon the new rock ’n’ roll (sorry, you may be hearing this phrase a lot). And in the latter’s case, let’s face it, it all fizzled out pretty quickly. Most people who truthfully describe themselves as poets will make their money from going into schools and running workshops. Which is, of course, glamorous in its own way, but requires plenty of hard work and plenty of getting to faraway places by 8 o’clock – and we’re not talking p.m. here. The performance side pays next to nothing. I once travelled from London to Staffordshire and did a performance for which I was paid in jars of chutney. Not that I minded – it was tasty stuff.
What, then, is our motivation for sticking with this bizarre artform? After all, most of us have lost count of the number of times we’ve said ‘Never again’ after dying on stage. Perhaps it’s the frustrated rockstar thing – ‘I may have zero musical talent, but at least I can declaim my poetry’. Or maybe we like to imagine that we’re perpetuating some primal, bardic tradition. There are other reasons, of course. A few years ago, an acquaintance of mine wrote a doctorate on it, and got several of us to take part. She identified eight broad reasons for being a performance poet. I found myself in a category – consisting of one other person – whose prime motive was simply to entertain. The other chap is now a bestselling children’s author. Once again, never the bride.
So there you go: it’s entertainment, it’s ars gratia artis, it’s a dirty job and, if I’ve not already made it clear, it’s the new rock ‘n’ roll.
Russell Thompson 2016
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About the Author
Russell Thompson is a poet, performer and archivist.