I recently had the pleasure of speaking with the Dr. Seuss lovin’ Tim Sinclair about all things Spoken Word. This interview with alicia sometimes continues to dig deep into the world of the spoken word, the opportunities for publication that exist and the art of performance. Questions by Clint Creagan.
Some people have suggested that the term ‘spoken word’ is used by those who are afraid or ashamed to call the work ‘poetry’. What are your thoughts on this?
Spoken word is a term that is used because it encompasses far more than just poetry. Poetry is often literature in a metrical form, usually verse. There are endless definitions and types of poetry just as there are many descriptions and forms of spoken word. Spoken word is spoken. Not sung or in print form. Spoken word can be just the sound of a repetitive voice, a speech, a rant, a monologue, a dialogue, a scream or text fused with music, sound or samples. I would call any poem read aloud as spoken word but it is usually a term that is referred to when the piece is completely off the page – performed, rehearsed and experimented with sound (especially voice).
Spoken word is not just a cool word for poetry. Neither term gets the movie going public to stop what they’re doing.
What opportunities are out there for spoken word artists to have their work published?
The best opportunity is under their noses. It is so cheap and easy to record your own work today. Recording studios are not thousands of dollars any more and it is both accessible and necessary to record your own work: to become producer, musician, work in collaboration and get your pieces out there. Many bands do it, so should spoken word artists. Spoken word pieces have had top 40 hits. If you can’t name them it’s because they didn’t market it that way – it’s called hip hop, rap or simply not given a name. Websites are great for promotion also.
Many performers will go from performing their work at many poetry readings to having their own shows. Again, the term ‘spoken word’ is often left out – most will call it a play, monologue, cabaret, performance etc…
Do you think we will see more opportunities for the publication of performance poetry in the future?
Yes, because artists won’t rely on the journals, magazines or anthologies to come up with an idea, they’ll do it themselves.
You have performed your work and been published many times. Do you think your performances and your published work have complimented each other?
In many cases the work is completely different. I started out performing spoken word with musicians (playing bass and speaking is kinda hard to do but it was fun). I did that for 5 years before I even attempted ‘reading’ my work. I am more interested in being published for the page than I was back then. I like the challenge and the difference. With print I have the chance to change and edit, on stage it’s more of a instant buzz or an instant death. Both compliment each other because my performance work is often very different in style and content than my print poetry. I get to have different depths.
Do you consider that some of your own poems are written specifically for performance and would therefore not work for the page, and vice versa?
Some poems wouldn’t work on page because they are meant to be spoken – by using gesture, pauses, subtlety, timing, immediacy, feedback etc Some wouldn’t work on stage because they rely on texture, visual cues, word plays etc. Others work for both. I like the fact that words can be that different.
What makes a good performance poem?
Communication with audience. Learning the work. Thinking about the piece and understanding it the way an actor would with words from a play. Sincerity (even with humour). Confidence.
Can a good performance draw attention away from bad writing?
Yes but if it takes attention away from bad writing then perhaps it could be a great performance piece. What is bad writing? If someone gets up on stage and says a very simple sentence like ‘My underpants are on fire’ (hardly Shakespeare) and receives giddy applause then what makes it bad? If the way the performer expresses themselves is in context, humorous or meaningful etc then it can be fantastic entertainment. Is it a poem? Maybe not, but who cares? Poetry critics? If it was spoken, it’s spoken word. Is it genius? Well, if it made you smile, cringe, think etc, maybe. Crap writing plus crap performance equals bad audience reaction. Crap writing on the page is naked and so is a performer standing in front of an audience in front of a mike. The audience will tell them soon enough. If they’re listening.
Nothing kills great writing faster than it being performed in a horrible, dull or bland way. This is because the author is not thinking about the medium that they’re using. I’ve seen it happen with amazing writers. You’ll lose people.
What do you see as the benefits of performing your own work?
Immediate feedback, chance to enhance the work, a chance to have fun. I love performing, don’t have to wait until the piece is ‘published’.
As a previous editor of Going Down Swinging you have had a first hand account of what it takes to record and publish spoken poetry. What difficulties did you find in this process? What are the benefits?
With other people’s work the difficulties are actually getting the performers from out of their hiding places. Once in the studio, most writers are amazing: in their originality, creative drive, experimentation and enthusiasm. They are often surprised at the endless ways of layering their work and creating full pieces.
When authors submit their own work often their pieces are badly recorded (you’d never hand in a poem on dog eaten pages) or are simple ‘dry’ readings which can (not always of course) sound average and uninteresting. You can tell they’ve never listened to other recordings. The hardest problem though, at first, was actually receiving the work .
Some people have suggested that much of the performance poetry we see today, tends toward what stand up comedians are attempting, which relies on timing and wit, but is one dimensional in its range. What are your thoughts on this?
Again, I think that poetry at ‘readings’ MUST be entertaining. Poetry/spoken word doesn’t have to be loud or hammed up or bedded with music but it must be interesting. Too many poets forget their audiences, it is a different medium to the page. Not better or worse or one dimensional. Just think of the times you have been most impressed, involved or entertained at a poetry reading – it is often because the performer was funny, insightful, unique, engaging etc (even controversial). Are people that afraid to laugh?
alicia sometimes is a Melbourne poet/writer/musician. She is co-host of 3RRR’s spoken word and books show, Aural Text, and has performed at many festivals and venues both locally and internationally. She has also performed in front of fish, on a tram, across the Nullarbor, with a stuffed horse and on ABC TV’s Sunday Arts. She was co-editor of Going Down Swinging for six years. Her first book is kissing the curve (FIP)
Find out more: