Reading into the Spoken Word

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I have always had the habit of unconsciously flailing my hands every time I speak in front of a crowd. When I found out that there is an art for it, no one had to coax me to try it. My favorite definition of Spoken Word Poetry is poetry that is too exuberant with emotion or energy or rhythm to be contained within paper. So instead it is performed on stage. Watching a spoken word poetry piece has an absolutely different effect altogether.

The realisation came to me at the time of Sarah Kay’s visit to Nepal in 2012. No, sadly, it was not after watching her astounding live performance, an opportunity I have yet to have. Instead, I listened to her on my computer, completely aware that a few kilometers away, she was speaking the same words in person, amidst a crowd of eager listeners.

Thank goodness for youtube that hosts a large number of spoken word videos from around the world. It allowed me—despite my ill fate—to watch my first spoken word online. Sarah Kay began, “If I should have a daughter, I would ask her not to call me mom but point B, so she would know that no matter what happens, she can always find her way back to me.”

After my who-speaks-like-that-anymore reaction to that, I scoured video channels for spoken word poets with the intention of picking up their poetry from left and right “like a radio antenna”—a metaphor conjured by a personal favorite Noah St. John in his performance The last mile. Poetry and consequently spoken word poetry is often densely packed with metaphors, except in spoken word, the poet gets to hear the audible awe it garners from the audience, in return. Or the mass snickering that it acquired, as can be heard in the performance videos of Noah’s less appropriate poems.

As in The last mile, a few poets choose to complement their spoken word performances with background music. This assists the audience in emulating the emotions of the poet better, which is part of the reason why the spoken word is almost unanimously a tear jerker.

Emulating the styles of a favorite sp oken word poet itself is a neat trick among most amateurs. That included me, until someone told me it is not necessarily a compliment to be told that you sound just like your favorite spoken word poet. A spoken word poet is supposed to explore her individuality in her poems.

While this makes complete sense, it is less easily employed in practice. Especially if you haven’t yet figured out in what ways you are unique. I think a good start though is to explore the more general themes by nitpicking at your more particular experiences. Sexual harassment of women is so popularly explored that anyone who has witnessed a live slam (spoken word poetry performed in a competition) should have heard at least one poem about rape. Yes, spoken word, like any other form of art, has been exploited to advocate different social issues; with some doing it more creatively than others. I find that the individuality is often a reliable benchmark for the creativity.

Ujjwala didi, an active Word Warrior (a group of spoken word poets), explored such a topic by capturing the anxiety of walking alone one late evening conflated with the huff and puff of climbing the steps of the overhead bridge in Ratna park. This experience which is particular to her is—at the same time—also more relatable to the Kathmandu audience and makes more sense than say a poem rendering slogans against harassment. Of course, those kinds of spoken word exist too.

I think people who claim spoken word poetry to be an untrue form of poetry arrive at their judgment hastily through their discovery of slam-poets who belong to diverse groups. Of course, spoken word will

have to differ from traditional poetry. It is a little like poetry and theatre had a baby

and the dense language of poetry ciphered only after multiple reading along with the extra stage equipment of theatre that were knocked out as recessive genes. I compare spoken word poems to different buildings whose finished product reflects the experiences it has been built upon. Some choose to make their buildings out of simple aligned brick structures; others have more complex arrangements. It is the buildings with ingenious wordplay, engaging plotline and subtle individuality that are substantial and thought provoking like poetry traditionally is.

The performance itself can range anywhere from a quiet recitation to possessing a beat-flow closely resembling rap. I did not know where my own spoken word poems would fall in this scale until I attempted it, which was months after my first encounter with a Sarah Kay video. However, its obvious influence in me was visible even before that, during class presentations. Finding your role models to employ the liberal hand movements also inherent in you allows you to have more confidence in your own.  Later, with spoken word, I have sometimes shared my stories, and other times, captured a sensation, like an extended haiku.

Published in The Kathmandu Post on 2014-06-16

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