On the mutation of performance poetry into spoken word, and the resulting slow death of whimsy.

Reading Pete Bearder’s wonderful book on the history of spoken word, and listening to the Poet Waffle podcast in which Daniel Cockrill interviewed Jonny Fluffypunk, both spent time lamented that the age of the experimental cabaret performance poet seemed to have passed. A movement in which the term performance poetry seems to encompass everything from naked juggling to indoor fireworks, a time in which the performance of poetry was tied in with either physical prowess and spectacle, or the creation of a separate persona, a poetry character. I’m sure there are performers out there who are still up to these sorts of shenanigans, but they don’t seem as prevent as they used to be. And that’s a bit of a shame, in a way.

When I first started performing over ten years ago, these sorts of performers were the only ones that I knew about. Rachel Pantechnicon, Chloe Poems and others seemed to mix the cabaret style which I craved with poetry in a way that was almost offhanded, they could have been doing anything but it just happened to be poetry. They could have been reading the bus timetable, and it felt like these were just the tips of the iceberg, that a whole world out there existed of quirky characters mixing poetry and all manner of performance art.

It must be said that the Torbay scene, to which I belong, seems to have clung on the longest to this mindset and a healthy local scene exists of poets of spectacular variety and, dare I say if, oddness. Ten years ago, Chris Brooks at Poetry Island and Bryce Dumont at Word Command would invite down the finest performers whose prime purpose was spectacle and comedy. And when I started performing, they encouraged me to be as wacky as possible. I lament the fact that I did not choose an alternative name for myself, but over those first few years I pushed the boundaries of what I thought performance poetry might be. I created a robot to perform on my behalf, Robot Garnham, and I would often perform from the middle of the street, or by phone from the toilets. I performed while eating crisps, or while playing darts. I performed while covered in a blanket because I said I was scared of the audience. I performed from inside a box. I performed while accompanied by a salad spinner, which does a great impersonation of the Paris metro. I performed while on a circular disc which would spin me around. And it all seemed perfectly normal.

And now, I’m achingly mainstream. I discovered slam poetry and won a few slams here and there, and then decided that everything should fit in to three minutes.

When I look at the spoken word community these days there are still plenty of poets who inspire me and make me excited, but the fact remains that over the last ten years, the scene has shifted. Performance poetry is now spoken word, which implies a lack of performance. Poems are earnest and introspective, autobiographical and issue led, which is a good thing, but often you go to a spoken word night and they’re all the same. It’s wonderful, but it gets you down after a while. There are lots of people, but not many characters. Everyone seemed heavily influenced by the culture of slam poetry and by those American poets who shout a lot and hardly pause for breath and get millions of YouTube views. It’s like a sub genre of performance poetry has taken over the scene completely.

And if I can pinpoint the one thing that seems to have killed off the scene in the most part, it would be the slam poetry culture of no props, no costumes. It’s like the slam poetry genre was invented to mitigate against actual performance or spectacle. Maybe there should be a new sub genre of slam itself, weird slam, where anything goes, the bigger the spectacle, the bigger the mark.

And me? I’ve been trying to fit in with both distinct styles. I think I’m probably somewhere in the middle. Yes, I do slam poems, but I try not to be too autobiographical, (my life is far too boring), and I try to have an issue or two beneath the surface. But lately, artistically, I’ve been thinking that the excitement of those early years has been replaced by the need to fit in with the current style.

Bryce Dumont was nice enough, ten years ago, to record every performance I did, and I have all these audio files. They’re a remarkable source of inspiration and I have been going through them, remembering what it was I was doing. I can’t wait to start rehearsing and just going wherever the muse might take me.

This is not to say that the character driven cabaret style of performance poetry is dead. Miserable Malcolm is a superb and hilarious invention, Jonny Fluffypunk is still out there doing his thing, and Rachel Pantechnicon has made one or two appearances of late. It seems, maybe just to me, that the spoken word scene and the performance poetry scene are two different scenes, one rhythm led and rightly obsessed with delivery and writing and heartfelt honesty, the other led more by spectacle and downright weirdness.

So that’s why I say here today, let’s bring back the weirdness! And Torbay seems the only place in the country where that weirdness is still inherent. Tom Austin, Steve O, Shelley Szender and, dare I say if, myself, turning up week after week being as odd and as silly and as funny as we possibly can. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to bring back the whimsy!

See also https://robertdgarnham.wordpress.com/2018/09/14/spoken-word-as-fun-the-peculiar-torbay-spoken-word-micro-climate/

Author: Robert Garnham

Performance and spoken word artist.

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