Spoken Word performances are taking the LGBT creative community by storm. Steve Bustin talks to the men and women who write the words and tell the stories
Speaking out loud is something that comes naturally to most of us. Whether we’re posing a question, expressing an opinion or just passing the time of day, the spoken word is our prime method of communication.
So it’s perhaps natural that it can be turned into a performance, too. Spoken Word events are having a bit of a “moment” right now, and LGBT Spoken Word artists are creating nights that offer a safe space for writers, poets and performers to explore themselves, the LGBT community and the wider world.
Dean Atta is a poet (check out his book I’m Nobody’s Nigger) and runs LGBT Spoken Word night Come Rhyme With Me in both London and Brighton. Dean says safe spaces are important for people to explore writing and performing:
“For us as queer writers it’s important that we have our spaces to do what we do, with a majority LGBT audience so we feel safe. I’ve really appreciated having spaces where people could appreciate what I’m saying, as I don’t want people to critique my art based on my lifestyle, but on its artistic value.
“Having said that, you don’t need to be LGB or T to listen to an LGBT poet to understand them. You can step into someone’s world for three minutes and empathise with them – feel what they feel for a moment.”
Spoken Word seems like a pretty broad term, a catch-all for any sort of spoken performance, but to some it’s actually quite a specialist term, as Atta explains:
“Spoken Word is poetry, performed on stage or on video, in front of an audience. It’s about the sound of the words and it’s not the same as reading it on a page as it’s the writer delivering it straight to you, in their own voice, with their own emphasis. It’s words written with the intention of being read out loud, with a purpose to make you laugh, think, cry, to make you understand how the artist feels. It gets straight to the point in a way a lot of other art forms can’t.”
Spoken Word performer and poet Joelle Taylor agrees but says it’s about more than just the words:
“Spoken Word is essentially poetry in performance or live literature. The physical body is as important as the written script. It can have comedy and music involved but it is essentially poetry. It can also include rapping and MC’ing, especially when working with children.
“It’s a really immediate art form, though – it demystifies poetry and you can expect it to be very interactive as the audience completes the poem. A poet knows the poem isn’t complete until it’s been performed as the audience is as important as the poet.”
But Ellis Collins, who runs Brighton-based Spoken Word night Have a Word, sees Spoken Word as being wider than just poetry.
“For me Spoken Word covers all the genres of LGBT creativity. I’ve hosted people who write, recite poetry, sing and even speak about their photography. Spoken Word is poets or storytellers or novelists – people who come and share their words with my audience, in a non-judgemental environment where they can be creative, be listened to and be heard.”
Spoken Word nights have been springing up all over the country, some explicitly LGBT, others attracting a wider audience but offering an LGBT-friendly space, such as Newcastle night Jibba Jabba.
London is particularly well served, with the hugely successful Polari salons at the Royal Festival Hall, fronted by writer Paul Burston, attracting some of the top names in literature, poetry and spoken word, while new night QueerSay was recently launched by comedian, songwriter and journalist Rosie Wilby, offering a platform for LGBT performers, also broadcast on Out in South London on Resonance 104.4FM.
So why do Spoken Word nights seem to particularly resonate with LGBT people? Dean Atta thinks it’s because the spoken word resonates with the political as well as the personal:
“There’s so much going on in the LGBT community at the moment and there are so many people with something to say and spoken word is very direct. The LGBT community has so many important messages to get across about equality and spoken word is the perfect vehicle for an activist to put a message across – a lot of spoken word artists are activists before they’re artists.”
Ellis Collins of Have a Word thinks LGBT people are becoming more inspired and confident about expressing themselves in their own words:
“People are getting braver and realising that others are listening. For example, lots more trans people are coming out and one trans artist who performed their work for the first time at our event is now having a book published and is performing at non-LGBT events.
“I see more and more LGBT people getting inspired and getting creative and they’re coming to events like ours to explore that. They’re literally speaking what they’ve written and it’s like teenage diaries coming to life – people writing about their journeys. For an audience it makes you think about coming out, revisiting your experience through the experiences of someone else.”
Collins also sees a social side to the LGBT events.
“As we’re getting older and maybe not going out on the scene as much, we’re looking for new places to socialise. People come to Have a Word who I used to see in the clubs, but now they’re getting creative and inspired to explore and write.”
Joelle Taylor thinks anyone with something to say should get involved in Spoken Word.
“People really want to listen to what you’ve got to say and how you use your words, irrespective of your background. Go to an open-mic night, watch and join in. Most nights will have an open-mic section so get on stage. Remember that the gay community is involved on all nights, not just gay nights.”
Dean Atta agrees that the best way to get involved is to dive in.
“You only establish a reputation by getting involved. Practice is really important. Read a lot of poetry, watch poetry online, go to Spoken Word nights. Watch stuff you don’t like so you know what you don’t want to do. Get out there, be humble, go to Spoken Word open-mic nights. If you find other like-minded people near you, start a writers’ group or join one.
“LGBT voices need to be heard – we can’t sit back and wait to be perfect. We need to be out there, imperfect as we are, to encourage other people to also speak up.”