Honest Criticism: the challenges of critiquing within a spoken word scene

One of the things Melbourne Spoken Word is going to try and focus on more in 2017 is the culture of critical discussion and writing about spoken word. Since we relaunched the website in 2015, we’ve had a few people review books, gigs and albums from around the scene but it’s never quite taken off as planned. I wrote in 2015 about the challenges of reviewing spoken word as an art form. But another element of this is how we go about having open and honest critical discussions about each other’s work as a close-knit community of artists.

So far, most of the reviews we’ve published have been wholly positive. Many of the reviews have been written by friends of the artist, or artists find someone they know to review the work. This isn’t in line with other publications that require minimal correspondence between the producer of the work and the reviewer, so it’s unbiased and as objective as possible. We’ve tried to address this by asking that reviews go through us. This is extra hard for us to avoid because most poets within the scene know each other.

“Friendly” reviews take on more of an explanatory role, almost advertorial in nature, describing a work they like and highlighting it for the rest of the community to engage with. This is one way of reviewing work, but another one that I think is beneficial and would enrich our artform is going beyond the surface level and having more critical discussions in a mature way. The issue is: how would poets react to critical or even somewhat negative writing about their work? How would you react if someone reviewed your chapbook and said some of the pieces fell flat in places, for example, or critiqued your work in depth? I think poets would react differently to this. Some might take the criticism on board or accept it as a difference of opinion, a different approach to the art form. Some might take it more personally or as an offence.

The point isn’t to trash a poet or take them down, nor to advise readers to avoid the book, but to offer a more nuanced and objective critique of the work. In an environment when it’s much more objective, the positive reviews stand out more and have much more value attached to them. Rarely is a work perfect, especially first collections and so a balanced review that might point out weaker elements gives the creator something to work on, to improve upon. Also, the discussion of weak techniques is beneficial to all of us practising as it forces us to examine our own techniques and work on improving the craft of our work. Over a year ago, Sam Ferrante, Arielle Cottingham and I started a workshop that evolved into a weekly thing, where poets would come and bring work for feedback. The ability and space to critique each others work, to pick out the bits that need improving or editing has improved the work of those involved. Public critique of major finished work within our scene is another layer of that. In some ways, critiquing spoken word work outside of our city might serve that same purpose but I think there is something unique going on in Melbourne, with the variety of styles and approaches within our own scene that deserves a special level of examination. We have poets who write for the page reading at events alongside slam poets in the same events.

We should also be able to more objectively and honestly discuss the field of spoken word in general, beyond what sometimes can happen in that some styles or tropes within our scene are trashed without anyone explaining why or how they think that is.

Of course, reviews that exist merely to highlight or celebrate a work still have their place, but spoken word that challenges, does something different or just does something that deserves closer inspection needs to be examined critically, and done in a way that is respectful of the author, not personal, but about the work itself. And the reviewer should be able to do that without fear of personal consequences, for instance, if someone doesn’t wholly praise the work of a poet who runs a gig, that shouldn’t mean the reviewer risks not being booked. It’s a challenge I wonder if we can overcome.

This isn’t a problem specific to the field of spoken word, though I think because our scene is smaller and revolves a lot around interacting with each other regularly in person at events, it makes the issue feel sharper and maybe harder to challenge.

Emmett Stinson discusses this in ‘How Nice Is Too Nice? Australian Book Reviews and the Compliment Sandwich.’ He cites an essay by Ben Etherington that claims most reviews go as far as the compliment sandwich, which cushions the blow of a critical comment by praising the work on either side of the criticism. Etherington claims this is done to avoid making enemies in a small literary circle. Though I can imagine that for some poets, a balanced critique and thorough discussion of their work, but a well-respected poet or critic in the field, or a *cough* well-respected website might be seen as taking the poet in question more seriously.

Criticism need not be negative. When approaching criticism of spoken word, when pointing out something that (for example) didn’t move the reader, or entertain them, make them think, you have to attempt to explain how and why. But this also applies to exploring parts of the work that excite, or as I like to say ‘hits you in the feels.’ How does it do that? Is it the uniqueness of the image or metaphor? You know when someone delivers a line that makes you see something differently from how you’ve thought of it before? How do they do that?

We’re proposing a new approach to reviews on the MSW website. We would like to help prepare our readership and writers/reviewers for the new approach by hosting a free workshop for those wanting to review for us. These workshops are a learning process for all of us involved. From this process, we would like to assemble a crew of reviewers that we can approach when we want a review of something. People who want their shows or publications reviewed on the Melbourne Spoken Word site will post us or email us the book, album and tickets etc. and we will assign the reviewer. No correspondence is to be entered into between the reviewer and reviewee, and if possible, you won’t know who’s doing the review until it’s published. Reviewers will need to pitch to us or stick their hand up to review the work. An email or Facebook message if often fine to reduce the risk of reviewing something someone’s already been assigned, but of course, if someone strikes you and you want to respond to, by all means, send it our way. We won’t accept reviews that have been lined up by the author or gig host though.

We want reviews that are at least 500 words if not more, and quote lines from the work, discuss the context of the work within the field of live performance. Even if it’s a book or album, we want to know how it fits within the scene. How does the artefact compare to hearing the poet read the work out loud in front of you? Do you pick up things you missed or does it feel more distant?

There will be space for both kinds of review, for the more in-depth, critical reviews and for the snapshot reviews, as well as when someone wants to write something more biased in nature. In some cases, an interview would be more appropriate if you feel like you don’t have enough distance from the author to respond objectively.

Often spoken word falls outside the attention of publications more interested in critical discussion, or is reviewed by people not so interested in spoken word as a particular artform, a particular approach to poetry, which is why I think it’s important we attempt to approach this area of criticism, so strengthen the way in which we write and speak.

[Photo by Brendan Bonsack]

Annie Solah