On the need for more critical writing about spoken word and the challenges of it

When we began Melbourne Spoken Word as a blog, primarily as a gig guide, listing all the gigs in one place, one other gap it also tried to fill was to create a space for not just spoken word, but writing about spoken word, news and interviews, reviews and generally critical discussion about spoken word and performance poetry in this city.

There are a lot of poets out there, many a bar or art space full of poets performing words around this city, but compared to other art forms, very little in the way of critical discussion around what we do. When I say ‘critical,’ I don’t mean criticism in its negative sense. I’m not saying spoken word would be better if more people wrote about how shit other poets are, more that our craft can improve based on us finding the words and the space to explore why we like some pieces or performers more than others, beyond good and bad. I feel like the ability and prevalence of us being able to professionally and honestly look at the work of ours peers, look what is done well and how, and what is less so (without reducing criticism to personal attacks or conclusions with no evidence or balance) is a step toward maturing as an art form.

In this post I want to make an argument that we should look at doing more of this, but also explore some of the particular difficulties or challenges this presents us.

A lot of these questions struck me after Amal Ibrahim shared with us on the Facebook page a blog post by Katie Ailes, a Glasgow based writer, about the difficulties of publishing spoken word, specifically performance poets publishing their work in print or text-based forms. In the beginning of the post, one point struck me, when she said, “performance poetry as a genre also carries with it the drawback that it is ultimately ephemeral.”

I’m not sure I agree with that statement in its entirety but it points at perhaps one of the main difficulties of how we go about writing critical about spoken word in that it is rarely ever a static object. With page poetry, theatre even, and forms close to us, there is something obvious to review. It’s usually a book, or a show, an album. Spoken word of course have these objects too. You can review their chapbook, their print collection, a spoken word album, and with shows like Loop City, featuring Amanda Anastasi and Steve Smart, that’s a stand alone show that is basically the same thing each time it’s performed.

But our work is largely dealt in formats often rarely repeated. We can review ‘regular gigs’ like Passionate Tongues or The Dan. In this, perhaps you’re speaking to an audience of poets or regular poetry audiences about why go to that particular gig on that night of the week in that venue. You can’t really judge it based on going to one instance of it alone. You can’t necessarily judge it on the features for that fortnight as coming back the next fortnight you will find completely new poets featuring.

Over a few fortnights, you might be able to judge the mood and atmosphere of the event averaged out, averaging out the features presented and their overall style and quality, as well as what the open mic is like as both the audience and as a performer/reader.

On the flip side, is it necessarily fair to review a poet on one feature alone? Feature performances can vary depending on the venue they’re performing in, if they’re performing to new audiences and so performing old favourites or in front of regular crowd and so mostly presenting new work. It’s different if they’re presenting more of a ‘show,’ a set deliberately arranged like a collection but to review a poet based on one set doesn’t look at them completely. Do you then choose to review poets who do a run of features, and review them like that? I’m not so sure. Then you wouldn’t be able to review newer poets who only just get their first features. Perhaps you can review debut features on their own.

Reviewing poets over multiple features though perhaps tends to verge more on it being a profile rather than a review. Critical writing can of course vary as we explore the work of a poet, toward essay, mixed with interview, but I think it’s important that we remain open to exploring the critical content of what we’re saying so writing about spoken word doesn’t just become advertisements and praise, just describing what is great.

I’m not really meaning to prescribe how we approach it, and I think for the most part, how we go about critically engaging with spoken word will be developed through doing it more, working out what works and what doesn’t, but I think it needs to remain focussed on the performance of it, the live reading, as the primary source of it, and then reviewing publications are of course fine and worthy things to review but they are really often just artefacts or secondary sources of what we’re primarily interested in looking at.

We want to explore why it is that the live performance of poetry keeps us coming back, how poets manage to move us, excite us, make us question things and how we go about doing that ourselves in our own work, and to translate that in such a way that helps people newer to the scene to navigate what gigs they might want to go see and maybe even read on the open mic at or what poets they might be personally interested in going out to see next time they’re featuring somewhere else.

Photo by Thomas Hawk

Annie Solah