Originally written for Fest Magazine.
“I don’t really know what it is, spoken word. What the fuck is it?” jokes Kate Tempest, her infectious laughter ringing down the phone. But she has a point. What is spoken word? Despite gaining its own section in the Edinburgh Fringe programme last year and being stamped as a burgeoning cultural scene, the genre straddles a huge range of artistic practices. It’s an artform that revels in mixing influences.
“There’s a lot of snobbery,” Tempest reflects on her own experience of the spoken word label. “If you’re a spoken word poet, you’re not quite a real poet; if you’re a spoken word artist, you’re not quite a rapper; if you’re a spoken word theatre-maker, you’re not quite a theatre-maker.”
Whatever snobbery spoken word might have faced in the past, however, the Fringe is an increasingly welcoming place for performers whose work falls into this boundary-blurring space. As well as an expanded range of offerings in the second year of the spoken word section, 2013 sees two spoken word performances make it into the British Council Showcase: Tempest’s Ted Hughes Award-winning show Brand New Ancients and Inua Ellams’ Black T-shirt Collection.
Despite growing up performing her poems—“it’s never been surprising for me that people stand up and tell their rhymes”—Brand New Ancients marks something of a departure for Tempest. Blending storytelling, poetry and an electrifying live score, the show intertwines the tales of two modern day families, spinning an epic narrative out of ordinary lives. “I’ve never done anything like it,” says Tempest. “I’ve never sustained a narrative for that long; I’ve never tried to tell a story like this.”
Her starting point, she explains, was the idea of myths. “I’ve always found a lot of comfort in reading myths,” she says. “In the myths I recognise friends of mine, recognise my family, recognise myself.” Wondering why these characters that she recognised all around her could not have myths of their own, Tempest set about the task of creating just that. Her heroes are compassionate barmaids and dissatisfied advertising execs; they drink pints down the local and hang out at the betting shop. As Tempest points out, “you don’t really get to hear epic narratives about people who aren’t epic heroes”.
As well as drawing heavily on storytelling and poetry, the live score is central to Brand New Ancients. Music appeals to Tempest because, unlike with poetry, “you’re straight in, there’s no faffing around with language”. Uncharacteristically, she fumbles slightly for the words to express music’s narrative power. “There’s just something that happens when you hear a violin soaring and when you watch a drummer going for it – there’s something that happens to you,” she says.
Inua Ellams equally identifies a range of different influences in Black T-shirt Collection, which combines the simple art of telling a story with poetic and multimedia elements. “I don’t even necessarily think of it as spoken word or as performance poetry,” he says, shaking off the spoken word label as restlessly as Tempest. It’s just a story, he shrugs.
Criss-crossing the globe from Nigeria to Britain to China, Ellams’ story follows two foster brothers—one Muslim, one Christian—who travel the world selling their T-shirts. While Ellams is keen to emphasise the simplicity of the tale, along the way the brothers’ experiences touch on issues as diverse as sectarian violence, homophobia and the ethics of the fashion industry. “The story covers so many things and does so very honestly,” he reflects.
Ellams’ aim, similarly to Tempest’s, is to identify the human narrative at the heart of his subjects. “Whenever I read stories about politics they tend to bore me,” he admits, pointing to the lack of a human connection. “That’s what I try to do,” he continues, “just tell stories about two guys and how the world happens to them.”
As well as being a consummate storyteller, Ellams very much identifies himself as a poet, explaining that the page is usually his first consideration. He describes the range of his work in terms of transformation. “Usually I think of myself as Bruce Banner,” he grins, seizing with glee on the superhero metaphor. “When I write a poem I think of myself as this scientist, this geek with glasses, conducting literary experiments with paper and pen. And then I think of myself reading poems as somewhere in between.” It’s only in his solo shows, when harnessing theatrical elements, that he’s the Hulk – “the monster is entirely unleashed.”
Elsewhere in the spoken word programme at this year’s Fringe, the offerings are equally varied. From the chaotic spontaneity of an ad-libbing show at the Assembly Rooms to a range of one-off talks from speakers such as Jeanette Winterson and Jon Ronson, spoken word is a patchwork genre. Among the highlights are the return of Scroobius Pip, poet John Osborne’s follow-up to the acclaimed John Peel’s Shed, and Luke Wright’s new show Essex Lion.
As Wright explains, his show was born from the inspiration of the false lion sightings in Essex last year and has ended up bringing in a range of poems about the things we want to see. “I think we’re always looking for those things in the next field, those things on the horizon,” he says. “All the poems are quite unrelated in their subject matter, but they’ve all got that at their core; they’re all about longing in some way and wishful thinking and self-deception.”
Discussing the spoken word scene, Wright is more pragmatic about the terms in which it is described. “Labels exist for a reason,” he points out, and he speaks of the launch of the spoken word section in the Fringe programme as “hugely symbolic.” For all these artists, however, the work itself is more important than the words used to discuss it.
“Hopefully there are a lot of writers coming through who are exploring new places and having new ideas and going on this huge adventure with text,” says Tempest. “Whatever form that comes in, if that’s happening we should be really, really, really glad.”