Enter the world of spoken-word poetry with two multi-award-winning poets: from Australia, Zohab Zee Khan, and from the UK, Harry Baker, world poetry slam champion in 2012. Listen to the interview on the player below or read extracts, transcribed here.
What exactly is spoken-word poetry?
Zohab Zee Khan: Spoken-word poetry essentially is poetry that’s designed to be performed rather than read. I think there’s a performance aspect to it, it’s all about how you deliver it and it’s a little bit different to page poetry, I think.
Is there a link between spoken-word poetry and rap?
Harry Baker: For me, yes. I think it depends on the performer. I came from a rap background, so there’s still a lot of rhyme and rhythm in what I do, but equally, there are spoken-word performers who would be quite keen to distance themselves from that. I think both performance arts involve words, so there are comparisons but it’s not 100 per cent connected.
Can spoken-word poetry ever be published in book form?
ZZK: At times. Sometimes you can have -- for me personally anyway -- poetry that I read on stage that reads quite well, and then there’s poetry that I read on stage that doesn’t really read so well on paper because you need that rhythm, you need that performance aspect to it. When it’s not that, when it’s missing, you feel like there’s something not quite there. But most page poetry and spoken-word poetry do translate well, it just depends on the performance aspect of it.
In fact, Harry Baker is soon to publish a book of his poems…
HB: I write things that I aim to perform, so I thought the idea of publishing a book sounds strange, but the amount of people after gigs who have asked to read through the text […] I met someone and asked them about it and they said, for them, writing a book of their poems is a way of having them there as a solid thing, and not forgetting them when you go on to write new stuff or when you stop performing the old poems so, I’ve loved the process of creating this book. My brother’s a graphic designer and he’s doing the pictures for it.
When you perform your poems, you know who you’re performing them to. You know there’s YouTube and video and you know it gets shared further, but it’s about that moment then. With a book, you don’t know where that goes, how far that goes, who reads that, and what influence that can then have.
Spoken-word poetry is often performed at a poetry slam. What is a poetry slam?
ZZ: A poetry slam is essentially a bunch of poets getting into a room and performing their poetry. Usually, there’s a time limit, usually about three minutes. Some slams in Australia, where I’m from, have a limit of two minutes. Generally how the scoring works is: the audience judge the poets so they’ll get flashcards where they can put a score anywhere between zero to ten. I once saw a person put infinity -- I don’t think that happens too often though. And the scores are judged by the audience, and the best poet wins on the day or the poet with the highest score, which isn’t necessarily the best poet.
How competitive are poetry slams?
ZZK: I think there is a huge competitive element in poetry slam. You can see the ones that take it absolutely seriously [...] whereas some people are just there to have fun [...]. There’s no fun in taking it too seriously, there’s no fun in considering it to be some sporting event, even though it could be a sporting event to some degree -- you’re still getting judged, you’re going up against other poets, but at the end of the day, Mark Smith, I think the founder of poetry slam said ‘The point’s not the point, the point is poetry…’ something like that. […] It doesn’t really matter who wins or loses, I think the fact there are people up there sharing their work is the most important aspect of it all.
Do performers always use their own materials?
HB: I’ve been to events that are called ‘dead or alive’ slams where they have people performing their own work going head-to-head with people performing work of dead poets. So it’s fully down to them bringing these old texts to life through their performance.
For me, a lot of what makes the performance poetry or the spoken word so incredible to watch is that personal connection with the performer. So for me, knowing this person has written the work and is sharing it is what makes it powerful. Because it’s performance, [it] doesn’t mean that it needs to be timed hand gestures and shouting; some of the most powerful performances I’ve seen have been someone speaking softly into a microphone. But it’s because it’s their words and their heart -- it’s still them speaking to people.
Is a poetry slam just a way of making poetry sexier and more accessible?
HB: Poetry slam was started in Chicago about 30 years ago because the guy running these events was fed up with the idea of poetry being elitist or, you know, you have to have an English degree to understand the people’s work. So he set up, you know, almost the gimmick of this competition because it meant the audience had a say. If someone’s alienated them for three minutes, they can tell them that’s two out of ten, if someone’s tugged their heart strings, made them laugh, made them cry all in the space of ten seconds, then they can let them know. So this audience reaction was encouraged and it basically caught on in a big way. Now there’s massive national slams and international slams, and it does make it more accessible for those who would feel threatened by the idea of a poetry reading. […] What I don’t think it is, is dumbing it down. The most powerful poetry I’ve seen has probably been at poetry slams. It does reach new audiences but I don’t think it does that by compromising its integrity.
Is [poetry slam] a new phenomenon?
ZZK: Poets have been performing their poems to large audiences since time began. I heard a little quip the other day where someone told me that in the ancient Olympics, one of the events was poetry slam in some sense of the word. […] Poetry is the manner in which we speak. [Poetry slam] is affecting a new generation of poets. I go to a lot of high schools and I can see the way that they're engaged by the spoken word. I have a little bit of a hip hop influence to the manner in which I perform the spoken word, and I do have other work as well, and you can see that it engages the kids a lot more, and it engages audiences a lot more, and we’re living in a technological age where everything’s on the tip of our fingers, where no-one reads books anymore because we’re just waiting for the movie to come out, no-one watched TV shows, we’ll just watch the best bits on YouTube. And all of a sudden we’ve got seven-second Vines that are keeping us entertained… and there is an aspect of people wanting instant gratification but it doesn’t cheapen poetry in any way. There’s still the essence of brilliant poets on stage. Some of the best poems I’ve ever heard have been at poetry slams.
Both Harry Baker and Zohab Zee Khan frequently lead workshops on spoken-word poetry. What goes on in a workshop?
HB: For me, it’s just about getting people to write. At that particular age of teenagers it depends on the person, but often, the only thing that’s stopping them from writing is themselves. So the first thing is breaking down that barrier and letting them know there’s not a particular formula you have to follow to create a poem. You know, there’s many different types of poetry: rhyming, non-rhyming, whatever, and just giving them exercises to get them to write and feel that joy of writing. And then the second thing is the joy of sharing that. Again, standing up in front of your friends and doing a poem, for some people, is the most terrifying thing you can imagine. But getting that feeling of performing in front of people that you trust, and getting feedback, and getting encouragement, that’s almost enough to give them the bug and getting them to think ‘OK, I want to write more, and I want to share more with my friends'. [...]
ZZK: It’s essentially just getting them to write, giving them writing exercises, teaching them that there’s other ways that you can approach writing. It doesn’t necessarily mean putting pen to paper […] it’s about expressing what’s in your head. One of the favourite workshops that I just recently did: I had this two-month mentorship in a boys' high school in Sydney – it’s a stereotypically lower socio-economic area. The boys, when I went into the classroom, they didn’t want to be there […], not really having a fond feeling towards writing and expressing themselves. But when we were done with it, we turned it into a little bit of a football team. We called each other the poetic warriors, we were thumping our chest, we were doing little chants -- and it’s not necessarily about writing, it’s about instilling confidence, it’s about changing the way that they perceive themselves. A little acronym that we came up with in that particular high school was BTBMYCB, and every time they were acting up I was like 'BTBMYCB!', and it meant ‘Be The Best Man You Can Be’. And if that fits within their philosophy of ‘be the best man they can be’, they’re allowed to continue with that behaviour. If it doesn’t, you better stop it. And that’s what poetry is about for me, poetry is about changing the world, poetry is about expressing what I have inside of me. […] Only when you express and put down on paper and get out your mouth what you think about the world, do you know what you stand for. And whether or not that’s right or wrong, your peers will tell you.
Zohab Zee Khan on the universal appeal of spoken-word poetry
It was winter in Australia. I don’t like winter, so I packed my bags and bought a ticket to Malaysia – and I’ve been slowly country-hopping all the way to Europe. I’ve been performing along the way and seeing some amazing poets. The poetry in Malaysia is different to the poetry in Singapore, which is a couple of hundred kilometres away. And the poetry in Sri Lanka blew my mind. It’s not just in the western world that poetry, and spoken-word poetry in particular, is influencing. We’ve been using our words from day one, even before the written word, and we’ve been sharing stories with one another. […] You don’t need instruments, it’s just your mouth, it’s just your words, and that’s how you express yourself, and that’s how you tell people ‘this is my story’. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a political poem – I lean that way –some people say ‘this is how funny I am, would you like to hear my jokes in a rhythmical manner'. That’s what spoken-word poetry is, I think, and that’s the beauty of the uniqueness that is poetry and the way that we can express ourselves in different languages and tell people what we’re thinking on the inside.
[The interview is followed by poetry performances]