Particular Poetics: Spoken Word Poetry

By Maxine Kozak, Writer for RU Student Life

Each month, we explore poetic genres and feature Toronto poets. This month, we’re looking at spoken word poetry.

By nature, spoken word poetry is rooted in oral traditions that can be traced back centuries. As poet Etheridge Knight wrote, “there were poets long before there were printing presses”. Characterized by rhyme, repetition, improvisation, and wordplay, the genre can be considered a mixed-media art form of sorts as it often blends elements of music and theatre.

The genre emerged from the jazz poetry of the 1920s and the subsequent experiments of 1950s beat generation. American poet and critic Edward Hirsch wrote that the spoken word genre encompasses a wide range of writing that is recited aloud including poetry readings, poetry slams, hip hop, jazz poetry, beat poetry and prose monologues. The main divergence lies within spoken word’s departure from physical aesthetics and in turn, an emphasis on the aesthetics of sound.

Later, in the 60s, spoken word flourished as a popular voice for counterculture. The nature of the genre was perfectly suited for passionate, creative expression and protest. Born out of the harsh socio-political climate of the time, the 60s and 70s marked the emergence of The Black Arts Movement. Artists of the movement sought to create politically engaged work that explored the African American cultural and historical experience.

While the movement is now regarded as controversial on the basis of sexism among other things, legendary female poets Audre Lorde and Maya Angelou gained lasting recognition for their work during this time. Moreover, the Black Arts Movement helped lay the foundation for modern-day spoken word and hip-hop. In 1984, the first poetry slam was held in Chicago.

Slam poetry is a competitive poetry performance in which audience members score performers and winners are determined by total points. To make the distinction between spoken word poetry: slam poetry is a variation of spoken word poetry. All slam poetry is spoken word, but not all spoken word poetry is written to be performed at slams. As academic Shiv. R Desai writes, “slams are a place where hip hop meets poetry”.

The first national poetry slam was held in 1990 and has since become an annual event. Since then, spoken word poets began to gain recognition online through various forums including Button Poetry. Spoken word poetry is also abundant on college and university campuses as many schools send students to compete in the annual College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (including Ryerson).

Slam poetry competitions often feature radical poems that display both intense content and sound. Today, these poets aid in keeping activism alive in facilitating difficult conversations about cultures of exclusion and oppression. Desai writes, “Marginalized youth of colour manifest their imaginative, innovative, and ingenious utilization of language in a variety of ways: hip hop culture, spoken word poetry and dancehall culture. In each case, youth deploy language to (de)code, subvert, resist, and invent new ways to express themselves; read the world and engage in entertainment”.

Spoken word poetry is often a way of reclaiming power and agency in the sense that one is able to seize control of the narrative of one’s own life, often for the first time. Desai writes, “From the blues to jazz to reggae to spoken word to hip hop, the arts are an open arena where language can be concealed, contested and expressed. Here, there is room to test the limits of language by applying racial epitaphs, profanity, and double entendre. The arts provide an avenue to creatively express everyday language practices to articulate our lived realities.”

Through his paper, Shiv R. Desai illustrates how “spoken word for many youth is an important doorway to finding their voice, speaking their truths, politicizing their consciousness, and restoring their humanity.” He says that, “spoken word is a form of resistance discourse that pleases, humours, and educates the audience because it wakes up the third eye and keeps it blinking”.

Featured Poet of the Month: Robert Molloy

~ Robert Molloy (he/him) is a trans masculine poet. He is a third year politics and governance student at Ryerson University. He is the Trans Collective Coordinator at the Ryerson Students Union Equity Service Centres. Robert uses poetry as a way to educate and entertain.. He has written about his experience as a trans person, sexual violence, mental illness, and many more difficult subjects. He has featured with the BAM Youth Slam team in 2018 at the Toronto Poetry Slam Finals. He has attended the College and Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI) for the last two years. In 2018, the team won “Pushing the Art Forwards” and placed 16th out of 66 teams in Philadelphia. Right now, he is preparing for the 2019 CUPSI with his team and they leave for Houston in April. Robert is a self-professed terrible dancer. His 2019 New Years Resolution is to tell his friends that he loves them more.

Looking for spoken word in the city?

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