Bruno Cooke says the new Forward Prize category for Best Single Poem – Performed shows that the literary establishment is finally starting to take an interest in Spoken Word Poetry
It’s 2023, and there is a new category of Forward Prize: Best Single Poem – Performed. The times, they are a-changin’. This year is also the first that the Grammy Awards formally recognised the substantiality and legitimacy of the sub-genre – its new Best Spoken Word Poetry Album category marks a shift in the way the Recording Academy recognises writers and performers of spoken word poetry.
You’d be forgiven for wondering what made it necessary, since there has been a Best Spoken Word Album award category at the Grammys since 1959. But, as American poet J. Ivy explained to journalist Tiffany Cross last year, while the spoken word award may have included poetry, audiobooks and storytelling, “audiobooks dominated the category”. The various permutations of the Best Spoken Word Album award pre-2023 also encompassed documentary and drama; poets (read: Maya Angelou) make up a small minority of its winners. Jimmy Carter has won it three times. Bill and Hillary Clinton both won it. So have Michelle and Barack Obama. In other words, as long as they’ve both been playing the same game, politicians have beaten poets.
J. Ivy spent six years lobbying for the new award and won it for his album The Poet Who Sat By The Door. Now, he says, “we have a light shined on us”. “Let it be known,” he proclaimed as he thrust his Grammy into the air, “this is for the poets.”
J. Ivy started out “writing notes to girls” – with panache, no doubt. Then, while working as a community liaison for the Recording Academy, he realised how little he knew about the process of submitting to it. Sharing what he was learning with other poets reminded him of The Spook Who Sat By The Door, by Sam Greenlee, and he started joking that he was the “poet who sat by the door”. He liked the title, and his new eligibility for a Grammy motivated him to use it for something. Three years later, he was being honoured on the same stage, on the same evening, as Beyoncé and Dr Dre.
Spoken word poetry is entering mainstream consciousness, at least to an extent. Grammys go to artists like ABBA and Lady Gaga. Now they go to poets, too
His victory, and the award itself, shows that spoken word poetry is entering mainstream consciousness, at least to an extent. Grammys go to artists like ABBA and Lady Gaga. Now they go to poets, too. But it’s worth stressing that, in this case, it is becoming (more) mainstream as a part of music culture. As Ivy said during a recent Grammy roundtable interview, “poetry is, in fact, a big part of music. It’s important because spoken word poets and spoken word artists have been pushing the culture forward with their words, their ideas and their performances since the beginning of time.” Music is half of spoken word. The recording academy’s chief executive, Harvey Mason Jr, said it was all part of the organisation’s “fluidity” and ability to “evolve” to represent music “in the way that it’s being created”, i.e. in the form of spoken word poetry.
A less moveable feast
What the Forward Prize’s new category suggests, on the other hand, is that the ‘literary establishment’ is starting to take an interest in spoken word poetry. One of the ways in which this differs is that, at least in terms of the high profile awards it gives, the musical establishment is more flexible and dynamic. As Mason Jr suggested, Grammy Award categories come and go like … like … like women, talking of Michelangelo. There have been dozens. Obviously this has to do with public interest and market value, but to labour a point: since it was set up in 1992, there have only ever been three Forward Prize categories, and they have always been the same. The Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition – the ‘Wimbledon’ of poetry prizes – is for page poetry only.
There are competitions for spoken word poets, but they either lack status or exist on the other side of the world. The most prestigious prizes for UK-based spoken word poets, until this year at least, may be from winning slams, which comes with a certain stigma. Slam’s proponents argue that it challenges the authority of people who claim to know what literary quality is. In the Venn diagram of cultural outputs, slam and spoken word have a certain degree of overlap (they both inter-communicate with hip-hop and draw heavily on the speaker’s sense of identity), meaning that, as a literary gatekeeper, the Forward Prizes for Poetry’s opening up to spoken word artists represents something of a sea change.
In the Venn diagram of cultural outputs, slam and spoken word have a certain degree of overlap, meaning that, as a literary gatekeeper, the Forward Prizes for Poetry’s opening up to spoken word artists represents something of a sea change.
Its timing is also significant. Five years ago, poet and critic Rebecca Watts wrote an essay for PN Review in which she decried what she called the ‘cult of the noble amateur’, sweeping poets Hollie McNish, Kae Tempest and Rupi Kaur together with former president Donald Trump as “products of a cult of personality”. She wasn’t criticising spoken word poetry per se, but her recognition that McNish, for example, “resist[s] the appellation ‘spoken word poet’ because it can be a bit of a derogatory label” (my emphasis) is relevant here, indeed to any discussion of how far spoken word poetry is from being formally recognised. Especially as Watts’ polemic resulted from her refusal to review McNish’s debut poetry collection Plum on the grounds that “to do so for a poetry journal would imply that it deserves to be taken seriously as poetry”.
Room for all forms
McNish wrote in her response to Watts’ essay that the label ‘spoken word’ is “often used to imply all of the prejudices this article achieves”, which I found interesting. Before reading Watts’ essay, and McNish’s response, I had never encountered the notion that there should be any sort of prejudice against spoken word poets, or spoken word poetry as an art form. In the places you find it – at festivals and concerts, in cafes on university campuses and the back rooms of pubs – people love spoken word poetry. Spoken word poets love each other. John Cooper Clarke is revered, Dizraeli and Kae Tempest celebrated. There’s a raw intensity to the way performers and audiences connect with and respond to each other that makes the whole enterprise feel deserving of a place in the cultural landscape.
Before reading Watts’ essay, and McNish’s response, I had never encountered the notion that there should be any sort of prejudice against spoken word poets, or spoken word poetry as an art form
Of course, it’s important to concede that, as Watts argues, one’s fortune as a spoken word poet inevitably has to do with personality, or more specifically, likeability. Performance almost always does. As a result, some do well on the circuit without emphasising the ‘literariness’ of their art – just as, you might say, some visual artists land exhibitions with pieces so achingly simple that, technically speaking, someone with zero classical training could create them. I can think of at least one piece of classical music you’d need nothing but a stopwatch to compose. Such phenomena still register as art. They still get platforms, get critiqued, receive feedback from establishment figures. Whether or not it follows that McNish enjoying a successful career amounts to the “poetry world pretending that poetry is not an art form”, however, remains up for debate.
Chris Edgoose, who blogs under the name Wood Bee Poet, has praised Rebecca Watts for “sticking her neck out” – and Michael Schmidt’s magazine, too, for “stir[ring] up the cultural waters”, which he recognises is among the “most important functions of a literary journal”. I agree on both counts. Watts’ critique was, as Don Paterson wrote in The Guardian afterwards, ‘brave’, even if the anger it contains makes it unpersuasive. And McNish, Tempest and Kaur have, to their credit, “recruit[ed] a vast new audience for poetry”. As is to be expected of someone who tends to write about spoken word, I tend to agree with Lemn Sissay’s remark, that there is “room for all forms of poetry”. And a boon to one need not be a curse to others.
Something to shoot for
It’s easy to think of poetry as something that belongs exclusively on the page, and of a poet’s work as something self-contained. One reads it in private. We have been reading authorless texts since 1967; poems should speak for themselves. Schooling has a hand in this. The picture of poetry that English literature syllabi tend to paint consists in large part of war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and Carol Ann Duffy – stuff to be parsed and analysed with literary microscopes. There is value in this, even if it’s lost on most students. But war poetry such as Sassoon and Owen’s, indeed poetry as a whole, has roots not in clever wordplay and deft deployment of chiasmata, but in live action storytelling. It predates modern writing systems and, as such, carried several functions one might not associate with poetry today: it preserved history and maintained key cultural narratives; it immortalised acts of heroism. And perhaps most importantly, it provided raw entertainment. But only if the performances were good.
War poetry such as Sassoon and Owen’s, indeed poetry as a whole, has roots not in clever wordplay and deft deployment of chiasmata, but in live action storytelling
To keep the stories of one’s ancestors and gods alive, one had first of all to compose engaging narratives. Those with literary ambition may well have proved more memorable. But the process of poetry didn’t end there. Such stories were kept alive by performers who could breathe life into them, who could connect with their audiences and transmute the text – which is just words, after all – into something experiential. Squiggles on a tablet into a communal phenomenon. A good contemporary spoken word poet will do the same. They will leverage everything they have – body, voice, eyes, presence – to turn a piece of writing into an experience. It’s no mean feat, but if the writing is worth its salt and its author knows what to do with it, the result can certainly be worthy of an award. The winner of this year’s new Forward Prize may or may not convert readers to listeners, but one thing seems certain. Like J Ivy, who found his newfound eligibility for a Grammy sufficient motivation to record a Grammy-winning album, it will give artists something to shoot for.
The deadline for entries to the Forward Prizes Best Single Poem – Performed Prize has been extended to 15th March – get your submissions in now. This is the only prize category open for poets to self-submit.
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