I never would have considered myself a poet a few years ago. Poetry just seemed out of my grasp, too full of complex metaphors, constraining forms, and the painstaking counting of syllables for me to really relate to it. I largely stayed away from writing it all through high school, focusing instead on short stories and musings. From the moment I first arrived at college for my admitted students’ weekend, though, I was hooked on poetry, or rather a specific kind of poetry: spoken word. I watched a performance and was absolutely enraptured. I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else on campus, and spent the majority of the next summer writing my audition piece in a frenzy of desire. But what got me hooked on spoken word in the first place? What makes it different and so appealing?
First off, spoken word poetry delights in breaking rules, both those of more traditional page poetry and of generally accepted social norms. Watch any spoken word show, and you’ll be struck by two things: the informal, expletive-embracing language, and the sheer noise. Audience members are encouraged to snap, clap, cheer, and yell during performances, something uncommon in most art forms. As a religiously irreverent person, this is one of the most seductive aspects of spoken word for me. This is more than just a simple disregard for the rules, though. All poetry is subversive by nature; it undermines the powers that be by giving voices to the people that those powers want voiceless. Spoken Word takes this subversive nature of poetry and embeds it in the very structure of the art form.
Also a part of the structure of spoken word is energy. Poetry has always had the power to motivate and inspire change, but for traditional page poetry that energy lies in the words and images themselves. For spoken word poetry, that energy is in both the words and the recitation of them. After all, there’s a reason that recitations of spoken word poetry are called performances and not reading. It’s half poetry, half acting, with the poets spending almost as much time perfecting the recitation of their poems as they do writing them. It’s not uncommon to watch poets emotionally drained after a performance: breathing hard, tears in their eyes, legs shaking. The need for that kind of energy is one of the reasons the audience is asked to engage with the poets so much: the energy of an accepting crowd helps us perform at the highest possible level. All poetry has that energy, but spoken word performers share it with the audience in an incredibly powerful and motivating way.
In short, I do spoken word because it takes what gives powerful its power, and makes that easily accessible. Poetry, and literature in general, has always given a voice to those who are otherwise voiceless, and has always aspired to inspire action. These two qualities are wired into the very DNA of spoken word. It’s everything that poetry can be in both form and function, and its damn fun at the same time. What could be more wonderful than that?