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Spoken Word as an Expatriate

Poets struggle to be accepted in the land of alternative arts

By David Silverberg

If there’s any art form that should feel like an outsider, it’s spoken word. Often relegated to the back seat behind music, film, theatre and literature, spoken word might as well be considered an expatriate: eyeballed skeptically, welcomed gradually, always bubbling beneath the mainstream.

To poets born in Canada and abroad, the acceptance of their medium has always been a struggle. Like new immigrants, spoken word has been called many names, often hurtfully, but if it manages to ride its crest of popularity, success can reap more than just a Canada Council grant.

Since spoken word is the performance art of poetry, it’s often fit for the stage rather than the page. It’s no surprise that academic stalwarts regard this youth-driven art form as a threat to their institution. And maybe even to their jobs.


“The academy wishes to maintain the power it has appropriated,” says Robert Priest, a renowned Toronto writer and performance poet. “And spoken word isn’t really a schooly thing.”


So literary poets will often lash out at spoken word series and their competitive cousins, poetry slams. Canada’s ex-poet laureate George Bowering once denounced slams as “crude and extremely revolting.” Priest points out slams don’t spark this reaction; bad poets should take responsibility.


“If there’s blame, it’s on the poets who don’t take the time to develop good poems before rushing them to stage,” he says. “Poems can easily have page and stage existences, neither canceling nor diminishing the other.”


I’ve seen this word-body blend at the event I run, Toronto Poetry Slam. Packed with 170 attendees, the slam gives voice to young poets and disenchanted writers who want to invigorate audiences with both stage presence and imaginative content. Spoken word poets aren’t happy with just good writing or strong performance; they want both to deliciously blend into a cocktail every listener will gladly sip.


Thing is, I’ve noticed horrible poetry that has turned off possible fans. Sometimes, the substance is lost in the flashy show, as hip-hop fans have witnessed in the degradation of their music in the past few years. But much like an outsider struggling to fit in, spoken word goes through birthing pains before it reaches a maturity that warrants respect and widespread attention.


“Don’t call it a poetry reading,” warns Jill Battson, a spoken word artist who lived in England before emigrating to Canada in 1980. “People have to attend a spoken word performance in order to get gung-ho about it.”


Battson knows what it’s like to be an expat, so she can empathize with spoken word’s stranger-among-us status and the attacks it endures. “Academic poets are afraid of spoken word because of its performative aspect, and because of all the audiences and media attention it’s attracting,” she says.


Indeed, spoken word fever is spreading coast to coast. The Canadian Festival of Spoken Word will enjoy its fourth year in October, taking place in Halifax; the Vancouver Poetry Slam has been rocking Café Deux Soleil on Commercial Drive for 10 years; Canadian spoken word artist Shane Koyczan has been booked in festivals across Canada and in Edinburgh; and CBC Radio’s annual Poetry Face-Off has been enlisting more stage poets than page poets in its national competitions.


This means that a previously lonely expat is slowly familiarizing itself with Canada’s cultural scenescape. More importantly, Canadians are also learning to accept spoken word as more than a finger-snap form of beatnik poetry. Evidence lies in the monthly poetry slams in Toronto: Twentysomethings who have never been to poetry readings are suddenly applauding wildly to three-minute power-raps. Every month, at least one person comes up to me and exclaims, “Has spoken word been here all along? Where has slam been all my life?”


It’s an awakening that is wonderfully summarized by U.S. poet Billy Collins in The Spoken Word Revolution: “The immediacy of a live reading extends to the listener a degree of participation. Paying attention approaches being a creative act when we realize the poem is being enacted beyond our control — the control we exercise with a text by pausing, rereading and skipping. Yet there is a pleasurable passivity in listening. We submit to the pace of the reader who governs the experience– We lose the equilibrium of the typographical shape of the poem; the linebreaks and stanzas dissolve into pure sound.”


Beyond the visceral experience of spoken word, its home base in the sub-culture of Canadian arts is also attractive to arts seekers. Perhaps going mainstream would do more harm to spoken word than good, since record companies would seek to suck money from it. By flourishing in the shadows, this artistic outsider fosters a community that is unusually tight-knit.


“Spoken word is such a grassroots culture, most of the time it’s devoid of the big ego you might see elsewhere,” says Darek Dawda, a Winnipeg spoken word artist. “There are people in Canada who have pulled together to create incredibly dynamic events.”


Along with poetry slams, spoken word festivals and weekly reading series, Canada is also looking to showcase its upcoming poet stars to the world. A recent example is the International World Poetry Slam, an American event that for the first time held its 72-poet competition outside the U.S. in Vancouver in February 2007. Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary all sent poets to compete, thereby shining a spotlight on the cities whose spoken word presence is undeniably impressive.


As well, two Canadian spoken word troupes, The Fugitives and TOFU (Tons o’ Fun University) have toured outside Canada in countries such as the Netherlands, Wales and England. They’re packing bars and theatres without major promoters backing them. Call it success by word of mouth, through words flying out of mouths.


Like any newcomer to hospitable environments, professional spoken word artists want to make a living out of their passion. And it’s not easy in Canada. Although the Canada Council of the Arts offers $549,000 annually through its Spoken Word and Storytelling Program (up from $165,000 in 1998), many poets complain there is not enough financial support to sustain a full-time career.


“As a poet, you cannot make a living,” says Greg Frankson, spoken word poet and national director of SPOCAN, a network of spoken word artists in Canada. “There isn’t enough grant assistance from the levels of government, and not enough opportunities for performances.”


He also disapproves of SOCAN’s dismissal of spoken word artists, freezing poets out of royalty payments if they want to sell CDs. “We’re set up as second-class recording artists, which denies us a revenue stream and a way to garner attention,” Frankson points out.


Arts agencies are optimistic their contributions will ripple in a positive way. “The increase in the festivals and series component demonstrates the growth and vitality of the spoken word scene” says Paul Seesequasis, program officer at the Canada Council of the Arts. “It has been helped in this growth by the existence of this program, which has also spawned similar programs at other arts agencies, like the Ontario Arts Council.” He’s referring to the Word of Mouth grant at the OAC, which is tailored specifically for spoken word artists. Of the 31 applicants last year, 18 received a portion of the grant money they asked for.


Frankson says art agencies are doing all they can with their limited mandates and funding purses. All fingers shouldn’t be pointed at funding bodies. “The bigger issue is that there needs to be seismic shift within the broader Canadian arts community,” Frankson says. “Spoken word needs to be considered of artistic value, allowing the artists to be both treated and paid accordingly.”


Playing fifth fiddle behind music, literature, film and theatre isn’t a comfortable position for spoken word to take, despite its surging popularity. Like a true expat, spoken word exists in a middle ground: comfortable with its new home (the Canadian underground) yet nostalgic for the acceptance it experienced in its homeland (the beatnik ‘60s, the American slam poetry scene). What makes spoken word so intriguing is its potential, which the vast majority of Canadians have yet to realize. It won’t happen overnight, nor should it. Any great movement takes baby steps before thundering across cultural boundaries, even if its practitioners are anxious to finally rise into the spotlight.


That’s the thing with wide-eyed newcomers: They seek instant gratification along with long-term stability. Spoken word is no different, because it wants the rest of those worlds, and then some. If this immigrant is going to rattle the arts cage, it needs the support of its new friends — the Canadians who are already welcoming it into the artistic mosaic of Canuck culture.

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