Performance poetry – poetry read or performed in front of a live audience – has seen a remarkable rise in popularity over recent years. Although many cynics believe that poetry has become a dying art form, the spoken-word scene has spread rapidly throughout the English speaking world. Thanks to the growing phenomenon of “Poetry Slam” competitions, large scale events such as the “Woodstock Poetry Festival” and a range of venues hosting public performances, the performance poetry scene has the potential to dominate the arts sphere. In order to acquire a better understanding of this developing form of entertainment, I decided to talk a student poet about his work and experience of the poetry scene here in Oxford.
Nick Hampson, a student at New College, began his artistic career as a poetic songwriter after being greatly influenced by North American musicians like Leonard Cohen and Conor Oberst. He soon became interested in writing poetry and the way this ties in with performance: “I was in Edinburgh this summer for the fringe festival and Patti Smith, iconic rock legend, and Philip Glass, American minimalism/film composer, were doing a homage to Ginsberg, such that Smith would read his poems and Glass would accompany her. It was one of the most moving and profound artistic displays I had ever seen and it instantly got me thinking of ways in which I could include spoken word poetry into the work that I do as a songwriter”.
When composing poetry for performance, he tells me that one of the most difficult things is “finding a voice which is your own, distinctive and unique is the most difficult thing about any art form.” Nick explains, “You have to take the voice of others and adapt it to what you do. No one is born with a voice which is totally unique and fully appropriate to one’s desired artistic output.”
Due to his role as a musician, I was interested to see how music had influenced his poetry and whether he felt there was a strong connection between the two. “There is an undeniable force which the combination of music and poetry can create, and it is something which, when left to themselves, the individual art forms find hard to consistently replicate.”
Nevertheless, he believes the best feature about spoken-word is that “every performance is different”. This has been true with many famous performance poets; the Beat generation would regularly alter lines from their poems or their style of delivery in order to suit the crowd or atmosphere. This is one of the reasons that Nick believes it’s better than traditional literature: “Written poetry is structured by the author in such a way that the form and style suggests the way in which it ought to be read. Spoken word deliberately avoids any such suggestion.”
The content of performance poetry is varied but often poets who feel comfortable enough to share their work publicly are very opinionated. Yet despite the strong political stance taken by many poets, Nick tends to avoid such subjects in his work: “As soon as politics invades your work you become ‘one of those political protest writers’” He gets around this problem by making his work “politically charged” but in a way which “avoids specific blame or controversy.”
It’s surprising how little the spoken-word scene has been noticed by academics or literary critics – but then maybe that’s the point; it’s a way of escaping mainstream print poetry and finding a voice that is new and independent. Reading has always been a strange mixture of the private and public experience, and in the modern world of electronic and self-publishing maybe performance is the best way to liberate poetry.