Joelle Taylor

On Being Seen: The Rise of Spoken Word



I am writing this in a dressing room in the Southbank Centre, deep beneath Queen Elizabeth hall. We have gathered along with a full film crew to record our first Out-Spoken Live film which will be broadcast this Sunday. I am part of the team that curates and presents Out-Spoken Live, a poetry and music night resident in the Southbank Purcell Room.

We did not begin here. Our move to these prestigious halls is symptomatic of the rise of live poetry and spoken word not only in the UK but globally.

At Out-Spoken Live we attract a regular audience of around 300 per month. Many are returning audiences who have followed the night at various locations over the years. We have played legendary venues with legendary toilets, dressing rooms you needed to wear wellingtons to walk across; we have negotiated pillars erected in the precise centre of the stage, carried thousands of plastic bucket chairs that needed setting out. We have paid our dues in plastic lager and flat sandwiches.

So, what happened? How can poetry nights that traditionally occupy the half-lit backroom of an anxious bar suddenly find themselves at the nexus of cultural change? The clue is in the word ‘suddenly’. As with most things ‘suddenly’ took a long time to materialise.

When I was initiated into poetry there were few clubs to tour to. Most of my early gigs were in support of punk bands, and this was fairly common during the mid to late 1980s. Now, there seems to a spoken word night in every town and city in the UK. The scene is thriving, even during lockdown. They vary from big clubs like Out-Spoken, Bang Said the Gun, Chill Pill, Tongue Fu, Toast, Sonnet Youth, Milk and Raise the Bar to tiny intimate nights in which whole worlds change. Listen Softly is a night that welcomes people who face barriers to performing, who might have speech or hearing difficulties. It encourages an atmosphere in which even those who feel most overwhelmed by public events can find their space. 

In these bewildering, dystopian times we need a poetic that fosters free thought, immediate response and provides a sense of community, of coming together. It is a long tradition that the figure of the poet is seen as a social commentator, a thinker and dissident. The poet thinks outside the lines, and live poetry events often reflect that. The spoken word night disrupts dominant discourse. It asks unpleasant questions. It is intimate. Jubilant. Thoughtful.

But the venues and clubs have also worked solidly to build and respond to our audience. All of the longest running nights have this in common: the centring of the audience experience. In our case, we opt for high production values. Music is a core part of our programming and we need to make sure the sound system is of a high quality, that the acoustics of the venue work to complement the performance. We think about lighting the show; what we can say before we even begin speaking.

The sense of a sustained audience is integral to the power that live events have. We are creating community, one that begins in poetry and ends in change. And poetry nights have diversified their offerings to meet the needs of the audience. Out-Spoken also offers masterclasses with leading poets and spoken word artists, and its sister publishing house Out-Spoken Press pushes the form further and onto the page.

The idea of the spoken word star is not new; it is simply a new name. The Liverpool Poets were filling arenas in the 1960s, and Benjamin Zephaniah along with Linton Kwesi Johnson dominated the stages during the 1970s with dub poetry. By the 1980s that work had been added to by punk poets like John Cooper Clarke, Joolz and Atilla the Stockbroker. But there was not that same sense of ‘scene’ that we have now.

I have claimed many times that spoken word poetry is the last free art. At its heart is the idea of the open mic, a ritual that takes place before many live poetry events. The open mic gives us the next generation of artists, and the next generation of audience. It is on the open mic circuit that most of us learn our art.  What other prominent art form encourages an audience to try out their own work before the main bill? Can you imagine locals to Sadlers Wells working out a quick dance routine on stage before Swan Lake? Or a main exhibition at the Tate punctuated by sketches from students? This is the essence of what spoken word gives people: the right to be an artist, the right to be involved.

Much of contemporary art and entertainment seems to be a passive sport. We watch, we take notes, we feel a few things, we go home. But the live poetry night embodies Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Right to Culture. To be seen, to speak, to contribute. The event encourages the sharing of radical thinking, new philosophies, unheard narratives – the event becomes an action. The event becomes a petri dish in which a new culture grows. Poetry distils thought. It allows us to examine in fine detail a range of issues, ideas, concepts, emotions and visions.

The general public may have become more aware of spoken word through the highlighting of individual artists’ work online. But the real foundations were not laid by social media or YouTube; the real seeding of the spoken word scene took place at root level, in the schools and youth clubs. Workshops in schools facilitated by literary development organisations during the 2000s – like the Poetry Society, Apples & Snakes, Eastside, and Spread the Word – created a new generation of poets but also, crucially, new audiences for them. SLAMbassadors, the Poetry Society’s national youth slam championship, placed spoken word artists, rappers and emcees in classrooms across the UK. It inspired a generation to find their writing hands. Within a few years we watched those same disengaged students filter into our clubs. Some of them were holding creased poems, working out whether the seven steps to the stage was a journey too far, while others took their places within the auditorium.

Introducing young people to poetry is what has helped generate such a powerful and diverse scene today. Slam poetry created more shooting stars; it introduced the idea that our personal stories are important, that our voices are relevant. It gave us the mighty pronoun ‘I’ which is practically a spear if you pluck it off the page. It brought the margins to the centre of the page. Both spoken word and slam are the poetry of the underrepresented, the ignored, the culturally marginalised. It is the poetry of urgency and insistence.

Often spoken word is viewed by the literary establishment as something people do before they learn to write properly. But the very thing we are condemned for – our accessibility – is the thing we are proudest of. Who owns language? Who has the right to dismiss someone’s attempt at turning their trauma into poetry? Columns are often wasted in broadsheets whose sole aim, it seems, is to remind people that poetry written by marginalised people is not real poetry. They would have you believe that poetry is its own language and if you cannot speak it fluently then it is better that you do not speak at all. And so, we built our own literary landscape.

Live poetry allows writers to sidestep literary gatekeepers. It allows the writer to publish first on air, to hear immediate feedback, and to connect directly with other poets in their local area. Through this network, we learn, we grow, we challenge, and we arrive at a poetic distinctly our own. There are a diverse range of clubs, from loud interactive events to gentle gatherings. They are all valid and hold a key position in the movement.

Poets are nothing if not adaptable, mutable beings – especially those who have published most of their books on air. We have responded well to the new digital arenas; we have used YouTube and social media to the greatest effect to promote our work. Like water, poetry becomes the shape of the vessel that holds it. It is that willingness to adapt that accounts for the continued rise of the form. It doesn’t wait for someone to find it – it actively seeks the audience, wherever they may be.

With clubs and theatres closed, poets have taken their nights online. There are regular events that people can stream or participate in live, as well as pre-recorded alternatives. I expect live streaming to become a regular part of spoken word poetry evenings. Live streaming options still offer powerful, transformative experiences; they also increase the democratic nature of the art form. More than doubling the capacity of in-person audiences, hosting events online allows us to reach people who can’t afford to travel or the usual ticket price. We are all finally – and affordably – international. At Out-Spoken Press we worked with writer lisa luxx to curate a fundraiser for Beirut after the explosion in the city last year. We attracted readers from across the world including the US, Virgin Islands, Trinidad, Lebanon and Dubai. I have appeared in Malaysia, Estonia, and Brazil.

Beyond accessibility, online platforms have changed our experience of poetry as audience members. There is something compelling about sitting in Sean O’Brien’s study with him while he reads from his latest collection. It’s the intimacy, the warmth; how we are all disarmed by this moment in history. Zoom has changed our performances as artists too. Zoom is a quiet machine, it scrutinises. The performances require a stillness and focus. The most effective digital performances I have seen are close to camera shots, where the eyes of the performer become small cinema screens. Everything is in the eyes, and in the modulation of the voice. Quietude is a performance too.

Perhaps the most profound change in spoken word poetry over the last few years has not been in how we are seen but in how we see ourselves. Revolutions in publishing – exemplified by the pioneering publisher Burning Eye – are leading poets to write books who would normally confine themselves to the stage. At first, perhaps these books are simply published editions of their stage pieces; but then each poet cannot help but recognise the rich potential of the page. Consequentially, live poetry is becoming more self-aware, it is learning all the different ways that words behave across forms. 

Literary festivals are beginning to book more spoken word artists into their main programme than ever before. No longer are we relegated to hosting late-night slams attended by three people and a boiled sweet. We have our own stages, and that framing is vital to how the art is received. It is the difference between a major artwork exhibited in a fully lit, dramatic space and a doodle on the back of a bus ticket.

And look: we have come this far and I still haven’t mentioned any of the ‘stars’ of the spoken word scene. This article is not about that. You know who they are. Practically every essay on the ‘rise of spoken word’ namechecks them. Let us just say that important moments need important words, and poets have the ability to interrogate moments and translate them into something indefinable that touches each of us. Every poet you witness is a breadcrumb that will lead you to another poet. In this way, the rise of Amanda Gorman is also my own.

Meanwhile the real stars of the spoken word scene go largely unacknowledged. But they are here now. Setting up the mic stand. Re-positioning a fold-up chair. Unrolling a backdrop. Turning every stage into a portal.

A friend of mine once said that we call it a ‘scene’ because none of it is real. I said nothing but thought to myself, no: it’s because we are SEEN.


Joelle Taylor is an award-winning poet, playwright, author and former slam champion. She is the author of four full poetry collections and three plays. Her poetry collection C+NTO & Othered Poems won the 2021 TS Eliot Prize. On the 25th of January, Joelle will be hosting the Out-Spoken masterclass and poetry evening, who are currently in residence at the Southbank Centre. She also curated the Koestler Arts exhibtion, IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, on at Royal Festival Hall, also at the Southbank Centre, until the 17th of December.

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