Reality Versus Perception of Spoken Word

 What is the first image many people conjure up upon hearing the phrase “spoken word performance”? For many it is one of bearded and sunglasses-wearing Beatniks in smoky coffeehouses playing bongos and babbling incomprehensible free-verse poetry. Or, for younger generations, the template perhaps shifts to hip-hop rhyme-fests, or sensitive souls in college basements reciting woeful tales of romantic heartbreak. The fact is, spoken word has been a staple of American performance for over fifty years, even if its place in the larger cultural framework is somewhat in question, and its aesthetics harder still to define. At first glance, these issues would seem to land on the debit side of the artistic ledger. But, in reality, the fast, fluid, do-it-yourself nature of spoken word events is the very source of their power in terms of both creating memorable events and a vital means of promoting literature.

Unlike a theatrical play, or even a technically minimalist concert, the physical requirements for a spoken word event are scant. One only needs a room, a microphone (or not), and a group of people willing to listen. That’s it. That’s all it takes to organize a spoken word event, whether it takes place in a theater, a bar, or a living room. Dirty Laundry Lit – the popular Los Angeles-based reading series conceived and curated by author Natashia Deón  – was actually birthed in a small venue where she and her husband had gone to see a noted author read his work.

Ms. Deon Births DLL

Spoken Word

 

 

Ms. Deón is a Los Angeles attorney, writer, and law professor; her debut novel, GRACE, is due out June 2016 with Counterpoint Press. A PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow, her writing has appeared in American Short Fiction, The Rumpus, and The Feminist Wire. As Ms. Deón describes it, the only people in attendance for the aforementioned reading were her and her husband. Then she got the notion that authors deserved recognition. Thus she gave birth to DLL to celebrate writers and their work.  Although open to newbies, Ms. Deón tends towards writers who have been at it for a while, and finally found some success: “I want to celebrate the journey because for writers there are a lot of dark and lonely moments.”

Artistic Freedom and Strong Audience Connection

Since its inception in 2012, DLL has grown tremendously in popularity and acclaim. The L.A. Weekly said that DLL, “feel[s] more like a raucous, all-inclusive party.”  Ms. Deón chooses a theme for each event, sometimes as specific as “Love Sucks,” sometimes as abstract as the upcoming “Wet.” From both an aesthetic and marketing perspective, choosing a singular motif lends unity to the evening.However, once the subject matter and writers have been chosen, Ms. Deón takes a hands-off approach. She allows the authors to read whatever they choose. As the name suggests, Dirty Laundry Lit implies a certain level of self-revelation, however steeply the writing might be couched in a fictional construct. The point is for the writers and audience to connect in a direct and personal way, but Ms. Deón allows the writers to decide how far they want to go, how personal they want to get.

A Celebration of Diversity, Honesty and Connection

In addition to pure writing talent, Ms. Deón gears her selection process specifically towards reflecting the racial and gender diversity of Los Angeles. “I want it to look like the city we live in,” she explained.

When asked how she mentors writers with little or no performance experience, Ms. Deón begins with the simple notion of creating a warm, inviting, and fun atmosphere. She says, “I presume that a writer can read their piece if they can just connect with it onstage for us. I don’t give them any instruction, I just let them get up there and do what they do, surrounded by people who love and support them and are there to cheer them on. And they usually shine. I don’t know how it happens, but it does. It’s like some sort of freaky magic.”

Jeff Eyres, a noted writer/actor/stand-up comic who has contributed to CNN and Saturday Night Live, Hosts DLL. Echoing Ms. Deón’s sentiments, he believes that, “Spoken word satisfies a fundamental human need to interact with each other and hear each other’s stories. Face to face is where magical things happen, and we will never not need that.” Eyres also thinks that performing ability is secondary to the power of the narrative. By way of example, he recalls a writer who read an intensely personal piece in “Love Sucks,” an evening that was, by turns, profoundly heartbreaking and downright hilarious.

Honesty Trumps Skill

Spoken Word

This particular writer (who wishes to remain anonymous) had extensive experience as an actor. Yet, Eyres asserts that the effectiveness of the reading was not a result of acting chops– most of the authors who read have no formal performance training – but rather the writer’s willingness to give into the honesty of the material, and share that naked emotion with the audience. This is what Ms. Deón refers to when she says, “You find yourself onstage.” It is that direct, raw communication, without the artifice of character or the constructs of traditional theatrical performance, that makes spoken word, although often raw and unpolished, so galvanizing and enjoyable. As Eyres put it, “In front of an audience one of two things happen: you collapse completely and fall apart, or you collapse into a personal vulnerability where you need to communicate truthfully, even as you feel yourself going up in flames.”

DLL is Prose

DLL is mainly a prose-oriented series. However, many of the same issues regarding literary construction and its relationship to performance come up in poetry-based spoken word events. The dreaded and oft-mocked “poet voice” is a running joke among poets. This referes to a pretentious, sonorous, pseudo-Shakespearean delivery meant to convey depth and importance. Poet voice inevitably has the opposite effect: the audience is alienated and often embarrassed by the speaker’s delivery, and what impact and literary value the poem might indeed possess is lost in the translation from page to poor performance on stage. Poet voice also, ironically, makes a bad poem even worse. Alysia Nicole Harris, a current Ph.D. candidate in Linguistics at Yale and noted poet/spoken word performer, addresses these tensions in her own performances and her role as a teacher.

Ms. Harris is herself an accomplished and award-winning poet. Her many accolades include being a Pushcart nominee, a Cave Canem fellow, and the winner of the 2014 Stephen Dunn Poetry Prize. Her poetry has appeared in Indiana Review, Columbia’s Journal of Literature and Art, and Vinyl Magazine among others. Ms. Harris’s new book is “How Much We Must Have Looked Like Stars to Stars”. It’s the winner of the New Women’s Voices Series Content and is published by Finishing Line Press. She began by noting that poetry, unlike many forms of prose, began as an oral tradition. Prose may have certain advantages in terms of narrative. By comparison, non-linear poetry can more readily employ linguistic devices such as rhythm, cadence, pithy language, and wordplay, all of which lend themselves to heightened performance.

A Complete Experience

Ms. Harris also points out that spoken word poetry gears itself towards a “complete experience”. On the other hand, a prose excerpt from a novel or short story (especially ones poorly chosen that do not stand alone) can sometimes feel incomplete.She began by noting that poetry, unlike many forms of prose, began as an oral tradition. Prose may have certain advantages in terms of narrative. But non-linear poetry can more readily employ linguistic devices such as rhythm, cadence, pithy language, and wordplay, all of which lend themselves to heightened performance. Ms. Harris also points out that spoken word poetry gears itself towards a “complete experience” whereas a prose excerpt from a novel or short story (especially ones poorly chosen that do not stand alone) can sometimes feel incomplete.

Audience Connection is Critical

Like Ms. Deón, Ms. Harris believes that the power of spoken word performance lies in the direct connection between the performer and the audience. “Put me in an uncomfortable position because I trust you,” is the de facto contract she believes the audience makes with the performer, and that contract can only be fulfilled through emotional honesty. She sees the poetry events she produces and performs in as a means for the audience to have an experience both entertaining and transformative. She believes that spoken word poetry is, “Not just about uncovering our [traumatic] emotional truths, but it’s also about helping us all collectively heal some of those experiences.” She agrees that there is an expectation/perception that poets are sharing something personal; like Ms. Deón, for Ms. Harris, the key is authenticity, even under the guise of a persona/character within the poem.

On a craft level, Ms. Harris points out that some poems work better on the page. “Poems that pose a series of questions – that give the audience time and space to ponder – are well suited for the page [but] poems that are meant to communicate a poet’s internal state can be best rendered on stage.” She also believes that poetry readings need to be constructed in a safe and responsible way. Even when the subject matter is dark, and deals with issues like sexual trauma or emotional abuse, she will still find a way to conclude the evening on a hopeful note.

The Power of Spoken Word to Transform Students

Ms. Harris, a teacher and long-time mentor of young poets, is acutely aware of the performance issues surrounding spoken word events. A riveting performer herself, Ms. Harris has no formal acting training. She professes to have figured it out for herself through a decade of spoken word performance experience. She has, over time, developed keen instincts for the rhythms of spoken word poetry, Ms. Harris relies on a sense of personal connection to her students to help hone their performances. For example, one of her students, who recently won a major poetry slam competition, had a habit of smiling nervously at inappropriate moments. Ms. Harris corrected this unconscious mannerism. Then the student was able to connect on a deeper level to the emotional themes of the poem.

Ms. Harris also passionately believes that spoken word poetry is vital to inculcating a love of literature among young people. She contends that poetry taught only in the classroom does a disservice to students. That’s because classic poetry often does not speak directly to their experience. Hearing poetry read aloud – particularly by their contemporaries – can be a game changer. It does so by way of giving fledgling writers agency over their use of language. It also enhances their ability to make sense of their own life experience. According to Ms. Harris, “They see themselves in the work. They see themselves projected onstage, they see their stories, and that is more gripping than anything.”

Performance and Intimacy

There is no denying that spoken word has one foot firmly planted in the literary world.  Yet, spoken word events are undeniably a performance. Although many writers have outgoing personalities, many are also shy and not particularly comfortable with the notion of public speaking. Occasionally a reader’s shyness and flat affect do not reach well across the footlights. But again, the audience’s expectation of an authentic connection, and their encouragement of the author to share from the heart, usually outweighs the shortcomings of less-than-polished performers.

As Eyres pointed out, it’s the narrative that ultimately holds sway over the audience. But, there’s also a bit of the Punk Rock Ethos in spoken word. There are the raw and real beats, polished and technical every time. Further, it’s worth noting that even low-key performers can hold an audience’s attention. Ms. Deón recalled a reading by poet Chiwan Choi about his wife losing their baby: Mr. Choi read the poem quietly, simply, and the audience listened in awed, captivated silence.

In this current age of mass communication without intimacy, the exchange of vast quantities of information without wisdom, the perception of connectedness without real human interaction, the simple power of the spoken word creates a bond of shared humanity that is both in-the-moment ephemeral and everlasting. It takes courage for writers to share who they are; it takes compassion, openness, and empathy for the audience to listen. As playwright David Mamet once observed about great theatre, “What comes from the heart, goes to the heart.”