Remembering the Death of Performance Poetry - Redux

Jan 30, 2014 - 7 minute read

30/1/2014 It’s been an interesting couple of days since I posted my Remembering the Death of Performance Poetry blog. On the whole the response on Facebook and Twitter — while far from a solemn parade of nodding heads — has been enthusiastic, thoughtful and similarly reflective. People have chipped in with curious questions about whether there is a difference between Performance Poetry and Spoken Word and others have added their own commentary, stories and opinions on how live literature has transformed, fluctuated and stagnated over the last couple of decades.

Poets added their own anecdotes to the bare bones of my blog post (2000 words is nowhere near enough to scratch the surface of all that went down back then) and a half forgotten era seemed to flicker back to life within the hive mind.

As far as my motives for writing the post were concerned, I just wanted to get people talking about their experiences of that era because it felt that if enough people dropped off the radar or forgot about it, the easier it would be for a select few to make up their own version for their own convenience. Not me though…

Of most interest to me was how recollections of other regions would concur with some aspects of my own narrative and it seems that the moment in time that I labelled The Death of Performance Poetry did indeed occur throughout the UK in the mid-2000s. Perhaps it would have been more apt to call it The Temporary Suspension of the Page/Stage Divide, but that just isn’t as catchy, nor open to misinterpretation.


Some objections, all from the comments to the article linked above, seem to have stemmed from the blog’s title rather than the 2000 words that followed. It didn’t help that the article mentioned nothing about my examination of the Spoken Word era or the last decade (the title has since been amended to better reflect this). Doing so made it look like I was saying that all live poetry ground to a halt in 2005. This indeed prompted the following astute observation from one of the poets I name checked in the article, Attila the Stockbroker:

What a festering pile of old rats’ testicles If you go and lig with the Queen you’re maybe going to come out with clueless nonsense like that – there’s more going on now than there ever has been, and I know ‘cos I’m out there doing it as always! Cheers A

Other comments similarly made some obvious points that had nothing to do with what I actually wrote. Contrast these comments with the comments made by people that read the actual blog and you’ll notice quite a contrast. The tabloid news style of the article makes the blog seem more declarative than reflective and is ripe for misinterpretation that follows the skim reading that such a writing style encourages. Allow me a moment to clear up a few things though:

The fact that plenty of performance poetry acts are still popular and active, as well as the fact that many people still call themselves performance poets does not contradict the placement of Performance Poetry within a particular era with a beginning and end point. Plenty of artistic movements such as Punk, Disco, Impressionism, Cubism, Bebop, Dadaism, Oldschool Hip Hop and so on are defined as belonging to particular eras yet plenty of people still practice the styles associated with these eras and many acts from some of them are still alive and wildly popular.

Would people feel as uncomfortable about Spoken Word if it was called Post-Performance Poetry? It doesn’t really help to be fair, as a lot of Spoken Word practitioners are genuinely unaware of the era that came before them and are just as prone to use the terms interchangeably now and again.

My taxes paid for that champagne and duck liver pate. I was effectively ligging off myself.

With regard to my comments about John Cooper Clarke, I stand by what I said. His revival was miraculous because, as anyone that knows the first thing about heroin addiction, he’s beating the odds by just being alive, let alone enjoying a revival. His resurgence had a lot more to do with the Arctic Monkeys and The Sopranos than the rise of Spoken Word which was far more influenced by American Slam poetry and conscious Hip Hop. There are of course acts that wear their Cooper Clarke influences proudly such as Luke Wright and Byron Vincent but I consider them more a product of the time when Page/Stage boundaries became blurred. I have myself witnessed Cooper Clarke being greeted by many young fans thanking him for birthing the Spoken Word scene and I can tell you now that he looked a lot more comfortable and happy being called “Ya skinny c*nt!” by an inebriated but cuddly Tim Wells. We love Clarkey, we love his attitude, his poetry, his storytelling and his style but he was not the one propping up Performance Poetry and Spoken Word over the decades, that was a bunch of grafters and promoters whose names have now faded from the roll-call of honour. I’m sure Clarkey would be the first to agree with this.


During the mid 2000s, on stages and festival circuits throughout the country, Performance Poets were performing meatier, tightly written poetry and the “Page Poets” (ever noticed that no-one calls themselves a Page Poet? That’s because they’re happy to let others call themselves a poet with an accompanying qualifier/disclaimer) had polished their performance skills in order to not be swept away. Some people started out at at Slams and Open Mics, others started off by submitting to magazines while a greater number of emerging poets were doing both. But the final product was far more difficult to pigeon hole. Look no further than poets such as Ahren Warner, Rhian Edwards and Kayo Chingonyi for examples of how this blurring has shaken up both worlds and made the realm of published poetry a more interesting place to be. Similarly, the Complete Works programme is making significant strides towards getting Black and Minority Ethnic poets as well represented in mainstream poetry lists as they are in Spoken Word.

Another thing that has become apparent is that literary cultures are still reaping the benefits of this blurring of boundaries. Public readings such as the T S Eliot readings have gone from strength to strength, with nominated poets such as Helen Mort and Daljit Nagra giving readings that would entrance audiences at a number of different venues.

If anything, when Kate Tempest scooped the Ted Hughes Prize in 2013 for her one woman show, Brand New Ancients, it seemed that mainstream poetry was very keen to be associated with the hot new art form of Spoken Word. While it could be argued that the original page/stage divide was a product of the literary establishment’s distaste for the populism of Performance Poetry, the current divide seems more a symptom of Spoken Word’s reluctance to be associated with an enthusiastic and accommodating establishment. Not necessarily a bad thing, seeing as most Spoken Worders are under thirty and it’s a good sign when yoof culture is flipping the Vs to The Man.

The UK Spoken Word generation is already writing its own history. Be it via YouTube, soundcloud, social media or some admittedly toothless criticism — the generation that were first to truly embrace the internet also got the luxury of hitting the reset button. The rest of us are not able to reach into the past and pluck up audiovisual examples of what we did back in the day. While there are aspects of my own work that I would frankly be quite happy to see forgotten, I hope that the whole generation, its highs and lows, won’t be. That can only happen if we start recording those memories right now. Be it a blog, a rambling commentary to a photo taken on a particular night or an old audiotape run through Audacity and let loose into the digital realm, I would love to hear your stories about how things were in the Performance Poetry years and those switchover years where lots of interesting things seemed to happen. Maybe the little comment section beneath this blog might be a good place to start, if you have a spare moment?