Remembering the Death of Performance Poetry

Jan 14, 2014 - 10 minute read


Apologies in advance for the alarmist title. This post is not about some imminent collapse in the Spoken Word boom, far from it. It is intended as a meditative look back at the cycles that happen within spoken word cultures and how history tends to repeat itself, especially when there’s no history available to learn from. It centres around a certain historical point within the poetry scenes in the UK. Like all of the most interesting points in culture, it was a time of transition. It is a time that I have often termed as The Death of Performance Poetry.


I am very aware that there is still plenty of use for the term “performance poetry”. Apples and Snakes still describes itself as a promoter of performance poetry, though many of the younger practitioners that they book would probably describe themselves as Spoken Word artists. Apples and Snakes defines Performance Poetry as:

Performance poetry means reading or declaiming poetry in a way that acknowledges the presence of an audience. This can be anything from a bit of eye-contact to fully blown histrionics. That is it, basically. There are no rules.
I speak of Performance Poetry with reference to the 1970s through to the late ’90s/early noughties. It was a distinctive style and approach to poetry that was initiated by the like of John Cooper Clarke and Linton Kwesi Johnson, perpetuated by John Hegley, Attila the Stockbroker, Jean Binta Breeze and Benjamin Zephaniah before entering into a later phase reflected by poets such as Patience Agbabi, Lemn Sissay and Murray Lachlan Young.

The performance poetry era was preceded and inspired by live poetry movements such as the Beat poets, the Black Art Movement and the Liverpool Poets. Poets from these eras had certainly built a reputation built on lively performance and experimentation, however there was still a considerable literary aspect to their work and their achievements were ultimately tied up with and signified by the books that they produced (perhaps not so much for the BAM who also gave us Gil Scott Heron and The Last Poets). It could also be argued that Dub poetry came from a separate line of inheritance that was more connected to reggae music and Caribbean oral cultures.

This is more a reminiscence, a biased history, than it is an academic study (and an embarrassingly London-centric one at that). I got involved with the London poetry scene in 1997. Poetry Unplugged, the open mic that I now run at Covent Garden’s Poetry Cafe, had started running a few months before. Murray Lachlan Young made the headlines as the Million Pound Poet. The Hard Edge Club, a night that had been running for around a decade before, was coming to the end of its run. The dominant performance venues at the time were Jem Rolls’ Big Word and Paul Lyalls’ Express Excess. Performance Poetry was still being called The New Rock’n’Roll by many without a hint of irony.

Open mics and Slams in the UK were dominated by performers — acts with as few as five poems in their repertoire who repeated and refined their canon in preparation for fifteen minute feature spots. Budding actors were able to include booked poetry gigs as paid acting work when applying for their Equity cards, their sets coming off as audition pieces that showed off their acting chops but lacked in literary substance. The Lachlan Young Million Pound Deal story drew performers to the scene who genuinely believed that it was a pathway to guaranteed fame and fortune.

Before Facebook became the go-to method for promoting gigs and networking, the quarter page “Books/Poetry events” section of Time Out became the place to look up your own name, see where you were on the bill as well as who had blagged an actual published publicity photo. All emails for inclusion in the magazine were sent to the mysterious “Daniel Paddington”, someone who was perhaps the the most powerful individual in London poetry at the time but was probably the nom de plume of whatever intern got the poet listings job for that week (apologies Daniel if you are a real person!). In the late nineties the internet was still a relative luxury so text messages and the grapevine were still the ways to promote or send a helpful rumour into the live poetry hive mind. A common method promoters had for getting poets to head down to their open mic en masse was to tell one poet that a Channel 4 camera crew were coming down for the night and to keep it to themselves.

And then there were the pilot TV show recordings, where the audience, consisting of performers and their friends, were debriefed beforehand to make as much noise as they could because it was “good for poetry”. The MTV special filmed at Imperial Gardens in Camberwell and the pilot for BEAT 2 recorded at the Poetry Cafe never made it onto the small screen. Remembering my own involvement in them I still hope against hope, having signed the release forms, that they go the same way as those old Dr Who tapes and don’t pop up on YouTube . . .


Chances are that history, if interested in such things, will record a smooth transition from Performance Poetry to Spoken Word, the handing of a torch from one generation to the next without a stutter in pace. But that wasn’t how I experienced it. Much like the Cro Magnons that unknowingly occupied the caves Neanderthals lived in a few thousand years before — Performance poetry dropped off the radar for a few years and Spoken Word filled in the vacuum with little knowledge of what had occupied the space before.

Performance Poetry as a movement died out for a few reasons. Fame seekers abandoned ship after they realised that no more £1m contracts would be dished out any time soon — signified by the change of climate in the music industry as it was by any momentary interest in pop star poets. Other poets that had been mainstays of the scene had simply grown out of it, finding themselves more involved with families and spouses, after day jobs had silently developed into careers and cheaper mortgages on the outskirts of London. The mellowing of spirit and all those cosy creature comforts dimmed the need to stand on a tiny stage while speaking through a poorly rigged PA to a handful of audience members.

If poets weren’t making a mass exodus from bohemian to bourgeois living, they were finding another avenue, the page. Poets once associated with performance such as Tim Turnbull and Tim Wells were being nominated for the Forward Prize for their debut collections. Patience Agbabi was added to the list of Next Generation poets. At the same time, as literary poets performed on the same stages as performance poets that had encroached into their territory, they could no longer give the same “poetry voice” readings if they wanted to shift some product at the end of the evening. If the peak of Performance Poetry made the Page/Stage divide seem obvious to the point of triviality, the Death of Performance Poetry smashed down that divide with plenty of poets and ideas slipping seamlessly back and forth between the mutual magisteria.

On the evening of the first of December 2005, five performance poets (Zena Edwards, Tim Turnbull, Kat Francois, Matt Harvey and Shamshad Khan) took to the stage of the South Bank to perform a ten minute set each in front of a packed house and three judges for the chance of a ten thousand pound Arts Council grant. It was one of the finest moments for Performance Poetry, not just because five deserving individuals were up for a prize but because it was arguably the best live poetry gig I had ever seen. The stylistic variance of the five acts was indicative of an art form with genuine history that had been given the time and space to develop. We witnessed the pitch perfect slightness of Harvey’s performance, his gently spoken verses eliciting belly laughs from the audience, to the cross cultural euphonics of Edwards’ life affirming flow. We experienced the raw anger and relentless, rhythmic forthrightness of Francois’ remembrance of being manhandled by racist Police officers. We were bowled over by, eventual winner, Turnbull’s abrasive, witty but always politically-tinged formal verse. Khan’s performance felt like the odd one out, perhaps because there wasn’t quite the same sharing connection with her audience, and yet I still remember the lights turning low, so that she was barely visible, as well as barely audible, while delivering a poem (my recollection might be a little unreliable here) about her father on life support. If nothing else, this opening to her performance disproved the common image of the performance poet as the fame hungry attention seeker. It was this breadth of performative style as well as literary style that signified performance poetry as a mature art form. The fakers and posers had skulked away elsewhere and those that remained were individuals that were truly married to their craft. If anyone was to ask me to put a date on when Performance Poetry died — peacefully, in its sleep after a fruitful old age — I would, perhaps half jokingly, say on the morning of the 2nd December, 2005.

I’m yet to see the same variety within a Spoken Word event, but then again, Spoken Word is a young art form, unencumbered by the history of its predecessor. Sure, much lip service is paid to John Cooper Clarke, now that he has been brushed up and hagiographised after miraculously seeing success, acknowledgement and a larger following on the other side of his heroine-fuelled wilderness years [ed. Some people interpreted this sentence as a slight on JCC’s appeal when it was really about the miracle of his recovery from addiction]. Many people that saw him live back in the 70s and 80s remember him as that guy who took the stage on the punk undercard a few moments before the punters at the front scarpered and the first glass was thrown. Cooper Clarke deserves all the work and adulation he can get, he’s paid his dues, but his coronation as Godfather of Spoken Word has more to do with setting anchor in a conveniently forgotten and airbrushed past.

It seems, now that we have so many means of documentation such as YouTube and Soundcloud, that the next generation won’t be afforded such a luxury of not having a past. As Scroobius Pip and Polar Bear made their mark on the collective psyche during Spoken Word’s beginnings — often quoting hip hop artists as their immediate influences rather than poets — the page/stage divide came roaring back to full-blooded life.

I have to confess that I was prepared for the bad old days, for a return of the worst of Performance Poetry. I shouldn’t have worried. The worst Spoken Word, perhaps due to its relative stylistic uniformity, has not plumbed the depths of the worst of Performance Poetry. As UK Spoken Word dangles on the precipice of its second decade, the innovators are bubbling to the surface and the posers are looking that bit more exposed. I might come across as the has-been, staring into an idealised past, but at the same time I’m optimistic that I’ll get a glimpse of those good old days again as Spoken Word matures as an art form. Plus, if a suitably amnesiac generation pops up after this one, I’ll be trying my best to set myself up as one of those amiable old farts just by merit of sticking around long enough, a pioneering Godfather from a epoch that didn’t really happen.