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The Underground Beast That Is Spoken Word

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Overlooked, under appreciated but culturally significant, spoken word is quietly but steadily growing. Rumbling just beneath the surface of major cities across the country, poetry nights are popping up all across our island. Poetry is deeply ingrained in this country's lineage so it's perhaps surprising the lack of recognition it currently receives today. Mr Gee, one of the most prominent performance poets on the scene describes spoken word as "in our DNA, we just have to re-embrace it". Which as you'll soon discover, is the thrust of this article.

Mr Gee along with Raymond Anthrobus, Deanna Rodgers, Simon Mole and Adam Kammerling are the minds and souls behind one of the most popular poetry nights in the capital, Chill Pill. Starting up as recently as 2010, the night has progressed from a small room in Shoreditch to regular performances in venues such as Soho Theatre, the Roundhouse and The Albany. And Chill Pill is why I find myself at The Albany in Deptford taking in the 'creative tour de-force' of a spoken word night.

The most immediately striking thing about an evening of spoken word is the almost tangible electricity in the air. No one is quite sure what to expect because every act differs in tone, delivery, style and content which turns the evening into a mad up and down trajectory of individuals pouring their hearts and minds into a microphone for an appreciative audience. There is an inclusiveness and sense of togetherness evoked between performer and crowd which is unique to this artform. The bar is set incredibly high with nearly every poet who graces the stage bringing their own unique take on poetry to the stage. Even those who dared to be in the open mic section of the evening, which can be a mixed bag, were eloquent and thought provoking. Mr Gee asserts that "There is a genuine need for men & women to vent their thoughts" and that is rarely more apparent or as entertaining than at Chill Pill. The night switches from reading poems from yesteryear in 'Classic Corner', Kammerling battle rapping, to Ross Sutherland's superb twist on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme tune. Such are the changes of pace from the "deeply serious to the eccentrically trivial" that the whole evening feels slightly hallucinogenic. To utter the cliche of all cliches, there's something for everyone.

It's a direct result of this huge range that poetry spans that has meant that in recent years, it's been somewhat on the fringes. Although the art form does seem to be garnering more support as evidenced by Scroobius Pip's recent sell out tour and the recent successes of Polar Bear and Kate Tempest, the mainstream has never found a way "properly harness it". I'd argue that because it remains largely untouched by the masses that the standard of performers is so incredibly high. At nights like Chill Pill, PoeJazzi, Come Rhyme With Me, etc, we have access to genuine emotion and feeling which is something sorely lacking in a mainstream which is primarily cluttered with the kind of manufactured sentimentality we see in the prerecorded VTs on The X Factor. The spoken word scene hasn't suffered from the over crowding of the comedy industry which is now filled with a surplus of anodyne comedians striving for the fame and financial rewards that an appearance on Live at the Apollo brings with it. Unlike comedy and large swathes of music, spoken word is an art form exclusively populated by those doing it because they love doing it.

As Mr Gee, points out spoken word is at an exciting crossroads as it approaches that "beautiful creative place where anyone can help define it". The scene is no different to almost everything else in that it's been largely changed since the advent of social networking which has made it increasingly easy to access a poet's material from all over the world. Whereas when Mr Gee started in the barely conceivable days of "no YouTube, no facebook, no soundcloud, no twitter (not even Myspace!)" reputations were made purely based on live performances which whilst exciting and competitive, it meant the "underground beast" was only experienced by the minority who ventured to this early formative nights. This instant communication, ability to self promote and share content has seen the spoken word scene spread and connect with each other like never before, making it possible for the movement to grow cohesively. All of this makes Nathan Thompson's recent article in The Independent mourning the death of poetry seem particularly misguided and Musa Okwonga's impassioned defence hit the mark emphatically.

For my own selfish reasons, I'm conflicted about Gee's wish for the world of verse to "recapture people's hearts like music & comedy". Whilst I of course hope for the scene to grow and receive the attention and acclaim it undoubtedly deserves, I also possess the rather contradictory emotion of wanting to keep it for myself and a select few others to enjoy. But putting aside my own self serving foibles, Spoken Word will continue to grow into "whatever it wants to be".