Speaking poetry

By Chris Creighton-Kelly, March 2014

The art of moving words around—out loud.

It’s a cool night in Berkeley over 40 years ago, but I still remember it vividly. Walking on the University of California campus, the smell of a eucalyptus grove, the gentle, but insistent breeze, the anticipation of hearing them. 

“Them” being The Last Poets, a quartet of African American poets, ready to raise more than a little hell, ready for a revolution in the USA. We were in the Greek Theatre, up in the cheap seats, on the grass. They hit the stage, conga drums ready and started to…well what? Perform their poems. 

It turned out, that fresh Pacific evening, that all those half alive/half dead high school years of Keat’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:

 

...a friend to man, to whom thou sayst,

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. 

...were not quite complete. There was a lot more ye need to know. And that was blowing my young, impressionable mind. Their words were not just being spoken; they were leaping off the page. Like jazz—scatting, syncopating, riffing but always solid on the beat. Grandfathers of rap—a music not already named as such—extolling Afro-centricity as if there were no other vision but theirs:

 

When the revolution comes 

Some of us will probably catch it on TV, with chicken hanging from our

mouths. 

You’ll know it’s revolution cause there won’t be no commercials

When the revolution comes

The Last Poets were part of the invention of rap, itself a river with many inbound tributaries. Sound poetry, talking blues, dub, performance poetry, spoken jazz, scratching, DJ patter improvised over tunes—to name just a few. All became part of the spoken word movement of the last 30 or so years.

This movement continues the poetic arc that stretches back centuries into Western Africa—the tradition of the griot. The griot is a person of the oral tradition who blends being a poet and a historian; sometimes a musician and a storyteller. Africa, where all humans ultimately have roots, is where, for the first time, the poetic power of the word was made aurally incarnate. 

In 2014 it is nearly impossible to imagine that a spoken word artist would not be considered a poet. But in 1984, the Canadian League of Poets refused membership to De Dub Poets on the grounds that they were “performers not poets.” I wonder if it had anything to do with them also being black poets/performers.

The remarkable Lillian Allen, one of De Dub Poets, clarified, “I have been reluctant to commit my poetry to the page over the years because…these poems are not meant to lie still.” The word is alive; it just does not live only on paper. It is birthed by utterance.

Which is probably how poetry was born. Before written language, before anyone wrote anything down. Maybe the first poet tried to speak her feelings, looking in the face of her newborn child. Or maybe she was explaining in anger the dissatisfactions with her partner. Or the movement of the wind. Or the sounds in her head. Or perhaps, unabashedly, trying to explain the inexplicable.

It seems that speaking poetry is making a comeback in Victoria. I asked Aysia Law, an articulate and passionate-about-spoken-word poet, about this. She offers, “I agree with that. Poetry on the page can be exceptionally boring. There is so much more that poetry can do. It can be three-dimensional.” 

She declares that young people are drawn to all kinds of spoken word because, “it is like watching a spectacle. It is definitely more accessible, more interactive. When I organized a diversity slam a few months ago, the place was packed, overflowing.”

Aysia just recently finished her stint as the first Youth Poet Laureate for Victoria. How was that? “It was a bit chaotic and disorganized, which was to be expected for a pilot project,” she explained, “but it was an amazing opportunity for me. I never thought that I would have been considered or chosen, so it was an awesome surprise.”

She organizes and facilitates a weekly writing group (5 to 7pm, Thursdays at Solstice Café) for young, queer writers. Is it a meeting for writers to discuss queer issues? “Of course, they can if they want to…but no, not really. My goal is to create a safe space for queer writers under 25 to discuss and define their writing, whatever it happens to be about.” 

But what about poetry on the page? “I take great stock in the written word. Not every poem can be performed well out loud. When I was young, I told my dad that I wanted to be a writer and he insisted that I learn how to type,” she reveals, almost sheepishly. “I enjoy moving words around almost like a puzzle. It was quite literally ‘making your mark’ on the page.”

Aysia concludes, “Still, I feel that I am a visual learner. That is how we all interpret the world around us. I have to see the words as I speak them out of my mouth.” 

Here she is YouTubing, envisioning the impossible demands made on women’s bodies:

 

...Because we both know 

That it almost looked good on me once 

When I bought it three years ago;

Because we both know 

That if I put enough work into it

I can turn heads—in a good way;

Because we both know

That there is no such thing 

As a fat anorexic.

While working on this column, I started to find poetry in unexpected places. With a deadline approaching, I wanted to include a certain voice, the voice of one of those particularly Victoria-crafted, seasoned writers. With my piece more or less written, I head off to lunch with a colleague. A woman with a bright smile comes up to us saying, “Hey aren’t you the guy who writes...?” 

Turns out she is a poet! I recognize her but cannot recall her name. We smile, exchanging art-type pleasantries for a few minutes. But it is cold and we want our hot lunches.

Later that day, back tapping the keys, I suddenly remember who this poet is—she started the remarkable and enduring Random Acts of Poetry project. She had imagined that poets all across Canada could commit “random acts of poetry” on strangers by reading them a poem and then giving them a book. And they did exactly that.

And so I phoned her up, this writer—Wendy Morton—and invited her to make a random act of poetic intervention to end my column.

She laughed. She agreed. She sent this:

 

Two strangers at the parking kiosk.

The February sun, the ice air.

I speak to them, we laugh,

turn toward the light.

Just as poetry often does—turn toward the light—and so it makes the world more luminous. And warmer. 

Spoken aloud or not.

 

March 4-9, 2014 The Victoria Spoken Word Festival brings together more than a dozen spoken word artists from across North America to create and perform innovative and inspiring spoken word. In addition to performances by the festival ensemble, the festival features Canadian Individual Poetry Slam Champion RC Weslowski, international spoken word celebrity Mighty Mike McGee and Poet of Honour Barbara Adler. See www.victoriaspokenwordfestival.com.

Chris Creighton-Kelly is a Canadian artist and writer who lives in the Victoria area. Along with France Trépanier, he is co-author of Understanding Aboriginal Arts in Canada Today. He has just begun writing a book on the Canadian art system.