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Why performance poetry is on everybody's lips

When rapper-cum-poet Kate Tempest won last year's Mercury Prize with her debut album Everybody Down it cemented the current popularity of performance poetry. This week the BBC's arts editor Will Gompertz steps up to the mic as he meets young performers from the Roundhouse Poetry Collective as part of his Get Creative series on BBC Radio 4.

As they get expert advice on composing spoken word pieces from performance poets Hollie McNish and Polar Bear, we asked Jim Higo who runs the Away with Words open mic night in Hull to explain just how the word got out on performance poetry.

Kate Tempest at Glastonbury 2015

by Jim Higo

Performance poetry has been described at various times as, the new rock'n'roll; insurgent art; the final refuge of the failed comedian; the child of hip-hop; the last home of free speech. It is none of these things and it is all of them.

To categorise performance poetry is to not only fail to appreciate its essence, appeal and power, but also to limit the infinite possibilities and potential that it possesses

To categorise, pigeonhole and genrefy - I have invented this word, to allocate a genre - performance poetry is to not only fail to appreciate its essence, appeal and power, but also to limit the infinite possibilities and potential that it possesses.

Performance poetry is nothing new, it predates all the things it is likened to and has its origins in pre-literate societies where poems were recited, remembered and repeated from person to person. The spoken word scene is almost as old as, well, as spoken word itself or as old as John Cooper Clarke whichever came first.

It has its peaks and troughs like all art forms but unlike others it returns time after time. Regenerated, restyled but just as exciting and with new and contemporary twists added to its old tricks, it really is the Doctor Who of art forms and has the knack of appealing to generation after generation.

Its significant highs have included the 50s jazz club beat poets 'Ginsberg' era; the 60s pop poets, the punk poets of the 70s, the art school poets of the 80s and now it finds itself in the midst of yet another revival.

Will Gompertz Gets Creative

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A naked ambition

Performance poetry’s durability and attraction stems from its simplicity and flexibility. It can be and is many things to many people. It has the gift of maintaining its distinctiveness and its soul whilst adapting and adjusting to fit the whims and trends of the transient artistic and musical fads and fashions.

It has the gift of maintaining its distinctiveness and its soul whilst adapting and adjusting to fit the whims and trends of the transient artistic and musical fads and fashions

You’ll find open mic nights from the raucous to the relaxed; poetry slams where competition and audience participation reach fever pitch; shows from professional poets. You’ll find poets sharing the stage with musicians, actors and dancers. You’ll find protest poetry, political poetry, stand up poetry, punk poetry, jazz poetry, poetry fused with hip-hop and rap, love poetry, angry poetry. You’ll get performers who rant and rave, who are calm and relaxed, who do jokes or reveal secrets; you’ll get some who weave intricate verbal patterns and some who go directly to the heart of the matter.

Performance poetry’s increasingly high profile coincides with a growing realisation that, far from being dull and pretentious, when done well it is inspiring, relevant, stimulating and most importantly, entertaining.

Performance poetry’s biggest asset is that it satisfies the needs of everybody; from the part-time writer who just wants to share their words occasionally to the increasing number of professional poets trying to make a living from their work.

At the Away With Words open mic night in Hull, we encourage as much variety as possible in terms of styles and subject matter. We have people performing their work simply for the fun of it and we have poets who use the night to test their work and develop their skills. We have poets who only ever perform at our event and others who have taken full shows of their own to major festivals and events.

Words and Music

Ideas to exercise your mind

So if you write words on bits of paper or on your tablet that you’d just simply like to share or if you visualise yourself as the next Kate Tempest then get along to an open mic night or a slam and grab the mic (well ask first obviously as there are some rules!). You don’t have to be an accomplished performer/actor, you don’t have to be super confident, you don’t have to be an English language scholar. You’ll find amazing places full of creativity; inclusive, informal, welcoming places; non-judgemental places; places of innovation and invention, places full of thoughts and ideas, places full of words; places full of entertainment and energy; places full of people getting up and sharing their words. Places full of life!

Jim Higo runs a free open mic and special guest spoken word night in Hull – Away With Words Hull is the third Thursday every month at Union Mash Up, Hull. And Jim Higo and Miki Higgins will be performing their spoken word comedy show 'Never Mind The Pollocks' at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – Aug 8 to 29 at Cabaret Voltaire in Edinburgh.

Will Gompertz Gets Creative - Spoken Word Poetry - is on BBC Radio 4 FM, Saturday 18 July, 10.30am

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