Rebecca Watts, Gary Longden and Me

Header Photo:  ‘Apples and Snakes: Raw and Biting Cabaret Poetry’, Pluto Press, London, 1984;  ‘In the Pink: the Raving Beauties Choose Poems From the Show and Many More’, The Women’s Press, London, 1983.

A year ago I had a very nuanced and worthwhile discussion online with the British Poet Gary Longden. Gary had responded to a quite controversial article by Rebecca Watts criticising the emergence of ‘instagram’ spoken word poets.   He was annoyed at some of Watts’ assertions, while I agreed with some things she wrote, and disagreed with others.

Why is this important?  Because people like me were involved in the emerging spoken word scene here in Australia way back in the 1980s.  And if we weren’t being ignored by publishers and academia (despite a vibrant and rapidly growing live performance scene), we were being vilified as ‘not real poets’.

As always, a coterie of mostly old white men got to decide for the rest of us which work was ‘good’ and which wasn’t.  And this froze out just about everyone producing anything interesting, cutting edge, diverse or minority in focus (and I include women here in my definition of ‘minority’)

In the 1980s I found published allies in the UK’s ‘Apples & Snakes’ collective, and in the work of ‘The Raving Beauties’, whose Channel 4 show of performed women’s poetry was seminal.  Also seminal was the work of John Cooper Clarke, and spoken word artists such as Jello Biafra and Henry Rollins, and transgressive writers and rule breakers such as Kathy Acker (whose novel, ‘Blood and Guts in High School’ felt in equal parts thrilling and shocking).

I noticed a reference to the ‘Apples & Snakes’ collective just this week in an article in The Guardian, which prompted me to revisit last year’s conversation with Gary. You can read this most recent article here:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/feb/16/rise-new-poets

Anyhow …

Time goes on, the world turns, and everything old is new again.  Here’s Gary’s blog from last year, with links to Watts’ piece, and the conversation thread for those interested in following the debate. But if you just want to read Gary’s and my conversation concerning the scene as I’ve experienced it in Australia, and as he has experienced it in Birmingham, I’ve cut and pasted (with permission) underneath the link.

https://garylongden.wordpress.com/2018/01/21/rebecca-watts-v-the-in-crowd/

Sorry, but this is very poorly argued, as opposed to Watt’s well argued and considered article.
Not agreeing with the Slam ethos is not the same as ‘sneering’, which, from my reading of it, I do not feel she did. Your only defense of the type of poetry she has criticised is that it is ‘performed’ and attracts large audiences. But does this make it art? I think not.

As a poet who has worked both on the stage and for the page, I abandoned Slam in the 90s – despite being quite successful at it – because too many practitioners were not there for the art of poetry but for their own self-aggrandisement. Too many ‘performers’ and ‘comedians’ playing for laughs or shock value, but not enough actual craft, or understanding of the craft. Not to mention the gladiatorial competitiveness of it, in which audience members ‘judge’ the poetry according to what THEY think good poetry might be. Completely subjective.

That’s not to say there aren’t good poets in the spoken word scene. There most definitely are. But my personal feeling is that approbation from people who know nothing about the art form, who don’t read, and who think and speak in sound bites is meaningless. Sure, it may turn people onto poetry as an art form but without some guided reading from people with knowledge in the area, the result will just be more bad poetry, or rants masquerading as poetry.

 

Firstly, Liz, thank you for reading my piece. I respect your opinion, as you can see by my publishing it.

I am passionate about poetry as a genre, both page and stage.

I found Watts’ article neither well argued, nor considered. I feel it comes from a small sector of the poetry community whose values, as espoused by Watts, are unhelpful to the form.

The issue of Slam poetry is irrelevant to me. There are positives ( amongst them the discipline of a three minute piece) ,and negatives ( amongst them they can pander to the lowest common denominator). Slam poetry is just part of performed poetry, no more no less. My charge of sneering was not based upon what Watts thinks of Slam poetry. It was her reasons for the belittling of the form in general, and three named young female poets.

My defence of the above is not that it is performed, and attracts large audiences.

Pretty much all poetry is performed. A page poem read out is performed. It is neither a positive, nor a negative, in itself.

Page poetry may have nuances and detail which are difficult, sometimes impossible, to appreciate when read out without a text to study. Some page poets will concentrate on those nuances and detail.

Performance poetry tends to require a more immediate impact, but may be no less nuanced in its detail.
There is good and bad in both.

Popularity and large audiences are not a definitive measurement of excellence. A small number of people declaring something excellent, because they say so, is equally flawed.

I am neither a champion for, or critic of, Slams. They are what they are. However I do not think that the motives of Slam poets are more, or less, laudable than page poets, who may crave unpaid publication in an obscure, barely read, journal, with all the zest of a Slam poet craving a final position.

Slam poetry does attract its fair share of comedians and shock-jocks. Page poetry can attract those who prize obscurity and the arcane as ends in themselves. A slam panel’s judgement on what they have enjoyed is no more or less subjective than a TS Elliott prize panel.

I am not sure who your final paragraph was aimed at. Hollie McNish and Kate Tempest are both widely read students of poetry, I don’t know of Kaur’s background.

I can provide you with a list of senior University academics, working now, who will join me in robustly defending the quality and value of the Spoken Word scene ( Homer and Chaucer started it!).

I think that you are much mistaken in believing that those who are introduced to, and enjoy, the Spoken Word scene are not motivated to read more widely. That they are, is very much my experience. What Tempest, McNish and Kaur do is reach out beyond a rarefied , closeted elite. I can assure you that once you excite people about poetry, you cannot stop them. McNish will play to more people in one night, than Watts will sell books in a year. That is a reach that is beyond populism, she is doing something right. Is something excellent if no-one knows about it? How would you know?

It has always been the case that if you want to write good poetry, read some.

 

Thanks for the considered response Gary. I can’t say I disagree with anything you’ve said.

But I have certainly noticed, at least in my own city of Brisbane, a silencing of well-regarded, well-published and reviewed poets here in Australia in favour of flavour-of-the-month people with no track record – simply because they have a gimmicky presentation or come from a minority group our arts funding bodies have prioritised. In these case, it is no longer about the work, but the personality. That a publicly funded festival can showcase a young poet who has never published a single thing, or aid and abet a serial plagiarist in obtaining public funding so they can go on to direct such a festival, is disgraceful. In my town, most of the best and brightest from the 70s-naughties have simply walked away.

My own involvement in ‘performance poetry’ began in the 80s, and I was considered to be one of the ‘second wave’ here in Australia to popularise spoken word performance (according to some wikipedia hack, anyway). But back then there was a strongly held notion that the work must ‘work’ on the page as well as on the stage, and if it didn’t other poets weren’t shy about telling you so. When such standards are abandoned, we no longer have a written art form, only an oral tradition which, by its very nature, cannot approximate the depth of thought and nuance that print can achieve, if for no other reason than the short attention spans of audiences.

As you can see from my background, I am not against spoken word as a form at all, and was in fact an early adopter. But I have walked away from poetry after impotently watching personality disordered attention-seekers take over our form, our funding, our festivals, all that so many worked so hard for, while systematically excluding almost all ‘real poets’ active before the year 2000. In this way, the Slam model has done a lot of damage to a previously vibrant and inclusive local writing scene.

In my last para I was certainly not referring to oral poets like Tempest, who I consider to be an excellent poet, performer, and writer of fiction. As I said earler, there are most definitely some fine poets in the spoken word scene. But if popularity, sales, and ethnic background matter more to programmers than standards of excellence, audiences will be hard-pressed to learn the difference between good and bad poetry from what they see on literary festival stages.

In turn, Liz, thank you for your kind reply.

I was interested to learn of your experiences in Brisbane. I live in Birmingham UK. We have three large Universities in the City and another five close by, with numerous poetry groups and spoken word events. Fortunately there is something for everyone here. However, I do recognise some of the problems you have raised as existing, in part, in Brisbane, here.

Factually, in the UK, Whitbread/TS Elliott nominated prize short listers rarely sell more than 300 copies of their nominated book. The best spoken word poets are selling 2000 copies, self- published. Of course quality and volume sales do not always follow. But an audience is important, whatever the form.

For me, Spoken Word is like pop music, an awful lot of disposable froth, with some substance to be found if you look hard enough, and wait. Excellence takes time. It is inevitable that young people, having a go, will be given a chance at festivals, to attract young audiences. I accept that image and impact may outweigh substance in many cases, but if it stimulates an interest in poetry, I am relaxed.

I think that many fine page poems work performed, and vice versa. But I do not think that interchangeability is essential. Both forms have strengths and weaknesses. A good villanelle is a crafted delight, but is far better appreciated on the page. Hollie McNish’s “Language Learning” depends upon hearing the different languages spoken for maximum impact.

I wholly agree that page poetry, well written, offers a density which stage poetry cannot match. Yet I was thinking of my favourite page poems, and almost all, can be read/performed in three minutes!

It seems to me that we agree on much. Perhaps the only difference is that I am more optimistic that those who first sample the adrenaline hit of stage poetry, will explore, and be drawn into , the rich diversity of poetry which has gone before.

What a pleasure it is to be able to chat about these things with someone from whom I am separated by 10,285 miles, but close to in terms of shared interests.

Perhaps we could share some of the best page and stage poetry between ourselves from our respective corners of the world?

 

G’day Gary!
Yes, it is one of the best things about the internet, to be able to speak at length about complex subjects from the other side of the world! Unfortunately so much arguing and trolling goes on, rather than what we are doing here!

For some reason this response of yours didn’t come to my attention till today, apologies. I do ‘follow’ your blog, so that’s curious …

I am actually in the process of getting my old VHS video and cassette audio archives digitised, and will post them soon on my blog – the purpose being to demonstrate that there’s nothing new under the sun, and that I, also, had a long love affair with performing poetry, starting in the early 1980s. John Cooper Clarke, Henry Rollins, Jello Biafra, Nick Cave and a host of other punk identities come to mind as influences, as well as English troupes such as the ‘Apples & Snakes’ group and ‘The Raving Beauties’. Their anthologies, at the time, caused great excitement for we practitioners in Australia.

As a postgraduate I wrote an article on the history of the Literary Cabaret as a form, which was published in a number of outlets, both in print and online. It references some of what was going on over here in the field. Here is a link.
https://lizhalldowns.com/articles-reviews/off-the-page-on-the-stage-poetry-and-performance-2002/

Thanks for the conversation. The bottom line, I think, is that those of us who were active in this field pre-internet really must digitize out archives if we want our contribution to be seen in the broader scheme of things. History is important, and art is ever-evolving, which is a wonderful thing!

I was intending to put together a blog post about all this. But I think this written conversation covers a lot of the bases, and I was wondering if you’d agree to me reposting some (or all) of this discussion on my blog (with appropriate credits, of course, and links to your site). Not sure if this is the ‘done thing’, as I am quite new to blogging myself. I’ve only recently started, manly because of experiencing frustration at the pathetic level of discourse on social media where you can’t disagree with someone without it becoming an abusive argument.

Anyhow, wonderful to chat!
Cheers
Liz HD

Liz,
Thanks for all of that. By all means quote from our exchange at will.
There are many, like us, who welcome an exchange of views and experiences, rather than an exchange of abuse

Please stay in touch!
Gary

 

One final remark: it’s such a pleasure to have nuanced, intelligent discourse online with thoughtful people. I only wish there could be more of it! Thanks Gary!

 

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