Let me begin by discussing in more concrete terms, what I mean by this word “community”. By community, in the context of, and with reference to, groups of people who are interested in performing and/or hearing Spoken Word, I mean something beyond the loose unity engendered by that common interest. By community I mean to suggest a cultivation of that which is created when that common love of Spoken Word is joined by a common intention or vision for its present and future. Importantly, also, I think a group begins to constitute a community when they are willing to commit to compassionately and collectively surmounting the struggles that arise during the process of co-creation. I think community is created through the willingness to share intentions that mutually honour and nourish all who invest in it. In the case of Spoken Word, this, I think, means being able to move beyond our individual lenses and ambitions into a sphere where we embrace the benefits of being accountable to other Spoken Word artists and enthusiasts in the way we consider our roles, actions, impacts and circles of influence as it regards the sustainability of the Spoken Word scene in our towns and cities. When we are willing to have honest and compassionate discussions about what future we imagine for Spoken Word in the places we live, we begin to create bonds, resilience, momentum and the sort of creative strength and breadth that can only manifest through diversity and communal integrity.
With all of that said, it seems necessary to speak about why Spoken Word is a viable community-building tool in the first place.
Why is Spoken Word a viable community-building tool?
Spoken Word is a viable community-building tool primarily because of the type of human engagement it commands and the methods by which that engagement is created. I mean to say that Spoken Word is an art form that presents humanity in a remarkably unobstructed way. The act of performing Spoken Word is a stark one: it presents the performer (often alone) with the possibility of occupying physical space and manipulating silence in any way they see fit. The spectrum of possibility and creativity represented by that situation makes Spoken Word a very direct vehicle for the expression of the human condition. Spoken Word is, I feel, a contemporary iteration of the human impulse to order, understand and reflect the realities and possibilities of the world through the act of passionate speech. Reflected in contemporary Spoken Word paradigms is the ancient use of oratory and orality for the urgent expression of ideas that can shape the world and impact collective consciousness.
Because of this history, we have, as human beings, inherited a social consciousness which understands the value of gathering around the spoken word and engaging in the dynamic of speaking and listening that is a necessary part of meaningful communication and dialogue. This, I think, is part of the reason why people are willing to give Spoken Word their attention; the idea of members of the same or similar social classes engaging in meaningful idea-sharing oriented by spoken words is an ancient practice, and has perhaps always been a part of how humans build, sustain and understand communities and societies.
In addition to all of this, Spoken Word performance helps individuals harness their personal power, the strength and nuance of their subjectivity, while enabling them to passionately and conscientiously occupy political space.
The seemingly inherent nature of performance and speech as expressions which empower and demarginalize people and validate their experiences is another reason why people are spiritually and politically attracted to spoken word– and might want to build communities around the virtues of the art form.
Why Spoken Word Communities are Necessary
Spoken Word is imbued with many layers of political meaning. Everything from the content of a poem, its reception, affirmation or rejection by the audience, to who is (and is not) represented on Spoken Word stages reflects ideas about how our society is (rightly or wrongly) organized. The writing and performance of a poem is embedded with meaning, implications and assumptions; sometimes the implications within a poem can be harmful, hurtful, oppressive or disdainful of certain people. Even in cases where a poem or a poet is not deemed offensive, it is still necessary to consider the group of social factors that allow some people to feel safe or empowered to occupy the role of performer ( a powerful position) while others not. All of these things are expressions of social, cultural and political ideas that subconsciously influence the way we understand one another and filter our experiences. Within the dynamic of any public performance of Spoken Word, there are many, many lenses being used to interpret the content and experience of a poem. It is a plain fact that some poems do have (for instance) sexist implications, or rely upon certain moral assumptions upon which not everyone in a given room will agree. Furthermore, some poems rely upon national or cultural narratives (for example) which may be problematic or contentious for some, but not for others. Whatever the lens through which a poem is performed or received, there need to be spaces inside which people can honestly and communally being to unpack, discuss, understand and probe the various levels of political meaning expressed at every Spoken Word event. Without the ability to adequately discuss these ideas, Spoken Word scenes run the risk of alienating audience members and performers. The existence of spaces where the political implications of Spoken Word can be discussed will create more compassion and empathy among and between performers, while also giving audience members the space to feel heard and considered. If we are unable or unwilling to create mechanisms for constructive dialogue that account for the art form’s political implications, we risk unconsciously perpetuating violence and implicitly invalidating others’ right to safety. Community, then, is a space where we can begin to be more accountable to one another, as accountability is an expression of care, and care a foremost expression of love.
It may also be necessary to create communities in Spoken Word because many of the people entering the art form do so from a place of considerable vulnerability. Many observers of Spoken Word laud its performers for their remarkable ability to (seemingly) bear their hearts, summon the courage to speak and confront their shadows through poetic expression. Because many Spoken Word performers find it necessary or helpful to disclose uncomfortable personal truths as a way of moving toward healing, I think it is important that Spoken Word scenes, in the towns and cities where they exist, are also the sort of spaces that can support or affirm a poet when the task of healing proves difficult. Many of the people who are attracted to Spoken Word are looking for healthy ways of belonging and making themselves heard; within the consciousness of every poetry scene, then, there need also be the will to support its new voices and steer them toward the sort of validation that is affirming of the deep, true virtues within them, and away from any validation or desire that may harm their art or humanity. Perhaps there need also be people within every scene whose role it is to identify the unique and special qualities of each new poet and find some way of nurturing them so that Spoken Word becomes an integral part of their personal and spiritual development (if the poet wants it to be). I suppose I am also suggesting that while it is true that the simple act of performing Spoken Word can be empowering or healing for some people, the healing potential of Spoken Word is amplified many-fold when it is experienced in community. While it is valuable to affirm the merit and importance of a person’s art and voice, it is yet another level of love to value and nurture their potential as a human being as well. I think Spoken Word scenes can be substantially transformative spaces for many of the people who enter them, if strong enough community consciousness is built.
Lastly, it is necessary to create communities through Spoken Word in order to expand the scope and impact of the art form. Spoken Word has not, for the most part, broken into the mainstream or popular art consciousness. Most spoken word artists and scenes are not widely known, well-paid, or broadly celebrated (with the national and international successes of Shane Koyczan being perhaps the only obvious exception) even on a local level. In any given city, it is still true that most people, even those who might identify as art appreciators or creators, have not seen more than one or two live poetry shows. Spoken Word’s current status within Canada as a niche or underground art form means that those already inside of its cultures must create vibrant, viable and functioning communities not just as a luxury, or some loose by-product of Spoken Word’s existence, but as a strategic and necessary means of sustaining its survival. In most Canadian cities, professional Spoken Word artists are still fighting over the relatively meager resources that exist to support their careers. The infrastructure that exists specifically to support Spoken Word is still quite small and quite young compared to other forms of art and performance. For these reasons, it falls upon Spoken Word’s current practitioners and organizers to build communities that are large and united enough to expand the scope and impact of the art form within the popular consciousness of this country. I suppose what I’m beginning to realize is that community-building isn’t just a happy coincidence or an unavoidable result of our common interest in words, justice, or expressive potential, it is a strategic tool of sustenance, a necessary component of the art form’s survival.