Posted on | February 12, 2017 | 2 Comments
“I went to the States recently, and they have this youth slam competition there called Brave New Voices, […]There is a particular style that is very prevalent – it’s like trauma poetry. I heard about ten poems about teenage rape; by the end I was like, ‘I can’t hear any more.'[…]How do you judge the worth of someone’s personal story?”
This is not just a genre particular to US Youth Slam. A woman I know took part in a workshop with a celebrated poet a few years back. As part of a writing exercise, the celebrated poet encouraged the workshop participants to write about the most painful, traumatic experience of their lives. The woman wrote about being abused as a child by an older relative. The poem produced was undeniably powerful and yet she later voiced regret at stirring over the coals of an old hurt and speaking that terrible truth to the world.
As far as I know, the eminent poet wasn’t trained in trauma counselling. No aftercare was arranged for the workshop participants after they had revisited their traumas. Apparently, being an eminent poet on a gallant search for truth is qualification enough. I don’t know if this is the case with the Youth Slams that specialise in Trauma Poetry, I can only hope that the organisers show a bit more empathy and awareness than the eminent poet.
Which brings me to this performance by Darius Simpson and Scout Bostley, filmed at the 2015 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational, which found a large, worldwide audience through this Huffington Post article.
Standing tall while facing the audience, they begin by swapping places behind their respective microphones. When Bostley begins to speak of her personal experiences of sexism, Simpson interrupts and speaks the words that she was about to say. Bostley continues to mouth the words while nursing her throat as if her voice has been wounded of stolen. Then, as Simpson begins to speak of his experiences of racism, Bostley starts to speak on his behalf and it is now his turn to reach for his throat and silently mouth the words.
I understand that the poem is intended as a commentary on when people see fit to talk of the personal experiences of others and subsequently deny them of a voice. However, many aspects of the reading allow for another interpretation.
The poets speak clearly and vividly about the others’ experiences of racism and sexism. There is an element of detail that could only have come from the testimony of the person that experienced the trauma for themselves. I’ll take an educated guess that each poet wrote about their own experiences for the other to speak.
This differs from when someone else chooses to speak for your personal experiences of trauma. They would not be able to retell it with this degree of passion, accuracy or detail. Even though the experiences are spoken by the other poet, I picture their mute partner as I replay each retold incident in my head. In a way, the strangeness of this form of testimony makes these images even more poignant and intense.
While I accept that this might not be the intention, could this performance be seen as an ironic commentary on the problems of the genre, hitherto referred to as Trauma Poetry? With both poets showing great skill and empathy in voicing each others’ experiences, they are also addressing the question of whether we are being asked to judge the worth of someone else’s story. With the story cleaved so surgically from the speaker, we are able to look at the content and the performance in a different light. We are able to evaluate the performer’s skill in telling a story that, through the strictures of the genre, is not normally theirs to tell.
Similarly, when they finally switch back over and start speaking with their own voices, they are enthusiastically received by the audience. While this is presented as a triumphant moment, it is also the moment when the piece collapses back into the familiar conventions of the genre. The audience, voicing the mentality of the group, are welcoming them back into the fold.
By finding a different way of voicing these experiences, the performers fend off the fatigue of the viewer who has already seen countless breathless, shouted testimonies of trauma. At the same time, they find a way, through trusting each other, to let their stories be told anew. They implicitly question the tropes of the genre but remain true to the experiences that the genre encourages them to express.
This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts in which I will work towards a criticism of the Spoken Word. I will be looking at all forms of Spoken Word — not just poetry readings and Spoken Word poetry performances but stand up comedy, confessional monologues, academic lectures, speeches and maybe even wrestling promos. All the posts will appear under the “Toward a Criticism of the Spoken Word category. Click on it to see if any new posts have been added and if there are any old ones that you may have missed.