Niall O'Sullivan

high brow, low brow, none of that stuff in the middle

Darius Simpson & Scout Bostley – Lost Voices

Posted on | February 12, 2017 | 2 Comments

In a recent Vice article about Spoken Word, Lisa Mead, the artistic director of Apples and Snakes, spoke of a genre of poetry common to US Youth Slams,

“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.

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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.

John Berryman: Dream Song 29

Posted on | February 10, 2017 | 1 Comment

This performance of Dream Song 29 by John Berryman defies many of the metrics I have claimed make a good poetry reading:

Dial down your intensity when performing in an intimate setting.

Try to minimise distracting physical gestures and tics.

Don’t drink too much before reading, in fact, try not to drink at all.

For a while, after I discovered this video, I used it as an example of just that: how not to perform a poem.

But then something changed with my tastes and the mood of the poetry world. As Spoken Word became more winsome and rehearsed, with mentors and producers ironing out all the intensity and awkwardness from a perfomance — or ignoring intense and awkward performers altogether — I began to find something of great value in Berryman’s reading.

Similarly, at the literary end of things, poets became mannered and taciturn, shrunk behind their lecterns, buckled under the weight of poetry’s importance, funnelling their carefully wrought lines through the reedy frequency of “poetry voice” .

In the midst of this, Berryman’s drunken recital of Dream Song 29 became a token of a vanishing quantity in the literary and Spoken Word spheres: humanity and authenticity.

So what is it that works about this performance? Well, it helps that at the heart of it, the words that become apparent through the slurred and disjointed speech all add up to a very good poem. Not only that, the poem, like many of the Dream Songs, is fragmented, staccato, resistant to any common sense reading yet utterly compelling.

And then there’s the loud, exclamation of “But!” as Berryman jabs his finger towards the viewer, then sags downwards before his head winds back round in an anticlockwise motion to deliver the rest of the line, “…. errrr never did Henry, as he thought he did…” There is nothing in the printed version of the poem to suggest that this “but” should be invoked so dramatically. This was once a source of reliable hilarity for me and it is still wonderfully eratic. For such a tragic and troubled literary icon, he still brings me cheer.

What other poet could have written this poem but this drunk with his awkward posture, straggly beard and eyes shrunk by prescription lenses — doing his best not to sound tipsy and therefore looking and sounding completely ratarsed? He is as far as one can get from “a grave Sienese face a thousand years/would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of.”

Berryman recites to the camera after gleaning each line from the page for a moment. This keeps him from tripping over his own words and preserves the jarring, short burst images of the poem. This reaches a peak that is both sinister and hilarious when he inserts an unsure “errr” while looking down to the page before restoring eye contact with the camera to declaim, “…hacks her body up”.

There is a darkness and a manic energy to the Dream Songs that doesn’t want to be taken too seriously. Only a troubled but brilliant mind could come up with such a troubled but brilliant poem, and this mind becomes manifest in the performance.

Which brings us back to the climate of the literary and Spoken Word scenes. How many Berrymans are going unheard because they lack the straightness and sanity that we have come to expect from public speakers and writers? Would John Berryman, in today’s climate, be thought of as too unprofessional? A liability? No different to a drunk in a public park? How long would such a celebrated academic last in today’s academic climate?

Therein lies the paradox in Spoken Word today. Performers are encouraged to express their emotions and humanity but in a very ordered and directed fashion. For all of the slurring and finger jabbing, Berryman is all too human. There is indeed something, sat heavy on his heart.

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This is the first 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. Who am I kidding? I will definitely be looking at 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.

New Article from Vice about Spoken Word

Posted on | February 2, 2017 | No Comments

(originally posted on my tumblr )

I’ve always thought that the number one rule of poetry criticism is to not judge a poet by their commissions. This article from Vice starts off by throwing a critical light on a recent spate of Nationwide Building Society Ad commissions. It ends by being critical of poets advertising oven chips, which is illuminating because no one is judging John Cooper Clarke’s ode to McCain as his magnum opus.

This article also loses points by making reference to a “poetry boom” which is a point made in every performance poetry article written since the nineties. It is as reliable as the articles that say poetry is dying when looking at the number of poetry books sold at major retailers every year.

Otherwise there are some illuminating soundbites from Sam Berkson, Lisa Mead and James Massiah. Mead cast a much needed critical perspective on the American Youth Slam movement, with its heavily coached, righteously yelled missives about the worthy suffering of each subsequent speaker. Massiah reverses the trend of the first Spoken Worders by saying that he prefers to be refered to as a Performance Poet because the term Spoken Word has too much baggage. So much for my predictions.

There is a good critical article about Spoken Word poetry that is yet to be written. To be fair, this one does well to diagnose the main problem as a critical one. There is a “good for poetry” mentality in Spoken Word, one that thinks that if we all club together and get the art form out there, we’ll all reap the benefits. There is a sense of anxiety that accompanies this missionary mentality and this is what is stifling decent criticism. The truth is that only the good stuff is worth getting out there and criticism that discerns good from bad is the best way of doing this.

I would normally nominate myself for this mission, as I’ve burned enough bridges already and have had my fifteen minutes of Spoken Word fame – but I really can’t be arsed. I have decided that if noone else is doing it, then I guess it will have to be me.

Trumpigram, the poetic form for the post-truth era

Posted on | January 10, 2017 | 1 Comment

I recently watched this video from The Nerdwriter on YouTube about the tweets of Donald Trump. It’s well worth a few minutes of your time if you haven’t already watched it. Part of its conclusions can be condensed to this: tweets from Donald Trump’s account that share links are probably composed by his staff. Tweets that express a strong opinion that are concluded with a brief exclamatory statement and an exclamation mark have probably come from the Donald’s own tiny fingers. Here’s an example:


He starts off with a seemingly factual statement and then finishes with a brief exclamation and then an exclamation mark. Again:

Factual statement > brief exclamation > exclamation mark

What we have here, I do believe, is a poetic form! I was originally gong to call it the trumpku but that seems to already be used for Trump statements translated into the Japanese poetic form. So, borrowing from “epigram” I proudly present the trumpigram.

The form is simple, 140 characters following the formula of Factual statement > brief exclamation > exclamation mark

Let the fun begin!

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