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What is spoken word poetry and why is it so powerful?

14:00 19 October 2016

Spoken promoter Amy Wragg at Ipswich Library.

Spoken promoter Amy Wragg at Ipswich Library.

Sarah Lucy brown

It’s political, personal, powerful, provocative, and packs a metaphorical punch.

Poet Dan Clark in Ipswich town centre.Poet Dan Clark in Ipswich town centre.

A modern twist on traditional poetry, spoken word is an oral art that focuses on word play and rhyme to tell a story – like rap but without music.

For years it has been bubbling under the surface as an underground phenomenon, but now it is beginning to creep its way into the mainstream.

Spoken word promoter Amy Wragg, who has been putting on gigs in Suffolk and Norfolk for 10 years through her company SoapBox, said it was one of the last political art forms.

“Poetry is exciting to me because it can be both serious and silly, in equal measure,” she added. “It’s a cross between stand up comedy and philosophy.

Poet Luke Wright at home.Poet Luke Wright at home.

“Music and page poetry can shy away from passionate political opinions but all the spoken word poets I love have political statements, either overtly or subtly.

“You would expect to go to a spoken word gig and talk about the Government or the welfare state and audiences that go are quite in tune to that.

“Page poetry can be quite illusive and difficult to engage with, but spoken word is out, and it’s saying it, and it’s entertaining without shying away from difficult subjects.”

Spoken word has recently made its way onto prime-time TV through adverts by Nationwide Building Society.

Dad Reins, by Luke Wright

For Sam

The platform-schlep and keycard-shuffle done

I’m back home again, and of course, there’s change.

New words and habits, but the biggest one:

you’ve ditched your pram, you’re now in baby reins.

No more for us the quick-nip up the shop!

You lunge and circle like a moon-faced dog

as I adjust from back-combed jobbing fop

to paunchy dad. My nightly monologue

of measured, risqué quips swapped for a set

of weary nags and grinning faux amazement.

I’ll step from stage to stage but won’t forget

these sweet staccato wobbles up this pavement.

Roam now my boy, don’t worry, you’ll be fine

I’ll be your tether Sam, because you’re mine.

From ‘The Toll’ (Penned in the Margins, 2017)

The promotional campaign aims to celebrate the voices and stories of ordinary people, with poems performed by stars such as Hollie McNish.

Hollie, who speaks about her experience of being a mother during the advert, has graced the stage at the John Peel Centre in Stowmarket and Southwold’s Latitude Festival.

For many up-and-coming spoken word artists, the internet has given them a platform to get their material heard and in turn develop an international fan base.

“YouTube has had a massive effect,” said Amy, who is based in Ipswich. “People are able to reach a massive audience that in the past they couldn’t. Every poet I know has a YouTube channel and they put a lot of effort into it.”

Renowned poet Hollie McNish performing at the John Peel Centre in Stowmarket.Renowned poet Hollie McNish performing at the John Peel Centre in Stowmarket.

One of Suffolk’s rising stars in the spoken world galaxy is Dan Clark, who only started vocalising his poetry live to crowds two years ago at the age of 37.

He said: “Spoken word is something we do all the time, it’s conversational.

“I think there are spoken word performers who don’t have a political edge, but certainly locally they seem to work to try and make a difference, to try and change people’s mind-sets a little bit.”

For Dan, who lives in Stowmarket, he said his main ambition during a gig was to make people laugh.

“Humour is a big part of it for me, but I’ve always been a big comedy geek,” he added.

“Before I did this I was writing comedy sketches for a video games podcast.

“Comedy is kind of my angle on it, but it can’t just be purely funny otherwise there’s no point, you are doing it just for the laughs and claps and the ego.”

Amy hosts the SoapBox Poetry Club at the John Peel Centre on the last Wednesday of the month. It features a nationally renowned poet as a headliner, two local poets and one musician in support.

The next event will be on October 26, featuring Dean Atta.

To find out more and to buy tickets, visit: getonthesoapbox.co.uk/Journal/5160

Luke Wright

Suffolk-based poet Luke Wright has been dominating the spoken word scene for almost two decades.

Luke, who is from Essex and now lives in Bungay, started performing poetry as a teenager after seeing Martin Newell and John Cooper Clarke on stage.

He said: “I thought it was brilliant and strange and unique and it immediately made a lot of sense to me that it’s what I wanted to do. Aged 16 I started and I got together with Ross Sutherland and did gigs.”

One of Luke’s first proper sets was supporting John Cooper Clarke in July 1999 at Norwich Arts Centre.

Luke is now touring the UK with his one man play, What I Learned From Johnny Bevan, which he debuted at The Edinburgh Fringe last year. It won a Fringe First award for new writing, The Stage Award For Acting Excellence, and The Saboteur Award for Best Spoken Word Show.

“I love the lifestyle being able to travel, the thrill of creating something, the autonomy it gives me,” said Luke, who this year performed at Ipswich Library. It’s only really me involved, it’s not collaborative on the whole.

“It’s short, you can spend a month and have four or five finished bits of work all on different subjects.

“It suits me as art form. It suits my restlessness and my introvert tendencies. I can sit at home and not talk to anyone then go on stage. For me it’s all I know, I’ve been doing it for longer than I haven’t been doing it. I’m probably quite unique in that regard.”

Luke also co-programmes the poetry tent at Latitude Festival, and he said it would be great to give spoken word more mainstream exposure.

“I would love to be able to do what I do at Latitude on television and programme two, three people every week and show off the rich talent we have on the scene,” he said.

“I just hope it carries on growing with good people doing interesting things.”

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