Sunday 19 November 2017

Speaking their minds

Using social media to reach a wide audience, spoken-word poets are at the forefront when it comes to artists setting the agenda. Our reporter meets three leading lights of the scene here

Burgeoning voices: Spoken word poets Oisin McKenna, Erin Fornoff and Colm Keegan. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Burgeoning voices: Spoken word poets Oisin McKenna, Erin Fornoff and Colm Keegan. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Erin Fornoff, Oisin McKenna and Colm Keegan. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Hilary A White

Hollie McNish dismantling anti-immigration logic in Mathematics. Heartbreak, Emmet Kirwan's call for "awe of all mná". Stephen James Smith's 11-minute mirror image in My Ireland. The stirring balm applied by Tony Walsh's This is the Place at a Manchester vigil. A scathing saunter through Varadkarism called Gay, Male, Votes Fine Gael by Oisin McKenna.

Spoken-word poetry is not a rising scene bubbling up from underground clubs and worthy open-mic dens - it is here and it is prodding you. It is in your social-media feed, professionally filmed and edited and getting swept off in a frenzy of sharing. And, most pertinently, it is setting the agenda for what needs to be talked about like few other artistic mediums right now.

McKenna's went viral shortly after Varadkar took office and was a classic example of the form opening up what Dublin doyen Colm Keegan calls "a micro-argument", in this case members of the LGBT community falling into right-leaning complacency. Hailing from a theatre background, the 26-year-old McKenna finds himself looking more and more towards the immediacy of spoken word, just as actors, prose-writers and hip-hop students are as well.

"I've recently moved more into it," he says, "both for creative reasons, but also economic reasons in that spoken word is much cheaper to produce. To write a play maybe takes two years and lots and lots of money, and you can only reach a certain amount of people. But making spoken word work and presenting it online in a digital context takes much less time and reaches people much faster."

Erin Fornoff, Oisin McKenna and Colm Keegan. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Erin Fornoff, Oisin McKenna and Colm Keegan. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Cross-pollination also seems to be occurring by way of some skilled and visionary film-makers, cinematographers, editors, composers and sound mixers who are acting as salespeople for these verses. And whether you're John Cooper Clarke or Stephen James Smith, you might even get brought out to recite your poetry at a rock concert. Spoken word is a versatile bedfellow.

Do we have some special knack for it, this land of sozzled scribes and Nobel laureates? Erin Fornoff is a prominent spoken-word artist who was behind the establishment of the Lingo festival, Dublin's first programme of events specifically devoted to the art form. Originally from North Carolina, she moved here eight years ago and has seen the viral impact of spoken word come to the fore only in the past number of years following the trail blazed by artists in the UK such as McNish and the all-conquering Kate Tempest.

Familiar with scenes in the US and UK, Fornoff believes Ireland is forging its own style that is slightly removed from other quarters.

"I don't know if it's that thing people say about Ireland that there's poems everywhere, you're just batting them away floating in the air," she laughs. "Maybe it's because the scene here was isolated for many years. Maybe it's because people here started doing it on their own. Now, people just learn it from watching a bunch of YouTube videos which does homogenise the style a little bit."

Fornoff refers to these spoken-word tropes as "crutches", the little clichéd affectations that a writer can fall into while bringing their work into life on stage. They are precisely the reason she never writes with performance in mind, she says, because it can appear too contrived or "try-hard". Among these crutches, she cites "the call-and-response thing with the audience, or where you say the last line three times, or you break into a song in the middle of it for a second, or you break words into these pieces, like 'condemn-nation'" as the most common.

As she does, knowing groans are released around the table from ­McKenna and Keegan. All three are leading lights of the scene in Ireland's capital, and yet you possibly couldn't find a more diverse trio of Dublin residents sitting around, nodding in accord on a sunny Wednesday afternoon.

Equally, their styles are vastly different. Keegan can riff on inner-city life and inner-city pressure. Fornoff, meanwhile, spins out personal journeys and sensations. McKenna jabs at injustices under urbane politeness and LGBT perspectives. If anything cements the vigour of spoken word at the moment, it is this diversity of voices and backgrounds.

Keegan landed in spoken word around 10 years ago and has seen its everyman appeal calcify steadily. "The scene is beyond definition. It's very punk - you turn up, you watch it, you do it the next week. 'There's stuff out there and it's making me feel this way'. Now we've entered into this new political space where there are things that have to be said. It's like weeds popping up all over the place beyond control with all these burgeoning voices. It's a very exciting, self-propagating thing."

While Fornoff is unsure how new all this is ("Every generation thinks it invented everything"), she does see the profile of the artists becoming more disparate at events like Slam Sunday, a monthly poetry competition held at Filmbase in Temple Bar.

"They get younger and younger, to the point that the organisers actually had to take a child-protection class. It is a recourse for young people to be able to articulate things, and poetry is actually that for everyone. I've had about five high-ranking businessmen tell me they write poetry on a notes app on their phone so that people will think they're texting."

Ah yes, the scourge of poet-shaming. Live poetry doesn't nearly get the unforgiving responses of, say, a stand-up comedy audience but the very word "poetry" can incite varying levels of opprobrium, from eye-rolling Leaving Cert fatigue to outright dismissive inverse snobbery. What gives?

"Colm used to tell people he wasn't a poet," Fornoff hoots, turning to Keegan, who duly relates an anecdote about working in a factory and people being unable to reconcile his thick Dublin accent with his preference for broadsheet newspapers. When he told a colleague on the factory floor that he wrote poetry, the response was "where's your skirt?"

"A really stupid, reductive way of looking at it," he sighs. "It's about feelings and the heart. Even in business or the machinations of the State, the human voice gets lost. Everything's falling apart on some level and we need these voices. Spoken word is not a new thing, it's expository, it's rhetoric, it's Martin Luther King, it's Winston Churchill, it's Socrates, it's engaging the multitudes."

"I don't think people outside of it realise how complex and diverse spoken word is," McKenna adds.

Fornoff is able to laugh at it a little bit more: "I mean, I like poetry but sometimes it's like, do I really want to go and watch two hours of poetry?" The best way, she feels, of "ambushing" people with the form is at ensemble open-mic evenings such as the Brown Bread Mixtape or the Circle Sessions.

Unfortunately, another difference between Ireland and the UK and US is the limited professional development opportunities here. Every poet working in Ireland has died on stage at least once, Fornoff assures me, but you dust yourself off and you get better. If you're holding down full-time work just to survive, time to improve can be tricky to manage, a drum many Irish artists are surely beating these days.

"You need to put a lot of time into it and no one's going to pay you for that time," McKenna says, "and if you're not really making a lot of money in other areas of your life, that can be very difficult."

Fornoff jumps in, explaining how the UK has national spoken-word organisations by region who educate, support and even arrange tours for artists with a healthy pot of allocated council funding. The slow increase in spoken-word workshops and the fact that the recently disbanded Lingo festival was Arts Council-funded are a good start - but more needs to be done to capitalise on the high profile the form has achieved despite its limited resources.

"Spoken word is respected because we made it be respected," Keegan says by way of a keystone to this whole discussion. "It happened because it had to happen."

For information on spoken word events, competitions and courses, go to www.poetryireland.ie/writers/opportunities

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