Carl Sealeaf: A review on Spoken Word

  Spoken Word has been a community for a long time now – an extended family where everybody knows each other and at least once a year there’s a big party where everyone gets together to talk, reminisce and share poetry in the upstairs room of a pub whose name is more iconic in poetry than Charles Dickens’ was in Victorian literature. We practically glow with positivity and welcome newcomers with such encouragement and support that they can’t help falling in love with us. I know I did.


I can still remember my first open mic, watching strangers and friends alike  – some funny, some tragic and some heart-wrenchingly sincere. The quality may have varied as much as the content, but that was part of the magic. The whole point of the open mic was honesty over spectacle – so long as what you said was meaningful to you, people would listen regardless of how it sounded. It’s part of a remarkable support system that sees newcomers coming back time and time again and growing with each performance.


Lately though, things have changed a little. If I talk to a stranger about poetry, I no longer have to explain myself. I’ll be asked if I know Polarbear, or Kate Tempest, or if I’m into dub poetry? It’s become possible for some people to make a career for themselves in poetry, through workshop programmes, festivals and publishing deals. Reviews are now commonplace and the community has grown to such size that Birmingham now hosts at least half a dozen regular open mics such as Hit the Ode.


For most, this change has been a positive thing – gigs are better attended, more fresh faces are seen at every event and there’s room for people to grow and experiment. We have radio stations, plays and whole rafts of variations on rap, poetry and story-telling. We even have talk-shows now.


But for some the change has brought out a need for professionalism. Reviews have become sharper, more competitive. Open mics are a chance for networking rather than enjoyment and – yes – a few people have been overly-critical in situations where discretion might have been more appropriate. Thankfully these events have been few in number and never with harmful intent, but it’s affected the way the community thinks about itself. We’ve become people of small groups rather than a greater whole, and while everyone is still very warm and welcoming towards each other, there are people and places where we each feel more comfortable than others.


It’s made us nervous and reluctant to talk to one another. The temptation is to just stick to what we know and resist anything that tries to force us to change into anything more professional. But although we’ve tasted some early consequences of this shift, it’s important not to think of the change itself as malicious. It’s natural that as our art forms grows, people will think of it more as a job than a hobby. The question we need to ask is not how best to resist this inevitable shift towards professionalism, but how to embrace it in a way that doesn’t result in us losing our remarkable capacity to help encourage new writers to develop and this phenomenal sense of belonging.


This community is made up of the most modest, intelligent and compassionate people that I’ve ever had the joy of spending time with. But it’s because of that modesty that we’ve been so apprehensive about changing the way we do things. It can feel dirty at times to imagine spoken word as a profession, to be paid for something that for so long and for so many has been a very small, intimate passion. But it’s slowly becoming that; something that can provide a living wage for people.


We aren’t there yet, but we’re on our way. And it’s important that we stop feeling sheepish about providing people with a space where their work can be considered objectively and professionally. There needs to be a place for critique and review if we want spoken word to continue growing. Not at the expense of the open mic – but alongside it, so that we can provide both for the people who want to try and make some kind of living from it, and those who are just happy to enjoy it.


I love spoken word, and I love the people I’ve met along with it. I’d like for it to never change, but if that lack of change is starting to hurt us then I’d rather talk about it and decide what that change should be rather than letting it slowly erode what we all love about it – the community.

Carl Sealeaf