So, it would appear that I’ve been ranting about the lack of diversity on the spoken word scene. Again.
Well, let’s get some groundwork down, some initial assumptions out of the way:
- Diversity is important and A Good Thing™. Shh. I’ll get onto that later. Just bear in mind that it is, that I’m right, and that those groups who vociferously oppose this notion are wrong, ‘kay?
- The actual spoken word scene is diverse - in the open mics and collectives and organisations and workshops there are LOADS of people whose story and perspective is not that of the white, cis-gendered, straight, able-bodied male (WCGSABM).
- What I’m talking about here is the visible spoken word scene - the headliners, the A-listers, the Names, the ones who even people who aren’t on the scene, even those who otherwise confess despising poetry have heard of. The people who reliably sell out gigs, who tend to get interviewed, and reviewed, and paid attention to.
Okay? Okay, then I’ll begin. My (increasingly detailed) essay will be broken down into a series of headings:
With some sub-headings in between...(If I use a term I’m not sure that y’all will know, you’ll see it underlined with a dotted line (this is how Blogger does it, apparently) and you’ll know that you can hover over it with your mouse and it’ll tell you a definition of that term. Yes, you may argue with the definition if you like. I may even change it... :) )
Okay, fair enough, I said I’d get onto that, didn’t I? Here are my thoughts on this:
Okay, this is just my initial, gut reaction - it’s not fair that some people seem to get to play and others don’t, regardless of merit, talent, innovation, hard work. Quite apart from the fact that I’m in a couple of the under-represented groups, the whole “but why can’t everyone have a go?!” thing is something that’s been part of my mental makeup for a very long time.
In case you weren’t aware, yes - performance poetry is subject to the same kind of tokenism and disproportionate representation as, say, comedy. You know those panel shows where it looks like a row of white, cis-gendered, straight, able-bodied men with - if we’re lucky - someone stuck on the end who’s of colour, or female, or maybe out as queer . Hey, sometimes you get a female comedian of colour, or a lesbian. For a while we had Eddie Izzard as the Token TV but, well, he stopped dressing up in public and is all focused on his acting career so we don’t see him performing that role these days. Anyway, in comedy when you’ve wiggled a woman into the line-up it’s apparently called “token tits". Charming. I hate to think what the equivalent is for people of colour or non-heteronormative “lifestyle”.
Excuse me for a moment - I just freely used the words “heteronormative” and “lifestyle” and feel a little queasy... Okay, that’s better...
I have been asked, in the past, to perform in shows because “otherwise it’s going to be a bit of a sausage-fest.” Seriously? I mean, maybe your heart was in the right place, but I really wish you’d told me it was because I’m a good poet, or that my style or delivery or content made for a more varied line-up, because one woman in a five-poet line-up is not balanced in terms of gender... that’s maths, right there. (Yes, I still took the gigs.)
While the performance poetry community may indeed be small, you’d expect opportunities and talent to fall in a demographic Bell-curve - i.e. roughly equal numbers of male and female performers, and proportions of other factors that roughly mirror the UK community at large. When we’re talking about the visible big names, these proportions are WAY out of whack.
Name ten famous (living, performative) poets - go on, now, and without thinking about it consciously. How many of them are female? How many of them are of colour? How many of them are out queer? Add your own “minority” group status of choice and check your list for that. Is it in proportion to society’s general figures?
If they’re actually more represented in performance poetry’s higher echelons than in society, let me know - I’m intrigued!
(It should also be pointed out that my scientific research on this is, well, scanty - where are the lists of performance poets? Well, there’s one in Wikipedia, and after that it’s all lists of other individual’s opinions - find me stuff!
If spoken word is to be taken seriously, it’s got to, between us, represent the feelings and lives and experiences and concerns of everyone, so they can relate to it. And if spoken word is to help unite society, it needs to tell the stories of the people who aren’t being heard to the people who have the power to make things happen - one of the reasons for art is to jink past people’s defences and show them what the world looks like from someone else’s perspective. And if spoken word is to be effective for change, it needs to show the dispossessed that all kinds of people can take power through art.
And if spoken word is already taken seriously, then it needs to be demonstrating role models that represent everyone.
I can strive to be as intersectionally-aware as the next liberal white cis-gendered person who has no visible disabilities, but I can only assume that my difficulties growing up a genderqueer bisexual woman in an atmosphere of no visible (positive, proactive) role models are echoed by my trans* or disabled contemporaries, or those of colour, during their growing up.
So how can we make sure that the opportunities and the talents represented on the scene are properly diverse?
Gah. Good question. Okay, there are several strands to this, as I see it (not necessarily in a linear order of priority or chronology, but potentially in a wash, rinse, repeat series of widening cycles):
1. Demonstrating the value of under-heard stories to those who have the power to raise their profile
Again, let's take these in order:
This thought makes me feel a bit squirmy. It is because I have trouble with the notion that the power sits in the hands of the privileged and that we need to wait for them to “get it”. Having said that, I’m pragmatic enough to know that this is important. So this step involves finding ways to show promoters the importance of voices they're not considering.
I don’t just mean the big festivals, the big venues, the people with funding, the people you’ve heard of. I mean everyone who puts shows on and publishes work (written or performed) anywhere ever. At all. From the tiniest open-mic-with-features all the way up to, I dunno, stadia events promoters.
It’s everyone’s responsibility. All the time. It’s not like it isn’t happening already, but more needs to be done. e.g. Glastonbury and Apples & Snakes are pretty good at proportional opportunities for poets of colour, female poets, and queer poets, but they’ve arguably some way to go on disabled and trans* poets, and poets over the age of 30…
The other reason I feel a bit squirmy about this notion is that it runs the risk of ghettoising “minority” performers - of making a “special case” for something that should be second nature. But I guess that kind of conscious thought is going to have to suffice until... oh, here’s my next sub-heading:
How do I put this? I, personally, don't want to have to do this. I don't want diversity to be something I have to think about because I want to live in a society where it's not an issue, and where people are given opportunities based on merit – hard work and talent – not on societal appearance. But the only way this is going to happen is if “visibility” of those not currently being heard is ubiquitous.
Mainstream media still seems to think that the experiences and opinions of WCGSABMs is the norm. We need to break them of the notion that anything other is “exotic”. e.g. media such as new-generation Doctor Who and other associated titles have put in sterling work on this with regard to sexuality – continuous images of not only fully-integrated, healthy, functional non-heterosexual beings, but the acceptance of such by those around them.
I also want to make something else clear here – I have nothing against the stories of WCGSABMs, I just want to hear more of what everyone else has to say...
Increasing normalisation hopefully then creates demand and subtle pressure on other media and promoters to showcase “other” stories, which leads us reasonably neatly onto:
Is it possible that part of the reason that we don’t see as many female, (openly) queer, trans*, disabled poets, or those of colour, is that they do not consider performance poetry “their” sphere? Or is it that they are conditioned against ambition because some message or other has taken hold that they are not worthy to share their words or thoughts or opinions or feelings, not worthy to take applause and adulation and congratulation? After all, speaking from my own conditioning and training - nice girls aren’t supposed to put themselves forward, raise their voices, get in the spotlight on their own. Sing in choirs, for sure, sing someone else’s words in aid of something, but not, you know, just for the sheer glory and adrenalin-spiking fear-joy of shining alone. Tut, etc.
The notion I’m driving at with this sub-heading is, in case you hadn’t grasped it, that we need to tell them that they can be poets, and that they can perform, and that they can still be true to themselves and do these things well. That talent and hard work should be the only barriers to doing this. And that this may mean raising flagpoles of people visibly representing the marginalised voices and saying: “these people are awesome... oh, and they happen to be [insert non-WCGSABM category/ies here], and that story is just as important.
I want to have this conversation, out loud and in public, and I want to know if I’m wrong and that the visible spoken word world is representatively diverse, or if you have an exceptionally compelling argument for why diversity isn’t important on the spoken word scene.
Dependent on the comments people add to this, the text of this “article” may change. If you have a go at me for being a middle-class, liberal, well-educated white person who hasn’t checked her privilege/ is being patronising, you may have a tougher go of changing my mind, but do try, if you think it’s important...