No Man’s Land

By Joelle Taylor — 2021 winner of the most valuable British prize in poetry — a poem performed (432 views) from her 2011 book Ska Tissue.

And here’s where she explains her preference for spoken performance versus written format, how she “didn’t submit to magazines, we submitted to audiences”.

When slam became popular it was colonised. The middle classes flocked to it as a way of shortcutting their careers – win a title, win a career. They had completely overlooked that slam was never about the winner, but about the elevation of distinct diverse voices, and their relationship to the audience. It was a community event, a bridge between ideas and audience. It was political at its core, allowing stories of poverty, racism, sexism, exclusion, and the language of the streets to flourish. To connect. And its popularity depended on this. But when the middle classes, clutching their tidy notebooks and tidy mouths, invaded, they needed to change the content expectation of the events; they could not after all speak from their own experiences and have a chance of winning. And so, the project to belittle working-class poetry began again. They called the poems ‘confessional’, they called them ‘hysterical’, they called the poetry ‘trauma for points’. They criticised the rough vocabulary, the directness of the pieces offered. They policed language and vocabulary and content. They patrolled our mouths. And it worked. It always does.


But it is vital that we value these nights, these beginnings of poems. Spoken word is the last free art – in no other art form is there an equivalent to the open mic, for example. Imagine an opera preceded by locals trying out vocals rehearsed in their bedsits. It is rare in other art forms for participants to elevate to the feature within a few months of beginning. It is a community of exiles building not just a platform and a following, but a home.

I’m reminded of the Clash belting into microphones.

In a war-torn swamp stop any mercenary
And check the British bullets in his armoury

Dare I also mention here the fifth subject of Plato’s Phaedrus was “superiority of the spoken over the written word”?

Related news is that poets today need independent publication paths, a modern digital printing press, yet the privatization and over centralization of the web threatens their freedom. The subtext here is not good:

Poetry sales boom as Instagram and Facebook take work to new audiences

Which reminds me of the story of, founded in 1995 to make poetry accessible online from everyone to everyone, only to be sued by an aggressive bank executive (Utility Industry M&A — Enron) who claimed he had a trademark on the word “poetry” and thus an entirely cornered market.

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