(REVIEW) Stage Invasion: Poetry & The Spoken Word Renaissance by Pete Bearder


Imogen Hay makes a case for considering the sociopolitical necessity and communal potential of spoken word, via Pete Bearder's seminal book Stage Invasion: Poetry & The Spoken Word Renaissance (Out-Spoken Press, 2019).

> I am a traitor to the cause. No, really: the mere act of writing this makes me a perpetuator of literary myth. If I was not a hypocrite then I would be on some kind of box on a hill shouting about the value of the spoken word to passers-by, but the small issue is that I actually want people to listen and not just hastily rush by without making eye contact. Stage Invasion, aptly named, demonstrates the need to seize power through space, express through the creative form of spoken word, to challenge and change minds and to be accessible as a platform for anyone who wishes to speak. It is something that still needs to be fought for. As is customary, every revolution needs its foundational texts, and I believe, as one of the very few texts we have, this book must pull a lot of that weight.

> To say that Stage Invasion is one of the very few critical texts we have is not to say it isn’t brilliant, because it is. Bearder’s text handles this complicated issue with so much care and attention that it filled me with complete and utter envy (as well as relief) when I first read it. I was half way through writing my undergraduate dissertation on the convergence of spoken word forms in Glasgow, and Bearder’s text did all the things I wanted to achieve in the limited space of my dissertation but obviously never could quite achieve. It expressed all the nuance and origins of spoken word as we know it; asserted its place in the world of artistic expression as well as in literary history; and assessed its lack of inclusion in the academic canon. What it did that I could never do was breathe space into spoken word, allowing it to exist on the page without being supressed to a critical chapter or brief mention at the end of a theatre review.

> In a very measured and exact way Bearder breaks down his chapters into cohesive subsections of information, all very aware of the purpose they’re serving to elevate his subject. It is very appropriate that when discussing a self-consciously accessible form, Bearder’s text remains highly accessible also. He outlines verbal traditions from global culture: from ‘flyting’ to ‘aitysh’, and goes on to analyse the cultural foundations of the modern spoken word tradition in rap, hip hop, alternative cabaret and slam. Bearder also assesses how spoken word is made, relies on and serves its culture - remaining persistent in saying that we are all responsible for this art’s genesis in whatever form it finds us. The poetic body is acknowledged, through the voice, through performance and through movement. The author breaks down this social coding of specific poetic performances, so finite that emphasis changes from performance to performance, so truthful to the present that everything we do becomes an extension of verbal art: every sniff, apology, laugh and tear.

> Bearder introduces concepts like synaesthesia, in amplifying spoken word’s place as a process or series of actions and not a singularity. This process expresses the right of the audience to a symbiotic relationship between themselves and the poet performer. Re-politicising the voice, and re-enfranchising the speaker, both in their individual and in group form, the ancient storytelling practises the book details become second nature, and a way of sharing modern society.

> One problem I have with Bearder’s book is the way its title describes a strength in the current global spoken word community as a ‘renaissance’. This suggests that spoken word was silent before its convergence here. When in fact, people have been participating in spoken word for thousands of years, across many cultures. It has never been about the lack of things to say, as much as the disproportionate lack of the capability to listen.

this is not just a book about art, but how art can meet many of our fundamental needs […]

The essence of Bearder’s appraisal of spoken word as a compelling form is its refusal to give up its context. Culture, class, race, sexuality, nationality: all are integral to the experience of the spoken word. The spoken word artist cannot be dead, cannot be surgically removed from their work. The art comes accompanied by the uncomfortable culture that is forced to be recognised – a culture that remains inclusive of all the components of a poet’s identity. Why do we remove cultural context? Why does the poet always die before the poem begins?

> We undersell one of the only ways we could perhaps speak to be heard in our city tonight. And if ‘nothing is more political than the voice’ then why is this austerity art form squeezed of its potential by lack of funding, notoriety, appraisals and even space? I interviewed several poets for my dissertation and they all expressed regret at the lack of opportunity for the progression of spoken word artists. When I spoke to Sam Small, co-host of popular Glasgow spoken word night ‘Poetry at Inn Deep’, he agreed that it was the passion of individuals that fuelled spoken word poetry, not financial investment. Kevin P Gilday exasperatedly gasps ‘I will not make money/No seriously, / I will not make money’. Passion inevitably dries out if un-fuelled.

> In our current climate, while it feels that we are entirely cut off from each other, it is still so essential to champion community resistance and politically charged poetry, to speak as a culture and to use our voices for whatever we choose. Protest in this form places the human experience and story at the forefront of political activism, making its impact unconfined to the pages of books: we instead carry it with us.

> Writing about the spoken word may feel like a contradiction, like treachery to the very thing you wish to amplify as a form, but it is a necessary evil. Pete Bearder’s book is essential: it legitimises the art form of the spoken word in a way that is understandable and accessible. You want us to give spoken word academic credibility? Here you go. Teach it alongside literary renaissance, postmodernism and structuralism. Spoken word is the most culturally relevant form we can creatively use right now because it belongs to whomever wishes to take it. Bearder closes his book by handing you the spoken word, insisting that if you ever feel like this culture doesn’t belong to you then you must re-imagine it. This reasserts the worth of ourselves and our voices within any art. Any illegitimacy of this form, any lack of texts on this subject is a lack of investment in our own cultural wealth and right to use our voice to express it. ‘…you are an indispensable part of this human ecology of ritualised empathy and cultural production we call spoken word poetry.’ Support it, invest in it, learn from it, partake in this ‘petri dish of human solidarity.’ It may be the only soapbox that allows you breath to speak.


Stage Invasion: Poetry & The Spoken Word Renaissance is out now and available to purchase from Out-Spoken Press.


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Text: Imogen Hay

Published: 8/9/20

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