Is it time spoken word was recognised as an independent art form?

Tristan Bernays in The Bread and the Beer. Photo: Antonio Luca
Tristan Bernays in The Bread and the Beer. Photo: Antonio Luca
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If you read the Edinburgh Fringe Guide, you’ll discover that comedy listings take up 133 pages, theatre 87 pages, and spoken word a mere eight pages.

From these cold figures, it would seem spoken word is the runt of the litter – but even a few years ago there wasn’t any spoken word section at all. The spoken word scene is growing and it deserves a new level of attention.

I came to the spoken word scene quite late. What put me off for a long time was this awful image – this cliché – of self-indulgent poetry pitched somewhere between a rap battle and the psychiatrist’s couch. Spoken word really just isn’t like that anymore. Think about Kate Tempest, Inua Ellams and Polarbear. They’re performing at BAC and the National Theatre, getting reviewed in national papers by theatre critics. Which raises the question: if spoken word is no longer an outsider art form, does it deserve its own space? Are we doing it a disservice by lumping it in with others, like theatre?

Both art forms share a desire to tell a good story. Since humans became clever enough to string two words together, we’ve been telling stories, performing them out loud. At first those performances differed very little, until one day someone thought “What about some costume? And a bit of set? Hell, we could get other people to play the different parts!” And thus theatre was born.

Spoken word, on the other hand, stuck with the words. It was the poetry, rather than the performance, that was revered, handed on generation to generation as an oral tradition, a literal spoken word – until finally these great epic stories written down – formalised and made definitive – and the tradition of spoken word shifted to the written word. It’s only relatively recently that spoken word and performance have reared their heads again.

[pullquote]Just as we have theatre specialists who only review theatre, spoken word specialists could review spoken word and give it the prominence it’s due[/pullquote]

So theatre and spoken word start out in the same place, but take very different paths to make it to the 21st century. So, can they be enjoyed, appraised and critiqued in the same way?

Just as we have theatre specialists who only review theatre, maybe more spoken word specialists could review spoken word and give it the prominence it’s due. Perhaps those who have a background in poetry, and spoken literary traditions; who look at the spoken word artists as poets as well as performers. Every other section of the Fringe brochure – comedy, music, dance, art – has its own critics. Why not spoken word?

There are, of course, those wonderful blurred lines where the truly magical stuff happens. Theatre that incorporates movement and dance. Poetry that embraces music. Comedy that doesn’t shy away from theatricality and drama. My own work plays with the lines between spoken word and theatre – re-examining those ancient traditions and the fork in the road where the two art forms split. I would love to see a collective of critics whose passion, whose knowledge, whose expertise were focussed on the burgeoning world of spoken word. Whose insights and writing would give spoken word the space it deserves.

Tristan Bernays’ The Bread and The Beer is at Underbelly, Cowgate from August 1 to 25 at the Edinburgh Fringe


  1. Couldn’t agree more Tristan, particularly where the borderlines are where the fun’s at. I suggest that everyone who’s interested in two different takes goes and sees The Bread and the Beer (it’s an excellent show) and potentially double bills it with my own take on Spoken Word (adding in music and video) Superbard: The Flood. We’re on in the same space, literally one after the other. Plug over.

  2. i think it already has a name: poetry. if you look back at poets through the years, there’s never been a time when it wasn’t meant to be heard aloud. you can listen to Yeats read and he’s somewhere between a song and speaking. walt whitman as well has a very sonorous delivery in the one recording i’ve heard of him. and that takes us back to the late 19th century. do i even have to mention the beats? or the harlem renaissance poets? some of their poems were written in dialect. furthermore, all the ‘rules’ of poetry are to do with sound, not with how they look on paper. ezra pound has a very unique, very strong performance voice as well. i recommend book VII of the preludes by wordsworth; it’s a rhythmic tour de force that one can’t help but read aloud for its power and pace in his description of bartholamew’s fayre in london. it’s ignorance to think that spoken word is not, i know there are some ‘page’ poets who don’t come across well when they read just as their are some ‘performance’ poets who wouldn’t ‘read’ well if you looked at their poems on paper. i’d say they are both missing something. the reason we have ‘rules’ for page poetry is so that somebody can look at what a poet has done and read it for themselves and be able to get some idea of how the poet wants to be read. i know a lot of performance poets are self-taught but each poem still has a form, i.e., line breaks, rhymes, meter, etc. I’ve read lots of performance poetry that reads well and when i perform myself i like to do a ‘cover’ as well as my own work so that folks can see that some of the old school so called ‘page’ poets could hold their own in any slam. indeed, in bristol there’s a dead poets slam every year.

  3. This year spoken word had a massive presence on the Fringe – it’s just that most poets, storytellers, and other spoken word performers couldn’t afford the exorbitant price of the brochure listing.

    The Free Fringe alone had 72 spoken word shows – only 8 of which were listed in the Big Fat Fringe Brochure – which spanned the range from from traditional Scottish storytelling and costumed readings of Victorian poetry, through light verse performance poetry, personal solo journeys, mixed-media collectives and cabarets, poetry-flavoured theatrical shows, scratch demos, charity profile-raisers, and hip-hop-inflected live jazz-word fusions. Oh, and there was the late-night-performance-art-gay-kink-educational-poetry-drama event…

    And for punters who wanted to have a go themselves, we had workshops, competitions (slam and otherwise), and open mics too – which got booked out remarkably quickly.

    I’m biased – I’m the Spoken Word Director for The Free Fringe – but I think the scene did very well this year, with a very healthy number of 4- and 5-star reviews (though we could have done with more reviews full-stop – you’re right when you say that there are very few specialist spoken word reviews (bar Sabotage)), packed-out shows, awards, plaudits, and hard-core fans who turned up and camped out at our various venues. One of our solo artists – Sophia Walker – won the BBC Slam at the Fringe.

    Check out for details of the shows we put on.

    But the mainstream media needs to cotton on – people are turning up to spoken word gigs in their droves, all across the country, every day of the week – and numbers (of both shows and audiences) are increasing, not decreasing. More festivals have spoken word stages; more corporate events include spoken word entertainment, and schools can’t seem to get enough of poetry workshops…! :)

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