The spoken word circuit is cruel. You're laughing, but it is. All niche art forms are. Think about it - in the worlds of live poetry (or whatever guise its operating under at any given moment), folk music, jazz, sculpture, and many other fringe art-forms, history is written by the winners. The people who are right at the forefront of the movements will always tell you it's never been better than it is right now, and the past when they didn't have a career was a bit of a shambles. Of course they would - they're at the top of the tree earning a living from it, and they'd hardly be likely to admit that their situation has all been a mistake. Often, of course, they also won't admit whose ideas they're borrowing or whose foundations they're building on to gain success. Artists are often rubbish at that sort of thing. Not you, of course - if you're reading this, I'm sure you're lovely.
I was a bit hacked off to read an interview with Richard Tyrone Jones in "Write Out Loud" where he explicitly mentions the fact that a lot of the people who worked hard to make sure the spoken word circuit developed have since not really reaped any benefits. The next "Utter!" on 16th December will be the last London event - though Lee Nelson will continue to operate Luton-based "Utter!"s - and it's sad that this poetry night should be bowing out after ten years of offering early opportunities to some of today's leading names.
Most performers on the circuit will happily admit that "Utter!" has been a fairer event than most, offering slots to all manner of different styles of poetry, from the experimental to the unashamedly populist. As a gauge of what's really going on in live poetry at any given moment, it's probably been a more honest sampler evening for new audience members than most other events which are increasingly targeting niche audiences. It's easy for uninformed people to kid themselves that there are two types of spoken word at the moment - urban and "serious, reflective" material - and not the wide cornucopia of styles in-between. "Utter!" dealt with that marvellously by offering mixed bills and opportunities for people who might not easily find major slots elsewhere. It also acknowledged history, as with the recent event showcasing performers from different decades of the circuit. At its best, it made the poetry world feel like a varied and colourful place, an arena with a past and present to be proud of.
I've said it before many, many times, but the only hope spoken word has of being taken seriously in the long-term is if develops a stronger sense of its own history, its own influences, and a more developed level of press coverage beyond the extreme, rabid standbys of "Poetry is dead!" and "THIS NEW FIREBRAND IS THE FUTURE OF ALL LITERATURE!" Try looking up live recordings of relatively successful spoken word artists from fifteen years ago online. Then try ten years. Having much luck? Is it an embarrassment of archive footage or just a few measly offerings? We need to both respect the young performers of the present and the people who made it possible for them in the past if we're to avoid having the same ditchwater dull conversations in the media in ten years time. Without a recorded past, without dialogue, we're giving nobody any background for their news stories apart from the shock of the new and the tragic, lonely death of the old as the next fashion change sweeps through. YOUR TURN NEXT. Though thanks is obviously due to sites like "Write Out Loud" who try to create an archive of news stories and interviews, and to the Internet in general for making a recorded history much easier and cheaper to achieve.
I do hope to see a lot of you at Utter! on the 16th. It finishes with a slam of new performers competing for a £300 prize. At least one of them probably will be a name to watch out for in the future. It's a given. And they had better bloody remember "Utter!", or I'll break into the performer's house when they've signed their major publishing deal and de-alphabeticise their spice rack. The Facebook event page is here.