Spoken Turdby Lindokuhle Nkosi, illustration by Rico / 11.05.2011
A poet shuffles onstage with fake reluctance. Swooning happens, understandably, as the hot new-age Shakespeare flips through his Moleskine notebook, searching for a piece. The excited crowd shout titles at him, making requests. He clears his throat to quiet us and begins to read. Girls (his aspirant ‘star’ fuckers) gush into their organic hemp panties as he recites lines about “her hair in the moonlight” and “his finger tips slowly tracing his love down her spine”. Someone shoot me please.
No such luck in this crowd of irie-dreadlocked brothers and sisters. Peace-lovers all. Instead of soaking up the groovy Pan-Africanist feel-good unity thing, I tried to figure out whether the alarming groin bulge on said poet was as deceptive as his practiced demeanour. Under the denim, I imagined, a penis as flaccid as his words! Getting meaner, I wondered, after making his groupies wet with lyrical foreplay, he whisks them off to his studio in the cool part of Braamfontein (where its safe for white people) and prematurely ejaculates in their eyes. Yep, that’s what this poetry night has felt like. An intellectual eye-squirt.
Hi my name is Linda and I’m a hypocrite. I attend poetry sessions and nurse a warm Hunters Dry at the back while rolling my eyes and gagging at the pseudo-deepness. The sugary candyfloss lightness of uninspired language. What the fuck is Spoken Word?
Poetry, that impotent solace of the self-absorbed, thanks to the energizing rise of hip hop and rap’s reliance on verbal rhymes, has leapt from A5 notebooks onto countless live stages the world over. Popularised in the late 80’s with the materialisation of poetry slams (a formative pillar of hip hop), poetry readings are a very mainstream aspect of global pop culture. A far cry from the hipster Beat movement of the 50’s (with Ginsberg’s era-defining Howl) which itself picked up on what Dadaists, Concrete Poets and Surrealists had explored in the early 20th Century: the immediacy of poetry as performance. The Beats were predominantly white bohemians while Spoken Word entrenched itself in the ghettos of black America on the back of popular shows like HBO’s Def Poetry Jam.
I don’t exactly hate Spoken Word. What I don’t like is the whole scenester aspect as it plays out in big South African cities. The predictability of elaborately wrapped turbans. Burning incense trying to mask the heady smell of weed. Regurgitated ideas and counterfeit originality. The fact that the poetry is no longer about the words but how long your dreadlocks are and how many Zambuck tins are attached to the hem of your ankle-length, recycled skirt.
How “deep and real” you look. Whether or not you use the right in-group catch-phrases, imagery and tropes: Azania, African maiden thighs parting, capitalist fucks versus some vague unexamined communism. What happened to the words man? We’ve regressed from the inherent beauty of poetic language. The quiet surprise of an unexpected juxtaposition. Gone is rhythmic relevance and lyrical liquidity. Words no longer shout, poets do.
So I’m not exactly doing cartwheels at the prospect of another vintage clothing sale/poetry reading. By now it feels about as authentic as clothes cut and dyed to look vintage. As legit as the Gil Scott Heron poem the orator onstage is trying to pass off as his own. As superficial as dinner party concern for the less-fortunate. Romanticising poverty only soothes our own guilt. I’m bored of the disingenuous sentimentality, but mostly, I’m offended by the elementary standard of it all. Playground poetry passed off as paradigm-shifting epiphanies. I’m not even looking to learn something new; I just want to hear something good, because frankly, poetry doesn’t have to be elaborate to be emotive. Poignancy lies in the bareness and simplicity of the writing – but if you’re not educating or entertaining, what the hell are we watching you read your poetry for? Actually, I do hate Spoken Word.
*Illustration © Rico.