Word-based performance art isn’t a particularly new phenomenon. The oral tradition of storytelling is as old as time itself, but poetry, rap and monologues written for the specific purpose of being recited aloud or ‘Spoken Word’ is probably enjoying its biggest moment since it was popularised by the Beats in the 1960’s. It’s an exciting time for the scene, with critically-lauded artist Kate Tempest recently picking up a Mercury Music Prize nomination, and audiences able to recite the viral work of Emmet Kirwan and Stephen James-Smith here at home. These artists are paving the way for the movement, and exciting new voices are emerging in their wake.
Discovering Performance Poetry
Like with music, for most performance might seem like the logical next step after getting your notes and lyrics down on paper, but this was not the case for Alicia Byrne-Keane (stage name ABK). She took the reverse route in, starting out in performance and then slowly moving back towards the writing she abandoned as a teenager. It was university life that reignited her interest in words. She first discovered performance poetry as an undergraduate in Trinity College Dublin;
‘I experimented with fiction when I was younger – big, long stories that I never finished. I gave that all up in my late teens, and when I got back into writing as an adult it was actually through Spoken Word. I joined the Literary Society in Trinity and went along to their speakeasies. At these nights you can perform something you’ve written yourself or just a poem that you like, so there’s no pressure to create or share things straight away. It’s a good place to experiment and figure out your style. The atmosphere has always been really lovely and encouraging. I’ve never had a single negative experience performing’.
A Lively Dublin Scene
Having found her voice, quite literally, at events hosted around the city at the time, such as Monday Echo, Dublin’s Underground Beat, PETTYCASH and Slam Sunday, which she credits with providing a fantastic platform for her to explore spoken word, Alicia found performing itself to be a simultaneously daunting and exhilarating experience, especially as she became an increasingly familiar face on the Dublin scene;
‘When I started out I was totally anonymous and I didn’t know anyone in the room. I suppose it’s like that when you start anything. You’ve got nothing to lose at the beginning. You’re just trying it out so there’s no real pressure, but I know people on the scene now, and that’s what gets me nervous. The other performers have always been so welcoming though, and are great for giving feedback. Now I’m at the stage where people turn-up having heard my poems before and some even have their favourite ones’.
As well as praising the inclusiveness of the fellow performers and supportive audiences, she also speaks highly of the Dublin scene’s attitude to diversity;
‘The organisers of Spoken Word events are very conscientious about diversity. It’s important to all of us that all races and genders get equal representation. There’s great age representation at the events now too. I think that creates a really interesting conversation and insight. You’ll often find that that performers are really eager to listen and learn from the perspectives of different generations. There’s so many young people on the scene too. It’s great to see them getting involved’.
Small Poems Are Calming
Having found her way back to writing, she now finds putting pen to paper as fulfilling as the performance element of Spoken Word, but feels she has a different approach to each;
‘I like them both, but in different ways. When you’re performing its very immediate. You can see people’s reaction outright. It’s more emotional. My Spoken Word work tends to be more fluid and conversational. The page poems I’ve been publishing on my website are the exact opposite of that longer, verbose stage stuff. They’re really tiny, almost Haiku length. They read more like fragments of poems, and sometimes I’ll string them together into something more cohesive.
I used to try so hard to gather up loads of material, enough for a big, long poem but the small ones can be a break from that, and that stuff could still become something bigger later on. Writing small poems is also quite calming. I like the idea of writing something and making it smaller and smaller until I’ve distilled it down into a tiny moment, like a cold bus window in the morning. I guess it’s mindful. There is something very relaxing about writing minimal poems and getting yourself to focus on a quiet, internal moment. I’m not exactly sure what unifies them and my stage stuff but I definitely work in two very different forms.’
Playing With Humour
A common strand is the way in which humour and thoughtful insights into the everyday are interwoven through her work, with many striking a chord through their relatability, but she has never been tempted to segue into stand-up comedy;
‘Poetry is the exact opposite of what can be an unforgiving comedy environment. I think that’s because the content can be very personal and audiences are respectful of that. I actually think it’s easier to be funny in poetry than in comedy, because its not as expected of you. People assume poetry to be mopey and dark, so if what you’re saying is even mildly funny it goes a long way. There’s quite a lot of room to experiment with humour in Spoken Word. Lewis Kenny for example has amazing turn of phrase. Niamh Byrne and John Cummins are both brilliant at word play. There’s like 10 puns per sentence! Sometimes you don’t even catch them until much later. I’ve been to so many poetry gigs where people have been roaring laughing which goes against the stereotype about it being all doom and gloom. That said, Spoken Word can also a be great way to tackle serious topics and material, and we’ve seen this with the Repeal the 8th movement’
After a brief stint studying in Oxford and a taking a year out, Alicia now juggles her passion for Spoken Word with the massive undertaking of a PHD in English Literature, back at her old cobbled stomping ground of Trinity College. Current literary inspirations include American short-story writer Alexandra Kleeman ‘Beckettian stories, existentially horrifying, Kafkaesque. Writing like that from a young woman’s perspective is really interesting’ and Dublin contemporaries like Sahar Ali and Felicia Olusanya, she had had ‘the honour’ of performing alongside the latter at last year’s Body & Soul festival.
For any budding poets out there ready to take the plunge into the world of performance poetry, Alicia recommends dipping a toe into one of the city’s many Spoken Word events to get a feel for it. A good starting point she says is Rosa Jones’ ‘Big Non-Threatening Poetry’ parties, a sort of safe space for up-and-coming performers to explore the craft.
‘They’re in interesting and unusual locations around the city and are aimed at people who are new to performing or might find the idea of sharing their work in front of big crowds a bit intimidating. It’s ideal for people who are just starting out in poetry and haven’t formally sent their work off to be evaluated. The nights are somewhere between an informal workshop and a showcase with a small group of like-minded people. It’s a great place to build up your confidence.’