Is spoken word now mainstream? An interview with Inua Ellams

Another one from the archives. First published on Spoonfed on 19th July 2011. 

The Albany theatre’s artistic associate Inua Ellams talks to Naima Khan about an art form that can’t be safeguarded

inua ellams

Inua Ellams sits next to me in the Young Vic cafe explaining his take on hip hop and poetry, the welcoming of spoken word into the mainstream, and his love-hate relationship with poetry slams. Although he’s being specific as always, he could be summing up all of theatre.

He tells me he’s gearing up for Southbank Centre’s RAP party, an event dedicated to performance and poetry inspired or influenced by hip hop. “They’re often referred to as different, opposing things at extreme ends of the spectrum of language,” he says of the genres, “but I discovered both of them at the same time and I realised that they could compliment and contrast each other as well as support and unite quite seamlessly.” His point highlights what poetry is able to do that theatre in general either does really well or struggles with: merging what are often seen as opposing influences on performance and writing. But in Ellams experience, when such mergers do exist, however successfully, they usually result in a dilution of the art forms involved.

“The essence of poetry for me is heightened speech. It has nothing to do with rhyme, style or voice. It is speech that is lifted out of the conversation or out of the ordinary so that it becomes extraordinary. It becomes worth listening to whether it’s put on stage or not. That’s what it comes down to. That’s what I try to create. I try to write something that is dazzling to read on the page. The performance of it is secondary, it shines a brighter spotlight on it.” But it’s the performance of poetry that has captured the mainstream, something Ellams is all too aware of.

“They say as soon as something becomes mainstream it gets watered down, which is what I see happening with spoken word,” he says. “I’m a little bit of a pessimist and a little bit of a control freak and I like the underground. I like the idea of something that not everyone knows about quite yet, something that keeps shifting and changing, but still has its essence trapped at the bowels, the seed of it guarded quite fiercely. But because we’re dealing with language and words, we can’t really guard that. Poetry is one of the oldest art forms, it is the mother of art as far as I’m concerned. Therefore by nature, everyone can do it and everyone can attempt to do it, which I’m all for.”

Probably the most well known participatory poetry events are poetry slams, an example of the quality dilemma facing live poetry at the moment. “There’s a formula by which these poems are written,” Inua explains. “I know some American poets who say they can go to certain poetry nights and guarantee the kind of poems they’re going to hear. To the point that a poet can begin a poem and the audience will be finishing it off.

I hated the idea of poetry slams after I lost my first one. I spent time writing something I thought was incredible. In retrospect, it wasn’t a great poem. It had poetic content, it had pace, it had decent structure. But after me, some guy got up and read a poem about accidentally drinking piss – and that beats me!? So I thought never again. I’m never leaving the worth of something I create up to the audience to judge.”

So has UK poetry begun pandering to the audience? “I think British poetry can still be quirky because we don’t really care and we can comfortably not care because the power of the media hasn’t yet gripped us so much so that we depend entirely on it for an income. We can still get away with being ourselves, we don’t fear them yet. But if we begin relying on them, begin creating poetry for them – then that’s where we begin destroying our creativity and sense of self.”

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