Even in its early years, the art of spoken word poetry has existed in a state of constant evolution. The form gained prominence with the work of The Last Poets, whose poetry took Harlem by storm during the Civil Rights movement. It has held a significant fan base in the UK for several decades.
Joelle Taylor has had the opportunity to witness a lot of changes in the performance poetry scene. She is a veteran UK spoken word artist and the Director of the Poetry Society’s youth project, SLAMbassadors, which is now celebrating its tenth anniversary. The past decade has seen the project showcase young talent from across the UK and put on regular events to encourage young people from all manner of backgrounds to get involved with a fun poetry championship that can offer those who want it real opportunities for professional development and growth. Slam itself is defined as the competitive art of performance poetry, in which participants compete in front of a live audience. Each year the championship has a different theme. For 2011 it was ‘identity, a subject which is key to individual experiences of poetry itself.
Taylor recalls that growing up in the late ’70s and early ’80s in the north of England, the youth of her generation “weren’t really taught poetry at school at all”. However, there was the opportunity to absorb the poetry of her time through other means: music. “We had a lot of people talking really great sense. Now young people have hip hop and grime,” she muses. “I had Punk; that’s when everything changed”. Poets and dub reggae artists who toured with punk bands, such as “Patti Smith, John Cooper Clarke, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Jean Binta Breeze and Benjamin Zephania” were among some of Taylor’s biggest influences.
Having worked with the Poetry Society on the SLAMbassadors project for the past 10 years, Taylor feels that her work is simply to “inspire, and talent scout”. The project incorporates two-day workshops in various schools, prisons, youth offending teams and councils, alongside the countrywide slam competition. Twelve to eighteen-year-olds from across the UK have the opportunity to enter the slam by filming a video of themselves performing their poem or rap and then uploading it to the SlamCam YouTube channel. Six winners are then chosen to take part in a two-day masterclass with Taylor before taking part in a live showcase in Central London to be judged by Dizraeli. Clearly, this is poetry for a new generation.
Introducing young people to poetry in this way has been life changing for many of those involved. “A lot of our young people have gone on to become professional poets, and spoken word artists on the scene,” Taylor remarks. “A couple of people present TV now. A couple of them have grime artist contracts and are getting more and more well known. One kid is about to do Britain’s Got Talent. Tiana Oldroyd. You all have to vote for her!”
Taylor is particularly proud of the success story of Chris Preddie, who she discovered in 2006 when he was 18 years old. At that time, his brother had recently and tragically been murdered by gang members, a story that he felt compelled to commit to poetry and take to the stage as part of SLAMbassadors. Several years later, Chris is now a professional poet and workshop leader, who was awarded an OBE last year for his work with disaffected young people.
“He’s an amazing performer and a brilliant poet,” enthuses Taylor. “As well as running SLAMbassadors with me, he worked for Crime Stoppers.” Taylor describes how, in his workshops, “it is poetry that’s getting these young men. Because they want to be him; they want to stand on that stage, looking really cool, head screwed on, making money.”
SLAMbassadors is about every individual’s story, however, and Taylor remembers just how much poetry helped one teenager who got involved. He had written a poem about being witness to his mother’s murder. “It was the first time that he’d ever spoken about it,” explains Taylor. “His father is up in court at the moment and they’re going to use the video [of his poem] as what is called a memorandum video so the boy doesn’t have to testify.”
Clearly, the project has had a profound effect on the young people who have taken part so far. Yet despite its growing success and a record amount of online applicants this year, the project still has hurdles to cross. “In the arts, funding is suffering. Having a Tory government in always makes things much more difficult,” Taylor laments. “When I first started this project, it was funded by the Mayor of London Ken Livingstone… then the big Lottery. There is a sense that a project like this should be self funded now – should have sponsorships – but it’s very tough to find support. I had Andy Burnham MP come in once [for an event]. He did a fantastic speech basically saying, ‘I’ve come here thinking it was a charity event supporting little tiny children, but after these performances I’ve been in tears; their writing is amazing.’”
As Director of a project that helps so many young people, Taylor takes pride in knowing that she’s mentored “kids who understand the power of the art form”. In a world where arts funding cuts have become commonplace, spoken word poetry is sure to continue to evolve and adapt to respond to life in the twenty-first century: long may this continue.
To find out more about SLAMbassadors, visit the website here.
For more information about The Poetry Society and its work with young people, visit its website here.
Image of Joelle Taylor credit: Hayley Madden for the Poetry Society