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Why performance poetry's popularity is growing

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Poetry and spoken word performance is growing. It’s an increasingly accessible art-form and its rising popularity has meant many things to many people.

Lucy English, a writer for The Guardian and lecturer at Bath Spa University, wrote a piece commending performance poetry’s ability to boost mental wellbeing. She argues that the opportunity to open up and develop confidence helps many performers overcome difficult psychological conditions.

Equally, though, performance poetry is exposing a lot of people to an art-form often thought of as ‘stuffy’ or ‘soppy’ and it’s dispelling that myth with gusto.

Spoken word performers like Kate Tempest and George the Poet are reclaiming poetry for a generation whom it was largely passing by. We’re setting out to find out what’s driving this growth in spoken word performance, and what makes it so important.

Enter: Agnes Török.

Török is a multi-award-winning, multilingual spoken word poet and newly graduated student from Edinburgh University. She has performed her poetry on four continents and reached nearly one million YouTube views for her poetry videos. Agnes regularly collaborates with BBC The Social (a BBC organisation particularly catering to young people in Scotland) and crowdfunds her own poetry videos. Her all-time favourite gig is a toss-up between a muddy Nepalese classroom and an Edinburgh bingo hall.

She loves to make her poetry hard-hitting and to take on real issues; in her interview with The National Student she told us that “to me, poetry is always political and I want to communicate about big issues and things that strongly affect people's lives... I read and listen to and watch a lot of poetry. And I think poetry can be all kinds of things – light or entertaining or serious or hard-hitting – but the poetry that I come back to time and time again is the poetry that affects me deeply, that makes me cry or belly-laugh or think of something I've never thought of before. And that is what keeps me writing - the hope that I can do that too.”

Some of Török’s latest work has addressed huge issues:  ‘Dangerous People’ used heart-rending personal experience as a lens through which to view current political concerns, while  ‘This is My Body’ is a heart-felt fight against objectification. An excerpt reads: “This is my body, it’s here for me to be strong in, it’s here for me to lift weights and battle disease in, for me to run miles and move continents in, for me to raise fists of solidarity and punch in the face of oppression in. This is my body, it is not here for you to loudly tell me what you would like to do with it.”

The whole poem is brilliant, and Török has expanded her work on related subjects, stating she is “focused on amplifying women's voices online and highlighting the various ways women, trans and non-binary people face violence and abuse in their daily lives.”

So performance poetry can be immensely poignant; it can be “the difference between life or death to people”; but how has its growth in popularity come about? And how can you get involved and find performers you enjoy?

In taking on such serious material performance poets often lay themselves bare to their audience in a very unique way. Some call on painful personal experiences and others talk about emotions with a level of honesty that’s hard to find elsewhere.

While not every poem will be a favourite for every audience member, just witnessing someone open up so much, fighting their nerves and throwing out their own take on raw, poetic honesty is truly something to behold.

It is this unique, honest offering that is part and parcel of spoken word performance and is what has led to its current rise in popularity. Török’s video of her poem ‘Worthless’ has racked up over 600,000 views on various YouTube channels, including her own and that of BBC The Social, which is sharing her work with an ever-growing audience. Similarly, just a glance at Kate Tempests’ YouTube output exemplifies the massive, growing audience interested in spoken word performance.

The growth of spoken word and performance poetry is immense; but this growth needs your help if the genre is to really flourish. All these performers – the names you may recognise and the ones you may not – all start at this grass-roots level, in “half-empty rooms”, so have a look what’s on offer in your students union and in your area.

When we asked Török why she thought poetry was important, she put it better than most:

“Poetry breaks stigma, shatters silences, and allows us to reclaim ourselves and build brand new forms of 'us'. In short, because I think that – in some, small ways – it changes the world.”

Find out more about Agnes and her next project at: www.patreon.com/AgnesTorokPoet




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