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Performance poetry takes Nigeria by storm

By Simeon Mpamugoh

Performance poetry is flourishing in Nigeria. Alongside the poets with swing star status, such as  Titilope Sonuga, Dike Chukwumerije, Iyeoka Ivie Okoawo, Akeem Lasisi,  Efe Azino, Iquo Diana Abasi Eke, are filling clubs and arts centres with spoken words.

Performance poetry is not one genre. Some chant, sing or dance. Some stand rooted to the spot and stare. Some chat their way in and out of their poems like stand-ups. Some confess, some rage. Some play with words, some talk plain. The point is, it’s live and in the moment.

Performance poetry uses the stage as the page, transforming poetry readings into theatrical events. While the recent resurgence of performance poets is seen as a reaction against mainstream, print-based poetry, the style listens back to the classic role of the poet, who recited notable happenings, emotions, and perceptions.

Traditional poems utilises standard structures in part to serve as aiding devices, while contemporary performance poetry calls upon experimental rhythms as a means to engage an audience in the listening experience.

The recent growth of performance poetry can be attributed to the popularity of slam, a self-identified movement dedicated to creating real-time discourse between performer and audience. What is poetry slam? According to Wikipedia, “It is a competition in which oral poets read or recite original work. Poetry slam began in Chicago in 1984 with its first competition designed to move poetry recitals from academia to a popular audience when American poet Marc Smith began experimenting with existing open microphone venues for poetry readings by making them competitive.”  In Nigeria, the art began to gain popularity about 5 years ago.

Wikipedia, further explains, “Slam poetry has a wide variety of subjects and can be viewed in many different ways. It is a type of poetry where poets can express themselves openly in front of an audience. Marginalised identities such as gender, sexual, and racial identities are celebrated and get attracted by slam audiences. The poets and their audiences see slam poetry not only as a literary or performative art, but also as a political stance.”

While poetry slam cannot be categorised like a compose sonnets or a haiku, a Japanese poem of seventeen syllables, any form or style of poetry can be turned into slam by virtue of the poet’s performance on stage. This inclusive art form invites all people to participate, whether as a poet, audience member, or judge.

The rhyme and structure are varied as some varieties of spoken word rely on improvisation. The beat is crucial yet performance poets challenge themselves to adhere their language to innovative rhythmic structures. In terms of themes, it is common. Performance poems capture a wide range of themes,while many pieces focus on social and political critique.

The heyday of performance poetry seems to be here, the moment it finally receives the recognition and respect it has always deserved. In Britain, study shows that performance poetry has a long, rich tradition and performed while whacking the instrument to the rhythms of the alliterative verse.

Iquo Diana Abasi Eke is a performance poet and writer. She renders her words to the accompaniment of instruments such as traditional drums, flute and /or strings. She has performed on various platforms including The Lagos Black Heritage festival, WordSlam, The Lagos Poetry Festival, and Poetry Potter.

Looking across the many strands of poetry, we can never be certain which poems were only read in private and which were performed –and there are thousands of poems, which were performed but never got written down. It was easy to see “Udeme” performed by Akeem Lasisi at the University of Lagos, but we don’t know for sure, Lasisi’s sonnets and lyrics frequently adopt a spoken voice.

Poems that were shouted, sung and read were part of a popular tradition that didn’t die until the 20th century. It may not have been called performance poetry at the time, but it was clearly flourishing. Meanwhile, throughout the history of education, children have chosen or been coaxed to recite poems. Dike Chukwumerije wrote wonderful “Made in Nigeria,” performance poetry, recording the lives of working Nigerian. And listening to him is a glimpse of a theatrical performance.

Many people can recite poems these today’s though not usually calling it performance poetry. Alongside these traditions there were the “reciters,”: cheap, popular books that anthologised poems and prose extracts thought to be good for performing.

Nigerian poetry has been redefined. They’ve “spoken back” in their voices where their forebears had only been “spoken of.” Thanks to sites such as YouTube and SoundCloud, as  artists have found a digital platform on which to share their voice and their work. This is not forgetting Caribbean influence of performance poets such as James Berry, Grace Nichols, Linton Kwesi Johnson, John Agard, Kate Tempest, British spoken word artist, Georg the poet Mpanga and Jess Green etc.

Georg the poet has this to say about development in this traditional form of literature, “The growing popularity of performance poetry is a boost for mental wellbeing. Spoken word is expressive and free, enabling performers to speak openly and honestly about issues in a controlled and safe environment.”

Time-worn roots of performance poetry indicate that while the term “spoken word” was not popularised until revival of poetry slams in the 1980s, the focus on developing poems specifically for performances dates back to ancient times; when epic poems like Homer’s Odyssey were recited for entertainment. Later, poetry was incorporated into theatrical events, when forms such as the ode accompanied music throughout the acts.

Over the centuries, oral poetry gave rise to a variety of forms and styles. Chants and ghazals –a  lyric poem with a fixed number of verses and a repeated rhyme, typically on the theme of love, and normally set to music-play major roles in religious and spiritual worship. Ballads and villanelles captured the adventure and romance of their day.

Although these oral forms of poetry were quite popular, the greater role of printed text transformed many listeners into solitary readers, and new poets began to focus on the written presentation of their work.

The modern rebirth came as early 20th century artists rethought longstanding perspectives on art. Many poets abandoned more accepted forms of poetry to experiment with combining various media into their public performances. Many Nigerian poets also embraced this experimentation with sound and performance.

In the United States, American experimentation with performance poetry lagged behind its European counterparts, as it was largely limited to a few daring artists like Harry Kemp, who in 1909 entered a lion’s cage to read poetry to 500 onlookers. However, both Louis Zukofsky and Charles Olson motivated artists to look deeper into the performance of poetry.

Thus, the Beat Poets of the late 1940s and 1950s, led by Allen Ginsberg and his poem, “Howl,” twisted traditional chants and jazz rhythms into poems rife with social and cultural commentary, helping explode the popular acceptance of performance poetry and spurring on a new generation of artists like Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Amiri Baraka and Diane di Prima. Allen Ginsberg stylised his groundbreaking “Howl,” after spiritual chants.

Spoken word poetry is on the rise, yet the dominant poets of the 1960s and 1970s continued to underestimate the importance of performance poetry. The rise of hip-hop in the late 1970s led to new ways for nontraditional wordsmiths to showcase their skills onstage.

In response to what he saw as elitist and overly academic approaches to poetry, Chicagoan Marc Smith began hosting open mic nights in 1984, focusing these events on poets performing their work, as opposed to reciting it aloud. The popularity of these events led Smith to host performance poetry competitions, called poetry slams, where competitors were given three minutes to present their work to a set of judges selected from the audience. To this day, Marc Smith continues to host The Uptown Poetry Slam in Chicago, an event featuring a touring poet, an open mic, and a poetry slam.

In Nigeria, we have “War of Words Africa”, an international slam poetry competition, ‘Word Up,’ and ‘Word Up Talk series,’ etcetera, organised by i2X Media Limited.  Olumide Holloway, the brain behind the events said, “Poetry is not what we do, it is who we are. We are passionate about Spoken Word Poetry as a genre of entertainment, a tool to increase the level of literacy, a means of livelihood and a medium of communication among people across the globe.

“The reception to our Spoken Word events has greatly improved, as attendance at our events is an aggregate of over 3,000 people. And with our real time twitter updates, online streaming and post event activities (videos, pictures and event reports) we have over 5,000 people listening, watching and enjoying our events.

“Our investment in the development of the spoken word poetry art form in Nigeria and beyond is over N20 million (i.e. $100,000 @N200/$1), and most of our events have been self-financed. Our vision is to create a vibrant Spoken Word Poetry Industry intriguing to the audience and poets alike; thus allowing creative individuals to earn a living from their poetic talents and skills, “he said.

Uzor Uzoatu, author of God of Poetry, slammed thus, “It is the duty of the poet to dare the immortals by imbuing phantoms with flesh and blood,” he said adding, poetry is a search that never ends. The ritual of passage entails gathering all the hidden truths in the zones of the here and now, the vaults of the ancestors, and the seeds in the wombs questing to be born. Birth pangs can be bloody and indeed painful, but one must perforce brave through the pains in the spirited dare toward harmony.

“The dread of existence yields to the din of silence in the melding of words and worlds aimed at transcending beyond page and stage. In the end poetry goes way ahead of just being an object of detached appreciation into the very essence of being.

“The ambience of the poem matters a lot to me, for I am a man of moods. If the mood does not sound right, then there is no poem. The reader gets to grips with the burden of the poet through language that churns the mind and enters into hidden spaces.”

Still, on the rebirth of  performance poetry, Marc Smith observed that in its infancy, academic and elite poets held slam poetry in disdain, largely because anyone could sign up to participate in a performance or competition.

He added,” Work was not published and marketed in journals and books, the traditional method of earning credibility as a poet. However, slam poetry’s appeal began to grow beyond the café reading and competition scene and into academia, as both traditional poets and scholars recognised the social relevance and artistic challenge of slam.”

Nonetheless, poets had developed all-eyes-on-the-stage, mentality for the business of spoken word poetry through various slam competition series such as Slammation, a documentary by Paul Devlin, a B.A. graduate of the University of Michigan, Chill and Relax (Open Mic) and Word Up Mini Series by Olumide Holloway. And the popularity of the slam poetry events had given fresh fillips to the art.

Given performance poetry’s hip-hop roots, the movement caught the attention of recording industry icon Russell Simmons, who spearheaded the Home Box Office (HBO) spoken word series, Def Poetry, which aired for six seasons and became a Broadway production.

Def Poetry led to even greater exposure of the nation’s ever-emerging group of performance poets, such as Suheir Hammond, Anis Mojgani, and Marty McConnell.

While the final season of Def Poetry Jam aired in 2007, HBO continues to air a special on the youth national poetry slam, Brave New Voices. Larger audiences still receive slam poets at packed events across the country and the world, such as the reading series at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City and the competitions for the National Poetry Slam. Just as other poetry forms are transitioning to web-based journals, slam poets are achieving new levels of prominence, thanks to YouTube, tweeter updates and other user-generated media outlets. 

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