Clever Girl: A Review of Verbs That Move Mountains: Essays and Interviews on Spoken word cultures around the world. Edited by Claire Trevien.
Jessica Mookherjee; Poet, “Swell” (2016, Telltale Press), “JoyRide” (2017 Black Light Engine Room Press) “Flood” (2018 Cultured Llama). Highly Commended for Best Single Poem Forward Prize 2017. https://thejessicapoet.wordpress.com/about/
Poetry and Art
I first heard of Claire Trevien on radio four, driving home from work. She was reading from her 2014 collection “The Shipwrecked House” and I recall a little bit of my life changing. The haunting quality of the way she connected with me reminded me of what I had wanted to do as a young performance poet in my 20’s, fresh out of media school. I wanted to bring multi media poetic beauty to performance and make poetry as popular as rock music. Well, I didn’t – I was too scared, and what I heard was was a poet doing just that. She inspired me to perform again – twenty five years after my first attempts.
Trevien’s (ed) “Verbs That Move Mountains” follows her interest in the conversation of the democratisation of art, the blurred lines between art and culture, the establishment, the traditional ‘ivory tower’ holders of the poetic cannon in academia and their relationship to the sawdust and spit of slam poetry / spoken word performance, and ‘the cult of the noble amateur’.
Controversy and Pop Culture
This book is bold and thrusts its shoulders assertively into the Watts / McNish ‘controversy’, which for the blissfully unaware – is the latest media peak into poetry’s mysterious world of spats; this time an age old debate between high art and low culture. Watts, a poet, declared that poets like Tempest and McNish, who use YouTube and Instagram, are populist panderers and mark a kind of ‘dumbing down’ of poetry. McNish, I think, blew a raspberry in response.
“Verbs that Move Mountains” is a fascinating collection of essays that provides an exploration and addition to the growing body of work on the phenomenon of poetry as oral and performative tradition as well as discussing the urgency of this democratisation as it exists in a fast changing, globalised and yet increasingly tribalised context.
I once had a surprisingly upsetting argument with a friend when I said there was no way Citizen Kane was in the same category of art as Jurassic Park. She really let me have it. Had I missed the devastatingly Shakespearian death scene – where Muldoon says “clever girl’ thus showing that the velociraptor is the scientists’ equal, and then (spoiler alert) the clever girl rips his head off? Perhaps I had missed it. She certainly ripped my head off.
Pleasingly for me, the book’s journey begins in India. Scherezade Siobhan (check out her digital work called “Bone Tongue”) had me at Krishna. She eloquently writes about the many forms of Indian poetry, from Kavya to Ghazal. In fact, her chapter reminds me of the Hindu parable of the beggar and the Brahmin. The Beggar tends the infant Krishna, sings to him with devotion. His gruff tones offend the classically trained Brahmin singer – who sends the beggar off for ‘offending God’ with dreadful singing. The Brahmin sings in technical perfection yet wakes young Krishna – who, upset and angry, wants his beggar back – because in the beggar’s voice was love and desire to connect with god, all the god hears in the Brahmin is the desire to sound clever and precise – which to the god – sounds horrible.
Democracy of Voices
Siobhan is nuanced in the chapter, she rightly says, that when the poet is dead and can no longer sing to us, we need the words to hold us. The book and page holds the echo of a poets perfomative presence. She states boldly that the dichotomy of page vs stage is false. There is something about the multilingual nature of India that enables the richness of the oral tradition to explode. She describes the pluralistic voices, the small regional dialects and the strength of the classical poetic tradition. The chapter hints at what the whole volume goes on to explore in different aspects and layers – that of the new democratisation of poetry. The relationship between the grass roots and the literary can appear to be threatening and revolutionary before being co-opted onto structured curriculum in schools and colleges. Who decides which poets will live on in the pages of the future? Will, in 200 years, Scotland celebrate Don Patterson night?
This democratisation rests the canon away from old white men and gives voice to the traumatised, the vulnerable, women, those who say the unsayable. She writes that the intent of this new poetic democracy is to engage, empower and to connect.
Space for Healing
Sharon Moreham and Alice. S. Yousef both have chapters on the consequences of catastrophe in building community and voice. The question of how to re-build a people’s spirit where the poem becomes a voice of ‘demanding to be born’ and having the right to exist.
Moreham describes the use of poetry groups in the aftermath of an earthquake in New Zealand and Yousef recounts the Palestinian spoken word experience that moves from silence, through trauma of erasure into rage. Both chapters speak of the power of narration and storytelling as healing, showing the art of being visible and the support offered in growing the voice.
Emma Lee’s chapter is about creating space for healing. She underlines both Moreham and Yousef in describing the dual needs of the trauma survivor for acknowledgement and validation. Much has already been written on poetry as witness, here Lee writes about the performance space as witness to the poet’s trauma and enabling healing to occur. The ability of the condensation of the poetic form to be an organising principle of the chaos and shame of trauma, enables healing to happen. This has been documented by singers and musicians. Lee describes how in the performance space the poet can also be a ‘person’ with a platform to connect, whereas the printed page and the world of publishing can be viewed by many who lack confidence, as elitist and sterile in comparison.
Class and Community
Artist, Grayson Perry says we drink in our aesthetic differences with our mother’s milk, inferring that class and taste are inexorably linked. Perry talks about the working class needing community more then middle classes – who are more concerned with individuality and originality, and rules and breaking rules. I found it fascinating to apply these notions to Trevien’s collection of essays. The creation of a poetry scene in the Midlands where events such as Word! and Shindig are community building and supportive, where applause and validation are necessary steps to empowerment also linked to McCrum’s chapter about Glasgow and Edinburgh. She declares that who has access to community is a political question, for in performance poetry there is opportunity to interact with the promoters and punters, there is space for conversation without the mystery of why you have not made it onto the pages of PN Review.
Buchannan’s chapter about the Shropshire poetry scene which is stanza and festival focused, has big poetry names reading at Wenlock – quite a middle class affair, right through to Debra Alma, the Emergency Poet – who gives one to one performances, the ‘nurse of verse’.
Voices Loud and Quiet
The politics of democratisation are immense – and “Verbs that Move Mountains” is a worthy contribution to this conversation. The book asks important questions about poetry and performance. The Chapter by Batineh on Saudi Arabia, Iran and Jordon remind us not to take this democratisation and political space for granted. The ability to have voice and to speak against authority is necessary for art to remain alive – and this chapter describes how sometimes this is impossible in the native soil and the poet must find exiled spaces, on line and censorship as the battlegrounds, she talks about ‘armed voices’.
It is the exuberance of the voice desiring to be heard that is the overriding theme of the collection of essays. The freedom of voice is the full expression of the poetic experience, and Trevien explores this with Martin Raqel. Poetry is about communication at it’s heart and there is a beautiful point made in the book that it is when a poem is performed and heard, life is blown into the spirit of the page.
The book asks important questions about art. Many of the chapters deal with the aspect of giving confidence to the previously unheard, be they women who have suffered years of marital oppression, men who feel crushed by the forces of capitalism or a whole group of people who are marginalised and ‘othered’. The book asks what are the rules within this ‘lawlessness’ and revolt against academic authority? Is there a hierarchy that is unspoken, will those that ‘do well’ at performance events leave the community and get ‘published’ or move to paid gigs and rock star status and then, where does this leave the community? Will the local events have to constantly re-invent itself when the ‘local leaders’ tire of running them? This is interestingly observed in the chapter on the history and creation of a spoken word scene in Singapore.
Being Authentic and Selling Out
This leads to the questions of ethics and who are your community of peers? How can the grass roots survive if there is no one to continue to support it? The ethics of truth are explored, after connecting with an audience will they tolerate an appropriation of another’s identity? Have you the right to to perform poems about the experience of being black – If you are not black? It certainly doesn’t bother actors or novelists, but there appears to be unwritten rules of engagement in poetry. There is an interesting observation in the book that poetry designed to ‘win’ slams, such as the overblown confessional, the overwrought sentimental and comedic poems are treated with suspicion by audiences after a while. The nature of selling poetry and the sell out- where the poet stops being authentic is also discussed.
The book also raises questions of craft and excellence in performance. Many of the – arguably – more experienced poets talk about the ‘art’ – how silence, quietness, staging and music can be used to good effect, it doesn’t all have to be spit and vitriol and shouting about terrible childhoods. The use of theatrical craft can elevate the text, a good text is performable and brought to life by the poet if they know how to connect with the audience. Ultimately the book rests on the premise that spoken word and performance is ‘live literature’. This is how I felt when I heard Claire Trevien’s work for the first time, how I responded to Kate Tempest, how I felt about Tommy Sissons aged just 17 when I first saw him perform, how I thought he was the next Shakespeare, and of course Shakespeare himself, who comes alive – from the past – when he is performed. There is a rock star nod at the end of the book, and I’m glad of it. Most of us grew up listening to Mark E Smith, Morrissey, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Bob Marley just as much as Hughes, Plath and Heaney, and often more then Shelley, Yeats and Blake.
This book has a wealth of information for poets, promoters, publishers, sociologists and anthropologists. It is part of the conversation that moves poetry forward as one of the most democratic participant-led art forms of the 21st Century. Buy and read this book and the works of the poets who feature in it. Also – do not be afraid to get on stage and read your poem– never mind the bollocks, get on YouTube, your local word night and push your voice out.