In the ’50s and ’60s, it was the Beats who dominated the imaginations of word-struck youth. Their influence persisted through emergent art forms like hip-hop and the polemical ranting poets of Britain in the ’80s, while slam poetry ruled in the run-up to the millennium. These days, spoken word is the insurgent bastard offspring of all the above, cross-pollinated with standup comedy, performance art, and any other mode of free expression requiring no more than a brain, a mouth, and a little literary flair.
Given this background, plus the appealing start-up costs—it’s not like you have to buy a guitar or laptop to do it!—spoken word has become an enormously popular creative outlet for young adults. This year’s IGNITE! Youth Festival, May 17 to 22 at the Cultch, marks its growing influence with two nights given over to live wordsmithery.
“Spoken word was one thing we really thought was lacking last year,” Marita Michaelis-Webb tells the Straight. The 17-year-old Cultch youth-panel member helped to program Word (May 20), an evening of “all things literary, legible, and linguistic” that also marks the launch of the first IGNITE! Youth Zine. “At school,” she says, “a lot of people think poetry is a drag, but the kind of stuff that comes out on stage—it’s really powerful. It feels more authentic. It’s also accessible to anyone. If you speak the language, you can do it.”
Michaelis-Webb’s thoughts are echoed by Cultch youth-program manager Corbin Murdoch. “I think the scene is really taking steps to make sure that it’s welcoming to youth,” he says, in a call to the Straight. Noting the success of folks like Shane Koyczan and C.R. Avery, Murdoch was moved last year to expand the IGNITE! Mentorship Program to include spoken word, tapping Barbara Adler and Brendan McLeod of the Fugitives, along with RC Weslowski—another old hand in Vancouver’s performance-poetry scene—to take six new performers under their wing. This year’s “mentees” showcase their work right before IGNITE! with an evening at the Cultch next Saturday (May 15).
Last year’s graduates, meanwhile, contribute to both Word and The olivia Project on May 18 under the banner of the Candelabra Collective, a group that Weslowski is particularly excited about. “They went head over heels for this thing,” he says, “and formed this collective who really do some interesting stuff as a group.” One of the Candelabras, 20-year-old Kelsey Savage, credits her mentor Barbara Adler for turning spoken word “from a hobby into a viable life option,” telling the Straight that Adler “made it real”.
Savage also provides an unbeatable account of spoken word’s appeal to any young person busting to be heard. “I think it’s an amazing balance of being an actor and being a writer,” she offers. “I’ve found that what draws me to it is the fascination with writing itself, but the drawback is never being able to see how I affect people with my writing. It’s the closest I can come to reading over someone’s shoulder as they read my material.”