SLAMbassadors UK is not only the longest running and – in fact – ONLY solo national youth slam but a project that aims to give words back to the silenced; to scrub away years of censorship, either self-imposed or socially applied. And the workshops that lead to discovering new and intriguing talent are undoubtedly successful. But many of our real success stories are hidden, and never make it to the stage. These are the stories of young people who finally find the words to express an experience or emotion that has haunted them. Words when not well used can become in-grown and stick in the throat. And so finding the right word has always been our priority.
Equally important though is guiding those same people to look beyond their own words and experience other people’s poetry. With this in mind, the idea of encouraging those participants of the slam workshops into reading started to take root. Those roots took hold and finally broke through into the light and grew a few leaves. The leaves are the pages of a book. The book is called Page Fright.
The idea behind Page Fright is to encourage broader and deeper reading among young people who find themselves alienated from and perhaps even by the written word. It is a kind of spoken word application that can be used to link different areas of reading to live performances, to stimulus subjects, photographs and paintings, rare notations and reference materials, and back again to the live performance.
Just as we as performers struggle with stage fright, we all also suffer from page fright. This is a term we have invented, and so perhaps needs a little explanation. Page Fright is the fear of the written word, fear both of committing yourself to sitting down and absorbing a book, and fear of putting your own words in wet ink on to a page.
While spoken words artists have much in common with music and many cross the boundaries between the two art forms, we also have a powerful relationship with the written word. We simply choose to present it differently, making use of the physical skin script and the semantics of performance as much as the words on the page. But we are all also essentially writers and (drum roll) readers too.
With this in mind we contacted a few well known spoken word artists for support and this week began filming them.
We met in the newly created Blue Studios recording rooms in the heart of artistic edginess, Dalston in east London. It was early, a dusty and dim kind of day, when Benjamin Zephaniah, Hollie McNish, Dizraeli and Joelle Taylor met up to film their contributions. Each poet performed one of their best known pieces to camera, and then delivered a cover version of a classic poem or poet in the English language.
Benjamin Zephaniah chose to cover Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gently into That Good Night and performed it with an intensity and passion rare in a simple reading of heritage poem. Staring directly into the eye of the camera the lines on his face spoke as loudly as the lines that fell from his lips. This is a poem about someone pleading with their father not to die, to put up a furious fight against death, to stay.
Hollie McNish began with a cover version of Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, a poem famous for making a relatively small incident in the context of the Crimea war into an event known and repeated world-wide. It was also the first poem to be recorded. Hollie’s delivery makes the extraordinary familiar; she brings us to the simplicity at the heart of powerful and enduring poetry.
Dizraeli chose the Percy Bysshe Shelley poem Ozymandias, a piece in the Romantic tradition about the impermanence of all regimes, all societal structures that think themselves eternal and mighty but will one day be defeated by Time. It is a poem in a sense about pride before a fall. His performance was literally off-the-hook as can be perhaps expected of an artist who has lived his life behind a microphone.
Joelle Taylor opted for Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum est, one of the most powerful, disturbing and immediate poems relating to war that has ever been written. It is uncompromising, bitter and stark, and did what all poems try to do: change the world or the way in which we see it and speak about it.
None of the spoken word artists used ‘poetry voices’ to present their cover versions – they kept their own diction, rhythm, recognisable delivery style and accents. They made the poems fit their mouths.
The completed films are available at: poetrysociety.org.uk/pagefright