Why identity is powerful and necessary in spoken word.

Whenever I do any sort of work promoting myself in the spoken word community, invariably, I plough through photos and pictures that I’ve had taken specifically for the purposes of giving the audience a flavour of who I am. In such a way I hope to create a definite identity. Yet the more I do this, the more the created stage character who stands as an avatar for the real me moves further away from who I actually am.

For years now I have worn the same types of clothing and glasses when performing. These are not the sort of clothes I wear on a daily basis. They create an image, a kind of slightly less fussy Alan Bennett, except with thick frame glasses and perhaps a sequinned hat. And perhaps even, if you’re lucky, a feather boa.

Identity is a very important aspect of the spoken word community. Through words and images, poets assert themselves, their beliefs, their backgrounds and characters. Their promotional photos tell potential audiences the kind of thing they might expect from their work. Performance poetry and spoken word are the vessels many poets use in telling their stories, or asserting their right to be individual, different to whatever the norm might be.

This was something that I’d never encountered before I got into writing and performing. As a young gay man living first in suburban Surrey, and now the south of Devon, I was always aware that I was not an average person and did not fit into the heteronormative definition. Yet a part of me wanted to quell whatever difference there might be, hide it behind layers of what I assumed were respectability. Just because I was a gay man, I did not necessarily want the world to know this, an odd hang up from a childhood lived in the 1980s, before a time of gay pride, when Section 28 was legislation, and homophobia was both normal and expressed often.

The world has changed since then, or at least, British society has changed. Things are still not perfect, but it’s much easier now to assert a certain divergence from the norm. Or perhaps the norm itself has been exposed as a lie.

The last few months I’ve been having several conversations with myself about gay content in my poetry, and gay imagery in my presentation of it. Every now and then I have a tendency to write a poem in which I purposefully hide my sexuality, and I have no idea why this is. Naturally, there are a lot of poems I’ve written and performed in which LGBT issues are not the main focus, or even touched on. But then I tell myself off, and remind myself that it is my duty as an LGBT poet to help normalise a marginalised community, and that I owe it not only to my LGBT heroes who came before and did so much to help us get in to this situation, but also to the many other poets, performers and writers who assert their identity and do so with pride.

So there’s this social editor at the back of my mind which intrudes often, and the best material invariably comes when he is banished or ignored. So yes, I’ve been censoring myself, but from who? I tell myself off, and remind myself that the fight is not over, and that there are places in the world where the freedoms I enjoy are not taken for granted, or even permissible. In spite of everything, I, and many of my spoken word colleagues, am still an outsider. Identity is a powerful thing.

Author: Robert Garnham

Performance and spoken word artist.

One thought on “Why identity is powerful and necessary in spoken word.”

  1. Thank you, a great article. I realised, as I read it, that I have the same dilemma of hiding/identity/muting but around my ‘spiritual practice’ (clumsy phrase). Many poets do hold back…i remember Selima Hill told me that wear my heart too much on my sleeve. Don’t show so much, she said. This could be because we seek to show, not tell…and to offer something subtle and universally human too…maybe too much of our personal life tilts our poetry’s balance into polemic . No one wants to be told and told…your gentle humour loves us into inclusion of all sexualities, vegetables, flapjacks…hats x

    Liked by 1 person

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