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Alina Young laughs and cries in a packed St. George’s Hall, as Raise the Bar host internationally acclaimed poet Shane Koyczan, performing alongside some other wonderful artists. 

Spoken word is unique within the performing arts sphere: unlike drama, performers do not assume a character, and unlike music, performers use only words for expression. Instead of playing a persona, they perform a past version of themselves. Watching live, one is acutely aware that it is a rare moment when we are allowed, even welcomed, to truly watch a person; the intense focus on their physicality and their presentation of their inner thoughts allows us to witness each momentary smile, each sign of insecurity, each accidental tear. In short, we are witnessing intimately the humanity of a stranger.

[Koyczan’s] poetry is beautiful, easy and loaded; each word is both accessible and moving in its simplicity

For the audience watching, the event—hosted by Raise the Bar—is a verbal feast. by giving a taste of eight very different voices, RTB exemplifies how spoken word has no fixed style—from the conversational to the melodic, the comedic to the poignant. The ‘showcase’ of three decorated poets who begin the evening—Polly Denny, Jake Wild, and Kathryn O’Driscoll—encapsulates the vibrancy and diversity of spoken word, and perfectly whets the audience’s appetite.

Steven Duncan and Vanessa Kisuule further present the audience with not only distinctive voice but remarkable performance. Duncan’s performance style is especially noteworthy; closed-eyed, he mesmerises with chant-like speech and hand movements that resemble a conductor or a painter. The lyrical construction of his words creates the impression that one is watching a song without music.

Kisuule meanwhile utterly charms with her charisma, instantly provoking warm laughter from the audience with her presence. In her performance, she masterfully returns to the emotion in her poetry; she is undoubtedly an actress of truth, as her words are met with both the laughter and silences of recognition among the audience.  The atmosphere is one of the most special components of the event—the focus within the room allowed the poet’s voice to be completely undisrupted, as clear as if inside your own head. The collective response at every poignant or relatable moment made ripples of recognition sweep throughout the hall, and produce the most beautiful kind of laughter—of empathy, of unity.

As soon as Shane Koyczan begins, it is obvious to see why his performance has been so eagerly anticipated. Beyond talent, his ability to understand and convey the complexities of both his own and society’s struggles is an extraordinary gift. His poetry is beautiful, easy and loaded; each word is both accessible and moving in its simplicity. Koyczan feels so deeply himself that, as he speaks, he visibly relives every emotion- perhaps his gift of empathy is what enables him to pin down exactly the right expression and move the listener.

honest, clear words [which are] the most poignant form of expression

Watching Koyczan is arresting; his physicality is remarkable, but likely not for the reason that Koyczan would imagine. As he speaks, one cannot help but be drawn to his statuesque stance and how he moves his hands like a noble orator. Yet, despite this nobility, he is still familiar and approachable with the rare aura of instant kindness in his face. In the same way, his poetry is insightful both for its wisdom and for its relatability, as if he could see both inside your head as a friend and look above it at society, like a prophet of our age.

A privilege of seeing Koyczan is hearing him relate anecdotes and explaining his ideas. Listening to them, one cannot help but feel that we were sharing a moment that is personal to us, rather than just relating stories to another audience. A particularly moving example is his story about his first dance: with a nun, dancing to ‘Living on a Prayer’ at a school dance. Aside from the touching humour with which he tells the story, ultimately what is so affecting is how relatable the child he describes is—standing on the side-lines, feeling unsure of themselves, and being so crippled with the discomfort of the situation that they cannot just let go and savour the moment.

In the poem, Koyczan repeats ‘I should have danced more’, and meanwhile the thought going round one’s own mind is ‘I should dance more’. In this style, Koyczan masters the power of making an audience feel again; we are moved by his openness about his pain, but also how he constantly makes you reflect on your own.

In ‘Graffiti’, he describes how he struggles to respond to the many people that reach out to him. ‘I don’t know’ refrains in the poem—an example of how his honest, clear words are the most poignant form of expression. Koyczan discusses with us the difficulties he has faced with expression generally, and as he ends a poem with ‘Poetry exists to give the socially awkward finally a way to be applauded’, struggling to say those final words, the audience struggles to keep back tears.

Spoken word is about return. You watch a stranger return to their most intimate thoughts and reflections on society, and this provokes you to return to your own. It returns your capacity to think about how the joys and struggles of our own everyday fit in to a larger human one. It provokes you to think about your own life and life generally in a way which, ironically, cannot be put into words. Watching the poets and being within the audience is like staring into humanity’s face, and opening your eyes to tears. Humanity, then, was not just in the performances but in the unity of the space. As Koyczan finished, the audience as one rose to their feet, and finally he was applauded.

Any other spoken word artists to whom we should all be listening? Let us know in the comments below or on social media

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