Reality TV Poetry


I caught an astonishing story on the BBC News website this morning: it’s about Abu Dhabi reality TV show Million’s Poet. That’s right: a reality poetry show, featuring performers competing with live recitals of original poetry in classic arabic forms for a top prize of a million dirhams.

The video on that website begins by looking like any reality TV show: it’s got the lights, the triumphant scoring, the screaming crowds. Then you see that there’s a woman in a full black body veil, and the judges are all wearing keffiyeh. And then you find out it’s about poetry.

Have a look at the google news results for Million’s Poet and you’ll discover that this show is serving as a really complex lens through which to view a whole range of essential contemporary issues: reality culture, the decline of literature, Western perception of the Middle East, the meanings of the veil, the ludicrous wealth and glitz of UAE, the globalisation  (or perhaps glocalisation) of popular culture, cross-cultural understandings . . .

What do we think when we see a woman in full body veil? If it indicates oppression then in this case it’s internalised oppression, because the hostesses on this show are wearing revealing brightly-coloured dresses with plenty of jangle. And then things get complicated by the fact that this contestant, a woman in the grand final of the show, which got 17 million viewers across the Arab world, is reciting passionate political poetry against religious fundamentalism, and has persevered with the performance despite receiving death threats.

In fact, politics dominated the whole final. The winner recited a (slightly saccharine) poem about charity and social engagement; another poet was writing about divorce. One could conclude that the viewers of this show are demonstrating an enviable level of social and literary engagement that puts the Western world to shame. But then, what do we, or I, really know about this show? How does it fit into the wider landscape of Arabic popular culture and entertainment? Are the shows as fixed and the narratives as scripted as in America’s Next Top Model or Big Brother? What’s the quality of the poetry? — is it as dumbed down and sugary as the pop  music on the X Factor?

And what about these audiences. Are they so different from our own? If we were to televise a properly glitzy reality show about poetry, would we be able to get such high viewing figures? I wouldn’t be surprised. Relegate the BBC Poetry Slam to a shortened late night slot on Radio 4 and of course it won’t get many listeners, of course they might think twice about giving it another go. But I’ve long thought that broadcast media (and the liberal middle classes) patronise mass audiences. If performance poets are as energetic, exciting and engaged as we claim to be when performing for our own crowds in pubs and, if we’re lucky, theatres, then a mass-marketed program of performance poetry should be a roaring success. If we really are voices of the people, or if our events really do give people voices, then we should be putting that to the test outside our own cultural ghetto. That’s what Million’s Poet has made me think about. I’m a bit daunted by it, a bit afraid by it, and not a little inspired by it.

Why So Serious?


Farrago was pretty fun on Thursday night. The features were as hot as usual; was especially impressed by the debuts from Paul Cree and Bridget Minamore. There’s this thing also about Farrago — the wild divrsity of its performers, both in content and identity. Paul and Bridget were followed by a couple of aged performance veterans, and the white males like me who dominate poetry as much as they do everything else were kept at bay. That’s reflected in the slam as much as the features, and I think Farrago does it better than any other night; all credit to John Paul O’Neil for that one, though I guess that once these things are set up they just keep on running.

Credit too to him for what he did to the Love Slam. Partly ‘cos he was knackered, partly ‘cos there were too many performers, he just refused to take it seriously, and so too did most of the slammers, including me (whose poem was so filthily unromantic that despite coming third in the initial scores was “toaded” for the only nil points of the night — fantastic!) I love Slam, it’s a great way of bringing people into poetry, and it’s still going good work for getting poets and audiences excited — but it’s really important not to take it seriously. I made the mistake of doing that after I discovered in my first two that I was pretty good at them; getting creamed in the third (including by people I’d previously beaten) was a good lesson. It’s about celebrating and enjoying the poetry, never about winning. Sometimes the best way of doing that is just to take the piss out of the whole institution. JP was told his Love Slam ruined the statistical integrity of poetry slams. Bravo! sez I.

On the Other Hand



Luke Wright was one of the people who got me writing poetry. At an Edinburgh Fringe a few years ago, after a year where I’d finally started to get into rap and hip-hop, I spent a blissful two days at his poetry tent — a free event space on the Meadows where he’d invited some of Britain’s best and craziest performance poets to perform, all day long. It was seeing that, combined with catching the amazing Baba Brinkman and especially his clarion call The Rhyme Renaissance, that got me thinking I really could do performance poetry and slam. I wrote Introduction about my rap/poetry anxieties soon after (it still in part holds true for me) and I’ve never looked back.

So I’ve got a major soft spot for him. Quite apart from being a great poet, he’s done a lot to revitalise and promote the form. I do think performance poetry needs more shameless self-promoters. But there’s a downside to that,  when an ignorant media can make it seem like these guys are all there is. Take this article in the Independent, which LW posted the other day:

Performance poetry. It’s not a phrase that strikes joy into many people’s hearts – there’s a fear it’ll be some fop emoting furiously about a penchant for self-harm, or a lame attempt to make an archaic art form ‘hip’.

Bollocks! Is that really what most people think of when they hear the words “performance poetry”? “Open mic” or “spoken word”, but we’ve worked so hard for so long to make poetry exciting and immediate! Is this just journalistic excess, or is something really wrong? Also:

But one young poetry collective is proving it doesn’t have to be that way.

Bollocks! Self-promoters (and thus poetry-promoters) we need, but we don’t need the way journalists latch onto that and make it seem like one group, one person is all their is. This isn’t the fault of Aisle 16, I’m not saying that in any way; I just hate the way it’s so easy to make it seem like there isn’t a massive community, a massive culture behind what celebrities we have, doing really exciting things. We’ve got to be careful not to encourage the understanding of that whenever we can.

I’m reminded of this Times article about Farrago. It’s a bit more respectful to the whole culture, it says “Every week in small theatres and pubs across Britain, poetry is being dragged back into popular culture by a new generation”, showing the widespread collectivity of the scene, but at the same time it’s so basic, so simple and so unaware of how big this thing is now. Poetry is big! Isn’t it? I mean, Farrago’s been going for a decade and a half! Don’t we get more recognition than that now?

Or are we all overcome with hubris? Are people much less aware of what we’re trying to do than we thought? I believe so passionately in the power of art to give people voices, to make essential testimony, to empower people to take charge of their lives, I really do. I love even the worst slam poetry because someone is getting to speak and people are getting to listen. I really believe in making that happen and spreading it out. So in that mission, in this celebration of the Year of the Poet, there’s a lot of work to be done, and a lot of pitfalls to avoid. But we can do it. Right?