Poetry is a Hammer

London-based poet Kat François delivers a brilliant performance of the Spoken Word, enthralling listeners at the University of Vienna

Kat François, award-winning Slam Poet and World Poetry Slam Champion | Photo: Sayalee Karkare

On a nondescript November evening in a modest-sized class room at the University of Vienna’s Institute for English and American Studies, around 50 poetry enthusiasts gathered to hear some poetry. Or was it to watch?  This was to be an evening of performance poetry, and as we were to learn, a good poem can have the power to start a revolution.

As the Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovski once noted, “Art is not a mirror to reflect the world but a hammer with which to shape it.” With the soothing music of India Arie playing in the background, Kat Francois stands silently in the corner, waiting until it is time to wield hers…

An internationally known poet, playwright and workshop leader who lives and works in the United Kingdom, Francois´ greatest passion is performance poetry, a growing trend within the greater Spoken Word movement, in which verse, rhymed or free, is performed in a conversational, story-telling format, without music or other accompaniments.

“I was the kid who loved performing, who loved dance and then I started writing poetry secretly,” says Francois in the intro video of the Spoken Word All Stars 2010.  From this kid, Francois became an award-winning Slam Poet in 2004, and World Poetry Slam Champion in 2005. Since then she has been travelling across the world for her performances.  As she finally begins to perform, to tell her story and reveal her secrets, doubts and fears to the crowd of strangers, a calm descends over the room, as the audience slowly loses itself in her world.

Movingly, she tells of her childhood, of being one of seven siblings and of being bad at math. “Numbers scared me”, she tells us “like vicious dogs.” She describes meeting her father the first time at the age of 12.

I dreamt that when we met you would hug me
And shower me with love and long lost apologies
But that did not happen
You were ordinary.

She talks about her first period, puberty, aching breasts and sweaty arm pits. To her ex, meeting him for the first time with his new girlfriend, she admits:

“So when I saw you together for the first time all I wanted to do was call you both all the filthy, nasty, disgusting names I knew.”

But instead, she just quietly said to herself “Joy, joy, joy” and learned the strength in silence. She discusses womanhood, her struggles with body image issues and “forgives herself …for allowing unworthy lovers the privilege of pushing themselves inside.”  Throughout these intensely personal vignettes of her life, she encourages the audience to make comments, to interact with her and tell her when they liked a piece and when they didn’t.

The mostly female audience – yet with surprisingly many men – cheers as she tells of finally finding self-acceptance and love, and listens somberly about being man-handled and searched at an airport.  Through her stories, she draws them into her world and helps them see it through her eyes, which are very different from theirs.

Far from being elitist, Spoken Word as a genre gives a voice to the people on the margins of society, bearing in silence innumerable indignities in the ordinary course of a day. It gives expression to those hurts and humiliations which lurk silently beneath the thin veneer of the sophistication of civilized life that deems confessions embarrassing and cringe-worthy. Spoken Word exalts these confessions, which are the voices of the oppressed and provides a safe space in which these frustrations can find creative fulfillment.

Taking place in the 1980s in bars and cafes in the U.S., the Spoken Word movement had an instant appeal that spread across the country and took root in Germany, the UK, Switzerland and France. The term “performance poetry” was coined by Hedwig Gorsky, a first generation Polish-American in the early 1980s in an attempt to distinguish her work from performance art. However, “performance poetry” is not exclusively a post modern creation.  In fact, the Spoken Word movement could be described as a post modern re-creation of a much older oral tradition in which histories, myths and legends were transmitted orally from one generation to another, before the written word gained prominence.

To date, the oral tradition remains intact particularly in parts of Asia and Africa where literacy numbers are abysmal. In these cultures, wandering minstrels and troubadours play the important role not just of transmitting collective wisdom and knowledge but also of challenging the status quo with the instrument of the human voice.

In modern times, the increasing appropriation of public spaces and the accompanying restrictions on public behaviours out of notions of propriety and paranoia have pushed the dissenters into cafes, pubs and university classrooms, from the streets and town squares where they would once have performed. One of the pioneers of performance poetry, Gorsky herself thrived on audio and video recording in an attempt to reach wider audiences. She used her popularity and access to mass media to nurture other lesser known, subversive poetry performances and brought to the fore underlying issues of discrimination, negative stereotyping and misogyny in American society.

Kat Francois plays a similar role of a trouble-maker. She embraces her Caribbean ancestry and to racist cries of “Go back to where you came from!” she declares proudly that her great-great grandfather too fought for England in the First World War. In a particularly telling poem titled Heathrow, she describes, “Rough hands with no respect grab and grope her breasts” and piercingly muses whether “her dark skin acts like a stain on the soul supposedly revealing her true nature.”

She is not afraid to ask a predominantly white audience: “Does the blackness of my skin make you feel uncomfortable because of the safety of the whiteness that you sit in?” and watch them squirm and gape open-mouthed in disbelief at her impertinence.

The personal is political. Often, the more personal a performance, the better it succeeds in making bold, political statements and challenging oppressive social structures, even if it is only inside dusty university classrooms and obscure cafes.

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