Fear can be a spoken word


By Drew Hayden Taylor

Originally published in June 2010

Just a few weeks ago I attended the Calgary Spoken Word Festival. Several dozen poets and other such spoken word artists gathered together to extol the virtues of speaking aloud to entertain an audience, just them and their words. So, the immediate question was ‘What the hell was I doing there?’

I am not a spoken word artist. I am not a spoken word anything. I once ran a theatre company for three years and never once felt the need to get on stage and speak aloud words of emotion and knowledge to enthrall a paying audience and dazzle them with literary somersaults.

Normally, the only performing I used to allow myself to do was in singles bars. Even then I rarely got a round of applause.

Yes, I’ve done quite a bit of lecturing to people in my day, but that is not performing. That is… lecturing. So there I was, sandwiched between hip hop artists and people who manage to make lines like “I saw a frozen coffee cup float by, half filled with regret” sound understandable and touching.

To try and prepare myself for this event, I actually did manage to write a poem. My first one since my angst-ridden teenage years. This one went something like: For I am old and bittersweet, because I refuse to twitter or tweet.

This was going to be my official submission to the Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry, but I later thought against it. It came a little too easy, so I’m concerned I may have unconsciously stolen it from Homer’s The Iliad or Shakespeare or something. I’m not sure.

Still it was an effort and the audience seemed to appreciate it, unless that was what in the entertainment business can be called pity applause.

Still, I had been invited there for some reason. The powers-that-be at the festival claimed to have heard me speak and told me not to worry. ‘Everything would be fine, don’t worry,’ said the White woman to the Indian.

Worse yet, I was performing in an evening with all male poets, at an event called Sexy Words, Hot Men–the Chippendale’s of Poetry, they advertised. That’s all I needed, more pressure. I was worried I might not be able to... perform. I had visions of a literary version of The Full Monty, except it was more like The Full Metaphor.

Over the years I have been to an uncountable number of authors’ festivals across Canada, and a few other countries to boot, promoting my novels, plays, creative non-fiction and others. So, as I said, I am not afraid of reading to a crowd. But you’ll notice this wasn’t a reading festival. The poster said “spoken word.”

For a few days after agreeing to show up, I immediately thought of perhaps trying to change the direction of my career into Aboriginal hip hop. Several years ago I emceed a stage at the opening festival for the Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. And there was a hot young group from Alberta performing there called War Party. They sounded pretty cool.  Maybe I could do that.

Unfortunately, in the Native community, I guess I am viewed as being the White bread or cracker of the literary movement. Or, I guess, in keeping with the proper literary metaphor, the brown or whole wheat bread. Not a cutting edge kind of guy.

I should mention that I happen to like my pants up about my waist and not showing my underwear to the world. Call me old fashioned, but a guy’s gotta have some rules. Also, I am blingless. Unless belt buckles count as bling... and on a related topic, who do you consult on an issue like that?

As I was pondering these thoughts, my name was called. I arose, gritting my teeth and making sure my pants were properly positioned. I went up to the mic. And talked. That’s all. I had not really deconstructed the term “spoken word” properly. It means just that. Speaking words. I started to talk about things I knew, some of my books, humor and Native sexuality. I just talked and told stories and jokes.

Storytelling is spoken word. It seems that I, and a lot of people, had just assumed it was poetry and related methods of vocalization. In the end, everybody applauded and I felt good about what I’d done. In this new field of expression that had terrified me, I had just gone back to the basics, and came out on top. I like it when that happens.

However, it has inspired me. I think I will take a weekend off this summer and write a book of poetry.