Spoken word poetry
Teens and young adults are choosing spoken word poetry to talk about things as mundane as a blue umbrella or as personal as relationships, depression and suicide.
Slam poets: Shantanu & Nandini (top left), Shruthi (bottom left) and Shamir (right)

If you’re active on social media, chances are you’ve seen this video doing the rounds. The poet performs a piece titled “Everything’s fine”, which is about why he cannot tell his friend what is really bothering him:

The young man is Shamir Reuben and what you saw in the video is not merely a hobby for the 23-year-old. It’s his passion and his profession. Shamir is one of the country’s many emerging talents in slam poetry, a form of performance and powerful expression fast catching up in India.

In the last two years, there are many such videos of performances which have gained popularity on the internet. And there’s a burgeoning population of teens and young adults choosing spoken word poetry to talk about things as mundane as a blue umbrella or as personal as relationships, depression and suicide.

What is spoken word poetry?

For Shamir, it started two years ago at a college workshop where he read out “Dear Mom”, a poem about his mother who suffered from cancer and passed away in 2012. “Roshan Abbas was conducting the workshop and he told me that I should perform for him, but next time, without a piece of paper clutched in my hand,” he recounts.

Shamir memorized the poem and returned in 2015, performing as a spoken word poet for the first time at Blue Frog, Mumbai. Since then, there has been no turning back for him. He now works as the head of content and social media at Kommune, a venture by Roshan Abbas, which curates performances by poets, storytellers and musicians across India. He has also performed in Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, Bengaluru and Goa.

But what is spoken word poetry and how is it different from good old poetry recitation?

According to Poetry Slam Inc., an American NGO established in 1997 and overseeing international coalition of poetry slams, this performance format is made distinct by two things: it is a “competitive art of performance poetry” and places “dual emphasis on writing and performance”. It essentially means that the poems performed must be original at all times. And while there are slam poets, Poetry Slam Inc. does not recognise the term “slam poetry”. It refers to it as “spoken word poetry”.

Shamir says that spoken word poetry is different from recitation because it is aimed at breaking the barrier between the performer and the audience. “It’s an audience-heavy sort of performance, where you play off the reactions of the audience,” he says. Poetry Slam Inc. also specifies a much more active role for the audience than mere spectatorship. Not only can they react openly and vocally during the performance, but the poets are scored not just by judges but by the audience also.

Where did it begin?

Spoken word poetry was born in 1984 in Chicago when a construction worker, Marc Smith, started poetry reading at a popular club as a way to democratize poetry and bring it to the masses. Two years later, he approached the owner of a jazz club to make the readings competitive and a weekly affair.

The format gained popularity thereon but it was the internet which really put spoken word poetry into the limelight. In 2011, a TED performance by Sarah Kay, a renowned American spoken word poet was shared widely on social media. Titled "If I should have a daughter", the performance served as the entry point for many Indians to spoken word poetry.

Why is it catching on?

Shruthi Mohan, who oversees Open Sky, a 20-month-old open mic platform which has featured slam poets among other artists across many cities, says that spoken word poetry’s popularity in India owes plenty to social media and YouTube. That spoken word poets generally belong to the younger lot, and speak about issues like sexuality, gender, mental health and relationships which make for shareable content, also helps.

“Plus ranting and venting as a form of expression has become more acceptable on the public platform. That has contributed to the format’s popularity too,” the 22-year-old says.

24-year-old Nandini Varma and Shantanu Anand (her classmate) co-founded the Airplane Poetry Movement (APM) in 2013 in Pune, under the mentorship of Campus Diaries. It was one of the earlier spoken word poetry platforms in India.

“At the time, only a few other groups like Delhi-based ‘Mildly Offensive Content’ and ‘Bring Back the Poets’ were there. There may have been others earlier but spoken word poetry had started becoming more visible around this time,” she says. APM is now based in Bengaluru.

Nandini recalls how things have changed in the last three years. From having six performers and about 20 people in the audience in their first event, APM, along with Capus Diaries, recently organized India’s first National Youth Poetry Slam (NYPS) in Bengaluru on September 17 and 18. Not only did it have 75 performers who qualified for Bengaluru and 1200 people in the audience, one of the judges was Sarah Kay herself, which Nandini says, was a landmark achievement for APM as well as the spoken word poetry culture in India.

How do the poets do it?

“What stands out about spoken word poetry is that it is intensely personal and written with a performance in mind,” Nandini observes. But this also means that performers must draw on something very intrinsic to make the audience believe each performance. For Shamir, who has performed at least two poems about his mother’s demise, it is still a challenge.

“Reliving those memories again and again does take its toll on me. Some days, you just want to block it out and not write anymore. But then I read the comments and the feedback I’ve received. So many people have told me that they have gone through something similar, but couldn’t really put their suffering into words. I think I find motivation in making pain more relatable for people,” he explains.

But like Nandini and Shamir, can slam poets make it a full-time profession? Nandini says that there is a long way to go, but it’s definitely happening. “People still need a little push to pay to watch slam poets perform. But over a thousand people just paid 1200-1500 rupees to watch youngsters talk about their experiences and lives through spoken word poetry (at NYPS). So there’s definitely scope,” Nandini smiles.