Spoken Word Poetry: Setting The Word Free

Rochelle D’silva

April 3, 2018

India has a rich tradition of oral storytelling. Owing to the wealth of traditional languages that can be found here, each region offers a wide palette of experiences to choose from- from ghazals and shayari to kaawad and dastangoi and more.

Spoken word poetry is poetry that refuses to sit on a page- it needs an audience to exist and become a performance poem. It incorporates the use of vivid imagery, does not lean against a set structure and can be accompanied by costumes, music, and props. It is, quite simply, poetry come alive.

These days, more young people in India are attending poetry open mics and storytelling events. India now has a blossoming array of literary fests and events that celebrate storytelling in all its forms. The spoken word poetry/performance poetry scene in Mumbai started picking up around 2014 with more budding poets taking to YouTube to watch poetry videos. Poetry was suddenly resurrected and repackaged, not as a boring encounter in a textbook but as a tool for dialogue. Young people were learning that you could use poetry to discuss any topic under the sun and, most importantly, people were listening!

In 2014, I found myself back in Mumbai, the city of my birth, but a place I had romanticised from a distance for 18 years. There were only two regular open mics in the city (that I knew of) and they happened once a month. I was used to attending gigs at least five times a week and was craving some serious poetry action! Slowly, I started running poetry workshops and became a part of the small poetry circle in the city.

On  January 29, 2015, in the back of a bustling restaurant in Khar, I addressed a crowd of about 60 people at my very own poetry open mic. There was no stage and the room was so packed that some of the audience had to sit cross-legged on the floor. It was an electrifying night of poetry and, for me, it created a spark that set a new movement in motion. I made myself a promise to create a safe space for poetry and for poets in the city. I wanted to bring poetry out of the internet and YouTube channels and make it such that you could meet the artists in person.

In the last three years of running events in Mumbai, I have seen so many poets come out of their shells to overcome their fears and perform for an audience, to write honest poetry, and to bare their souls to rooms full of strangers. And, most importantly, to affect dialogue about the things that matter. Poets in Mumbai talk about politics, religion, the weight of a materialistic corporate existence, the state of the roads, the hypocrisy of people in power, taboos, and subjects that we would never discuss with friends or family. I have seen poets break down while talking about mental health, rape, body-shaming, and I have seen audiences come together to show their support and love after the event.

I remember my friend Anu Elizabeth Roche performing her signature poem, ‘Shame’ for the first time. It broke many barriers, for her personally, and also for the audience who never saw it coming! Shame is a poem about a young girl learning to feel ashamed of her body.

I hope your shoulders don’t slump

from the weight of knowing 

That there will be people

who know your body

Better than you ever will

Only because you spent so long

rendering it invisible

I remember Preeti Vangani, another powerful poet, bravely speaking about the hypocrisy of patriarchy, openly talking about her arthritis and the way that friends and lovers and even family made her feel about it. Her poem titled ‘Joint Words’ is a must-watch for all those in India who call themselves spoken word poets.

Today the spoken word poetry revolution has gained a lot of momentum. In Mumbai itself, there are 20-30 gigs every month and a budding poet or a practicing one is spoilt for choice.

However, being a spoken word artist and performing for audiences can be hard sometimes. It took a long time for me to truly find my own voice as a spoken word artist. I have written my way out of dark canyons and found solace in just speaking my truth. I realised that I like to write about what I know and how I feel from a very personal perspective. My poetry has one purpose- to set me free from the spinning vortex that is my brain. To quell the waves of anxiety that wash over me when I’m faced with an impossible situation. To help me make sense of human interactions, love, forgiveness etc.

In moments of self-doubt, when no poem is good enough, I remind myself of why I started writing in the first place.

You see I started this

to tell the story of a boy

with a soul brighter than

sunlight hitting your irises

Because there are many more like me

who are afraid of honesty

I know that as long as I remember that

I will not mass produce

emotionally rancid poetry

I have become many poems in the years since I started this experiment. I have learned to write with emotion but edit cautiously. I am no longer possessive of my words; I know there will be others. Some poems are meant to be flung from stages and others prefer quiet corners in notebooks – and that’s fine.

I feel blessed to be a part of this movement in India and to be able to witness the changing landscape of poetry.

Here’s to many more years of setting the words free- on and off stage.

Have you ever performed spoken word poetry or attended a poetry slam? Share your experience with us in the comments below.

Rochelle D'silva

Rochelle D'silva

Rochelle writes about her travels, cultural influences, and personal experiences. Her poems; furnished with deep imagery and functional metaphors provide clear pathways into her world and her ethos. She has been a part of numerous literary fests around India. She curates a monthly poetry open mic in Mumbai called 'Words Tell Stories' that features local and international artists and runs a slam series called 'Mumbai Poetry Slam'. She released India's first poetry and music album titled 'Best Apology Face' in 2017. Her debut collection of poetry, When Home Is An Idea was published in August 2017. She endorses hugs. Follow her on Instagram.