What is Spoken Word?
Some say spoken word is an umbrella term under which poetry and storytelling call home. Some include stand-up comedy under this umbrella, others say spoken word is not comedy. Some say spoken word is lyrical and without musical instruments, others say spoken word is music. Consistent throughout each definition is sincerity.
Spoken word is words spoken out loud by an artist who engages an audience with moments of pain and triumph, of amazement and joy, of thoughtful examinations and retellings of personal and collective histories, of mythologies, dreams, ideas, observations, and jokes, all intertwined with heartfelt truths that, when communally acknowledged, make a room so quiet you can hear a pin drop.
On February 3, on the eve of an arctic outbreak, in partnership with Funda Fest, Motif held its inaugural Rhode Island Spoken Awards at R1 Indoor Karting. While tweens and teens and professionals of all ages played arcade games and raced go-karts around an indoor track, beloved RI performers were in a giant function room being honored for their excellence in the spoken arts.
I asked a few winners what they hope to capture with their words and how to describe the spoken word artform. Below are excerpts from their responses.
Winner: Favorite Interactive Storyteller & Overall Favorite Spoken Performer
I want the words to create an image that the listener can easily place in the story. I want the words to evoke compassion, empathy, fear, understanding and more. Most important is engaging the listeners. I talk about the 3 E’s: Entertainment, Education, and Engagement. Without engagement there is no entertainment or education.
I want the listener to experience storytelling in such an enjoyable way that they want to retell the story to friends, tell their own stories, become better listeners, ask others about their stories or interview family members.
Often when a storyteller announces that he or she is a “Storyteller,” a person will say, “Oh you read books to kids?” Nowhere is reading mentioned, neither is the word kids. (Refer back to better listening.) Storytelling is not just for children, sometimes adults need to hear stories more than the children.
Winner: Audience Award, Storytelling
First, I think it is important to say that while I do “write,” I don’t “write a piece.” I think of storytelling as “writing out loud.” I use the “tools of writing” to help me outline, organize, map my storytelling.
When I perform I want to take people on a journey with me. I want us to have a shared experience that only really can exist in that moment. Because when it’s over, it’s over, and all that remains is the memory of it… kind of how the scent of perfume lingers after someone passes by.
Winner: Favorite Stand-Up Comic
My goal for my standup material is always to resonate with the underdog. I have a new bit I really love about what it’s like going to the doctor as a fat woman. I use the term “fat” specifically because I want to take the shame and stigma away from that word. So many people have said to me, “You’re not fat, you’re beautiful!” That joke is my way of saying I am fat AND beautiful, and here is a glimpse into what my life is like living in that space. I, of course, always want to accomplish the goal of making people laugh, but I also want audience members to say, “Wow, this has happened to me too, and no one has ever made me laugh about it before.”
For me, spoken word is the most difficult artform, because your words are the entire show. You’re standing alone with nothing but your voice to elicit a response or reaction from the audience. People underestimate how difficult that is. It’s very powerful stuff, and when it works, it’s almost magic.
Winner: Audience Award, Comedy
I’m a freestyle comedian… I feel the crowd’s energy, then the words take over. My goal is to bring joy, happiness, and electricity into the room with just the words that come into my head.
[Being at the awards] felt like home, I saw familiar faces and genuine smiles. And oh my goodness, the words! The words that came out were so moving.
IG: @Southside_Dutchess / FB: Janaya Gonsalves / firstname.lastname@example.org
Winner: Honorable Mention Favorite Spoken Word
Spoken word is any art form using words as its medium such as music, comedy, poetry, storytelling, etc…Poetry is a part of spoken word but poetry is more than just words on a page.
We use poetry in many different forms and career paths. Teachers use poetry, politicians use poetry in speeches, preachers use poetry, it’s seen in the Bible in psalms, and theaters, ads and more all use poetry in one form or another. There are 52 different types of poetry and many different uses.
Winner: Audience Award, Spoken Word
The “professional” in me would describe spoken word as an oral performance of some type of literature, primarily poetry. The artist in me, well, I’m unsure. I have yet to think about this. I guess the way I would describe spoken word is what you do when you feel like the words you have written, the ones circling in your head all day, become more than the paper you’ve written on, and are now demanding to be said.
Spoken word to me, is not a choice. It is a decision the poem makes for me. Some poems want to be appreciated in different ways. Some want to be read and some want to be heard. Spoken word is where your poem comes to life and becomes larger than you.
Winner: Favorite Social Justice & Favorite Hip-Hop/Narrative Music
When I write, I hope that my words remain true to my authentic self. There was a time when I felt I needed to stretch the truth and present a version of myself that I was not proud of in order to be accepted. Over the years, I have learned to embrace the different versions of my personal development, and I hope that my art serves as a way for folks to hear my story.
When I perform, I hope to connect with somebody. I hope to lock eyes with even just one person, and I patiently wait for that look in their eyes that tells me that they see me, they hear me, and they relate. If I do that everytime I touch the microphone, I did my job and accomplished what I aim to do as an artist.
Winner: Favorite Live Performer
Public speaking is the number one fear among people and most people dream of doing stand-up but are afraid to try… I show the audience that not only can they do anything they also don’t have to fear getting up on stage. What my stand up accomplishes is that anyone attending my show will come away feeling, “If he can do it, so can I.” Not necessarily comedy, but to overcome any adversity they may be facing.
FB: Tyler Hittner // IG: Wheelz1990
Winner: Favorite New Voice, Stand-Up
I started performing regularly in 2017. Throughout my life I knew I wanted to do some form of entertainment but didn’t know exactly how to get into it. Around 2015–2016, one of the biggest things in my life that helped me start performing was my therapist. Going through therapy allowed me to remove some of the self barriers I was putting on myself to do what I wanted to do.
Winner: Favorite Personal Storyteller
Spoken word is a pretty big umbrella, but if I’m trying to describe what I do, or what I try to do with Stranger Stories (the storytelling show I produce), I think of it like stand up, but without the obligation to be funny.
Some pieces, being funny might be the point. But others, maybe the emotion you’re trying to evoke with the audience is nostalgia or embarrassment or jealousy or falling in love…. But when it’s done well, it still feels immediate and unpredictable, like live theater…. With author readings, we’re usually just getting an excerpt – and it’s generally not something that was written with the intent of being performed. Comparatively, I think you see that barrier between the audience and performer drop with spoken word pieces. If a book reading is an excerpt, a spoken word performance feels like its own full serving. Come to Strangers Stories!
For the complete list of Spoken Award winners visit: motifri.com/2023-inaugural-spoken-awards-winners.