Zoa Smith's electronic urban storytelling, Talkapella™ blazed a trail for other performance poets in Oregon in the 1980's.
Searching for a Clear Definition of "Spoken Word"
(and why is it so hard to find)?
Spoken Word is a term adopted by academia (college circles) in the early 80's to recognize a wave of new word-based performance art that came springing out of the Postmodern Art Movement. (But what's Postmodern & why was word stuff coming out of it?) Spoken Word was basically a catch-all category to lump together anything that didn't fit into the already well established categories of performance: Music, Theatre & Dance. (They were established? I thought God create those on the fourth day?) Some word performance art had been around for eons— storytelling, sound-emphasis poetry, African American toasting, reggae riddims… these forms just hadn't received much attention and suddenly the well-educated acknowledged the exclusion, suddenly people felt politically incorrect. (Is that a good thing or a bad thing to be?)
Okay, we know it's confusing; it's difficult to explain in only a few words how & why Spoken Word finally saw a heyday. It's hard to illustrate the strange, unpredictable process of assigning a new label for a new consciousness. We confess, also, that the term Spoken Word implies that any words that are spoken might qualify as Spoken Word, but then what if it's only recorded, not actually performed live? We might ask "If a word plays on a recorder & no one's there to hear… is it Spoken Word?"
(And what if you add music? Is a telephone call Spoken Word? A rant? Reading aloud to the dog? Just give a good simple definition. Oh, and what is it like to be a spoken word artist? Where do you go to apply?)
There is no simple, singular definition for Spoken Word. And maybe there shouldn't be—most independent artists resent being cubby-holed since it puts a crimp in "the experiment". Most word artists have historically been & currently are rebel artists; often they are marginalized people or social change activists. These artists resent "experts" defining their work and suspect a link to those who would streamline art as a commodity.
For the sake of scholarly study & to secure federal arts funding, however, academia seems to have settled on a definition: Spoken Word is a category of performance art to encompass any new seriously developed genre or traditional form that is primarily word-based & is not exclusively Music, Theatre or Dance but may include collaborations with other non-word-based art genres or works created in collaboration with artists from non-word-based disciplines. (Oh yeah, that really sounds simple.)
The SpokenOak site recognizes the rich, complex history of arriving at this time when a label is essential for word-based performance art. And the only way to understand why it has been so difficult to establish a clear, concise definition for Spoken Word is to explore all the different forms that are rooted in Oral Tradition. There is a vast, ever-evolving "family tree" of Spoken Arts. You can explore these branches, trace the roots, get a better view of Spoken Word while enjoying the entire organic splendor of the SpokenOak Genre Tree.