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Hinter speaks to the LGBTQ performance poets who are using their art to speak out and be heard

By Catherine Lough

A hush descends over the Jago pub in Dalston as Ella Otomewo comes to the mic to perform her spoken word poem ‘Eve.’ Behind her, two flags flutter in the breeze from the open windows: the pink, white and blue of the transgender pride flag, and the rainbow flag of the LGBTQ community.

“It was Eve who gave the world its flavour, the forbidden fruit was just the beginning, and the taste of freedom left her hungry for more,” Ella said slowly. “Eve, mother of all living, lived too long in his shadow.”

As she finishes the performance, the crowd erupt into wild cheers. Otomewo is performing at SPEAK=, a monthly open-mic performance night for LGBTQ artists, set up by London Queer Writers. There are now a number of up-and-coming LGBTQ writers who use spoken word to articulate their experience, from non-binary artist Travis Alabanza, to the award-winning trans poet Jay Hulme. Otomewo suggests that part of spoken word poetry’s power is how it enables her to connect with the audience.

“I really appreciate that when I perform my poetry, the audience can get my intonations and see me smile, or laugh. I like having that power over my words,” she says.

Performance poetry: ‘a reclamation of the voice’

Reece Lyons at The Last Word

The spoken word scene is increasingly popular, and for LGBTQ artists, it can provide a space for self-expression. Reece Lyons, 20, won the 2018 Roundhouse Poetry Slam for her powerful spoken word narrative about her identity as a transwoman, exploring how she navigates a world where people stare at her throat as she speaks, as though her “Adam’s apple is a piece of forbidden fruit.”

Lyons suggests that, for LGBTQ people, expressing their stories through performance can be both impactful and liberating.

“I think performance poetry offers a reclamation of the voice for trans people,” she said, “because so many of our stories are told by people who don’t have our experience…So to be a performance poet and talk about your trans experience is powerful, because you’re going up to the mic and saying, ‘this is my story, I own this’.”

Kai Isaiah Jamal: ‘Slam poetry is representative’

Kai Isaiah Jamal

Kai Isaiah Jamal, a 23-year-old black trans poet based in Leeds, uses spoken word to explore his identity. He was first attracted to performance poetry because of its diversity.

“I think for me slam poetry was the first representative medium I had seen, it was the first place I saw queer, trans, black and brown people perform,” Jamal said. “There’s also something important about story-telling in both black communities and queer narratives, this passing down of memories or stories.”

His poetry explores the intersectional nature of his life as a black trans man, and the difficulties he faced growing up trans in a Muslim family.

“I think queer Muslim folk don’t have the representation or the visibility they should have,” he says. “Their voices are often silenced, censored or erased… it’s important to show the varying narratives in the queer community.”

Jamal says transphobia in the media underlines the need for trans people to create their own spaces, and is critical of news outlets that spread transphobia on one hand while proclaiming themselves LGBTQ allies.

‘They call us predators…in the same breath they pretend to support us’

Ella Otomewo performing at The Jago, Dalston

“The [mainstream media] call us predators, mentally unwell, delusional, lazy, confused and even dangerous, and in the same breath pretend to support us,” Jamal said. “So I don’t know what direction we are moving in…However I also know there are so many trans voices being heard, because we created the platforms that we needed, so I try to look at that more.”

Some LGBTQ poets suggest that one of the most powerful aspects of performance poetry is not only how it allows them to express their identity, but how spoken word can be used to unpick difficult experiences of homophobia, transphobia and racism. The poet Sophia Blackwell says poetry is a natural medium for exploring pain. Jamal describes spoken word as “a free therapy”, and lesbian performance poet Hannah Chutzpah uses the same analogy.

“Poetry as an artform is where you go with difficult emotions, so it makes sense that people come to it with their complex experiences as a minority,” she said. “There’s a lot of validation that happens [during performances] about things like being misgendered, encountering homophobia, people’s families not being great – we want to talk about these things, but on our own terms.”

She says there is something special about the raw, confessional nature of spoken word, and likens artists using painful memories to create beauty to an oyster transforming grit into a pearl.

At The Jago, Ella begins another poem, and the audience listen with rapt attention, occasionally clicking to the beat. At its heart, spoken word is about telling stories, and for LGBTQ writers, it is about telling their stories on their own terms.