Ant Heald writes on the power of hybrid spoken word events, examining how treating virtual participants as equals not only connects writers from further afield but also radically improves accessibility.
Every other Tuesday, I have got into the habit of heading to the Cwrw bar in Carmarthen for a convivial evening of spoken word poetry. Last time, though, my son forgot I needed the car and was late home from work. Before the pandemic, that would have been that – another missed opportunity. But on this occasion, I could simply log on to Zoom and join in from home. Of course, it’s not the same as being in the physical presence of others, but saving the petrol money and being able to pour myself a glass of wine were clear compensations.
I could see the audience in Carmarthen milling around in the bar, buying drinks and taking their places as I chatted to my compatriots in ‘Zoomland’. Among them was Dominic Williams, who as co-founder of community arts organisation Write4Word organises the event. Most weeks he is the compère of the evening, but tonight he is zooming in more ways than one, as he speaks to me from a moving train in Sweden, on his way to help plan the annual At the Fringe festival that brings writers and artists from literature, film and performing arts together from across Europe and the world to the small town of Tranås in southern Sweden.
It’s a convenience for me to be able to join in remotely to an event that is occurring just a few miles away, but for others, Zoom is the difference between them being able to participate at all or being wholly excluded. For some the reasons are geographical: creative partnerships already forged through festival gatherings between writers from Wales, Ireland, Sweden and India have been rekindled on a fortnightly basis at Cerddi yn Cwrw. For others, the opportunity to participate remotely is more profound. There are those still highly vulnerable to Covid who need to remain isolated, and those with neurodiversity, disability, mental and physical illness, caring responsibilities, or a range of other reasons that make travelling to the Cwrw bar in the flesh impossible or inconvenient: one participant appears on screen with a new puppy that can’t yet be left home alone. For those, the ‘hybrid’ model has made ‘open-mic’ even more open.
The spoken word scene is a well established staple of cultural life in Wales. Dominic and his partner Mel Perry have written about the current spoken word scene in West Wales, and its historical connections to the long oral tradition of poetry, for a chapter of a recent book, Spoken Word in the UK (Routledge, 2021). They draw a line back beyond the 19th century establishment of the modern eisteddfod, through the 13thC Black Book of Carmarthen, the earliest surviving solely Welsh language manuscript, to an older oral tradition in which tales of Merlin and Taliesin echoed around the walls of Carmarthen castle, just as the words of present day bards now ring around the Cwrw bar on King Street, a Swedish railway waiting room (Dominic is changing trains), a kitchen in Assam, a Wexford farmhouse, an Athens apartment, and my living room here in Llanelli. Hearing poetry in different languages scattered through the evening: Hindi, Greek, Swedish, and of course Welsh, has a transformative and emotional force I could not have expected. Some of it is work shared at previous events, translated by participants into their own tongue, or from their language into English. This is just one aspect of how perceptions of what is possible and valuable at open-mic is being shifted by the removal of geographical barriers to participation.
Many people became used to their work lives shifting at least partly online early in the pandemic, but Dominic and Mel were quicker than most to see the possibilities for spoken word and other cultural activities to move into cyberspace. The March 2020 lockdown coincided with the tenth anniversary of Poems and Pints at the Queens, the monthly predecessor of Cerddi yn Cwrw, so at the last moment the big birthday party was cancelled. Within a week, though, a Zoom subscription was purchased, experiments with camera and audio setups conducted, and Poems and Pints reconvened in the ether.
Dominic quickly recognised what many now realise ought to have been obvious all along: that the loss of face-to-face contact resulted for many people in opportunities gained for participation that was otherwise denied to them, and that this need be neither a zero-sum game, nor one-way traffic. It was not simply a case of bringing spoken word events to people who couldn’t otherwise attend, but also of bringing the riches of work by disabled, neurodivergent and otherwise socially excluded writers to people who had not previously heard their voice. Instead of simply ‘returning to normal’ once restrictions were eased, here was an opportunity to build back better, and so the ‘hybrid’ model of events held both in a physical space and online was born: not simply having people passively sitting at home watching a performance presented solely on-screen, but bringing ‘virtual’ participants into the room, performing and responding on an equal footing with those in the venue.
I first came across this ‘hybrid’ model when I returned to Spoken Word Saturday earlier this year after a couple of years’ absence. This monthly gathering held in a former chapel, now part of the Theatr Ffwrnes complex in Llanelli, is run by Eleanor Shaw of People Speak Up, a social enterprise and charity specialising in mental health and well-being and social inclusion. The layout of the venue was largely unchanged from pre-pandemic times, with people grouped around tables, and by now the mixture of masks on faces, under chins and folded on tables alongside mobile phones has ceased to feel as strange as it used to.
So, the most noticeable differences were the presence of a table at the back, set up with an audio-visual mixer with Dominic at the controls, and a large TV screen attached to a laptop next to the performance area. The screen displayed a typical Zoom layout of thumbnails of the faces of virtual attendees, together with one window showing the audience in the venue from the vantage of a webcam above the screen, and another viewing the performance area taken from a phone on a stand a few feet in front of the microphone.
If it seems a relatively simple set-up that works with fewer hitches even than the average work Zoom call then that is only because by now it has been honed to perfection by trial and error, not only through moving the ‘poems and pints’ events to this hybrid model, but also through Write4Word’s collaboration with People Speak Up and Disability Arts Cymru on the Arts Council of Wales funded Press Speak, Not Delete project, as well as delivery of the entire international At the Fringe festival as a hybrid edition for the past two years.
“I think we have cracked the performance model,” says Dominic, “and everyone, as you have witnessed, feels they are having a shared experience no matter what channel they use. My ambition is to crack hybrid workshops which are a far more interactive and intimate experiences. If we can nail that, make them comfortable, then we can revolutionise the higher education sector’s definition of blended learning.” As someone who found the tail end of an MA programme effectively amputated by lockdown, and has seen the often low quality and passive nature of much online learning, this is an overdue revolution.
Behind each of the faces seen and the voices heard at Spoken Word Saturday are stories; some of these emerge, or are hinted at, in the writing and music they share across the room, and across Zoom. Some of the participants I know to have physical and neurological disabilities or are living with mental health conditions that make attending by Zoom more comfortable and accessible even if they could physically attend in person. Hearing the contributions from a carer and her daughter with a learning disability on Zoom, alongside reflections on a century of James Joyce’s Ulysses, a mythologically rich eco-poem from a young south-Asian woman, and a birth-story as love-letter to her children from a first-time poet and performer in the room, the sense emerges strongly of a community more bound and enriched by diversity than a wet Saturday afternoon in Llanelli has usually been able to furnish.
Representatives of people with disabilities have been calling for us all to learn from what for many of them have been the positive side effects of the pandemic. As Hailey Hudson from the World Institute on Disability puts it, “As many people push to return to “normal” life, it’s growing increasingly clear that our idea of “normal” really just applies to a world full of non-disabled people. And that’s not OK.” Write4Word and People Speak Up have heard this call for the new normal to be better and more inclusive than the old.
One of the faces on the Saturday Zoom screen I also recognise from Mondays at Cerddi yn Cwrw, which she attends online from her home just across town in Carmarthen. This afternoon she transfixes the audience present with her clear, precise, rhythmically musical voice. Louise has spoken on a podcast for People Speak Up about the transformation her involvement in the spoken word and writing communities wrought in her, living with a complex of neurological and physical disabilities and illnesses, and today the words of her poetry resonate with the changed possibilities the hybrid spoken-word scene is opening up:
The not needed hushed away / silence with space / to welcome in the new. / Maybe the ‘Do! Do! Do!’ / or ‘Change! Change! Change!’ / wastage beyond requirement / needing ease with peace / simply allowing the new reality / time to keep thriving.
Perhaps, given the cultural and linguistic diversity we are beginning to see in these early stages of such events, we might even dare hope in these dark times that the groundwork is being laid for human-scale ‘change change change’ against algorithmically driven division and towards inclusive collaboration, and community thriving.
Write4Word are happy to share their learning with other community and arts organisations and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org