The Art of Spoken Word

Jules Nyquist
Loft Literary Center

Write on Radio at KFAI What is the difference between a poet and a spoken word artist? Between a reading and a performance?

With written word, the inner spirit of a poem is there on the page, and the poet connects individually with the reader. The page dictates the line breaks, and the reader determines the pacing and tempo when the poem is read silently in the reader’s head or out loud. The words are there to savor or to return to whenever needed by the reader. Books are comfortable companions that surround the reader with intimate connections from the writer. There is an individual communion and healing between the poet and the reader.

But once that poem moves off the page and is read, not just from the page, but read with the rhythm and the music in the soul of the poet, it makes a different kind of connection–a connection with the community–and it now speaks to the masses. The poet determines the rhythm and spirit of the poem and starts to merge the art forms of the written word, music, theater and dance into new forms, generally called “spoken word”.

Spoken word has been around a lot longer than the written word. Spoken word can be traced back to a long-practiced art form that is rooted in the oral traditions of many cultures. Before written language was introduced, one generation passed on their oral history to the next with storytelling; they kept this conversation going with rhythm, music and dance. It was a way to keep the memories alive through the generations, but also a way to take people to another place, sustain them during troubled times and give them hope and love.

Spoken word as it is practiced today retains those same elements of connection in the community, bringing us back to the sounds of our ancestors. There seems to be a bit of a divide, though, between the academic world and the spoken word movement. Most colleges don’t “teach” the art of spoken word. It’s usually something you have to experience on your own out in the community. Fortunately, here in the Twin Cities, spoken word is really starting to flow!

The Minnesota Spoken Word Association (MNSWA), spearheaded by many of the leading spoken word artists in the Twin Cities, recognizes the rise of spoken word as a legitimate art form. They define spoken word as “the rhythmically-based performance of poetry and the continually innovative marriages of poetry and music…[spoken word] has indeed become the voice of the times, and the artists, the voice of the community. As the poets of the Harlem Renaissance spoke for and about their time, the Beat poets for theirs, and the Black Arts Movement artists for the 1960’s and 1970’s -the spoken word artists today speak for ours.” MNSWA’s activities include sponsoring a conference entitled “Singers of Daybreak: A Dialogue on the Art of Spoken Word”, held in August.

The Loft Literary Center occasionally has instructors who teach classes related to spoken word, such as reading for performance, storytelling or monologues. SASE: The Write Place is a catalyst for instructors in the art of spoken word and also recently co-sponsored (along with the Loft, the U of M’s Creative Writing Program, the East Side Arts Council and others) the “Poetry Music Innovation” held in Poetry Park at Lake Phalen in St. Paul, also in August 2001.

And don’t forget our Minnesota Slam team, who placed second in the national semi-finals this year and will host the national slam competition in Minneapolis in August 2002. You can also hear spoken word live at poetry readings throughout the Twin Cities. Kieran’s Pub, Sursumcorda and the Artists’ Quarter hold weekly open mics (for more information contact SASE). Write on Radio, broadcast every Thursday from 11 am-noon on KFAI (90.3 FM in Minneapolis and 106.7 FM in St. Paul) also lists current local spoken word events (call 612-341-3144 or see for more information). To be on a weekly email list of radio programming and literary events, email host Lynette Reini-Grandell at

What does the future hold for spoken word? Plenty! There is so much hunger out there in the world and writers need to be courageous enough to improvise, collaborate and cross disciplines, boundaries and cultures to get the art of spoken word out into the community.

Poetry Slam Inc.

Slam MN, To purchase: 651-224-9425 or email:

Words Will Heal the Wound: A Celebration of Community Through Poetry, To purchase: 612-288-9491 or email:

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