Before the COVID-19 lockdown, Cathy Carson had just a small local audience in Northern Ireland. The poet and monologist had performed at open mics and charity events for less than two years and had a few pieces published in anthologies.
But in a mere six months, Carson has expanded her base internationally, in a way she could not have imagined before. Her audience now stretches from North America to Australia – mesmerized by her emotionally charged, socially conscious style of spoken word. All thanks to the Zoom video-conferencing network.
“I am known now by people who wouldn’t know my work otherwise,” she says. “It has been an awesome journey I’m so grateful for.”
Across the Atlantic, poet Jon Wesick has also done plenty of travelling without leaving his home near Boston. For one, Zoom readings have enabled him to revisit the San Diego poetry community, with which he has past ties. “Zoom let me reconnect with San Diego,” says Wesick, “as well as attend readings in the U.K. and Paris.”
And over in Perth, Australia, Skylar J. Wynter has also yielded unusual benefits for her poetry career. “Before COVID-19, my audience was my immediate locality,” she says, “but with the creation of Zoom, it is now global.” Her performance frequency has shot from twice a month to several times a week. “I am meeting people from all over the world that I would never normally have had the chance to meet or perform alongside of.”
These writers, and others, are part of a small phenomenon that could have surfaced only in the digital era – and particularly in 2020: Zoom poetry. With the whole world in lockdown during the Coronavirus pandemic, literary events like readings, slams and book launches have become virtual through Zoom. So poets, both established and emerging, can easily attend events in other cities and countries to perform at open mics, without spending a fortune on plane fare or accommodations.
A silver lining
Few would deny or dismiss the ongoing mass tragedy of COVID-19. But even the cloud of a terrible pandemic, upending countless lives around the world, can yield a silver lining for those willing to seek it out. Poets and other writers have found countless new reading and performing opportunities because of these atypical circumstances.
Lower Manhattan’s famous Nuyorican Poets Cafe offers two virtual open mics per week, with Zoom audiences for each event stretching up to sixty people, plus many additional viewers on Facebook. That Poetry Thing, a weekly event in Canberra, Australia, has been mixing live (and socially distancing) readers with Zoom visitors projected on a screen. Spoken Word Paris, a mostly English-language community in the French capital, was holding a Zoom event on Mondays over the spring and summer; the series now has a live outdoor portion in Paris’ Place Louis Aragon, plus an online series on Tuesdays. And the United Kingdom is rife with monthly and semi-monthly Zoom events, scattered from Plymouth to Scotland.
Kimberly Johnson, known by her stage name Special K, used to drive up to four hours away from her Richmond, VA home for out-of-town poetry gigs and open mics, ambitious to boost her profile as a spoken-word artist. After the COVID lockdown began, Johnson went online and discovered a female poet from Scotland whom she liked. An Instagram post announced that the Scottish poet had an upcoming virtual gig at Oooh Beehive, a series in Swindon, England.
“I tuned in because I wanted to hear more of her,” Johnson recalls. “After that event, I did a Facebook search of ‘online open mics’, which at the time turned up very little, but I signed up for every single one of them I could.” From there, the audience for Special K’s passionate performance poetry grew exponentially. She has continued to perform before audiences in other states and countries through Zoom, while working on a spoken-word CD.
Oooh Beehive began as a small local reading series at the Beehive Public House in Swindon (the series name is a pun on the Mike Myers “Oh, behave!” catchphrase), but its audience has increased substantially this year via Zoom, with poetry slams, open mics and featured readers constantly on the itinerary. Series co-founder Clive Oseman says he realized the potential for online expansion after seeing a Zoom poetry night advertised on Facebook and attending it.
“I have made some great friends on the scene,” Oseman says about the Zoom poetry community, adding that he has seen many talented poets from around the world and booked them in his series. The trend has also made it easier to bring his own mix of serious and funny poetry to new audiences, while promoting his third book, It Could Be Verse. “If I’m offered a gig and I can be flexible with my hours at work, I will travel anywhere,” he explains, noting that he often commuted to London and Devon for events before the lockdown.
In Sydney, Kelly Van Nelson was disappointed that she would not be able to host any live launch events for her new poetry book, Punch and Judy, earlier this year. So her publisher, Making Magic Happen Press, agreed to plan online events instead. Van Nelson discovered that other Australian literary events had moved to online platforms too, including open mics. From there, she found more events outside the country, with fresh new ears for her urban, gritty and unfiltered poetic style.
“I have been doing several events a week, around the world,” says Van Nelson. “Everything from open mics, to big country slams, to book launches, to fringe events and festivals. There was one day I did five online poetry events in five countries – exhausting but awesome all at once!” Her audience has grown to around 100,000 followers across several social-media platforms this year, she adds. “It’s crazy to have built up such an amazing tribe of followers.” (Full disclosure: Van Nelson recently interviewed the author of this article too, for an upcoming poetry podcast.)
A global community
Lockdown can be lonely, especially for those who do not live with families or friends. But it can also be an advantage for writers and other artists who struggle a little with direct audience interaction in public venues. “I love a live audience, I love the initial inhale and then the first word, I love the silent anticipation,” explains Mel Bradley, a poet and actor based in Derry, Northern Ireland. On the other hand, while she finds applause and ovations intoxicating, “I find the immediacy of people coming up to me with praise a bit overwhelming.”
A self-described “introverted exhibitionist,” Bradley has been performing spoken word for twelve years, as an outspoken queer feminist performer who devotes herself to challenging onstage behavioural norms for women. She appreciates the “backstage feel” that Zoom offers, allowing her to sit quietly at home before and after her performance slot, camera turned off, reading reactions to her and others’ performances in the chat forum.
“Zoom is lovely because you can effectively disappear into the background,” she says, “without people having to see the deer-caught-in-the-headlights look.” Trying to hold live conversations with others before going onstage can be awkward when she is going over material in her head. “I’m always afraid people think I’m rude. I don’t have that on Zoom, so yay!”
Like other poets this year, Bradley has used the Zoom platform to find not just new audiences, but also new friends and contacts. “The friendship connections that have been cultivating over lockdown, with people I’d never have been able to meet before, are precious,” says Bradley. “I don’t want to give that up. I hope I’m not the only one.”
Fin Hall, who lives and writes in the village of New Pitsligo in northeast Scotland, has also expanded both his audience and his social circle dramatically over 2020. “For every Zoom [or] Facebook event I do, I find more friends,” he says. “Let’s not beat about the bush, that’s what we all are.”
Although Hall has been writing poetry on and off since he was a teenager in the early 1970s and has appeared in a handful of publications, he rarely read his work in public until shortly before COVID struck. He discovered Zoom poetry in the early summer and quickly established himself as a presence in this virtual community. It was not long before he founded his own semimonthly online poetry series, Like a Blot from the Blue. While based in Scotland, this series attracts performers from the U.K., the U.S., Australia, Canada and Mexico. Open-mic sign-up is in advance, and the slots fill quickly.
The Midnight Poets
Another series that has gained a solid international base is Poetry in the Brew, running every Saturday evening. Formerly held in the upstairs of Nashville’s Portland Brew East coffeehouse during “normal” times, the series has grown in reputation over the summer as a safe, friendly space for Zoom commuters. Hall, Bradley, Carson, Oseman and a number of other British scribes who attend this series have dubbed themselves the Midnight Poets – so named because the series begins at six o’clock in Nashville, which is midnight in the U.K.
Staying awake past midnight to perform poetry online is typically no problem on a weekend. But time-zone differences can lead to a new kind of jet lag, without the jets. North American poets may have to set their alarms for three, four, or five o’clock in the morning to board Zoom Airlines for events in Australia or New Zealand, while some Aussie performers rise and shine at two or three a.m. to catch U.K. events. For many dedicated spoken-word performers, though, it is worth the delayed sleep and disrupted routines to reach new eyes and ears halfway around the world.
Technical deficiency is another occasional disadvantage. Poor web connections can lead to frozen screens, cut-off or garbled sound, or even performers just disappearing. “The only unfavourable thing I’ve found,” notes Johnson about Zoom poetry, “is that it is sometimes difficult to hear people.” Then there are Zoom Bombers – unwelcome infiltrators posting offensive or hostile messages in chats or interrupting readings. Some series get around the Bomber issue by issuing Zoom URL links in private EventBrite tickets; others offer passwords for ticket holders.
For performers who feed off the energy of live audiences, it can be frustrating to read without audible reaction, as audience members are usually muted during readings. Sometimes hosts allow brief unmuting for applause or snapping; other times, a poet may face a Brady Bunch-style screen of boxes of people silently clapping. “When everyone is muted, it is very difficult to judge how well, or otherwise, my set has gone,” says Oseman. This is a particular drawback for comedic poets like him, who rely on audience laughter. “This is not ideal, and I’ve often convinced myself that I have flopped.”
While Carson has thrived on Zoom, she often misses the vibe of a live audience. “I like gigs better when the audience is allowed to unmute to celebrate the poets,” she says. “I don’t get any less nervous about a Zoom gig than I do about a gig with people who have visible legs.” But although she prefers the energy of a live room and the direct socializing, she notes that some Zoom events do a great job of emulating that energy, “and the community of poets is amazing.”
Overall, Zoom poets are seeing more pluses than minuses for their craft in these unusual circumstances. “I don’t feel like I have to get dressed up to attend, like I would if attending an in-person event,” says Johnson. “I can tune in to Zoom open mics and be an active participant, while also working on other things, almost as if I have doubled the amount of workable hours in my day.”
“Not having to leave my house is fantastic, as well as being able to stay in my PJs if I am performing in the middle of the night,” observes Wynter.
New writing inspirations
For some Zoom poets, this new platform has had little or no effect on their actual writing. Carson’s style has not changed, nor has the amount of time she spends writing, although she says she is learning from other performers’ styles from around the world. Wesick has not changed his approach either. Johnson, on the other hand, has begun writing material specifically for the Zoom format – poems that would require explanations or introductions if performed before a live audience, she says.
Wynter – whose debut collection of poetry and flash fiction, Pieces of Humanity, is available on Amazon.com and will be launched officially this Saturday – has taken inspiration from her new poetry friends and contacts. “Having the opportunity to hear other poets has given me the chance to play around a lot with how I write poetry,” she says. “My style has morphed from my earlier poems being quite traditional in rhythm, rhyme and structure to now being more free-flow. I have been experimenting with wordplay and rhythm.” While she has traditionally worked with urban and gritty subject matter, Wynter has recently attempted lighter, more comedic material. Some Zoom poetry events have specific themes, and this prompts her to write about subjects that she might not have considered before.
The online community has sparked new writing inspirations for Hall too. “Zoom, along with two monthly prompt word challenges, has got me writing more and more. I have written more in this past seven months than I have done in my life,” he says. “I even kept a lockdown diary for three months in poem form.”
Van Nelson also feels that her writing has evolved through online performance. “It gives me more chance to practise in front of an audience,” she explains. “As a result, I have evolved several poems so they flow better and have begun writing pieces specifically for online events. I have a blend, now, of written pieces and spoken-word pieces. Sometimes they overlap, sometimes not.”
Bradley has spent much of 2020 working on theatre projects – including a Halloween-themed online spoken-word show, Ms Noir’s Seven Deadly Sins, which goes live on Oct. 29. “So it hasn’t really changed my writing,” she says, referring to lockdown. “But I’d taken a hiatus from performing last year to work on writing a show,” she adds, “and I was just getting back to the stage with a few headline gigs when lockdown happened. So the thing that I missed, Zoom has given me the opportunity to reconnect with it again.”
The future of spoken word
When – or if – the Coronavirus pandemic ends, how will Zoom change poetry events over the long run? Will things be the same as before, or will online gatherings become a “new normal”? Will there be more events blending a live aspect with international participants via Zoom, Skype, or other platforms projected on a screen?
Johnson hopes that online events continue. “Zoom poetry readings have made such an impact on me as a performer and a person and exposed me to so much talent I would otherwise never have known,” she says. But she also fears that online events may not be sustainable post-COVID, with people more interested in local live events and not having time for Zoom.
Hall is more optimistic about the new platform. “If life ever gets back to some sort of normal, then I think Zoom is here to stay,” he says. “It’s the only place that artists from all over can be in the same room. I think a mixture of live stage and screened live is the way forward.”
Oseman is also convinced that Zoom events are the way of the future for spoken word. “We at Oooh Beehive are intent on combining Zoom and live performance,” he says, “and I know of plenty of other events with the same intention. Certainly, our online slam championship is intended to be an annual event.”
Like Oseman, Van Nelson is determined to keep Zoom poetry going from her corner of the world. “I run a monthly event with my publisher in Australia, which is going to remain online post-pandemic,” she says. “It’s great to connect people and build a whole vibe around poetry.”
Whatever happens, a new path has opened up for writers and other artists who want to expand their bases outside their immediate geographical areas. Once the world becomes safe again for group gatherings and flying spittle from stages, there may still be a place for Midnight Poets everywhere.
“I hope it continues,” says Carson. “I hope we all continue. Please.”