I think that practically everyone who went to see We Are Poets came out of the film and wrote a response. This is a both testament to the power of the documentary and a nice example of bloggers helping to spread the word for an important indie film without a massive advertising budget. But in terms of a film review it’s difficult to add anything that new, so this has ended up branching out into a wider consideration of the spoken word scene generally and the wider context of arts funding decisions.
We Are Poets tells the story of Leeds Young Authors and six teenage poets from Chapeltown Leeds who represent the UK at the Brave New Voices slam in Washington DC. From the opening sequence with its sucker punch poetry and slow pan of the streets of inner city Leeds, to the closing credits which tell the impressive stories of where these members of Leeds Young Authors are now: this film speaks of the true transformative power of art. The power that makes a young girl from a council estate in Chapeltown go out and get ‘poet’ tattooed on her wrist. It is as much a story of what happens when young people start believing in themselves after spending years being written off. A film about the power of words, of people who have something to say and what happens to them when someone else believes in them and nurtures their voice. The personalities of all the poets draw you in to their story and its truth makes it so moving; Lucchesi and Ramseyer-Bache have done a fine job of never descending into trite sentimentality, or cliches which could have been so easy (I like to think this is partly because Alex is a local boy).
‘A poet is a person who speaks for their generation. If I don’t represent it, who will?’ Saju, Leeds Young Authors
We have to stop pretending the UK is some kind of level playing field. It’s not. It takes more for some people to get to this point than others. Some people have real world concerns and distractions and need more support and encouragement. The hours upon hours of work the poets and their mentors put in for this to happen shouldn’t be underestimated. The results of this project are clear to see from about ten seconds into this film. So why did Khadijah and the others have to work for free after their small arts council grant was withdrawn and the poets kept coming? Why did Alex have to get into so much personal debt to even make this film? Why aren’t these projects being supported more by the government and Arts Council England?
As exceptional a project Leeds Young Authors is it doesn’t exist in isolation. I’ve been watching something interesting happening at slams, spoken word evenings and open mike nights recently… Where along with the usual suspects there’s been a steady stream of ‘non-traditional’ poets getting up to the mike: with words I’ve been waiting to hear all my life, from young poets from a variety of backgrounds and cultures who I never expected to see on a stage (check out Michelle Tea and Sister Spit – queer spoken word troupe who set the UK on fire in 2009, please come back soon…, Salena Godden and The Book Club Boutique, Fictions of Every Kind– a DIY spoken word night in Leeds, Contact’s fusing of spoken word, hip-hop and poetry For Books Sake and Word Life there’ll be so many more – the point is these projects seem to be popping up every which way. For me what’s really exciting is that these poets are not assimilating. No one is asking they pretend to be someone else, some grand, distant idea of what a poet is. Instead what we get is their voices, their concerns, their words. And that is beautiful and powerful and a long, long time coming. Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that this is happening now, when so many of us are feeling so silenced, angry and frustrated.
Can we just take a step back and realise how fucking amazing that is? Start shouting about it? And supporting it? Properly?
‘It is amazing and a testament to our times that the greatest amounts of courage is found in young people who are like ‘fuck it, I’m going to say it anyway” Saul Williams