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From page to stage poetry

by Mika Kauhanen

The Finnish capital is currently home to a thriving stage poetry scene, thanks to the determined efforts of Helsinki Poetry Connection. The group arranges jam sessions where poetry and music are often combined in unexpected ways.

I want to
break out of this cage of convention I need a good girl intervention I’ve been good
to everyone else but myself
because goodness hurts the giver
It’s stepped up, crushed and overlooked because goodness can’t defend itself by fist or words or looks
It’s helpless and innocent like a baby
before it knows any better now I’ve learned my lesson
my only weapon is a confession
I want to be a
James Dean, Jackie Brown, any kind of Quentin Tarantino film type of character
with a twist… (to be continued)

The words above have not been printed before − what you just read is a partial transcript of a YouTube clip. I am uncertain whether my main layout choice, starting a new line with every inbreath, does the text justice or not. Would the author arrange the words differently on paper? She has intended the text to be seen and heard, not read. The excerpt, you see, is from a live performance by Suvi Valkonen in a TV interview (You can view Suvi Valkonen’s whole performance at YouTube:

The heart of Valkonen’s performance is rhythm, which is so deliberately articulated that it gives the impression of rap. Her performance falls into the category of verbal art, for she is not accompanied by any kind of musical structure, much less melody. However, she is not doing a poetry recital in the traditional sense of the term. So what is she up to? This question and others can be answered by Harri Hertell, who is a friend of Valkonen’s and a stage poet himself. He is the leading light and event organizer of Helsinki Poetry Connection, founded in 2008.  

Do it yourself  

Harri Hertell defines stage poetry as poetry that is specifically designed to be performed. The artist pays extra attention to the presentation, not only the use of his voice but also body language and movement. As a genre, stage poetry is related to ‘spoken word’, which, however, is a looser term. It refers to a spoken performance with literary and theatrical elements and it can easily take the form of either story-telling or poetry. The world of stage poetry can be illustrated by Hertell’s own story. “I had been playing the keyboards and the bass since I was a kid, but at some point I fell in love with literature. I started writing my own poems at the age of 13. I also read a great amount of Finnish poetry,” Hertell says. After seeing how Arto Melleri and Teemu Hirvilampi combined poetry and music in their projects, Hertell wanted to write poetry that was to be performed with musical accompaniment. He had very few other examples to follow, for the whole Finnish scene was in its infancy at the time.  

He managed to find the right kind of musicians and started working with them. They came up with new texts and music by jamming. But where to perform? Opportunities were few. “There were no events where poetry and music could be combined. There was no scene where unpublished poets could have performed their works,” Hertell says, sighing.  

The solution was to be found near: he had to create some events himself. In this, he was helped by the Finnish rap phenomenon, which had already inspired many angry young men to rap instead of writing poetry. Stage poetry worked as a bridge between these two art forms. Hertell started studying at the Helsinki Metropolia University of Applied Sciences, aiming to become a culture producer, and he also started organizing new events with increased determination.  

“One night almost exactly four years ago we had a big crowd and excellent atmosphere. I got the feeling that we were creating something new, for we had both rappers and poetry people in the audience. When we had our first break, some people came immediately to me to ask about our next event. After that night, I have organized or been among the organizers of over 200 stage poetry happenings,” Hertell explains.  

Hertell’s main laboratory is the Helsinki Poetry Jam. Founded by enthusiasts, it has become the country’s main arena for those wanting to combine verbal art and music. “The traditional poetry happenings often feel dreadfully dull. Our aim is to make poetry easy and approachable. We want to do away with the sense of difficulty often associated with poetry,” Hertell says, adding: “We also want to bring a sense of equality into the world of poetry.”  

Open Mic  

The so-called Open Mic concept is a particularly equal one. An open mic session can be held at the end of an event, after the stage poets have had their say, or, alternatively, the microphone can be open the whole night. At their best, the Open Mic sessions hosted by Helsinki Poetry Jam can have dozens of performers witnessed by hundreds of spectators. “People want to come and tell about themselves and their lives. They’ve got something to say and the opportunity to say it and thus express their feelings to the audience. I have to say there have been all kinds of people on stage; sometimes people have read their text messages aloud, sometimes they’ve presented a poem they’ve written during the evening,” Hertell says.  

Open Mic, however, is not a part of the karaoke culture. The unwritten rule is that each performer has to come up with his own lyrics. In other words, you have to be a performing artist and a creative artist at the same time. Some people feel they are doing pure poetry, others deem it very important to have some social message. The performers also differ greatly in how wellrehearsed they are: some have memorized everything and paid attention to all the details of their show, others only decide what they’re going to recite when their performance begins.  

“You can use printouts for help if you want to. Generally, when I perform myself, I have my stuff down on paper, although I’m not referring to it all the time. In my view, Finns should pay more attention to movement and stage presentation. However, that might take something away from the text,” Hertell muses. An Open Mic session is not a competition. “For a lot of people, it is an achievement just to get up on stage and perform. Competitions and duels require a lot of nerve and experience,” Hertell says. However, the Kuopio-based duo Runokukko holds an annual poetry competition called the Runopuulaaki national championship. It is based upon the Poetry slam phenomenon, which originated in the United States in the 1980s and in which poets competed against each other.  

Cosmetic surgery for poetry  

Hertell says that there are hundreds of people in Finland who participate in stage poetry happenings. One particularly significant point is that the most traditional Finnish culture consumers (women in their late middle age: the group of people who keep most forms of Finnish culture going) hardly ever come to these events. But many young men and women do.  

One may well ask whether the future of culture lies in the hands of volunteer groups such as Helsinki Poetry Connection. There is a constant discussion in Finland concerning the amount of financial support for the diametrically opposed (as they’re perceived) ‘state culture’ and ‘free groups’.  

“I really dig the fact that we’re able to react quickly to something we feel is relevant. There is no bureaucracy to hinder our movement,” Hertell says. But there has been co-operation with ‘state culture’: Poetry Jam visited the Finnish National Theatre as a part of the Helsinki Festival.  

“As far as I know, nobody’s made any real money with stage poetry in Finland,” Hertell retorts when asked about the number of people earning their living from it. “However, considering the size of the country, there is a lot of activity. We have many events, not least because of Helsinki Poetry Connection. In Finland, we also take it for granted that Open Mic performers immediately earn a certain amount of respect and that there’s a spirit of equality about the whole thing. In Germany and the United States, for example, performers tend to be real stars, and not everybody is allowed on stage.”

Do rap lyrics qualify as poetry?

Paleface, one of the best-known hip hop artists in Finland, has done spoken word gigs with jazz bands. His collaborators include the saxophonist Timo Lassy and the Sibelius Academy Big Band.  

“Hip hop has many points of origin. Africa, field hollers, call and response, blues, spoken word. As far as the spoken word roots are concerned, we must mention Gil Scott- Heron who combined speech and music and who is known as the father of the socalled proto-rap,” Paleface says, when talking about the history of rap.  

Paleface regards his rap lyrics as poetry. “Yes, I think they are that; after all, you’re dealing with rhythm, words and sentence structure.” When writing his material, he either improvises rhymes on top of a beat or writes the lyrics before there’s any music. “I am constantly collecting phrases in a notebook or my mobile phone. I’m on the lookout for nice-sounding expressions, rhythmic patterns with a sentence or word that you can then build upon. In an ideal situation, the lyric starts to write itself,” Paleface says.  

Paleface raps both in English and in Finnish, and to him, the languages are like different instruments, because the words tend to be stressed very differently. Meanings may also change from one culture to another. “When Bomfunk MC’s went to perform their hit Freestyler in the former Eastern bloc countries, it became a kind of a battle hymn in that context. These kinds of tensions and contrasts are created when individually unconnected things are suddenly brought together. Nobody can control people’s interpretations. It is fascinating to hear how much they can differ.”  

One thing that rap has taken from spoken word is the so-called namedropping culture. “Historical figures, events, brand names, words with a powerful sound. Our genetic memory or collective unconscious responds to certain things. It might be powerful, for example, to recite the Lord’s Prayer. Many rappers use taboos or provocative material to gain the listener’s attention. Words are so powerful that they become magic words, sometimes even spells, that strongly affect the emotions and the subconscious.”  

According to Paleface, a rapper creates an alter ego for himself. “You start to create the lyrics around that persona. It could be the persona of a preacher, journalist, news anchorman, teacher, circus clown or stand-up comedian,” Paleface describes the possibilities.  

In 2011, Paleface edited a selection of poetry called Rappiotaidetta (decadent art, published by Like) which contains lyrics by 30 Finnish rappers. According to him, they work well on paper. So, literature and performing arts can come closer to each other in this way, too.

Mika Kauhanen is a culture and media professional, freelance writer and radio presenter.

Translation: Tero Valkonen Featured photo: Harri Hertell by Teemu Juutilainen