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  • Performance, Poetry, Class and Desire: On Being Slaggy

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    The word ‘slag’ has long been used as a general insult, and since the late twentieth century, most frequently used to suggest a spoiled reputation. The installation ‘Being Slaggy’ explores the concept of ‘The Slag’ through a reflection on growing up in south east London in the late 1990s. 

    Slaggy Manor

    Not a country estate.

    No;

    Not that.

    Here,

    Teenage girls fuck teenage boys.

    In our red uniforms

    We are Plumstead pram pushers —

    Pushing half-caste babies;

    Single mums, smoking fags,

    Like slags.

     

    At school we were known as slags. Local girls who were, collectively, easy, or presumed to be. We were excessive. We were multicultural, loudmouthed and brash; we desired things — like sex and romance and Bacardi Breezers; we wanted our own way and we were going to get it. Coming of age in the late 1990s and early 2000s, in a working-class culture where we were both expected to perform our desire and desirability and, at the same time, punished for it, was dizzying. Recently, an old school friend described our teenage years as a ‘collective trauma’. I knew what she meant — although the phrase trauma, does not, for me, quite get at the heady mix of pleasure, shame, excitement, longing and pain that I’ve come to think of as the cornerstones of ‘slaggyness’. That I’ve come to think of as the epitome of being a teenage girl, in south east London, in the 1990s. 

    For the past several years, I’ve been compelled to render the experience of ‘Being Slaggy’ in words. These words have emerged as poems; the poetic form perhaps uniquely positioned to encapsulate paradox, and to conjure and convey complex feelings and experiences that can’t be neatly packaged to satisfy a straightforward narrative. It’s always been clear that these poems wanted to perform — but I did not feel the poems wanted to be performed by me; rather that they might work best if audiences could encounter and interpret them on their own terms.  

    Perhaps this is because I have increasingly felt uneasy at the alignment of performance poetry with a certain type of ‘spoken word’ performance that has become ubiquitous, and something of cliché, on the British theatre scene since the 2010s*. It can be very difficult to break away from the tropes of spoken word in terms of delivery and form, and I find that the personality, physicality and presumed ‘identity’ of the performer can often overtake the poetry, so that it becomes difficult (or feels ethically sticky) to connect what the poem is saying with our own experiences. The expansion of interest in poetry within the wider culture surely calls for a push towards different forms of performance, and a recuperation of modes of presenting poetry which have fallen out of fashion. 

    At the same time, I’ve been interested in the possibilities of words at scale, influenced by graffiti and street writing, and also by immersive theatre trends, which allow a measure of freedom and contemplation from the viewer. I’ve therefore begun experimenting with presenting ‘slaggy’ poems as a series of works at scale, that straddle something between an immersive performance and a gallery exhibit. The idea is that audiences can navigate the collection themselves, and find meaning in the individual poems as well as the space, layout and size of the works, and their collective meaning. I’m especially interested in the different ways audiences might feel about the poems in relation to their own experiences and positions. It’s likely a woman of my age, of a similar background, will experience the installation differently to a man twenty years younger — but I didn’t want my physical presence to mediate that. I’m excited, if a little nervous, to be presenting Being Slaggy as part of CPT’s SPRINT Festival, and am looking forward to learning how others experience the poems.

     *The theatre-maker Conrad Murray and I expand this argument in our book, Making Hip Hop Theatre with a chapter called ‘Against Spoken Word’.

    Being Slaggy is part of SPRINT Festival 2024

    Fri 8 Mar at 7.15pm

    Tickets from £8

    Katie Beswick

    "CPT is the first place we turn to when we have a new idea, knowing that experimentation and new ideas are always supported."

    Sh!t Theatre