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Are there more female performance poets or simply more successful ones?


The spike in young female performance poetry champions suggests that visible role models can have real impact

Ollie O'Neill, wearing a checked shirt and standing in front of a stark white brick wall, introduces her poem 'Dyke'. Glancing out from beneath a sweeping red fringe, she says: "The first time I heard this word I was 11-years-old and it was cold against my skin."

Her words are part of a performance posted on YouTube. At just 18, O'Neill is one of a growing number of successful young female spoken word poets making themselves known online. The first ever female poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, was appointed in 2009 after 341 years of the honour being awarded to males. Has this had a trickle down affect on younger poets, or are wider currents at play in the spoken word scene?

The Foyle's Young Poets of the Year Award, launched in 2001 and open to 11 to 17-year-olds, has seen the number of female prize winners rise from 60% in 2009, to 80% in 2013. And while spoken word poetry is known for being more diverse, Joelle Taylor, artistic director of Slambassadors UK, a national youth spoken word poetry competition, says that when she started her career in 1984 it was still a predominately male scene: "It doesn't feel as unequal now as it once did."

This, Taylor says, is both evidenced and helped by the fact that two of the most famous spoken word artists in the country right now are women. "You have Kate Tempest and Hollie McNish," she says. "Now kids can look at YouTube at home and see McNish is getting 1.5 million views."

Kate Tempest brought spoken word to the world's attention by winning the Ted Hughes award, which celebrates poetic innovation, for 2013. Taylor says the success of these two poets has been a key factor in young female poets taking to the stage, arguing that poets need to "recognise themselves in an artist to develop as one".

This year's Slambassadors UK competition, open to 12 to 18-year-olds, has resulted in an all-female winners list. Of the 403 entrants this year, the shortlist was made up of 33 names, and only two of them were boys.

O'Neill's poem, a reflection on sexual identity, was selected along with the work of six other young female performance writers. She says young people are interested in spoken word because it is a way to get their voice heard. Social media has also played a significant part in the renaissance of spoken word poetry in recent years by allowing artists to connect online. Apples and Snakes, another organisation for spoken word and performance poetry, says the number of events it puts on has doubled to well over 150 a year in the past four years.

Jenny Burville-Riley, 14, another Slambassadors winner, says that spoken word or performance poetry is defined by its diversity, including not only women but also "people of different ethnicity and belief".

A major theme of the poetry of Nafeesa Mohammed, 15, whose poem Tattoos was also selected for the winners list, is religion. "I am Muslim," says Mohammed, "and I have struggled with that personally. The idea of being Asian in such a western culture has affected me quite a lot." Mohammed cites as her inspiration poets like Andrea Gibson and Alysia Harris, saying that she has noticed "more women coming through at the moment in what was previously a male dominated area".

Hollie McNish, one of the judges of this year's Slambassadors show, says that in the last two years spoken word has come into the mainstream, with poetry featuring at major music festivals like Glastonbury – and not just at fringe events. However, she adds a qualification. "I am quite often the only female in a set of poets, and I don't know if this is me reading into it but I often get booked a few weeks before a gig and I look at the line-up and it is all males," she says, indicating that the invitation can feel like a token gesture.

Jacob Sam-La Rose is a poet, spoken word educator and artistic director of 2012's Shake The Dust, which describes itself as "the biggest youth poetry slam the UK has ever seen". Sam-La Rose has noticed an increased interest in spoken word among the young, with a whole generation being exposed to poetry in school through spoken word education programmes.

He is less convinced by the supposed spike in interest among young women, saying that traditionally he has found it harder to engage boys. He does acknowledge, however, the rise in mid-career female spoken word poets.

"Poetry has always been considered an activity that's more appropriate for young women to pursue," he says. "The question is surely whether those young women are proportionally represented by more established artists, and whether the rise in 'successful' female spoken word artists encourages other young women to take spoken word more seriously."

Lucy Crompton-Reid, director of Apples and Snakes, has noticed more women taking to the stage at open-mic nights as headline acts, and also in poetry slams: "While I think it would be fair to say that, currently, there are probably more male spoken word artists working at a particular level in terms of their public profile, it feels like we are at a point of real change, with more female poets bringing their work to a wider audience."

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