Iowa poet joins the drive to ‘take back’ the spoken word Grammy (ft. track premiere: Kelsey Bigelow, ‘Poetic Trigger Warning’)

Des Moines poet Kelsey Bigelow. — courtesy of the artist

The Grammy Award for spoken word recordings has existed, in some form or other, since 1959. But it hasn’t always, or even often, gone to what 21st century listeners would consider spoken word.

Seriously. Jimmy Carter (#NotAPoet) has won this Grammy Award three times. That’s as often as Maya Angelou. (With nine nominations to her five.)

OK, to be fair, Carter has written poetry. But his wins haven’t been in that realm. Instead, he has won for (presumably compelling) audiobook versions of memoirs and essays.

The award, which has been known as “Best Spoken Word Album” since 1998, has been won by Hillary Clinton, Stephen Colbert, Betty White and, most recently, Michelle Obama and Rachel Maddow.

Poets have had enough.

“The Grammys want to give us our category, but we’re just not submitting,” says Des Moines poet Kelsey Bigelow.

Bigelow has a spoken word album dropping Friday, Sept. 17, that she has submitted for Grammy consideration. Recorded at Waveform Music in Des Moines, Depression Holders and Secret Keepers is a collection of work written for the stage, not the page. Bigelow started her career as a page poet, but since moving to Des Moines four years ago, has taken to performance and not looked back.

Track premiere: “Poetic Trigger Warning”

Recently, Bigelow connected with America’s Got Talent season 15 winner Brandon Leake, a spoken word poet and motivational speaker from California. Leake, she said, had a mission to get performance poetry its due.

“A whole bunch of poets are rallying this year and trying to get our category back,” she said.

It’s not a matter of expecting to win, per se. This is Bigelow’s debut recording (she published a book of poetry, Sprig of Lilac, in 2018). She knows the odds are stacked against not only her, but the bulk of her compatriots. But if U.S. spoken word poets reach a threshold of 100 submissions, the category may turn in their favor, without encompassing the audiobooks that have won in recent years, she said. She’s excited about Leake’s push as well as support from poet and Kanye West collaborator J. Ivy, who has also pushed for the integrity of the category.

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The deadline has passed for submissions (Aug. 31, 2021), but Bigelow says they won’t know until the awards are announced whether their gambit has worked. First round voting runs Oct. 22-Nov. 5, after which nominations will be announced. Winners will be declared at the 64th annual awards on Jan. 31, 2022. If enough poetry submissions were received, there’s a chance that audiobooks may be cast aside into their own category, Bigelow said.

In the meantime, she’s got plenty on her plate promoting Depression Holders and Secret Keepers. She has a virtual release party planned on her Facebook page on Friday, Sept. 17. In the coming weeks, she’ll be touring the Midwest, starting with the Des Moines Poetry Slam, her home stage, on Sept. 21 and moving on to Champagne-Urbana’s Pygmalion Festival and more.

Bigelow noted that while she made a point to ask for COVID-19 precautions at the venues she has coming up, she learned that it was unnecessary, as there was in every case already safety procedures in place.

“Which is not surprising,” she said. “The poetry community seems to be wanting to take care of each other.”