Marina Alefosio's journey with standup poetry began at 17, when she saw Def Poetry Jam live at the St James Theatre in 2005. A fan of the HBO show hosted by Mos Def, Alefosio had yearned for the show to be recreated in New Zealand; she wanted to see other stories - Kiwi stories - reflected in the medium.

Then in 2008, the South Auckland Poets Collective (SAPC) was formed. On top of performing in and around Auckland, the collective began to raise a voice for New Zealand standup poetry on the world stage using online platforms, building a "global interconnectedness with different artists", says Alefosio.

"We started to network with a lot of international artists through our YouTube channel and through Facebook," she says. "Then we started bringing people across to New Zealand, and started going over to their places and collaborating."

Alefosio is one of five local spoken word poets performing at the Auckland Writers' Festival in the Best of the Best Spoken Word Showcase. The event is the first of its kind at the festival, aiming to represent the kaleidoscopic array of talent within Auckland's poetry scene and recognise the growth of the art form over recent years.


It fills a void left in the festival by Poetry Idol, which ran for 10 years up to 2016, but the Best of the Best eschews the competition format in favour of a more open, showcase-style performance.

Alefosio performs alongside award-winning poets Mohamed Hassan, Tim Heath, Rewa Worley and Jennifer Rockwell (who is still in high school). Two-time Poetry Idol winner and former SAPC member Zane Scarborough will host the event, with international stalwarts Paul Beatty, Ivan Coyote and Rupi Kaur also performing.

Alefosio says she's excited for the event to build up the profile of Auckland's spoken word poetry scene and its performers, especially at a literary event such as the AWF.

"A lot of times [spoken word poetry] doesn't sit nicely next to page poets. Spoken word covers live performance but also covers literature, so I think it needs to sit in there as well," she says.

Rewa Worley agrees. "[Spoken word] fills a gap and occupies a dimension which doesn't necessarily exist in many other spaces," he says. "The ability of New Zealanders, and young New Zealanders, to speak to the heart of different issues is profound, and I would say to some extent, undervalued."

Spoken word has certainly at times had to push for recognition in the literary world. Just last year, Christchurch-based writer and critic Andrew Paul Wood penned an essay for The Spinoff lamenting the inclusion of poetry slams in the writers' festival, calling it a "horrid practice". The piece - Slam poetry is despicable and dumb-ass and not good - was swiftly countered by actress and Poetry Idol founder Penny Ashton in a scathing response essay.

While the rise of spoken word may be off-putting for critics such as Wood, for Zane Scarborough, oral story-telling is not a new concept at all.

"As a Maori, oratory is an art form which is revered greatly," he says. "The process of knowing where you come from and knowing what you think, then trying to present that in a compelling way reminds me of all of the great story tellers I've known throughout my life. People have always used the ingredients of writing and rhythmic delivery."

Wood's piece clearly did not deter the festival from continuing to include spoken-word - producer Clare Mabey said the Best of the Best event was born out of a conversation with festival director Anne O'Brien, who was eager to showcase the rise of Auckland's performance poetry scene.

So what exactly is behind the growth in popularity of spoken word poetry? One only needs to look at the success of international guest Rupi Kaur to see how online mediums have played a part. The Canadian-Punjabi had been writing and performing her poetry from the age of 17, but once she began sharing her art through platforms such as Instagram and Tumblr, Kaur's rise was meteoric. She now has 1.2 million Instagram followers and a New York Times bestselling poetry collection to her name.

While online platforms have certainly played a part in spoken word's growth in New Zealand, Scarborough and Worley say it's more about the accessibility of the medium and the way it helps youth find their voice.

"As someone who doesn't naturally write well myself, the barriers of inferiority I had were taken away when I was just encouraged to just share whatever I had," says Scarborough. "It's really special when young people we work with do this."

"With all kids who get involved in poetry or who decide to share at poetry slams or at open mics, there's this idea of catharsis and release," says Worley. "It's expression and communication in a way that you can't do in many other formats. Some of the talent - young kids as well as adults - is phenomenal. It's amazing, it's next level."

*Details of the Best of the Best: Spoken Word Showcase are available here