It’s 2008, I’m strolling off Brick Lane and into 93 Feet East on a wet weekday, literally walking into the life of Paula Varjack, a smokey dim-lit bar and lots of trendy artistic-looking men, grinning at the pink high heels, full red lips and glossy long legs of poetry. Varjack impressed me immediately.
The first time we spoke was at Farrago in Shoreditch where I was also performing, she came up to me after the show with her book and said “hey, if I give you my book will you actually read it?” “of course!” I took it and actually read it. I genuinely wish that everyone introduced themselves to me with a book of their poetry.
We became mates; she was the first person I told about my plan to give up my well-paid full time job as a Personal Trainer for Spoken Word poetry, she’s probably the only person who didn’t question my mental stability. We were sitting on a night bus when I told her, to which she replied, “great, you have my support”
A month later I’m out in Berlin with her, hitting up some slams, she’s quite a celebrity among the poetry heads in Berlin, she had her own one-woman show with the same title as the book she gave me ‘Kiss and Tell’, she created the anti-slam where the worst poet wins and she too gave up a professional career for poetry and documentary film making.
Q. Paula, you gave up a good career in television are you MAD!?
Paula - oh mad without question. But I should probably clarify that I didn't give up my production career for poetry (although that previous life does kind of relate oddly) I was working for an animation company, specifically in charge of all the audio production which meant I co-ordinated and managed all the voice over talent for the voice records of the shows. I didn't realize one day I’d be on the other side of the mic, but I didn't give up animation for poetry. Before I moved to Berlin, in London I’d been working in the same company, with more or less the same responsibilities for years. As fun as it was and as talented as the people I worked with were, it didn't feel like I was going anywhere. Other more uh...domestic matters... went wrong around the same time. Suddenly I very much felt like I needed a change, a drastic one. Berlin was an idea that had been floating in my head for a while, it was almost mythologized and it seemed as good a place to runaway as anywhere, so I rented out my flat and went, moved to Berlin without a lick of German and only a couple friends there. I actually had this crazy idea that in Berlin i could focus and work on my new passion, documentary filmmaking. I rented a little studio near my new flat to edit in (it was actually painted *gold* no lie) and before I knew it I started to make friends and more friends and learned enough German to get by. The crucial turning point was when my thirtieth birthday was coming up; a friend in London invited me to perform at a new cabaret night she was launching. it seemed like a great way to turn thirty. I was never a performer but I’d always been into the idea of slam. I thought I’d put together a short-spoken word set, and from that night forward, well... I never finished that documentary...
Q. You’ve lived in many places (all seem to be cities) Berlin, London, Washington DC, I know you were out in Ghana recently. How has this influenced your writing and performance?
Paula - I’m completely culturally schizophrenic. I speak English with an American accent, London slang and the odd German word thrown in. I’ve always been obsessed with cities. My mum is from Accra, my father is from London, I was born in DC. Summers were divided between London and Accra visiting family.I grew up in the suburbs of DC, but as soon as i was old enough to take the metro into town by myself I was there, at cafes, gigs and art galleries. If I go on holiday I never go somewhere remote and scenic. I like urban landscapes, architecture, art, people, noise. The first performance piece I became known for, was about how living in Berlin felt like having an affair behind London’s back. It is an ongoing theme. In film school, my graduation film was about the city of London giving relationship advice to the main character, through a series of interactions with strangers. I then moved onto blogging where I was always characterizing/personifying cities as characters (mainly female ones...)the characters I constantly meet in cities, are a tremendous influence to me. The energy of urbanism is what keeps me feeling alive.
Q. What came first – The kiss or the tale?
Paula - ah... that’s a ‘how long is a piece of string question’ no? Sometimes the story leads to the kiss and sometimes vice versa. Generally with the work I’ve done to date, the kiss comes first. Then again, I have a writer/filmmaker head that leads me to constantly seek out narratives, subtext, back-story. Sometimes the subtext is even better than the kiss. Sometimes the fantasy is better left as a fantasy, but I’m off the kiss and tell track now. It was a fun adventure and great material for sure, but now I want to focus on other kinds of stories.
Q. You were a touring poet last year with your Berlin crew, how did it go? What did you learn? I want some roadie stories!
Paula - yes I’m one fourth of a crew called *skint but sexy* an anglicized version of when Berlin’s mayor famously (infamously) called Berlin "poor but sexy”. It was a brilliant tour, mainly because the people I toured with: Michael Haeflinger, Moon, and musician Joe Czarnecki are such wonderfully talented people, and soooo not egocentric. I mainly learned how both draining and exciting the experience of performing in a new city each night can be. Roadie stories? Oh loads... our arrival was pretty rock and roll, we were picked up at Bristol airport by Andie from the acoustic night at halo, in a big shiny white Mercedes van. Ending up having late night whiskeys in a soho members bar with Salena Godden after the book club boutique gig was pretty cool too. There were definitely tour casualties,like Moon's passport, and very nearly Joe’s laptop (Which he realized he'd left in the train just as we saw the train leave. It was saved by a sympathetic station controller)
Q. The Anti-Slam concept is genius! What inspired the idea and how’s the night going?
I can't take the credit for the concept. I visited New York last fall and saw a performance at the Nuyorican poet cafe by Jamie Dewolf. As part of his feature set he performed a winning piece from his anti-slam event in Oakland. I was totally blown away. It managed to satirize every bad habit in performance poetry. There were cringe-worthy rhymes, shaking hands holding the poem, defensiveness, terrible metaphors (etc) I knew right away that I wanted to bring the idea to Berlin. As soon as I came back I started asking everyone i knew on the scene what they thought about the idea. The response was so positive I knew it would take off if I did it. I've hosted/produced three of them now. With the concept you can't really do it too often I think. I also like the idea that it’s a special event, without any clear regularity of when the next one will happen. The last one happened on Valentines Day and was an anti-love poetry special. It was seriously hilarious. The next one will be mid July with a political theme. I’m extremely excited and curious to hear some pathetic political ranting. Wolfgang Hogekamp is producing this one with me which I really think will help take it to another level in terms of promotion and event production. I'm really keen also to bring the event to London in the fall. I just need to find the right person or people to produce it with, so if anyone's interested, holler....
Q. Many of us poets are hungry to jump into the world of one-person shows – Is this the way forward for Spoken Word artists who have been on the circuit for some time?
Paula - I think theatre is a logical progression from spoken word. I think the best slam pieces are in effect microcosms of theatre, or at least very much monologue based. Music is another direction a lot of performance poets move towards. I don't think any of these things are mutually exclusive either. However, I don't think that solo shows are for everyone. I also don't think a solo show should simply be thirty to sixty minutes of poems. I did this in a way with my last solo show, built up a narrative through poems and monologues. It did work in a way, but I realized that theatre being a whole other medium, I’d rather connect with that medium in its own terms, not force another medium (spoken word) into it. Its something like adapting a book to a film, you know? The question is an individual one, what each artist personally wants to achieve. You shouldn't do a solo show just because you've been doing slam poetry for a while, you should do a solo show because that’s a medium you want to explore, and it suits the story you want to tell. For me, as much as I love slams, I want to perform and tell stories that are longer than a three-minute limit, or even fifteen-minute feature sets. I want to combine multimedia elements of music and video projection; I want to work with physicality and silences as much as text, so theatre seems the best way forward for me.
Q. I want to go back to Berlin and do more performances out there – what’s the scene saying at the moment?
Paula - The scene is always open to you coming back Ray :-) the English language scene is very much thriving, a beautiful new English literary journal has just been published called Sand (http://sandjournal.com/) that kind of commemorates this. Berlin's slam scene is varied, expansive and receptive to English language performers. It’s a large part of what keeps me here.
Q. Have I been Varjacked? Its hard to tell?
Paula- ah no, trust me, when you've been varjacked... you definitely know...
For more on Paula Varjack visit - www.paulavarjack.com and http://myspace.com/skintbutsexy