Monday 28 June 2010

Q&A with Poland and UK based Spoken Word poet - Bohdan Piasecki

Bohdan Piasecki writes and performs very well… and some of it is in Polish.

He’s studying for a PhD in poetry translation, any Spoken Word artist that pulls that off gets a double head nod from me.

There is something very mysterious about Bohdan, you only see him occasionally, he likes to talk and he’s got a lot to say but you have to provoke it out of him. He organized what – to this day is possibly the best Spoken Word gig I’ve done, the Warrick University Slam in 2008.

Q. YO BOHDAN! Why don’t I see you very often? You’re like Big Foot!

Yo back at you, Ray! So let me get this straight: you’re saying I’m a hairy mythical creature that probably does not exist? I know I haven’t had time to come down to London much, but I had no idea it’s been that bad. And is it my fault if I hate shaving?

The reason I’ve not been taking too many gigs recently is pretty dull, really: I have been insanely busy with my PhD, and between this and the European tour with Smoke & Mirrors, there was very little time left for anything else.

I will be all over the place when I’m done, though, so be careful what you wish for. I have an ever-growing mental list of projects, gigs, and other stuff I intend to do when I finally submit. But for now, “When I’m done with my dissertation” has become a mantra of mine – ask me any question, I dare you, and odds are this is the answer you’ll get.

Q. What inspired you to study poetry?

I’ll tell you when I’m done with my dissertation. Sorry, that was a knee-jerk reaction.

Well, I don’t really study poetry – I study poetry translation. What attracted me to this field in the first place is that so many people say translating a poem is not possible. In fact, it’s difficult to find anything literature-related that so many people agree on so readily: if you trot out the old Robert Frost quote, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation”, you will get heads nodding very quickly. “And it’s true, because it can’t ever be the same”, most people will say, and leave it there, acting as if this were the ultimate argument. My problem with this was that there seemed to be plenty of easily available evidence to show that it’s simply not the case: to take a British example, Shakespeare is known and loved around the world, so either he had really, really good PR, or his translators must have been doing something right.

As I grew up in between languages anyway (I went to a French school), the subject appealed to me anyway, so I decided to see if I could make any sense of all this. Since then, I’ve found translation an amazing activity, one that forces you to question your understanding of the poem, look for the features that make it what it is, and rewrite them so they still work as a good poem for another audience, another culture, another way of looking at the world – in another language. And the fact that “it’s never the same” is true of any reading of any poem worth your time anyway, translated or otherwise.

Q. How’s the poetry tour with the Smoke and Mirrors crew? I want roadie stories! I want to know about poets with groupies!

The Smoke & Mirrors tour is now over, and what long strange trip it’s been. There were nine poets and one musician involved (and at the beginning, also a mentor/director, Felix Römer, although sadly he did not get to travel around Europe with us), but we mostly travelled in groups of three; my companions were Dominique Macri (from Germany & Romania) and Paula Varjack (from the UK & the US), and together we have been to Germany, Belgium, Poland, Portugal, France, Austria, Spain, and Italy. We covered the spectrum, from tiny gigs in front of bemused audience in small cafés with no sound equipment (I’m looking at you, Vienna) to massive events in XIX century ballrooms (that was Madrid).

But you want groupie stories. Well, I’ll give you a groupie story.

In Lisbon, our show started at midnight, and then there was a concert, and an open mic… And so we left the club after 3 am. Everybody sensibly retired to the hotel (we had to be at the airport at 6:30), but I was hungry. I set out on a quest for a kebab place, a takeaway, something, but somehow I failed to find anything, despite the fact that the city was so rush-hour-crowded. On my way back to the hotel, though, I was stopped by this girl, who asked, wide-eyed, whether I was one of the poets who had performed that night at the Music Box. “It’s finally happening,” I thought, “I got recognized on the street!” So I cautiously acquiesced. “Wow,”, she said, and I prepared my best modest smile for accepting compliments. But then she continued: “I just wanted to tell you that you friend from Germany is so great! Her voice is beautiful, she moves like a dancer, and…” She went on about Dominique for a good five minutes, then spun around on her heel and walked away. I didn’t even get an “Oh, you were ok too.” So there… that’s my groupie story!

Q. You are young, you’re married and you’re a poet. How have you managed to balance those things? Is your wife into poetry? Does she have to shut you up about the amazing stanzas you’ve just crafted in your poetic notebook?

It’s funny how often I get asked this question – but the answer I haven’t had any problems balancing this at all, actually. In fact, I can honestly say that if anything, having my wife there to support me has been an enormous help in growing as a spoken word poet. Karolina was there for me from the beginning, when I was setting up the first slam in Poland, and she is still a source of strength, motivation and inspiration from me. Also, she can be a very shrewd critic, especially when it comes to the performance side of things, so I try to profit from that as much as I can.

As for the second question, I don’t really test my poems on humans until I think they are ready, and then I tend to try them out during performances. However, K. does have to endure a nearly endless stream of half-baked puns, limericks, nonsense poems, freestyle raps, songs, etc. on a daily basis. This is how my brain works, with bits and pieces of lines and random rhymes flying in, and the filters I put in place to protect society are off around her. She endures this without complaining. Yes, I’m lucky to have her.

Q. What are your plans once you’ve finished your PhD? Do you become a professor and go into publishing?

Well, I would really like to conduct a research project in the field of spoken word translation. No-one has done any serious work on this, and there are so many great non-English speaking poets to whom it never occurs they could come and tour over here because they think their texts will not penetrate the language barrier. To go through with this, I’ll probably need to get a university job, which would be great – I enjoy teaching, and academic life has many perks that are well suited to a touring poet’s lifestyle. Humanities post-docs are few and far between, however, so we will have to wait and see what happens.

I also started a new job, I've recently become the new Apples & Snakes programme co-ordinator for the West Midlands.

Q. Are you running any more events? How can we get involved? The 2008 Warwick University slam you put together was AMAZING!

It was a good night, wasn’t it? People are still talking about it three years later.
Anyway, I am likely to run many more events soon, both in the UK and in Poland (where we’re trying to set up the country’s first slam nationals). I’ll be sure to keep you posted when I know more!

Q. You’ve done lots of travelling with your poetry so you must have explored many scenes in other countries – What can you tell us about that? Any surprises? Does Poland have a Spoken Word scene?

That’s a topic for a whole other interview. Scenes are very different from country to country, even from city to city. For example, Germany is incredibly impressive: spoken word and slam are extremely popular over there, and normal monthly events have regular audiences of two or three hundred people, with a couple of thousands usually showing up for the German-language Championships. People can actually make a decent living as poets over there. Poland, meanwhile, still has a young scene, with a few established names and many, many new poets still trying to find their voices and to master stage fright. I love it, though: it’s still at the stage where people still sound very different from each other, and any given slam or open mic can showcase wildly different styles of poetry.
In general, I’ve found I can learn a lot from visiting international scenes: there are so many different approaches to spoken word, to performance, so many rhythms and melodies, that even if I don’t understand a word of what is being said, I can usually still find something to glean from the evening.

Q. Bohdan you’re a legend and an absolute inspiration – prove it to everyone else RIGHT NOW!

Umm. Can I not?

Q. Does Spoken Word have a future? If so, what is it?

Spoken Word has a future at least as long as its past, and that is very, very long indeed. What I’m trying to say is – we’re good for a while.

For more on Bohdan -

Polowanie (The Hunt) - recorded live in Witten (@ WERK*STADT) & Arnhem (@ the ArtEZ academy), 2007 from Bohdan Piasecki on Vimeo.

Friday 18 June 2010

Q&A with Cambridge and London Based Spoken Word Artist - Hollie Mcnish

Let’s say Spoken Word poetry blew up, some fiery incarnate of a young Bob Dylan, a reflective Nina Simone and a love struck John Keats emerged from some trees in the city, and the whole world opened their eyes to the power and value of this art-form. Riding the crest of that gate-crashing wave would be ‘Hollie Mcnish’, passionately splattering verses into the open veins of the people.

I met Hollie in 2008, we’ve performed on the same stage numerous times and she’s certainly a hard act to follow. She’s a free flowing, internal rhyme scheming, conscious, empathetic and inspiring writer and Spoken Word artist. There’s magic in her voice, its slightly gravely but boldly feminine.

Recently she gave birth and composed an entire Spoken Word album called ‘Kick, Push’. In her own words it is “a journey through the beauty, brilliance and bollocks of having a baby”.

I’ve given it a listen and it was exactly what I wanted it to be, delicate but unrestrained, one of the most important things (in my opinion) in becoming a poet/song writer/ performer is being able to deliver your own truth and integrity, something that lacks in a lot of Rappers, emcees and young writers.

If there is any justice in the world, Hollie Mcnish’s star quality will not be overlooked.

Q. Hollie, it’s been a while! What in the world are you up to?

At the moment, in between watching in fascination as my daughter learns to talk and walk and smile, I'm in the final stages of my album 'Touch', which I've been recording over the last year. It’s a mix of poetry and some music / beats and skits. And I'm just trying to keep writing down as much as I can, though a lot of rhymes I think of but don't have the chance to write down and then forget! I'm playing at Glastonbury really soon, and then Latitude, Shambala, Fordham Fest and going to Secret Garden Party. That's about as much as I can manage at the moment without keeling over but I can't wait. I've never been to any except Glastobury so it should be an experience - especially with the wee one! I'm also doing some workshops with schools around Cambridge, on poetry and riverside developments which looks interesting. But mainly, I'm looking after my daughter, who'll be coming to all the gigs and classes with me so it should be a laugh! Oh, and I've got a residency lined up for next March in Belgium which I can't wait for cos I'm forgetting my French and I get really excited talking it!

Q. Giving birth has not stopped you from pursuing your career as a Spoken Word artist. Where does that type of faith stem from? How are you managing?

I’m managing alright thanks to a lot of help from my boyfriend of course, and mum! And the fact that my baby is a bloody amazing calm tree gazer at the moment! They both forced me to read out my poems to others at the start of it all and are really supportive in making sure I carry on with it...the longer I have a break between gigs the more nervous I get again – it’s not a good look! I don’t feel like I’m trying to pursue a career as a poet – I work for an urban planning / environmental charity and love that work but I find I express my ideas about stuff best in rhyme, always have. And now I’m kinda stuck between paths!! I love writing but I don’t think I’d be able to if I gave up my job or studies – cos that’s where I get what I write about. At the moment though, sleep takes priority over both!

Q. You’re shortlisted to represent British talent as a Spoken Word artist at an Australian Young Writers Festival. How can Spoken Word artists create these kinds of opportunities?

I know this is a stupidly practical answer but I find out about loads from two websites...arts council job ads and news and another writing website... And then apply for everything you want!

Q. What or who inspires your craft as a writer and performer?

To be honest, probably people who make me angry cos that’s when I feel I need to write to get out my frustration and sort out my thoughts into a more helpful form. so in that sense, Nick Griffin, George Bush, Uribe (Colombian president), Rupert Murdoch! I write a lot of softer poetry, more personal stuff too, but I hardly ever read it out – I don’t feel like people would be interested in that terms of poets, I don’t know too many to be honest, it’s more musicians and lyrics that I would sit and listen to for hours...i love taskforce, Erikah Badu, durrty goodz, arianna puello...too many to go into really.

Q. You come across as a street-wise young woman, what was your own upbringing like and how has this led to you being who and what you are today?

Ooh, not sure, don’t generally talk about family stuff but overall had a lovely, lucky, un-traumatic, blessed upbringing. All my family are from Glasgow or nearabouts but I was born in England which was always a bit strange being the one with a funny accent! I went to a normal school, was a bit of a geek in class, always desperate to learn. I studied at Cambridge, which taught me a lot about not being intimidated by people I used to - eg very rich, upper class etc etc. I lived in the French Caribbean for a year, then did a part time masters in development economics while working in a lovely wee clothes shop and less lovely night club to pay for, I guess, I’ve had a real mix of stuff and kinda learnt a bit off it all I think – lived on my own for 8 years which helps I reckon!

I remember we were both talking once about people who “don’t get what we do” and it’s hard when those people are your loved ones and close relatives? How understanding is the family now?

They vary! Some love it, others hate it, mainly because of the swearing, others I think don’t like the subject matter, but a lot just aren’t bothered either way – it’s not really a conversation topic most of the time. The only thing that is hard is when they start to pressure me to make it like a career, and then it stops being fun, and I stop thinking of poems!

Q. So many respected poets, writers and magazines have already tipped you to blow! You’re a fantastic inspiration and I’d like to see more of you… How you going to keep hungry?

Well, I’m flattered. I still find it kinda crazy cos I’ve been writing for so many years and now I’m reading to other people and they like it – well some like it! I love writing, I always have so I really don’t see it stopping. The only time I stopped was when I was at Uni for three years cos I got no inspiration at all. Was weird. But yeah, I write about everything and anything so unless we go into a black hole, I don’t think I’ll lose the hunger! And as for performing, the more I do it, the less nervous I get and the more bloody amazing people and places I meet. It’s a great turn in my life and I don’t want it to stop!


Tuesday 8 June 2010

Q&A with London and Brighton based Spoken Word legend - Paradox

The man, the myth, the legend – ‘Rodney Christopher Paradox’ is one of those rare human beings with the aura of strong gales of wisdom and knowledge you feel before he’s even fluttered his lips. His story is awe-inspiring but I’d rather let him tell it. I was doing at least 3 gigs a week in 2008 on the London Spoken Word circuit and ‘Paradox’ is a name that kept coming up. “Yo man, you seen that cat Paradox – he’s amazing but I haven’t seen him for a while” I hadn’t met the man but I felt his presence. Then a good friend of mine, Dr.Stewart sent me a video of him performing up a tree that blew my mind! I did a gig recently at Chris Redmond and Shane Solanki’s night of improvisational musicians and Spoken Word poetry – Tongue Fu. The line up was Laura Dockrill, Bryon Vincent, Deanna Rodger and the man himself – He performed a piece about losing a limb, I’d waited two years to hear that poem and it was everything I wanted it to be. He’s the fourth Spoken Word poet to make me cry – and I got a strong heart dammit!

Q. Paradox, you know there are quite a lot of emcees and Spoken Word artists called ‘Paradox’ but you’re the only one worthy of the name I’ve yet to see, what does it mean? Why Paradox?

Actually I didn't know that Raymond, but I think its perfectly appropriate that there are many singular beings called paradox! The definition of paradox that I like best is; "an apparent contradiction which nevertheless feels true" e.g. the "sound of silence". My life has always been defined and even dominated by paradox, in that the "worst day of my life" was the "best day of my life", the "stupidest thing I ever did" was the "smartest thing I ever did", and the "worst thing that ever happened to me" was the "best thing that ever happened to me." It was these painfully perfect personal paradoxes that inspired me to start writing performance poetry at the age of 35, having never written a poem in my life before that. So by taking on the name, I think I was basically honoring my muse, whilst at the same time ensuring my contradictory experience would continue to provide me with poetic material! Most importantly though, its just a shit hot stage name innit? hahaha.

Q. You quit a £70,000 a year job and discovered Spoken Word poetry. Please share that story with us.

Well Raymond, the problem with the rat race is that even if you win, you're still a rat! And after 14 years in sales, marketing, media and advertising I discovered (with a little help from Bill Hicks and Bob Marley) that I was living someone else’s life... and that someone was an ignorant, selfish consumer-competitor with virtually no social conscience and an empty hole in his life where meaning and purpose should be. So I decided to quit his life and get a life of my own. Initially this involved using skills developed during 7 years as a media researcher to inform myself about the mysterious entity that is the raison d’être of the rat race and (apparently) makes the world go round. What I discovered about money and the private "bankstas" who create it out of thin air, at a profit (while saddling the people and governments of the world with an un-payable debt), and the astonishingly far reaching and wholly negative impact this insane and fraudulent system of money supply has on our society, completely blew my mind and left me utterly disillusioned with the world. In fact I was so disillusioned that I decided to give it all up and become a homeless Big Issue Seller!

However as a consciously destitute, conscientious objector to a world run by private banks, I didn't fancy the urine and Special Brew soaked boudoir of your typical street sleeper, so I decided to go back to nature and sleep under a tree. As a London boy that meant going to live in my favourite park!!! So on April 11th 2002 I arrived in Battersea Park, with a bin liner full of clothes and a bin liner full of books and a determination to stay there until the Universe showed me what the hell I was supposed to do with my life. After an hour long reconnaissance I found my spot and made a home for myself under a tree in a fenced off area called "The Meadow", which was just across from the tennis courts and near the Buddhist Pagoda by the river (for those of you who know London's loveliest park;). For 7 months I contemplated life, the Universe and Oligarchy from my ex-army sleeping bag bed, under the stars of south London. I'd get up in the morning, walk to the Big Issue offices in Vauxhall, buy my magazines for the day and then walk down Vauxhall Bridge Road to my pitch on Victoria Street. Fortunately there was a homeless shelter there called "The Passage", where you could get a hot shower and your laundry done, so I managed to stay pretty clean and sweet smelling (well relatively speaking anyway) ;-)

I was lucky enough to be offered a room in a squat in October, so I didn't have to face an English winter exposed to the elements and I had an ex-army waterproof blanket to keep me dry when it rained, so I was actually pretty comfortable under my tree! As for my day job, I didn't know it at the time, but selling the Big Issue was an ideal preparation/practice for becoming a Performance Poet, because I soon figured out that if I gave an "entertaining performance" not only I could sell roughly 15 magazines per hour, but the often soul destroying, awkward and humiliating experience of Big Issue selling, could actually be a real buzz for me and lots of fun for my "audience"!

When you live in a park you can live pretty well on £20 a day, so after an hour or two of "performing" I'd spend the rest of the day hanging out "at home" feeding the ducks, or in the library studying or in an internet cafe researching. After three months of this my disillusionment had transformed into the natural peace and joy of a happy simpleton. And out of my renunciates bliss, paradoxical metaphysical poetry poured forth from my virgin lips, like a kind of spiritual dysentery. Having never considered myself an artist or even particularly creative, the experience of "hearing" a poem forming in the ethers of my mind with a hitherto unknown and unutilised extra sensory perception, was so indescribably orgasmic (not to mention having been shown my life purpose so definitively) that in my puppy dog enthusiasm I found myself accosting innocent members of the public to ask them "would you like a poem?" and launching into one well before they'd had a chance to reply. After a month or so of doing an uncanny impersonation of the "mad guy in the park", I discovered the weird and wonderful world of Open Mics. Firstly at The Foundry on Old Street and then at The Mass in Brixton, where I met Shortman, El Crisis, Mr Gee, David J, Floetic Lara, Dom de Mic and other super talented Poets who were taking the London Spoken Word scene by storm. The rest, as they say, is History.

Q. Your poetry has many philosophical qualities and provokes much radical thought – What do you essentially hope people get out of your work?

Well I'm not a good enough writer to inspire people with my lyrical imagery and I'm not a good enough performer to blow em away with a David J-like dramatic Tour de Force, so the heart of my work has always been the message. All of my poems were originally inspired by some kind of insight about the human experience, (the literary definition of paradox is "an anomalous juxtaposition of incongruous ideas for the sake of striking exposition or unorthodox insight) and in the process of composing them I attempt to construct and engage an entertaining, adult nursery rhyme around that insight and hopefully evoke the same inspiration in the audience that evoked the poem in me. I see my job as a poet as passing on the inspiration I've been given, so if the audience is inspired by what they've heard, then they've made an old man very happy. As a poet, what they do with that inspiration is none of my business, but as an workshop facilitator, youth worker and social activist, I would hope they would be inspired to live a more meaningful life and make the world a better place for them being in it.

Q. Who do you rate on the scene at the moment? Is there even a “scene”?

I'm not really clued up with the scene any more, "scenes" are for the young bruv! But the poets I admire most are Yap, Tony Bison, Moksha, Dave Pepper, Ash, Interference, Spliff Richard & Kate Tempest. Writing that list it's clear to me that the poets who inspire me are those who are continuing the oral tradition, which we sometimes forget is thousands of years older than the literary one. The original spoken word performers and the Bards of these isles, were all about informing and empowering the people with their hard earned life wisdom and insight, in order to inspire growth and social action. All the poets I've mentioned are true to that "bardic" spirit.

Q. How does one grow as a Spoken Word artist?

Well of course I can only speak for myself, but the key for me to grow as an artist, has been to grow as a person. It was a common occurrence a few years ago for me to write a poem that was eulogising a certain life choice/path that I myself wasn't choosing/walking. What I found was that until I did start to walk my talk consistently, writers block would descend and no further inspiration would be given! I am very happy to say that apart from The Matrix, which is a poem about the still operative system of debt based money, I don't perform any poems that are more than about three years old, for the simple reason that I've changed (grown hopefully) so much in that time, that I don't feel the words I once wrote anymore. Aside from all that, the answer as to how to grow as an artist, spoken word or otherwise, is well known enough to be a cliché: face your fears; constantly challenge yourself and don't rest on your laurels. If you do that, you won't be able to help but grow...but be careful what you wish for!

Q. Where do you see Spoken Word poetry going as an art form/ genre in the next decade? What’s the way forward?

Well given my view on the "scene", it won't surprise you to hear that I feel Spoken Word will go back to its roots and be more about inspiring growth and social action and less about "art for art sake". The economic crash of 2008 as well as the current situation in Greece was both inevitable consequences of basing the world’s money supply on a Ponzi scheme. So as the inherently insane and self destructive nature of a world ruled by banks becomes more and more obvious, I can see more and more Poets using Spoken word for what it was originally intended inform, inspire and empower. In fact I think this is already happening. I put on an Open Mic night in Brighton called Attitude Kings and I go to about 7 or 8 festivals every summer, and most of the super talented young poets I've seen are socially conscious "Bard-Poets." Thank fuck!!!

Q. Can we expect any publications from you?

Yes I'm working on an album. But don't hold your breath!

Q. Paradox you’re a legend and an inspiration! You know that right?

Well I've been called a legend a handful of times, but I figure those people were just easily impressed or slightly retarded, or both i.e. fans of Big Brother, so I'm not buying that. However I have been told that I'm inspirational thousands of times, so despite the risk of inflating my ego even further (if that's even possible) I've decided to accept that it must be true! After all, thousands of people can't be wrong can they? Drat! I've just realised how many people voted in the general election in the belief that the party political system is actually democratic. Bang goes that theory!