Monday, 20 September 2010

Q&A with Birmingham/ London based Spoken Word superstar 'Polarbear'

Mike Skinner is not a shit rapper; he’s a good poet. Someone needs to tell him that… However, no one needs to tell Polarbear he’s not shit.

Steven Camden aka Polarbear doesn’t like to be hyped up but many would stand by me when I say he’s one of the best writer/performer/Spoken Word artists in the UK by any standard.

If you like your wordsmiths to be humble, home grown and clean cut storytellers in flat caps I may have found you a street corner hero.

Polarbear, your last one-man show was called ‘Return’ and on the flyer it says ‘A Spoken Film’. What is ‘Spoken Film’? Are you pioneering a new genre of theatre?

I dunno. I doubt it. Not on purpose anyways. A spoken film is me speaking a screenplay; shot description, dialogue and so on. I had a story I wanted to tell and an idea of how I could do it. I sat down and with Yael crafted a screenplay for my mouth. The idea is really an extension of what I’ve been trying to do with shorter pieces for a while now. I really wanted to test how filmic I could make a story feel as an experience both to tell and to listen to. I’m touring it until Feb 2011 on and off. It’s been a brilliant process and I’ve grown as a writer and performer through it. I worked really closely with a couple of people and I’m happy with what we made. It’s feels nice to take a starting point and get a piece to be exactly what you wanted. ‘RETURN’ is that.

I want you to know, there are a lot of little Polarbear imitators out there… I saw a performer completely rip you off a few weeks ago and it hurt to watch.. what should I do when I witness such horrific crimes against creativity?

Everything is borrowed lad. I wouldn’t worry. I think when you’re just starting out at something it’s inevitable that what you’re into will be present for people to see. That’s just a development thing I think. People sometimes need a base to grow their style on. A biter is always gonna shoot themselves in the foot at some point, either directly or indirectly. I remember teachers at school saying that imitation was the best form of flattery. I guess I should be flattered. Once, then it’s just lazy.

You’re a Dad. How has fatherhood impacted you as a writer? I imagine you’ve had to have your discipline on lock?

Fatherhood just made me have less time and as a consequence of that a desire not to waste any. I can now get done in three hours what it used to take a whole day to do. In terms of discipline and my work I think it’s added some maturity maybe. I’m now a man capable of acting like a boy as oppose to the other way around. I still wake up at 4am needing to write ideas down and sometimes that can mess you up when you have dad responsibilities, but it’s like anything else, I only do what I’m excited by so if I’m excited by an idea I make time to realize it.

Seems you’ve had a pretty good career as a Spoken Word artist so far but how do you measure success if not by your capital?

I don’t really think beyond the next idea. It’s funny cos every now and then I’m around a conversation about spoken word and important artists in that world or whatever and it always strikes me that the people using the word success the most are the ones I find least interesting.

The fact is I make a living from ideas and that’s something that will never not be nuts. I’m lucky. I’ve paid dues and I deliver so I get opportunities. There are words that I’ve written that might live longer than me. Crazy. I work on a lot of writing/performance projects and have made a lot of friends. Thanks to my email inbox I know there are a couple of writers who have an interest or passion to write stuff in part due to me and that there are a few more people who believe that stories can be written by anyone who’s good at it regardless of back ground. That’s pretty cool. How do I measure success? To be honest lad I don’t know. Where I come from work is work and play is play. I get to blend the two and that’s as successful as I need to be.

I once read an interview you did a while back where you spoke about your frustration with the lack of quality in the UK ‘Spoken Word scene’ and you went on to disassociate yourself with the term “poet”… Has Spoken Word poetry moved along or are you sticking to your claws?

Again I’ve gotta be annoying and say I don’t really know. I rarely go to spoken word events I’m not involved with because of time and I still have no desire to be known as a poet. It’s pretty simple to me. The form of spoken word at it’s best to me is immediate, engaging and hopefully has a lasting resonance. I just wasn’t seeing a whole lot of stuff that met all of those points. There are lots of strong artists doing it and a whole heap of absolutely crap ones (in my opinion) but none of that really enters my head when I’m writing.

I don’t consider myself to be a poet. I feel comfortable speaking work on stage to an audience so I’m cool with the spoken word label, but if I wake up tomorrow and decide to write a cookbook, then that’s what I’ll do.
Has spoken word moved along? Of course it has and so have audiences. There’ll always be good and there’ll always be awful, it’s just with spoken word there’s nothing to hide behind. It’s important that individuals keep pushing themselves and their ideas. That sounded a little more political than I intended.

You are part of the OneTaste collective. Each poet in there really holds their own. Kate Tempest, David J and yourself couldn’t make a better example of how three completely different styles of writing and performance can be equally as powerful as each other. Are you three on any kind of mission as the poets in a collective dominated by musicians?

No. OneTaste is a bunch of artists who just do stuff together. Sometimes people collaborate, other times we just perform on the same night. We’re friends who make stuff. Some of us talk, some of us sing and play. I don’t see the rest of them half as much as I used to so I don’t want to speak for them, but for me it’s just a mark of quality. Justice League, although to be honest I always found Justice League to be a little bit wet, but I mean when you’re around quality you want to bring more quality and that just makes it good for anyone watching.

Musa Okwonga once said to me that the term “Spoken Word Artist” sounds apologetic. So many of us essentially do the same thing (write and perform) but market ourselves with different names e.g. poet, writer, performer, live literature artist… why can’t we all come together and figure this out… aren’t we confusing our audience or are we trying to avoid the stigma of the terms “poet” or “poetry”?

Man you think properly about this shit eh?

I don’t have these thoughts lad. I’m a writer. I can say that with confidence now. Sometimes I speak my work to an audience, but I don’t need to. I don’t have dreams about being on stage in front of screaming crowds. Used to be that I spoke stuff cos it was the quickest way to share stuff. Now I enjoy the craft. Musa’s funny. He can be the most apologetic person ever then switch and be proper hardcore. I get called all kinds of stuff from beat poet to everyday word wizard and it’s never once changed what I do. I’ll just keep doing that and let other people worry about the definitions.

Finally Polarbear, you’re an absolute legend and an inspiration to so many poets and writers out there… you’re going down in history and your imitators will die nameless. Yay!

I come from Birmingham.

Here's Polarbear at Chill Pill a few weeks ago with his poem 'The Scene' -
"there's a reason they call it 'the scene', it's because it's not real"

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