Wednesday 26 May 2010

Q&A With New York Based Poet/ Spoken Word artist - Jon Sands

I met Jon Sands in New York at a poetry night called ‘Food For Thought’ in Bed Stuy (Brooklyn).

Blown away by his set, I bought his CD and on listening, I was as impressed with his writing as I was with his performance.

A regular argument with writers is 'Spoken Word artists aren’t actually “poets” per se. They write unstructured prose for an audience. They shouldn’t be credited as “poets” as poets are supposed to be as passionate about form as much as language.'

I don’t agree, but I would agree that most good Spoken Word artists are stronger performers than they are writers.

Jon Sands to me is among the rare breed to package par-excellence in performance and writing and actively call himself a Spoken Word artist – not a stand up comedian, storyteller, entertainer. NO! – He’s a Spoken Word artist, YES! - He's been published.

Mr Sands – introduce yourself.

My name is Jon Sands. I’m a native of Cincinnati, but I’ve lived in New York City since 2006. I’ve been a full-time teaching and performing artist since 2007. When I’m in New York I ride my bicycle to all five boroughs (except Staten Island). I will change plans if the sun is out, and winter is most definitely not my shit, but my roommate told me there’s nothing more poetic than seasons. I fall in love at least six times/day, and Andre 3000 has to be the artist that most consistently blows my mind. I’m scared of dying, but I think I’m coming to grips with that.

Q. What is your personal mission as a Spoken Word artist?

My interaction with this art has felt much like climbing a pyramid, and only being able to see the next step. I want to make sure I don’t get stuck on one step for too long. I think I used to feel a larger responsibility to write a good poem, which sounds like a quality goal, but I’m finding that consistently checking in with myself to write “today’s” poem has been more rewarding. I’m less concerned with recreating poems I’ve already written. We wake up different people than when we went to sleep. There’s something in an artist that has to be ok with that. I’d like to be brave enough to let my art reflect the ways I’m changing, which means that when following a creative thought, you’re consistently mapping uncharted territory. The artists to whom I traditionally gravitate are ones I can look to each year or two and say, “So that’s where you’re at now.” There’s something constantly changing that makes them trustworthy for their audience. If you check five years later – they’re making the same art, and you’re a different person it’s harder to feel like you live on the same planet. So, I guess my mission is to consistently figure out my mission – and then be okay with it changing. And, to not be lazy. Across the board – I can’t help but feel laziness is our enemy.

Q. How do you think Spoken Word artists and poets can push Spoken Word poetry as a genre and could poetry/Spoken Word generate mainstream appeal?

More than anything, I think growth comes from a genuine interest in pursuing knowledge. Granted, the amount of poetry out there can be absolutely overwhelming (but I think that’s a good thing). I’m always happy to meet and interact with poets who READ poems. So much of creativity is carving out the space in a world that only your voice can occupy. I think that task becomes infinitely more difficult if you’re unaware of what came before you, and what else is happening right now. There’s an incredible amount of fun to be had in reading poetry, fiction, short stories, non-fiction, the encyclopedia, and you find that your ability to better tell your own story grows ten-fold without you knowing it.

Having said that, our art form has such a magnificent backbone in the open-mic/open-slam scene that we can lose sight of the idea that the poetry can be its own appeal. Not every audience is made on the agreement that they too will be able to bless the microphone that night. I’m continually inspired by the spoken word artists that put a large effort into organizing amazing shows in which they maintain artistic control throughout the night. I love the feeling as an audience member of riding shotgun, completely trusting the driver to deliver me wherever they want. For me, that trust is nearly impossible in an open-mic/poetry slam (meaning that kind of trust with an entire night). There seem to be more people each day pursuing that route, and thus opening unbelievable doors for our school of artist to walk through.

Q. You are also a workshop facilitator, would you say the educational route is the best way to stabilize yourself as a poet?

Stabilize like money? Certainly, I think the best way to stabilize yourself is to not have just one thing you do. There are amazing poets that don’t feel comfortable at the head of a classroom, but can sing their ass off, or can sell a project to get it off the ground. Facilitating workshops has been a wonderful gift for me. I think there’s a journey in writing quality curriculum that is not unlike making art, and if you leave a group of people who are happy with the experience they’ve had that day, that only opens up the door for you to do something more often. I think the goal is always to be a 360-degree person (I think Quincy Jones might have coined that phrase). The artists I find myself gravitating toward and supporting are the ones that can do a lot of things well. The ones that can take a room full of people on a journey in their set, then again when the people in that room go home with their merchandise, again the next day in a classroom, and again at the after party.

Q. Who is your favorite Spoken Word artist right now and why?

If that isn’t the most difficult question of the bunch... I’m pulling incredible amounts of inspiration from both the large and small communities of which I’m a part. The spoken worders that currently have my creative goose cooking at warp speed are Jeanann Verlee, Adam Falkner, and Eboni Hogan (all based out of the big apple – and my community bias is unmistakable). They create whole worlds with their poems and stamp my passport for entry. Such care is given to the small details in each poem with unbelievable trust that the reader/audience will know why we’re there and why we’re important. All three of them make me laugh/cry/think out loud within the course of two minutes. I love poems that feel multi-dimensional and carved out of the complicated world we live in (where joy and sorrow appear to consistently live inside the same moment). But, come on, who can possibly choose three (let alone one)? On any given day you can hear me calling Roger Bonair-Agard/ Patricia Smith/ Rachel Mckibbens/ Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz/ Shira Erlichman the best to ever fall under the Spoken Word umbrella. I could go for days.

Q. Describe the worst performance of poetry you ever had to sit through?

Ooooooh, I don’t know. I’ve definitely sat through a few hard-to-sit-through evenings of poetry, but I don’t think I could call anything out by name. I find it hardest to stay seated when a performer seems to buy into the caricature image our art form makes in the heads of people that haven’t seen it. Though, I’ve seen audiences absolutely lose their shit over poems I felt in my heart of hearts were whackety-whack-sauce, so I try to just love and appreciate the stuff that vibrates with me, and not worry so much about the stuff that doesn’t. I think Common said it best – “Some of ya’ll pop to it, I ain’t relatin’. If I don’t like it, I don’t like it, that don’t mean that I’m hatin’.”

Q. What are the biggest nuisances about the Spoken Word Poetry scene?

Honestly, I try not to put too much energy into the nuisances. If I had to choose though it would be the resistance to growth that can be caused by the poetry slam (which I believe is also an amazing catalyst for the ways our bodies experience this art). It seems far too often, poets experience success (or perhaps slam victory is a better word?) in a certain type of poem or writing, then neglect to acknowledge in their newer art (if they have newer art) that they are a changing person. It’s disheartening to see talented people attempt to recreate poems around a template that has assisted them to the comfort of consistent slam victory (a lovely competition that has never been a quality judge of the breadth of someone’s work). It can be scary to write today’s poem when even you are expecting some of yesterday’s magic. But, that is an incredibly temporary problem (at least on an individual scale). Your creativity comes from your body, and the house always wins, so most people who chain themselves to one type of thing end up shifting their approach, or stopping writing poems altogether.

Q. As a Spoken Word artist that competes in slams, what’s most important – The writing or the performance?

I have a friend who consistently asks the question, “Would you rather see a mediocre poem performed incredibly, or a magnificent poem with a performance lacking any of the poem’s magic?” I tend to side with the idea that a poem has many lives, all of which are interconnected. The artists to whom I gravitate are ones that take advantage of each opportunity for discovery. I write to discover, and perform for the same reason. Whenever you have an “aha” moment reading or listening to a poem, it’s only because the artist has also had that same moment. You enjoy it together, and when it happens through performance, sometimes it’s simultaneous. That said, a poem can have such an amazing life on the page. It can team with your imagination and dance through your entire body. As an audience member, it’s difficult to reach the highest highs with an artist who appears to not have excavated the possible discoveries in the writing process. I absolutely lose it for a poem that’s always trying to find something, and reading a poem aloud is the best way I’ve been able to help find that trail. Though, it was Shira Erlichman who said something along the lines of, “I want to feel like I’m in a picture, constantly chasing something only slightly out of the frame.”

Q. Finally, I want to be as good as you. How can it be done?

Never. :-) That’s very sweet of you to say.

But the good news is you can be as good as you! And, that definition is constantly changing. It’s also the only path you got, so you better buckle up and enjoy it.

For more on Jon Sands -

Wednesday 12 May 2010

Q&A with Berlin and London based Spoken Word Artist - Paula Varjack

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 ( 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 - and

Saturday 8 May 2010

Next Movements

I’m setting up a night of Spoken Word and music with Mista Gee and Deanna Rodger. A few weeks ago Gee asked me to be part of a pilot for a TV show called ‘Power Of The Pen’ with Tony Benn, Alexi Sayle, Ross Sutherland and a rapper with a smile called The Leano. It was a blast! The film crew were great and I can’t wait to see the show aired.

Anyway, I got to know Gee a bit better and I think we really clicked, a couple weeks later he tells me he’s got some ideas. We met up at Rich Mix and right there we schemed a night of Spoken Word and music, I decided to add a face to it and thought of the superstar Deanna Rodger, we both performed for the first time on the same night back in 2007 (pictured), we were slamming and both went through to the final (she won) but we clicked and became friends.

We haven’t got a name for the night yet, but I’ve bought in Craig Tomas as a resident documenter and (fellow PiP member) Kim Leng Hills as resident acoustic artist... SOLID TEAM!

got some new Spoken Word recordings up too -
In other exciting news I've been booked to perform at The London Literature Festival, Keat's Festival and Secret Garden Party (with Poe Jazzi)