Monday 27 May 2013

Best & Worst Questions for the poet at 'Ask Me Anything at Southbank's London Literature Festival' / Hay Festival

On Saturday Myself and poets Anthony Anaxagorou, Bridget Minamore and Deanna Rodger drove to Wales to perform poems in the Sky Arts Den at The Hay Festival. We had fun, it went well but a combination of the sun and a long motorway had us all out for the count on the way back...

Southbank London Literature Festival
Yesterday at The London Literature Festival I was asked to join a panel of people from unusual walks of life, Moneyless Man' Mark Boyle (who lived for three years without spending or receiving money), food forager Fergus Drennan, vintage girl Fleur McGerr, practical philosopher William Wray, non-technology user Paul Pulford, and bee keeper Simon Adams and myself, the Spoken Word poet. We each sat at tables as random members of the pubic walked up and asked us questions, here I list the best, worst and most unusual questions I received.

Most Common Question

What inspires you? 

This question came up so often that I challenged myself to answer differently each time. I think I freaked out a lovely lady in a sunflower hat when I answered  "Crystal Meth".

What poets do you recommend?

This is always difficult as you can't predict someone's taste, I recommended poet and funny man Rob Auton's new book to a number of people though...

How do you get published?

Leave your manuscript where it can be found and then die...

Most Unusual Questions

Can you do a Coleridge impression? 


You have five minutes to live.. what do you do?


Poets aren't very funny are they?


Best Questions 

A couple with two children came up and asked 

My daughter is about to start school, how can we assure her that school is not to be feared?

I said to write her a celebratory poem, like an ode to school, think about your own positive experiences of school, write about the people you met, the life-long friends you made, the cultures you learned about and perform the poem to her when she next expresses her anxieties.

A 9 year old girl called Cosima came up and asked... 

Do poets believe in Aliens?

I pondered for a moment (stroking chin-beard and pensively staring out of the nearest window, giving the true presence of poetry from my face) before answering "what is an Alien? I've heard Alien languages, I've seen Alien people but I'm not afraid of Aliens, I'm curious about them"

Monday 20 May 2013

My Poems Don't Understand Me (Brief Article On Art, Narcissism & Self Expression)

Poetic Narcissism?

Are performers more narcissist than writers? I don’t know, but if there is an idea that attempting to engage people with your art is purely a narcissistic tendency, then that's an unfair generalization. 

In Part 2 of my interview with JackUnderwood, Jack spoke about his own ill ease with the “narcissistic whoosh” of performing on stage, but I’d hate for someone to feel discouraged from performing or public speaking because of this flawed judgemental association with something negative – narcissism. I think this is partly cultural; a British idea that being reserved is modest and good taste, whereas being an emotional exhibitionist is tacky. Mostly I’d agree (being British too) but I am also someone who writes and performs poetry which is personal, anecdotal and emotional at times, but it is craft that gives the awareness and taste needed to avoid cringing tones of sentimentalism, self-victimizing or self-love. However, I want my poems to love me, but I don’t want them to wank me off in public...

"Mate, That's Too Personal"

I tried out a new poem of mine in a set recently called 'Recognising My Mum's Ex-Boyfriend' which I wrote after a talk on modern masculinity and how men (in the western world) are becoming somewhat more openly emotional. My poem deals with a situation I was in when I had to assert my "manly-ness" after an abusive ex-partner of my mum walks into the gym I was working in. This triggers an introspective recount of what he did, while trying to respond "as a man", wondering if it is a duty of men to be aggressive? anyway, the response to the poem was mixed, another poet said to me after the show, "mate, that's too personal". 

Later though, there was an audience member who thanked me for that poem, explaining how he'd been in similar situations, he attends a counselling service which he felt guilty about, because you know, seeking help is unmanly, anyway he hugged me (rather abrasively) and offered me a pint while telling me how "fuckin' brilliant that poem was", my ego (and my heart) walked with him to the bar and thanked him while downing a Guinness.

I wrote that poem to resolve something personal, yes that is true, but I shared it with other people in mind, people who have only heard about modern masculinity spoken about from a safe distance, intellectually and in abstract terms. The articles I read on the issue gave interesting speculations but what was lacking was personal insight, that is often what I (again this is my taste) seek in my art, personal insight, if an artist can't offer this, I usually can't trust it.

On the other hand, Kate Tempest was in The Guardian after winning the 2013 Ted Hughes Award for her poetical play ‘Brand New Ancients’, speaking about attitudes towards Spoken Word. "People think if you're a performance poet you can get away with being a shit poet because you're a good performer. But there's nothing more wonderful than being told a story by somebody and being able to tell that they're genuine." 

The idea of “genuine” is problematic when you think of the standard of poetry that is published by The Big Issue in the ‘Word On The Street’ section, where homeless people, drug addicts and abuse victims write deeply confessional poems. The stories themselves are heartbreaking, and although this gives voice to outcasts of a society that has failed them, from an academic perspective the writing of these poems are usually clich├ęd, failing at any notable writing technique. This suggests that a poet needs more than sincerity to write effectively for an audience, they need craft too.

The Appropriate Placing Of Self-Expression

As an educator, I advocate for creative self-expression which would probably contradict Jack's early poetry classes -

"In my first poetry classes, where the idea of performing a poem was never even brought up, we were told not to write ‘cry for help’ poetry, not to assume a reader’s interest in our lives, to create an objective distance between ourselves and our work and not to be satisfied with creating an amusing effect or stylish surface. There was general advice about how to interrogate an idea in a poem, how to necessitate an imaginative participation by your reader, how to invite complexity without disappearing up your own arse, and also guidance on how not to merely provide somebody with a didactic instruction towards a point of view."

I do assume other people will take an interest in the life of students/ others and I've seen time and time again, tastefully crafted work (which ok, is subjective) from this approach. I'm against the idea that poetry is not the place for catharsis, it hasn't stopped Sylvia Plaith from a prestigious reputation, nor has it stopped Sharon Olds winning the TS Elliot Prize and the Pulitzer Prize this year.

On the other hand I get what Jack is talking about, I've wanted to throw numerous poets off stage who try to win slams with poems written like suicide notes, if it is a slam, you are putting your pain into a competition, to be ranked by random judges who are forced to GIVE YOUR PAIN A 5.2! 

In a classroom environment I'd applaud those poems but then I have to report to the Special Educational Needs department, because it is cry for help poetry  and that cry is responded to with action which we hope improves their well-being, but at a poetry night in a pub, well, I do actually have the numbers of FRANK, Child Line and even Amnesty (for those that compare their suffering to a holocaust) ready to offer those that need a more appropriate response than the applause of strangers.

Wednesday 15 May 2013

Comments On BBC's Panorama - 'Why Young Black Boys Are Underachieving' / Spoken Word Education

Sol Campbell

I enjoyed the panorama programme, it was optimistic and the BBC (who have negatively played up to black stereotypes in the past) did a good job. It did not venture too deep into the background of the boys, so it avoided presumptions that could be made about young black boys.

Sol Campbell was a nice hook, him being there acknowledging that it is not enough for black boys just to have footballers and rappers as role models was spot on and a powerful thing to see. 

I don't want to come across as patronising but the media ought to depict more examples of black men taking responsibilities - I was in a year 8 class last week asking kids what they're listening to, most of them said "Kendrick Lemar", they said they like stories, they aren't into gangster rap at all... now, why did this surprise me so much? why did I expect them to be into gangster rap and impressed with that culture? - doesn't that comment on how even I (as a Hackney born, Anglo-Jamaican) bought into an idea of black kids wanting to be gangsters? most of them don't and this a fact. 

It was good to see a range of high and low achieving black British men, including one young man persevering after 400 rejections, testimony of his refusal to allow (what we should openly call institutional racism) get in his way. It makes me angry and frustrated that the statistics are acknowledged by Government but they continue with their lack of support for the people who are qualified to help. 

People of the black community ought to be employed not just to mentor and campaign but to be the ones who influence the culture at the top in the boardrooms where policies and funding for supportive projects can get off the ground.

Spoken Word Education

The majority of kids I work with are black and mixed heritage (African / Caribbean) and many of them have taken to poetry, showing up after school for Spoken Word club, run and created by Peter Kahn and co-led by poets Indigo Williams, Dean Atta, Keith Jarrett, Cat Brogan, Pete The Temp and myself. We have high achieving students working alongside some lower achievers, including students who have a history of suspension - we have helped many kids find positivity in the sharing of their voice from the poetry community we have created in the school to the showcases - where parents and other students come to watch students perform their poetry, where they are applauded for being who they are. I have noticed that students consistent in reading and writing, generally have a heightened awareness of themselves and their identity, this awareness creates higher self-esteem and confidence in verbal and literary self expression.

Here's some footage from the first Spoken Word showcase with the students we've worked with.

Our next showcase is Wednesday 19th June 

Also, Peter Kahn is going to be speaking about Spoken Word in Education at the London Literature Festival on 4th June.

More info
Peter Kahn, the co-founder of the London Teenage Poetry Slam has launched the first ever Spoken Word Education Training Programme as a Visiting Fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London.
He has been 'training up' six established Spoken Word poets, including winners of the Edinburgh Fringe Slam, the London Poetry Award and the UK Poetry Slam, to work in six new London schools.
This INSET session is aimed at secondary school teachers and offers a hands-on workshop using some of the lessons that have been used over the course of the school year.
Level 3 Function Room
12 noon - 4pm (lunch break included)

Following on from the INSET for teachers event in the afternoon, Peter Kahn, who has just has launched the first ever Spoken Word Education Training Programme introduces an evening of performances from the Spoken Word Educators involved in the programme. These include Dean Atta, Raymond Antrobus, Pete the Temp, Cat Brogan, Keith Jarrett and Indigo Williams, as well as Spoken Word Club members from Holy Family Catholic School.


Saturday 11 May 2013

Q&A With Poetry Lecturer, Critic and Faber Published poet Jack Underwood Part 2

Jack Underwood

I attended your lecture at Goldsmith's where you said it is "arguable" that Spoken Word poetry stems from oral traditions - What is the argument and why is there such a divide between the page and stage poets?  

I think I actually said that it is ‘arguable’ that ALL poetry derives from an oral tradition, and this is a very common understanding sometimes used to validate oral poetic traditions that seem otherwise subordinately positioned in relation to glossy Western literary ones. It’s actually a little backhanded, because it validates oral poetry by seeking to align it with the past of literary tradition rather than arguing the validity of subsequent and contemporary oral traditions on their own terms: oral traditions are of interest because they’re interesting, not because they happened to develop into literary ones hundreds of years ago, in the lute-strumming days before television. But this ‘origin’ argument is also upheld because classically, and from the point of view of historicism, writing has always been positioned as a secondary system, predated by speech. Writing came later, we are told, so things like literary rhyme are really throwbacks to the need for memorability in folk song and folk tale. This is the classic line.

I prefer the post-Derrida view which is that there is an underlying false prioritisation of speech over writing in the Western tradition that is in part to do with the perceived idea of the spoken word being somehow transcendental, expressed more wholly, more directly, so that speech is more easily located with personal truth, as if you were speaking from some corner of the body, like the heart, where you really meant it. This is of course nonsense, and writing is not merely ‘knowledge by repetition’ as Socrates argues, when he, ironically enough, transcribes a speech by Plato. You couldn’t argue the distinct qualities of one without the other: how could speaking be a ‘raw’ state of language when it requires the ‘cooked’ written word to exist in order to provide it with that very quality of ‘uncookedness’? Neither one came first. So, the ‘oral beginnings of poetry’ line is a Western philosophical myth based on a kind of common sense essentialism that goes back to Metaphysics and Plato, and is to do with the false division of language into ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ categories.

But then the page/stage ‘division’ isn’t really about any of this. I’d say the division begins with what you, as a poet, prioritise in your work, what you hope it will achieve in terms of an audience or readership, and those hopes are largely to do with your understanding of the tradition you’re working in, and what is deemed successful by that tradition, or within that medium: and they are two very different mediums and therefore very different traditions. In my first poetry classes, where the idea of performing a poem was never even brought up, we were told not to write ‘cry for help’ poetry, not to assume a reader’s interest in our lives, to create an objective distance between ourselves and our work and not to be satisfied with creating an amusing effect or stylish surface. There was general advice about how to interrogate an idea in a poem, how to necessitate an imaginative participation by your reader, how to invite complexity without disappearing up your own arse, and also guidance on how not to merely provide somebody with a didactic instruction towards a point of view. The division came along for my page peers and I, when we saw people at readings doing what seemed like the opposite of these things. There were lots of very good performance poets (‘Spoken Word’ started being used more in the mid-2000s, I think) who probably also spent their time working hard making their poems genuinely funny, or else making sure they were actually telling the audience something they thought was important, something about their lives or politics they wanted to express, and we saw these exact successful performative qualities as a kind of artlessness according to our contrary understanding of what a poem was up to. Written down, the differences between ‘us and them’ were only made clearer. We saw that the traditions were different, the aims were different, but there was a lot of polite attempts in the interests of convivial, community spirit to merrily reconcile the two, and pretend they were the same thing, which actually only cemented the distinction, and framed performers trying to do quite different things, as just being bad at what we were trying to do, which was unfair. I don’t expect a 2nd wave Modernist to read on the page like I do, so why should I expect a performance poet to? I’m bored by the kind of tribalism that implies something Other is a malformed version of one’s own ‘pure’ form. You have to allow each poem to declare its own terms. You shouldn’t seek to herd up poets into tribes, nor should you be ignorant and suggest there are not different traditions and forces and strategies at play. I’m afraid it’s rather more complex than that, and to deny it either way is to give in to lazy conservative forces. I’ve always felt like this, in fact, only now I’m 34% less likely to declare it drunkenly to someone I’ve just met. Now I’m more likely to demand that a stranger watch a Holly Pester reading on my phone.

And of course, like most page poets, I do readings too, and must admit that I get a lovely narcissistic whoosh of the kind that only a room’s full attention gives you, so I know the appeal, but I also feel that when it comes to poems, desiring that whooshing feeling is actually a bit gross, because I don’t like the sweaty arrival of my needy ego into a room, because I feel I’m betraying the hard work I undertook with the full philosophical weight of my convictions towards ART, deliberately with a view not to make this about me, but rather about an idea or feeling of potential universal, philosophical value, and to make poetry thereby an essentially empathetic act. So when I’m up there, reading my work, reattaching the words to me, their author, it’s not empathy I’m enjoying, it’s self-love, it’s feeling agreed with, feeling loved. I don’t like the idea of monopolising what a poem is about by furthering the attachment of what it says to my authorial intention. I want to give it up to an Other so that it becomes more about them. I also dislike the ugly idea of my gauging something like the ‘mastery’ of an audience, which is vaguely pathetic when you think that most people don’t come to a reading to resist the charming poems in the first place.

So, I write for the page because I think that for all the social kudos of a decent reading, I should prioritise the making of a construct that is built to exist separate from me, to be absorbed quietly into the life and throat muscles of another, to be reliant certainly as much on their imagination. I’m fairly sure other page poets feel the same, if by degrees. To have something intoned, or acted out to me makes me feel like it is being indexed to the author by their performing it, and while that can be thrilling for some, it basically runs counter to the whole philosophy of language I ascribe to. I’m finding advantages, or disadvantages, I know. And of course there are plenty of performances that do not reattach the words to the central agency of the performer so much, and part of the distinction between performance poetry and Spoken Word seems to be about this; I’ve honestly not got much truck with crass tribalism or creating hierarchy. If I don’t like something it isn’t my superior taste or morality doing the business, it’s to do with my own hang-ups and priorities about what I do. So, I’m sure I’ll have put my foot in it again with this one, but I’m prepared to suggest that if there is still a divide, it might be to do with a hardening and poor handling of these kinds of feelings or reservations among page poets generally, and similar (if opposite?) concerns among performers about the awful poems they see on the page: the banal anecdotal poem, the politely emotional poem, the elitist, deliberately obscure, over-written arch and pretentious poem, the faux-postmodern reference to gaming, internet-chat-speak, and popular culture poem, the predictable anthropomorphising poem…Professionally, as a reviewer and lecturer I spend infinitely more time and energy attacking these prevalent deficiencies in the page world than I ever do bemoaning the laboured rhymes of a barroom versifier. The erstwhile politics of self-affirmation seem dumb when you realise how little you identify wholly with your own tradition, and equally how much else there is out there on the fringes. Have you read any Jennifer Knox, for example? I’m more interested in reading more widely and variously than I am chucking rocks over whatever wall at my stage-dwelling cousins. That sort of thing seems conservative and adolescent now. For me it’s about pursuing what interests me, and that could indeed be a stage poet, sure, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t more intuitively and far more regularly drawn to other corners, and I think many other page poets feel the same.

Part 3 of this interview will include my response to this discussion, stay tuned.

Tuesday 7 May 2013

Chill Pill at Freeway Poets & The Big One (Spoken Word Show at The Albany) May 23rd - BOOK NOW

Chill Pill performing in Bournemouth on 14th May 
Freeway poets has had acts such as Scroobius Pip, Dizraeli, Glen Maxwell, Kate Tempest and Dead Poets step onto their stage so Chill Pill are honoured to be following the step on the 14th May 2013.

Speaking of which - Have you got your tickets to THE BIG ONE at The Albany yet?

BOX OFFICE NUMBER 020 8692 4446
or book online

Chill Pill is celebrating it's 3rd birthday at The Albany in style.

There'll be music, rhymes & good vibes as we pay homage to the organisers behind some of the leading nights on the London Spoken Word scene.

Benin City - Front man Joshua Idehen is a host and organiser of one of the strongest poetry & music nights around, 'Poejazzi'. If you haven't heard of Benin City I have no idea where you've been!? Here's what's been said of them

“Woah nelly….incredible! ….they make me want to be young again!” – Mark Lamarr, BBC Radio 2

“I love this band!…They’re tearing the roof off!” – Craig Charles, BBC 6 Music

“Charming, funky, and very funny!” – The Independent

“Refreshing, exciting and completely unique.” – Soweto Kinch

“Benin City mash up experience, fun and wisdom into a melting pot of afrobeat, hip hop and jazz that will make you
laugh and cry while shaking your booty…Have dazzled as guests on my Xfm X-Posure show.” - John Kennedy, XFM

Latest sing - My Love "every muscle my love has - it flexes for you"

Feature Poets

Chris Redmond - Host of Tongue Fu, one of the more upmarket Spoken Word events around where featured poets improvise their poems with The Tongue Fu band. They now run nights at The Royal Albert Hall as well as Rich Mix in East London.

Kat Francois - Host of Word4Word in Stratford. A popular Open Mic night which is held down by a true master of the Spoken Word, you wouldn't argue with a World Slam Champ, right? thought not.

Dean Atta - Host of Come Rhyme With Me. One of the most talked about poets in London after his controversial poem, 'I Am Nobody's Nigger' went viral and was featured in The Guardian and BBC Radio. Recently, Dean released a book of poems by the same title.

Anthony Anaxagorou - Host of 'Outspoken', probably the biggest new poetry night to hit London. Anthony has released seven books of poetry and his notable poem 'What If I Told You' is one of the most talked about poems around.