Bassey  Ikpi | Without Permission

Bassey Ikpi | Without Permission

When I first started performing I used to think Slam Poetry had to be loud & verbose. It had to be charged, big, and in your face no matter what you were talking about. I knew you could have soft tender moments but in general it needed to be big, your voice has to fill up the room. To my credit this was circa 2004 during a time when that’s how most poetry was presented…Def Poetry was the model and most of the poets who stepped on stage either had a podium and read their poem, or they had a mic and they yelled their poem

Then I saw Bassy Ikpi’s performance of this poem “Without Permission” and it was a distinct moment for me, because it was tender and soft the whole time. There was a power in the smallness of the poem. Her words sat on my chest, built a nest there. Once the DVD came out I watched this poem like 100 times, I felt like she wanted to kiss me, as if the poem was written for whoever was listening. That spark, the ability that she had to put me right in her palm was one of the many moments that informed the voice that I would one day have as a performance poet.

I found her website, and her online journal and read everything of hers I could find online. I have been a huge fan ever since.

So a little bit more about Bassey – A Nigerian-born poet and writer, Bassey Ikpi has appeared on HBO’s Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry five times and her poetry has opened shows for Grammy Award-winning artists. Ikpi appeared at the NAACP Image Awards as part of a tribute to Venus and Serena Williams, and has been a featured cast member of the National Touring Company of the Tony Award-winning Broadway show, “Russell Simmon’s Def Poetry Jam.” 

Ikpi was a part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. In the summer of 2009, she was a featured performer for Johannesburg, South Africa’s annual arts festival, Joburg Arts Alive. She has graced the pages of magazines such as Nylon, Marie Claire, Glamour, and Bust, and recorded an original poem for the Kaiser Foundation’s HIV/AIDS campaign, Knowing Is Beautiful. 

Ikpi’s personal and heartfelt work has made her a much sought after performer. She is currently working on various screenplays and is a freelance writer for social media outlets. Her first published collection of poetry and prose is entitled Blame My Teflon Heart: Poetry, Prose and Post-Its for Boys Who Didn’t Write Back.

 

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Christopher Michael | 16th Street Baptist Church Speaks

Christopher Michael | 16th Street Baptist Church Speaks

If I’m not mistaken, I first met Christopher Michael at the Dallas Invitational Poetry Slam in 2007. DIPS as it was called was a small, one day only team slam in Dallas before Nationals began the next day in Austin. Christopher and his team from Killeen, Texas made an immediate and unexpected impact on the slam that day and less than a week later we were backstage with them again the final night of NPS. As I remember, the Killeen team always came with heavy concept pieces, some honest and bare, others funny and outrageous (weren’t they the ones who did the zombie team piece?). In no time at all they went from being an unknown slam venue to one of the highest ranked slam teams in the nation.

A few weeks ago, I traveled to Miami for a friend’s wedding. This particular friend is a poet and so the audience at the ceremony was filled with faces I knew from years of touring venues in South Florida. I stopped to talk to a poet friend after the ceremony and we mentioned that everyone else we knew was in Arkansas that same weekend for the Southern Fried Poetry Slam and this friend asked aloud, almost to himself, what poem it would be that everyone came home talking about. When I looked a little confused, he said “You know how there’s that one poem every final stage that everyone talks about for the next few weeks.” Immediately I knew what he was talking about and before I went to bed that night I knew the poem too. At three or so in the morning I remembered to check my Facebook timeline for the results to SoFried, and found at least a dozen of my friends posting about today’s spotlight poem. Notice how convincingly Christopher changes the tenor of his voice. It’s not a total transformation of accent but rather an adjustment that convinces us he’s speaking as a character, but more than that, it’s like he’s using his voice to point the way, to bring attention to something that hasn’t been paid enough attention before. And what it is that hasn’t been paid attention, is the church itself. His personification of the 16th Street Baptist Church is a great concept and he could have gone anywhere with this, what I’m most impressed by is the ease in his solid writing, filled with pitch perfect language and great imagery. This is a poem worthy of a final stage and all the conversation that comes with it. I’m mad I missed the room that night. Enjoy.

 

 

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photo by Christopher Michael

Are Spoken Word Poets Ready For A New Slam Format?

In 1986 a construction worker began promoting a cabaret-style poetry reading in a bar in Chicago where he decided to add a competitive element to the show. His thinking was simple, give poetry audiences a way to feel involved, a gimmick if you will, to making the audience feel as if they were a part of the show. Thus slam was born. In the years since, almost every slam anywhere in the world and particularly anywhere in America has been limited to three minutes per poem. In regional, national, and international poetry slams most rounds are kept to the same limitations. Occasionally certain slams leave their rounds open ended, allowing poets to stride pass the three minute bar, but for the most part, most poets are subconsciously trained to stay within the terms.

Because of this widely accepted time limit, most slam poems have found themselves in a familiar structural trap. I remember having a conversation at the first National Poetry Slam I attended where I stood outside the host hotel one night with some seasoned poets and listened to them talk about how someday soon poets will use the natural organic structure found in three minute poems to their advantage. I specifically remember one poet say that poems with strong socio-political arguments to make are the ones that would benefit most from this newfound layout. Years later, I was visiting Hawaii and was lucky enough to see their youth poets perform poems that they’d readied for the national youth competition, Brave New Voices. I noticed that poem after poem, these kids had found a structure, a series of beats that led to emotional, well informed poems. Each poem introduced it’s subject, then furthered the audience’s understanding with more background information wherein they infused an emotional pull, then laid bare a judgement on the topic, and finally drove home a well crafted ending that made the issue at hand simple to digest and the opinion of the poet(s) almost impossible to disagree with. I realized sitting in the audience that day, moved at every single new poem, that this was what the old-schoolers had been talking about those few years earlier. I also realized I’d fallen into the same structure in some of my stronger slam poems.

Since then we as a community have found ourselves in the age of the Youtube poetry celeb, most of whom follow the exact format mentioned above, receiving kudos for being able to articulate a certain (read: liberal) stance on a hot-topic issue. Personally I think slam poetry, specifically that of this lineage, has the potential for huge pop-cultural influence. I think that water-cooler conversation and slam poetry are beginning to settle into an intersection that is sure to move the needle on countless issues in the near future. But at the same time, I am more than frightened that younger, impressionable poets looking mostly to win slams, will find themselves falling for this write-by-numbers approach, and judging their work against this socio-political commentary high bar.

I often think about what we as a community could do to shake up this innate format, to keep poets from finding or worse yet, finding themselves trapped by this popular slam poem structure. And the question that I keep coming back to is When will we distance ourselves from three minute poems? Most poets who slam (we can get sensitive when you call us “slam poets”) often keep their poems to three minutes so that at any time they can pull them out to use in competition. But the first question begs another, What poems can’t live fully in three minutes? Which begs another, What innate structures live inside longer time limits? And finally, What does it take for us to find out?

I think the answer to that final question is simple: slams with longer rounds. For the poets reading, what can you do with a five minute round? Or eight? Or ten? Can you imagine reading a short story in a slam? Or a monologue? Or taking the time to perform long periods of a round without words? What can you do with more time?

What can we all do with more time?

 

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Fox News Panics Over The Idea Of Marriage Equality

Fox News Panics Over The Idea Of Marriage Equality

I had a long post planned for today but realized that we should at least acknowledge America’s victory yesterday when the high court announced marriage was a right for gay couples in America. It was a short sigh of relief that came after more than a year of holding our collective breath for grand juries to convict police officers across the country for killing unarmed black men. It was a short reminder why we debate and fight and hold tight to our beliefs here, because at some point our arguments will take center stage and on occasion, when we are passionate enough, we can move the dial.

I immediately looked for a poet in our community willing to comment on the ruling but none could be found at such short notice. Then I wanted to post a clip of the moment the announcement was made on Fox News, but I couldn’t find one. So I’m going to take a different, dare I say entertaining route, by bringing you this ridiculous collection of clips, hoping that it is already a relic, hoping that we can bury this period in history next to the others we’ve sealed away in museums and history books and conversations that begin with “I remember when…”

Enjoy, y’all. And remember to celebrate.

 

 

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Kate Fox | Interview x Record Shop Conversations | Curated by Sophia Walker

Kate Fox | Interview x Record Shop Conversations | Curated by Sophia Walker

Kate Fox is one of the most prominent performance poets in the UK: she’s had her own radio show (on the BBC, so an actual, legitimate, big deal thing), gets proper commissions..she’s even taken seriously by establishment poets. If the UK poetic powers that be have heard of spoken word or performance poetry, it’s largely because of Kate Fox. Comedian, writer, successful solo show creator..I’ve seen this woman use a tablet ukulele app to accompany herself doing poems. In short, she’s utterly fab.
But in the last couple of months, Kate Fox has become significantly more brilliant in the eyes of UK poets: one of the most established, most successful names in spoken word is the one who has decided to lead the fight for fair pay. Creating the Poets Network, Kate Fox (and her partner in this epic idea Tamar Yoseloff) is seeking to establish pay standards for poets, set out how we should be treated…think of a union. Or poets actually being treated as legitimate human beings providing a service worthy of some sort of recompense. Yes, we all want to build her a throne, too.
Kate’s been the poet in residence at Glastonbury (which doesn’t pay. For five days work), she’s performed at most of the major festivals on the UK circuit. She’s lived through the expectation that you will work your butt off to sleep on the ground for nearly a week, paying 20 bucks a pop for shite food, and inevitably leaving the gig over a hundred dollars poorer than you came in. It has to stop. So she’s decided to make it stop. Anyone else applauding at home? I am. But it’s hard to type when clapping.
I could go on for ages about her hugely impressive poetic background. Suffice it to say she’s performed everywhere, gotten the 5 star review, smashed the radio show, done it all again several times over, and is now deciding to make it significantly easier for the poets following in her footsteps to achieve what she had to fight so hard for. Badass.
At the bottom, check out her work. I chose that particular piece because it’s so visual, and I like the gentle. So few of us have the courage to pull off gentle in spoken word. But if you fancy a concentrated bout of Britishness, watch her poem “true grit” all about tea.

1) What exactly is the poets network? What do you want it to become?

At the moment the Poets Network is an email list of poets and spoken word artists who have said they’re interested in joining together to talk about better pay and conditions for poets. We (Me and Tamar Yoseloff, a London based poet) have surveyed that list, and other poets- over 200- and found that there’s an overwhelming call for more support and guidance for poets in these areas. A code of practice, suggested pay guidelines and some proactive talking to the worst pay offenders including festivals were overwhelmingly supported. We’ve got some interesting news in the pipeline about a possible supporter for our aims- but will have to ask the email list if it’s what they want. We’re conscious that there would be an irony in two poets calling for better pay and conditions burning all their own time and resources out to make this happen, so we hope we’ve found a way forward that would work for the network and also for the whole sector. (People join the network at the moment by emailing “Join” to Poetsnetwork@gmail.com)

2) As one of the more established people in UK performance poetry, it’s particularly telling that the call for fair pay came from you. What made you start fighting for fair pay in the first place?

I feel very lucky to have been able to make a living as a poet for the past few years. I still often get asked to work for free but feel confident enough to say no (mostly!). I’ve always been passionate about encouraging other people into this brilliant creative life, particularly in my work in schools, but it feels hard to do that when I see the ways that my fellow writers and performers are being exploited and undervalued. I don’t want to be telling people to just go for it if that’s what awaits them. For the majority of people who can’t afford to work for free, then they need to be able to find ways to make a living out of it- if that’s what they want to do and are skilled and talented enough to do. A particular last straw for me was a public commission being offered in my home town of Bradford that offered money for a stone mason but not a poet. I wrote a blog and got involved in a few Facebook threads about the issues that week and then we set up the list.
3) Once poets hit the age of 30, there is almost no funding left open to them in the UK, outside of the increasingly stretched and pressured Arts Council. What effect do you think this has on the scene?

Poetry is dependent on life experience, perhaps more so than other art forms. Is it possible to have a thriving poetry scene, either in performance or page, without diversity of age? As in, is this lack of support for the development of older artists holding the genre back as a whole?

I agree absolutely that the lack of support for the development of older artists is holding the sector back as a whole. I’m not so sure that it’s just about funding either- it’s that many of the development schemes are aimed at younger people and audiences- Under 25 is probably even more common than Under 30 as a cut off. If venues need to tick boxes by getting younger people in then they’re going to consciously market events at those audiences and the branding will reflect that. Having said that, when I first started out running gigs back in 2004 when I was 29, I was probably constantly aiming for a younger audience because I wanted to distinguish our gigs from what I perceived as older, more staid, middle class poetry readings. I always said I was looking for a North East act who could marry the worlds of hip hop and poetry and appeal across all boundaries. Of course we now have (non North East!) acts like Kate Tempest who do that and a hundred copyists. But one of the other things I valued about the North East scene was its great diversity in terms of age and class and style (if not in ethnicity, being a relatively homogenous area compared to much of the country). It is exciting that spoken word has broken through nationally in the UK in many ways, but it would be good to see a much greater variety of people in it. It’s almost getting to the point where only young people with access to funding can devote the time they need to turn professional. Thinking of the North East again- but this applies to many areas outside London- the arts funding there is at least eight times per head less than in London. How is that fair?

4) Outside of to support charitable causes, should poets ever work for free? Are we harming our genre and perhaps other poets when we agree to do things for exposure?

I think in general, assuming we’ve served our time and are the skilled and experienced poets that people want to book for money, then we shouldn’t be working for free. Especially if doing so reinforces the message to the booker that this is the norm. If it’s something you really want to do and there’s a good reason that the project or event doesn’t have the money (and it isn’t just that they don’t value poets enough to give it to them) then one suggestion would be to submit an invoice for what your time would have been worth had you charged. The argument about why poets time and skills should be valued can’t be made enough.

5) What is our responsibility to each other? As an awful lot of self-employed people, all arguably fighting for a small pool of work, what do we owe each other? Is there a responsibility not to under-cut, not to work for free?

I think there is a responsibility to keep making that argument about why and how poets should be valued. It helps yourself to keep making it- because we’re all always fighting our inner resistances and the myths about starving artists (and about flexible, mobile, cheap labour which affect the whole population)- and it also helps the sector as a whole. It’s true that poets do tend to be individualists- many of our survey answerers said things like that it would be like herding cats!- but we are all part of the arts ecosystem. I think more experienced poets also have a responsibility to spend a bit of time encouraging newer poets to value themselves. Especially when you’re starting out you can be so grateful that someone’s willing to pay you that you forget what it is you have to offer.

6) What sort of push back have you received since initiating this fair pay fight? Has it negatively impacted your own career?

I am probably blissfully unaware! I’m quite happy not to be offered work I’d have to do for free. Having said that, I do miss being part of a grass roots open mike scene, and I think that’s something I lost a few years ago when I turned professional. It’s nice to be reminded, through the Poets Network, of the sense of community and solidarity there is among working poets who are all so different but have so much in common. I have more contacts in the performance poetry world and Tamar Yoseloff has more in the page poetry world and it feels good to be reaching out to both of them. We were both aware of the possible negative impact on our careers of it taking up too much time and organisation for us and are hopeful that we’re on the verge of getting some useful resources in place that will benefit the whole sector.

7) What do you see as the future of the performance poetry world if it continues as it currently is, if there are no gains made towards fairer pay?

Lots of open mikes with nearly no progression to paid gigs. Lots of young, middle class people entering the scene, lots of other people leaving it. About twelve people in London making a living and everybody else taking three jobs in order to afford to teach three school workshops a year and gig at five summer festivals. Actually, no, I’m not that pessimistic. There are lots of thriving pockets of activity – but I’d love to see more of that middle ground between grass roots energy and mainstream success. People need space to experiment and take risks. It’s probably no coincidence that I’ve taken myself off to do a PhD at Leeds University. I’m lucky enough to have a three year studentship- but have always been quite determined to find spaces to do what I do. It’s sort of like a business skill which makes me rich in creative time, if not money. Fairer pay probably doesn’t mean bigger houses and more cars to most poets (though fair play to those for whom it does). It usually means more time to be creative, to pass that creativity on and to receive it back. One of the things that will be important is to help,and be helped, make the case for why society should value what poets have to offer.

8) How did you go about setting up the poets network? What advice can you give to scenes in other countries maybe wanting to follow your example? Indeed, do you feel this should be a global fight, where every poetry scene links up to engage in this same fight in our own countries?

It was more simple than I had thought! I’d spent a couple of years talking to people and writer’s unions and wondering how we’d go about it. Then I saw that comedians in the UK had got together by setting up an email list and voting on some codes of practice. I thought “Hang on- poets could do that” and when me and Tammy were talking on Facebook, despite never having met at that point, we encouraged each other to go for it. We then set up a Survey Monkey survey straight away because we knew we needed to know what people wanted, and have acted quite quickly to get to the point where we’ll have some concrete outcomes. I think that’s important. These things can become a talking shop. It literally hadn’t occurred to me until you’d mentioned it that it could be a global fight- but of course, the whole principle behind the Poet’s Network is that we’re better together than getting frustrated in small clumps. We’ll certainly be making whatever codes of practice we come up with available on websites, and hopefully have a forum, and it would be great if poets in other countries might be inspired by this- although of course many of their issues might be different. For some people the idea of professionalised poets is anathema. For me it means a more diverse, more socially connected group of creative people being empowered to value themselves and what they do and to help make this case to a society that doesn’t always value the expressive arts. I’d love poets to join together globally to make that case and to learn from each other.
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