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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Jenny Lindsay | Interview x A Very Scottish Provocation | Curated By Sophia Walker

Jenny Lindsay | Interview x A Very Scottish Provocation | Curated By Sophia Walker

I started my spoken word career in Edinburgh when I was 21. I moved there because of a by then nationally known night called Big Word, run by Jenny Lindsay. She was only a few years older than me, ‘til my arrival the youngest poet on the Scottish scene…she was kicking ass, taking names and doing it all in heels. To a lot of us female poets who came up on the Scottish scene, Jenny Lindsay is why we’re here, why we slam, why there are just so many of us. She’s also why we’re successful: I was the big, brashy poet taking up the stage..all noise and force and energy. Jenny Lindsay was the one who taught me poetry is a dialogue between you and the audience, you need to initiate a conversation, give the audience space to be involved. I used to perform at, she taught me to perform with. Jenny’s a natural leader, not least because she’s almost annoyingly humble (read her accept absolutely no credit for anything ever below). During the lead up to Scotland’s Independence Referendum, Jenny Lindsay became a driving force for dialogue, discussion, for questioning. Few poets have ever had the credibility to also be a go-to talking head on news shows.

But when I say leader, I really mean where Jenny has taken her career. She’s a former Scottish National Slam Champion, has performed at the European Parliament, done all the things that makes you a certifiable Big Fuckin’ Deal, but has spent most of her career organizing events for others. Providing platforms, giving people their breaks…every poetry night she’s run, from Big Word through to Rally & Broad has been pushing the envelope. The last show I toured was inspired by a performance art set I saw performed at Rally & Broad a few years ago. Cabaret might be the best way to describe it, but still inaccurate. A night where the headline acts are a poet and a band, sure, but alongside them are sets for physical theatre, performance art, novelists doing readings…It’s one of the shows where there truly is something for everyone. There will be at least one act in their line-up that will get you excited, will intrigue you, surprise you. Jenny Lindsay is all about bringing as many people as possible into spoken word, and she will expose you to this genre any way she can.

We don’t just need writers, we are in desperate need of builders: people who want to shape, to strengthen, to grow and to expand this scene for all of us. Each poet I’ve featured this week is one of those people. But there are few in the poetry world who expend so much energy on other poets, on creating audiences.

At the bottom, there’s a video of Jenny performing. I’ve intentionally chosen one where you see her intro. Her conversational, laid-back style just brings the audience straight to the palm of her hand. She creates intimacy in seconds, has the whole crowd on side before she begins her poem. A skill I definitely wish I had.

 

1) You are the reason there is a Scottish spoken word scene, though interestingly, when you began running nights, you were easily the youngest poet on the scene. Most UK scenes are now very young. What do you feel we lose from that? How do you think we can retain poets, retain experience (as opposed to now, where people quit after a few years)?

 

Without downplaying the role that I have played in contributing to the live lit and spoken word scene in Scotland, I’m definitely not the reason there is one! I reckon it’s vital to understand the history of yer scene, and Rally & Broad, the popular event-series I run now with Rachel McCrum, wouldn’t have been possible without all of the things that went before it. Direct inspirations are Words Per Minute (run by authors Kirstin Innes and Anneliese Mackintosh); Rebel Inc (a publication run by Kevin Williamson, also of Neu! Reekie! fame); Inky Fingers; The Golden Hour that ran out of the Forest Cafe in Edinburgh, Big Word, Is This Poetry? and much more besides. But even Rachel and Is own personal inspirations aint the whole picture. Audiences for spoken word are thriving because of everything from grassroots open mic nights to the efforts of literary figures like Liz Lochhead – the Scottish Makar, who has always championed the spoken word – and every act brings their own history of inspirations too. Yer right kind to say it, but I’d never expect anyone to feel they owed me anything because I happened to run the event they first cut their teeth on. Any act I’ve ever booked – whether with Rally & Broad, Is This Poetry?, Big Word or the other events I’ve run are only possible  because there’s such a wealth of talent that deserves a stage and a live audience. I’ll take yer compliment that I’m dedicated to giving that a platform, and have been doing that since I was pretty young. I started out at the age of 20 and was, at the time, one of the youngest performers and promoters in the UK, yes. I’m definitely not anymore!!

In terms of poetry written specifically for performance (as opposed to having any desire to be on the page at all) yes, that part of the spoken word scene here in Scotland has gotten significantly younger. As you say, when I started out in 2002 I was the only such poet under the age of 30 and one of very few women writing poetry explicitly for performance.

I don’t think that the current scene (which is incredibly healthy) loses anything from being more diverse than it once was, but there is a slight danger of a certain style of performed poetry, written specifically for slams or two minute performances, coming to dominate what is thought to be ‘spoken word poetry’ and a false perception from some poets that live poetry is a young un’s game… That is a shame. I had a young poet tell me that they didn’t consider my work to be poetry for performance, which I found really hilarious, for example! What they meant was that it wasn’t what they call ‘slam-style’ poetry. I guess that is something to perhaps be challenged, but to be honest, that will happen as the audiences for spoken word events grow, and on a personal level I’m not too fussed how I’m categorised so long as I am writing and performing in the way I wish to.

 

On ‘retaining poets and retaining experience’…. Hm. I guess it is up to individual poets to decide if they have it in them to keep slogging away. I don’t consider poetry a career that has a particular trajectory, though I know a lot do. Pamphlet – collection – residencies – tutoring. Or open mics – feature set – solo show – stand-up or theatre. I don’t know. For me, it’s something I feel I have to do and can’t imagine ever not doing, in whatever form, and my own battle for the last ten years has been trying to find ways to organise my life to allow me to write and perform and do what I love. I was always of a mind that there was nae point focusing purely on my own writing and performance if there wasn’t a scene, so I focused on the latter over my own writing, which… well… there’s been pros and cons to that, hasn’t there! But I don’t regret it. But if poetry stops being something I feel I have to do, I’ll just stop. I did for a wee while and then came back into it. There’s no age-limit really, is there?

 

2) Your nights have always particularly attracted non-poetry audiences. You are responsible for bringing many poets and fans into this world. How do you approach running nights where your goal is to expand the audience? Is it different from how you’d approach running something geared solely to an existing poetry crowd? And do you see this difference as one of the reasons the UK spoken word world is still relatively niche, are we preaching to a choir?

 

The best thing about running a multi-artform event that does have the poetic and the literary at its heart, is where folks come for the tunes or the band or whatever and are blown away by the spoken word. That’s the aim really. We have massive poetry fans in our audiences, alongside folks who wouldn’t have dreamt of coming to a spoken word night; we attract a good theatre-crowd for a lot of our shows too, but also folks who are just after a great night of entertainment. Any act we book – whether it’s an author, a poet, a dancer, a playwright – they are booked because we think they are not only entertaining but are artistically innovative too. We are a showcase and a platform event – there’s no open mic. We programme artistically too – themed events, audience interaction, we’re starting to commission new work… All of this helps establish poetry and spoken word as an art-form worth engaging with and has definitely expanded the audience for spoken word. That being said, there’s nowt wrong with events that are insular, that are geared at poets and writers sharing and learning from each other.

 

3) What does it actually look like to be a professional poet? How does one make it financially survivable? And how do we prepare younger poets for the realities of such a career choice?

 

To be honest, it’s really difficult, and I would urge anyone who is after the title “professional poet” to recognise that writing poetry and being creative will seldom make up the bulk of yer earnings. I make the majority of my money out of events and artistic programming, followed by education work and residencies, followed by commissions, followed by being booked to perform. I don’t get paid to be an artist. I do all of the latter in order to have the headspace, the time and the inclination to actually write and create. I am lucky in that I absolutely adore organising events – I find that a creative act in itself, and am now respected enough to be asked to curate events for lots of clients. But the time I have to write is still not always sufficient. I know very few poets or writers who make their entire living out of their creative work. To do so, you absolutely need to tour – not something that is always easy or, to be honest, desirable for many performers and poets. It took me 13 years to be in the position I am now, where I do get to structure my own days (often badly), where I am my own boss, where I can dedicate my entire life to poetry and spoken word.

A lot of people are in too much of a hurry sometimes, I think. There’s a lot of social pressure in this artsy life too, eh? Folk seem to panic that they haven’t “made it” if they haven’t won a slam within two years; panic that they haven’t toured a sell-out show in their first three years of writing…. Being so bloody long-in-the-tooth on this scene; having seen it ebb and flow, and recede and grow, and then, as now, explode and flourish, I’d say to anyone starting out to take their bloody time and stop panicking. The art is what is important. Write. Make. Do. Stop worrying about trophies and medals and work out what you want to do with all those pretty words you write. What are you trying to say? Only once you’ve worked that out start to explore ways to organise your life to allow you to do it. That might be continuing to work full-time elsewhere and writing and creating in your spare time. It might be working part-time in an arts-admin job. You might be extremely lucky and have rich relatives who whack ye yer rent which allows you to give everything up. If ye are the latter, be understanding of those who cannot. When I decided to train as a teacher of politics in 2010, in order to fulfil my desire to combine my interests in writing, education, and in politics I’ll never forget the teeth-grinding angst I had when a fellow poet, one who was a “professional poet” who toured continually said to me, “Oh God. You’re going to end up one of those poetry casualties aren’t you? Someone who jacks it all in for the lure of a pay-packet.” What breath-taking arrogance! Some of my favourite poets on the scene work full-time in other occupations, and arguably this is of far more benefit to them than the sheer blind panic of not knowing where the next month’s rent is going to come from. I wasn’t ready for the plunge until last year, and I’d have fucked it up if I’d tried because of that. I didn’t, until recently, understand how to go about it. I tried it once before when I was 22 and it was a total disaster.

 

So, to yer last question: I’d say, it might take ye 13 years because you’re very indecisive and actually secretly always just wanted to be a rock star novelist…. Who knows! But don’t worry about reputation or get envious of others, hard as that is sometimes. Just go write. Make. Do. We’re not in the right world for comfort, so at least try to remember what is most important. Yer talent isn’t equated by how many followers you have on Twitter nor how many shares you get on Youtube. That’s being a successful marketeer – not a successful poet. I’m not a daftie, of course – I know that it helps to be able to do both of these things extremely well, and have seen this starkly when Rachel and I have booked some of the most talented poets and performers in the UK who, due to having virtually no social media presence, struggle to get audiences, even though they are some of the most respected poets or theatre-makers in the scene. Still: the essence is the writing and the performance. Start with that. Going viral has a lot of down-sides. I wouldn’t know anything about that personally, though. I only just got a smart phone….!

 

4) You have reputations both as a poet and as a promoter. Would you advise poets wanting to build their reputations to run nights? Or does it take too much time away from your own development as a writer and performer?

 

I’d say to any poet/ performer wanting to build their reputation to GO to any nights that are running already before they feel the urge to run their own. Events programming and promoting are totally different skills from writing poetry, and they take up an insane amount of yer time if ye do em well, so it depends what you want to do really! I barely perform at the events I run. One poem, if that. So no, it’s not the best way to get known as a poet. I think the best way to do that is to develop your set; slam wins obviously help at the start but aint everything, and then look at solo shows or collaborative work or blogging or putting together collections. Or…. whatever you want to do really! Running events is a great way to meet other acts, but then, so is actually lending yer support to other nights in existence. If anyone wants to run more platform-style events though, do feel free to hit me up for a set….

 

5) What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of the UK scene? (Or indeed, is there even a UK scene? Are we scenes in isolation, or are we benefiting from each other?)

In Scotland, but I think across the UK too, there’s quite a growing dominance of confessional, deeply personal live poetry that seems to be inspired by the USA/ North American slam scene…I’ll be honest: while I absolutely love it, it’s not always easy to get that style right – there’s the private/ personal aspect to sort out, actually making an effort to be poetic and artistic and not just personal; giving equal time to the writing as to the performance; not aping others; appreciating your audience by not preaching at them if yer using yer personal experience to make some kind of political point… It’s a tricky style to get right, sure enough, and one I’m not sure I have gotten right all the time, though I have only recently started writing more personal pieces as part of my new show, Ire & Salt… But its growing dominance is a really interesting development that I reckon comes from the advent of Youtube. When I started performing that hadn’t been invented, so folks felt freer to actually believe that there were no rules about how performed poetry should be done.

I still believe that, fervently. The whole reason I was drawn to spoken word, coming from a singer-songwriter and theatre background is because there were nae rules, and I could combine all of my favourite ways of putting words together however I bleeding well wanted to without being told I wasn’t doing it “properly” (though there were, at the time, some snooty perceptions from the literary establishment about slams and ‘performance poetry’ that have thankfully died down a wee bit.)

 

Nowadays, I do worry sometimes that some poets unintentionally limit themselves and the potential of their voice by trying to ape a particular style that they think is how it is “supposed to be done”. That might sound a bit harsh actually, but I don’t mean it to be. I guess, if there is one less positive development in the UK spoken word scene then it does relate to slams and the dominance they have in some parts of the scene. Actually, I probably don’t mean slams themselves, but more the style of ‘slam’ that has come to dominate. Where poets do use that style well it’s bloody amazing – don’t get me wrong! It’s not that…. it’s just… well: slams used to be arbitrary because how the hell do you judge a narrative story-poem against a biting satirical 50-word story? How do you judge a beautifully constructed 1 minute poem written for the page and performed with craft against a 2 minute high-energy list poem? THAT used to be why slams were arbitrary. Now, often when I judge slams I struggle to vary my marks for a different reason: everyone sounds the same. The same subject matter, the same style, the same structure… And yeah, some of those acts will stand out as being quite obviously better than others but… I worry it puts off a helluva lot of talented spoken word poets as they will attend these things and think “Well, I’m not like THAT so I probably shouldn’t enter a slam.” And slams are things of brutal beauty and a great way into the scene more generally, so… Aye. I know from speaking to folks elsewhere that this is a bit of an issue elsewhere in the UK too.

To the other part of yer question: I think that broadly speaking there are scenes working in isolation, but that’s ok really. We wouldn’t want homogeneity. For example, I’ve noticed when I’ve performed at Latitude that there’s a really quite distinct style of English spoken word poetry that you don’t tend to get so much of in Scotland. A lot of it is deeply political and has a strong and genuinely interesting undercurrent of social commentary. I like that a lot. I’m thinking of folk like Luke Wright here, who is one of my favourite poets. Rally & Broad try to get these acts up as much as possible.

 

Saying all that, in Scotland and the rest of the UK, you’ve got loads of spoken word acts who crossover into publication and also theatre, which is why I love the scene as it is now. There’s also some really pretty incredible slam poets, by which I mean poets whose style and content comes from a rigorous training in slam – with all the theatrical endeavours that entails, which are many. It’s not something I’d ever have done, even back when I was entering slams. There’s a helluva lot going on. I’m very biased, but I would urge folks in the rest of the UK to check out Scotland-based spoken word acts more regularly – it’s arguably the most diverse part of the UK scene. I am very, very, very, very biased though!!

 

6) You’ve recently released your…third (did I get that right?) collection, which you are about to turn into your first show. What have you learned from transitioning more into the theatre (as in spoken word shows) side of things? Has it changed how you perform?

 

I’ve published one full collection and two pamphlet collections. The most recent one is the most…. challenging thing I’ve ever written. It’s about power, overall. That’s meant a helluva lot of navel-gazing, political fall-outs, campaigning, a breakdown… It’s was a tumultuous pamphlet-in-the-making, spanning three years of many ups and downs.

It’s also my debut solo show, after a mere 13 years… See earlier comments about not being in too much of a hurry…..! I never wanted to do a solo show until I felt I had something to say that would take an hour to say it. I hope this does what I want it to… So yeah – it has definitely changed how I write. And it’s still in progress so I probably can’t say more than that at the moment! You are asking me these questions as I am surrounded by a story-board, an ashtray, a caffetiere, and a great deal of gnawing aff my ain thumbs as I question my own sanity at deciding to make this transition. I’ll let ye know how it goes…

 

7) Seeing so many other UK poets moving more towards full-length spoken word shows, is that a transition you are considering? In the recent financial climate, how has your career had to change to survive?

 

I’m definitely hoping to, but to be quite brutally honest: I don’t know. Deciding to throw in the towel with security and jump into this extremely precarious lifestyle, I honestly don’t know if it is possible to say with any accuracy what I might be doing in a year, two years, never mind five. I have no children, no partner, no mortgage – I live month to month and very much try not to panic too much about failure. The only time I ever had any financial security was the three years I worked as a high school teacher, but even then I wouldn’t have got a mortgage on a letter-box. So in terms of how my career has had to change to survive…. hm…. I certainly demand payment for everything I do! Too many poets and artists (both new and established poets and artists, I have to say) let themselves get taken advantage of.

I suppose that, having been an events promoter and programmer for as long as I have been a writer, if a promoter or organisation tries to rip me off then I’m more able to call them on it as I know all too well that, often, “we have no budget” means “we haven’t allocated any of our substantial budget for paying artists because we don’t think we have to – you all want ‘exposure’, right?”, but it utterly infuriates me when early-stage and especially established poets and performers undermine the sustainability of the scene by running workshops for less than the industry standard, or perform for free for massively funded organisations and festivals….

In order to make this whole poetry lark possible, knowing my rights and the going rate for my labour is really important, and if others are willing to do it for absolutely nothing then it makes me look like a fanny when I ask for recompense. This year I’ve had a steep learning curve as I start changing the types of events I perform at and commissions I’ve been writing, including theatre-makers using parts of my work in their shows; collaborating on devising work that I will not be performing; co-writing, etc, and I’m learning about performance rights and royalties and the like too. It’s far more advanced than in the spoken word world, though like in all of the arts there are rip-off merchants and charlatans everywhere, really. Ah, money! If only it didn’t exist!

 

Mainly, I survive on equal parts willpower and bloody-mindedness. And a lot of to-do lists. And constant financial precarity. And some months of glorious plenty. And overall: constantly mildly aware that it could all end tomorrow. And finally, trying not to mind about any of that and just bloody write. *Slurps more coffee*

 

8)Where do you think our spoken word scene is heading? As more and  more poets attempt to make it their careers at the exact same moment there is less and less funding and fewer and fewer paying nights, what do you see ahead?

 

There are actually more paying nights in Scotland now, though still not enough, and the scene is rather dominated by the Central belt, which has to change I reckon. There have been some brilliant discussions happening since the referendum about Scottish culture and the arts, but this needs to stop being dominated by artists in the Central belt, lest we end up aping the dominance of London in the UK arts-scene in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Hm. In terms of where the UK spoken word scene is heading, I don’t really have the foggiest. I’ve seen the scene overall flourish in the last decade or so, but not without years in-between where it felt like nothing was happening at all and where I very nearly gave up. It’s hard to separate yer ain personal artistic endeavours from a wider scene though, so perhaps it’s easier to think about where I’m headed…

 

To be honest, when I started out everyone told me I had to go to London or I’d never ‘make it.’ I’m still trying to work out what ‘making it’ means, or if I even want to, and certainly whether or not I want to do what it takes to ‘make it.’ Other people think I’ve “made it” already, but I don’t know what they mean. What is “it”? I’ve made “it” as an events-programmer, in that I make a reasonable living out of it, but as a poet? I really don’t think so! Plus, it could all end quite easily, and tomorrow. And I don’t even know what ‘making it’ means for a poet who writes for performance, when there is no path… Maybe I’ll work it out in another 13 years… Or, tae mis-quote and mis-use Antonio Machado, perhaps we’ll make the path by walking it…

 

But I do know that whatever I end up doing myself it will be here, in Scotland. Because if it doesn’t exist, ye build it. A more collective effort to make this scene sustainable, and not just for one or two individuals, for the art-form itself would be glorious. And if not, I shall embrace being a poetry-casualty. And write some goddam poems about it.

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Paula Varjack | Interview x Conversations With My Homes | Curated by Sophia Walker

Paula Varjack | Interview x Conversations With My Homes | Curated by Sophia Walker

A few years back in a dingy bar in Edinburgh I watched this poet take to the stage with a soundtrack. She’d worked with a producer…it wasn’t background music, it was a necessary part of the piece. It didn’t overpower what she was doing, instead she created this thing much larger than the sum of its parts..she didn’t give us a feature set. She gave us a show. We had been Varjacked, and the Scottish poetry seen didn’t shut up about Paula for months after.

Then Paula started creating shows: sometimes it’s theatre, sometimes you’re in an art gallery, she did a live performance in a shopping centre…Paula Varjack is taking spoken word out of its element, reshaping it, re-locating it, expanding it. Every time I feel like I’ve finally gotten a grip on what Paula does, she comes out with something completely new (in recent months, a wildly successful comedic podcast). As well as her solo work, through her production partnership Varjack & Simpson she creates panelist shows using poetry (hard to explain, I’m not sure there’s a US equivalent. Think a cross between say Car Talk and Saturday Night Live, but with rhyming, games and a Garrison Keillor vibe) that absolutely will be bought by Radio 4 (our NPR) at some point. She’s the brainchild behind Anti Slam where the worst poet wins, possibly one of the most successful poetry events internationally given it has sold out repeatedly in multiple countries. She is a writer, performance maker, filmmaker, producer and many other things besides. And she brings the range of her skillset into all of her work. I’ve never seen her perform, even at a bog standard poetry night, in a way that wasn’t incredibly visual. She plays with sound, with space, movement, light…and that even in the most basic basement bar setup. I mean, we’re talking about a poet who’s performed at the V&A and The Tate. Talk about pushing boundaries.

But what I love most about Paula Varjack’s work is the way she uses spoken word. I feel in some ways she’s reintroduced me to my own genre. Spoken word can take the form of a voice-over in an otherwise silent show. It can be the entire show itself. You can work to break the rhythm in performance and hide the fact that it is spoken word, taking us deeply into theatre. You can use the tools of spoken word, the elements of rhythm and cadence that we all use so regularly in our writing, and build them into a wordless piece.

Paula Varjack is the kind of artist that repeatedly but gently shows you how close-minded you are about your own genre. If the strength of the UK scene really is our diversity, then Paula is the perfect example. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her do the same thing twice. Maybe that’s a standard we should all attempt to reach for. I really urge you to have a nose around her website and check out as much of her work as possible. The Anti Social Network, a show she did a few years back, had me in tears for 40 minutes straight. It was an incredibly moving, poignant and well-timed piece. Currently, she’s been doing How I Became Myself (By Becoming Someone Else) a performed documentary, and Show Me The Money, which explores the economics of being an artist. Clips and info for all of that are on her website if you’re intrigued. It’s Paula, so she’s doing about 9 other projects besides, but those are the two I’ve been geeking out over. At the bottom of this post, you’ll find a video of Conversations With My Homes, a live art performance fusing stop motion animation and soundtracks of interviews to explore the concept of home. I find it a perfect example of just how far we can push spoken word, in ways that had never occurred to me before. Forget prompts, if you need inspiration, follow Paula.

By the way, you might notice from her accent she’s American, but that’s the beauty of spoken word. We are increasingly a global community. The UK scene wouldn’t be half as interesting as it is without the styles, perspectives and cultures international poets bring with them when they tour here.

1.You work across so many different genres. How would you describe yourself as an artist?

Because I work across disciplines, it has taken me a while to find an answer that fits. About a year ago I settled on the simplest: I am an artist. I like this because it covers everything, and opens up the question instead to what kind of art I make. I primarily make performances and videos. The performances often have a video element, and the videos are often performance based. I am driven by studies of character and studies of cities, and the content is generally either autobiographical or documentary driven.

 

2.Where does spoken word come into what you do? What came first?

I suppose before anything I was a writer. In my earliest childhood memories I was always writing stories, poems and short plays. By the time I was a teenager I decided I wanted to become a theatre director, directing plays I had written. So my first public entry to art making was through theatre. I trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts as a stage manager, which mostly led to me falling out with theatre entirely, and getting into filmmaking. I then had a career in video and animation production.

I came to spoken word quite late, when I was about thirty. I liked the form, as it seemed like this immediate platform for telling stories and making social commentary. I had always been a fan of monologue based performance, and it was a great platform to test the waters as a performer. In Berlin, (where I was living at the time) there was an expansive scene and big audiences for poetry slam. It was a way to figure out how to perform entertaining pieces that engaged with audiences.

After five years of being immersed in the european poetry slam scene, my roots in theatre and filmmaking started to make spoken word as a format feel restrictive. What I now feel is that my journey as an artist, has been a long return to theatre.

 

3.How have your experiences in live art and your shows changed/shaped your approach to spoken word?

I came to spoken word with an understanding of theatre and film, and this affected how I approached it from the outset. I began performing with a persona, attitude and particular set of stories. I thought a lot about what I wore, and I often used backing tracks and even visuals, long before they became more commonplace in the form.

But the biggest impact to my practice as a performer by far was getting a masters in performance making at Goldsmiths, University of London http://www.gold.ac.uk/pg/ma-performance-making/. I did this after I had established myself as a spoken word artist, when I was regularly getting high profile gigs and touring internationally.

The masters was practical, intercultural, and interdisciplinary throughout. Each term you would form a group, and collaboratively make a performance responding to themes and/or restrictions. The people in your group would have varied backgrounds. There were classically trained singers, actresses, directors, filmmakers, dancers, and live artists.

There were culture clashes, aesthetic clashes and different ideas about whether narrative mattered. But the biggest challenge for me was that those in it were largely against the idea of text, and especially spoken text. I came to the course as a spoken word artist, with my first response to making anything being “what do I want to write and say about this?” . But writing and speaking words in this way were not the way most wanted to make work.

Because it was an international cohort, very few had heard of spoken word, so I didn’t even come from a platform that was recognized or respected. At the start it felt like my hands were tied. By the end I felt like I could do backflips. Now when I have an idea for a project, I don’t automatically think “what do I want to write?” or even “what kind of performance do I want to make?” I instead think “What form would suit this project?” Which is hugely liberating (and far more fun)

 

4.Have you found spoken word a term that helps or hinders bookings when you’re trying to sell your shows to theatres? Some of your work is much more towards theatre or performance art, and some of your work (such as Anti Slam, your podcast, Varjack & Simpson) is much more firmly spoken word.

When I started calling myself a spoken word artist in 2008 it was a label that was confusing to some , intriguing to others, and offputting to the rest. I remember taking a show to the Edinburgh Fringe festival for the first time with the words spoken word on the flyer in 2009. Saying “spoken word show” on the Royal Mile seemed the easiest way to make people go away.

Since then I have seen a marked changed in the U.K. regarding spoken word. Now I very much feel it’s a buzzword that various media outlets and theatres want to jump on. I think in the U.K. at least it has become a useful word to use now to market your show. There is now a recognized hub of spoken word at the Fringe and this I think is part of it. More theatres are interested in booking spoken word theatre and more spoken word artists are thinking about making theatre shows.

I don’t use it as label any more for the work I am making, as it doesn’t fit the work I am making now. It’s been a long time since I wrote a poem. However saying that, I did a scratch of a new work at a scratch night at the Battersea Arts Centre recently, and I noticed there is a particular quality to theatre artists who are making theatre, but have cut their teeth on spoken word. Even when no poems are featured, and particular cadences and rhymes are gone, there is a dexterity with language and warmth in the direct address to audience, that is very much informed by experience in spoken word.

 

5.What have you learned about how to create a successful, marketable spoken word product? Does that differ from what makes your other work successful (to clarify, do they come from similar places or are there completely different and separate sides to what you do)?

I think spoken word can have a similar audience to live art and theatre, but mostly they seem to be quite separate, mainly because of how venues go about programming.  I think the key thing is finding a venue that suits whatever kind of show you want to make. What else are they booking? How would what you want to do fit there? What is the ticket price? Price of drinks at the bar? Location? Will they market to their audience as well? Do they have their own following? Ideally you want a venue that your target audience are already going to.

In terms of a mixed bill, or a slam night,  how you go about programming features, and charging slammers also makes a big difference. I think It really pays to make an effort to book people everyone else isn’t booking.

The exception to this for me however, is the most successful spoken word event i am involved with: the anti-slam (a slam where the worst poet wins, more about it in another interview here: https://poetryandwordsblog.wordpress.com/2015/06/07/meet-your-glastonbury-2015-poetry-slam-hosts-varjack-simpson/ ) The event is successful wherever it happens (and it has happened nationally and internationally) This is partly to do with the format being revised through every subsequent event, partly to do with it being an idea audiences and performers find interesting, and mostly to do with the line up we book being incredibly talented. Did I also mention that it’s super fun? I think if you make an event that is fun for performers, it creates an infectious energy that audiences can only respond to.

 

6.You’ve had many successful events in Germany and Spain as well was the UK. How do the arts scenes differ? Is what it takes to make it (in terms of working in the arts in a financially survivable manner) work in each country different, or is diversification key everywhere?

I could make some broad generalizations about the art scenes in Germany, Spain, the U.K. and the U.S. to some extent (having lived in all four) but they would only be broad, so I would rather say:

An art scene is always going to be a reflection of the culture it is placed in, so just as it is different to be in London or Manchester, Chicago or New York, Madrid or Berlin, the art scene will also differ. Then there will be differences related to being high end venues, or mid-career established, or underground . Then there are differences to do with economy, which have a lot to do with whether the country values the arts, and has an infrastructure for arts funding, and how artists are (and aren’t) making a living.

You have to  respond to your given market, or move and try elsewhere (and maybe what many artists don’t realize, or risk, is that moving and trying elsewhere is always an option; even going to another city in your own country can open up all kinds of new possibilities)

I don’t think diversification is the key. I think a lot of people throw around the word “interdisciplinary” without figuring out if it is right for them, or even what it means. There is no one size fits all model for anyone, in any country. I don’t even think that being a full time artist should be the goal for everybody. There is nothing wrong with finding your money from other means. The great thing about being an artist is whatever you do, will always feed the work in some way. The secret to surviving is simply that, surviving, (and by that I mean, keeping at it, and doing what you need to do to live and be happy)

 

7.What instigates a show or project for you? What are the things you do before you begin writing?

It always starts with realising that I have been obsessing over something. There is a topic I seem to be reading articles online about more than others. I keep bringing  it up with friends.  I scribble notes on my phone, ipad and notebook . It doesn’t usually strike me until I notice I am buying books that relate to the topic. “Since when was I interested in neoliberalism?” I might wonder. Noticing the word features in the chapter headings and titles of two books recently purchased. Then I say aloud to friends, “I think maybe I want to make a show about…” I might then start a development blog where I track everything I am reading about and thinking (like this one http://showmethemon3y.tumblr.com/)

What I do less and less of in these days, is actual writing. I might film myself in a room, or record myself on my phone devising , and/or  talking. And when the writing starts it’s more of a brainstorm, I try to leave the writing as late as possible. When I am really fired up about all this, I will keep a diary about it all, and make a transcript of some of those recordings. But on the last project and the newest show I am developing, I am trying to avoid writing a “script” and instead go more towards the way stand up comics and storytellers work, where everything is outlined rather than written word for word. For me it makes the performance feel more alive and fresh, and stops me from falling into repetitive delivery.

 

8.You work across so many different genres, and have established a reputation in the live art world, the theatre world and the poetry world. Your recently launched comedic podcast is also a runaway success. Where are you headed? Where do you see your career, and your work, going in future?

At the moment I see my future in three strands. There is the work I make with my artistic practice, which encompasses performances, videos and participatory pieces. There is the workshop facilitating I do around writing and performance, (which is a great inspiration for the first strand). Then finally there are the events I co-host and co-produce with Dan Simpson for Varjack & Simpson.

So I am doing everything I want to be doing now, but in future I want to build my profile for the work I do nationally and internationally so that I am commissioned, rather than applying for or approaching spaces to do it.

 

9.Do you work across so many genres because you’re driven to, or is it necessary to diversify in the UK arts world in order to make a living? If you could make a decent living off just one genre, would you want to?  

I became an artist through different disciplines, so it is natural for me to make work across and combine disciplines. I used to think I could combine everything I wanted to do under the banner “performance” but now even that doesn’t suit me, as I am starting to once again enjoy making work that is just for video.  The problem with being truly interdisciplinary (although it is more common these days) is people find it harder to place you. (But as I am also Biracial, Bi-national and Bisexual I am pretty used to this 🙂 )

I don’t think being interdisciplinary makes it any easier to make a living. Most people can only see you as creating in one form. So if someone knows I can edit video, they may approach me for that. Or if someone knows I can use an camera they may ask me to film something. But mainly they will focus on me as a spoken word artist, even if I never write another poem again, because that is what I have become known for.

That works for me though, as I continue to get booked for spoken word gigs and workshops, while still showing work in galleries and performing in contemporary theatre spaces. When you apply for opportunities and the organisation or contact doesn’t know you, you can frame your work as you like.

I used to think I would only be happy if I lived entirely from my practice. But I have begun focusing more on workshop facilitating in the last year and I really love doing it. I wouldn’t want to be a teacher full time, but I also wouldn’t want to give it up to only make art.

 

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Raymond Antrobus | Interview x The First Time I Wore Hearing Aids | Curated by Sophia Walker

Raymond Antrobus | Interview x The First Time I Wore Hearing Aids | Curated by Sophia Walker

The first time I met Raymond Antrobus we were performing on a barge, because Britain. But he’s one of those poets who, despite being sickeningly young, has been a mainstay and highlight of the UK spoken word scene for years. It was quite cool to perform with him, made me feel I was finally getting somewhere. Raymond Antrobus co-curates Chill Pill, one of the UK’s most exciting and successful spoken word nights (seriously, if you find yourself coming to London, try and organize your trip around a Chill Pill. They sell out theatres. They also have a great youtube channel worth keeping an eye on. Fab way to get to know the UK scene) and Keats House poets, as well as being one of the only poets in the world with an MA in spoken word education, a program he now helps facilitate.

Even if you ignore all that, just go sit down with one of his books. “Shapes and Disfigurements of Raymond Antrobus” (Burning Eye Books) is one of the most moving collections I’ve ever read. You know those poems that are too good for slam? As someone who absolutely came up through slam, I realise that’s a controversial thing for me to say. But these poems are too wide, too deep, too…..they take up too much space inside you for something as..arbitrary..as slam. They’re the kind of poems that make you want to write. Which is why it’s such excellent news that Raymond Antrobus is now in the business of educating and guiding young writers.

In my (massively controversial) opinion, youtube was one of the worst things to ever happen to UK spoken word. More and more poets now sound exactly alike. And that’s completely understandable, when you see one specific style of poem garnering millions of hits. But as an audience member it’s difficult to sit through. No matter how great the writing, how deep the topic or how well addressed, if you sound like the last five people, I just can’t engage. We each have our own unique voices as poets. But it is such a challenge to discover that, to protect it, to allow it to grow. Especially when, slam after slam, you see one style winning. This is the challenge faced by teaching artists and spoken word educators. Many poets who go into schools have no real training as teachers, don’t necessarily know how to help someone else discover their voice. It’s a very different skill set helping someone else find out who they are as a writer. And as someone who’s been teaching for years, I admit some jealousy of those poets who’ve been able to go through the Goldsmith’s University Spoken Word Educator’s Programme (which was set up by an American, Peter Kahn). I think more of us should seek out proper training, should be accountable for both the responsibility and challenge of helping young writers develop.

If we go to poetry night after poetry night all across our respective countries and find young poets really only exploring one style, then we as workshop leaders need to examine our own practice. I’m not sure I know how to help someone discover their voice. So I am extremely relieved there are now programmes available that will strive to properly train us, to equip us with the tools to spread this genre in a productive way that fosters creativity and diversity of voice.

At the bottom, you’ll find a video of Raymond performing for Chill Pill shorts, which is a brilliant youtube channel. We don’t have a button poetry equivalent over here, but Chill Pill gets a constant stream of the best UK poets hitting their stage, so in terms of one stop shop for high quality British poetry, the Chill Pill channel is probably your best bet.

 

1) What made you decide to undertake the spoken word educator’s course yourself? How has it impacted your career as a poet?

It was an accident really, in 2010 I won a London Slam competition and went to Chicago to perform at the famous Green Mill. It was on tour that I was introduced to Peter Kahn, an English teacher and community leader. I walked into his classroom and there were 80 or so teenagers writing poems, I’d never seen anything like it. Peter introduced me as a “poet from London!” and the students all lined up to show me their work. Peter watched me from a distance as I read the poems and gave the kids feedback. After that he told me he thought I was good with kids and that we’ll be speaking again. Almost two years later Peter shows up in London and tells me he’d like me to apply to pilot his Spoken Word Education course. I didn’t have any academic background, I left school at 16 with three GCSE’s to my name (exams you take at 15, the only qualifications you will get if you leave school at 16). I was interviewed by Peter, Apples and Snakes and professors at Goldsmith University and managed to somehow talk my way into the programme… it’s great that institutions like Goldsmith’s make this possible.

2) What impact do you anticipate putting spoken word educators directly into school will have on the UK poetry world?

This part of my life has very much unravelled without any clear plans or expectations; finishing my MA in Spoken Word Education and spending the last three years using poetry and performance as an educational tool has changed my life before it changed the students I work with. I have so much respect and admiration for teachers, my role is a collaborative role and doesn’t work unless the teachers themselves set up the tone and space to make learning engaging and a form of discovery as opposed to a passive, copy and paste experience. It is then my job as a Spoken Word Educator to demystify poetry and inspire an experience with language which students can take ownership over. At best, students will realise the potential of a word and language based career, at the very least, they’ve had at least one interaction with poetry that is living and breathing.

3) Do you think it’s necessary to diversify in order to have a financially survivable career in poetry? Why (or not)?

Diversify? as in learn other skills? absolutely! When I started out I went to poetry events and asked if I could take photos. This got me in to events for free, gave the chance to practice my craft as an events photographer and experience live poetry. I then got friendly with promoters, so they knew who I was. I have done many part time jobs in the early years from flyering to warehouse lifting and I even tried working as a paparazzi photographer (dirty secret, only lasted a week). But look, I was working in the fitness industry from 16 – 22 and made good money as a Personal Trainer but because I knew I didn’t want to own a gym or manage one, there was no next step to take, my passion for the work was fizzling out. Something that excites me about my career as a poet is you never know where it’s going to take you but look, I got to be real, I’ve never been driven by money, I’ve grown up in a working class home… I’m used to not having money.

4) You’ve been involved in some successful groups in poetry, been involved in nights run by many poets like Chill Pill. Is it harder to make it as an individual in UK poetry? Why (or not)?

No, it’s not harder. There are no Wu-Tang Clan equivalents in the poetry world in terms of mainstream appeal  but I’m less interested in the idea of “making it” these days. As a community so few of us even know what that means. What, you want a record deal? look at the kind of poetry that gets millions of hits on youtube, it’s awful and I wouldn’t want to be associated with it. The BBC have taken an interest in “Spoken Word”, but they’re commodifying it, when it all dies down, all the bandwagon poets will go down with it. On a positive note, it’s great that poets that have done lots of groundwork on the circuit are getting highlighted – Vanessa Kissula, Anthony Anaxagorou, Sabrina Mahfouz, Deanna Rodger… these aren’t fad poets, these are poets who have been writing long enough to know they’ll at least be writing for the rest of their lives.

5) What does being a professional  poet look like? (In terms of where your working hours are actually spent, like..how much of your time is actually spent writing and performing poems vs admin and chasing work)

When you got a PA and you’re investing your own money in your own work you’re a hustling poet, not necessarily a professional one. Right now, I’m spending more time reading widely and travelling… I’m still trying to balance everything and I struggle… but there are payoffs and enough opportunities for me, I’m one of the lucky ones.

6) What advice do you wish you’d received starting out?

I wish I wasn’t so aggressive on stage, I had to learn some things and understand how I am received as threatening because of my physique and skin colour. I was bodybuilding when I started out, I’m much slimmer now, I had more to prove on stage when I was muscular, I had to be aware of the kind of space I was taking up but hey, I learned so much… I’m proud to have 10 years of performing under my belt. I’ve been boo’ed off stage, heckled and performed alongside comedians, belly dancers, burlesque performers, magicians, lecturers… I mean, 10 years ago it was hard to be a poet and not end up in some kind of novelty, variety show. Anyway, I carry all that experience on stage now and I’m better for it.

7) What mistakes are you so glad you made?

Pursuing Slam poetry – Most of it was misdirected energy but I’m so glad I went through it. I learned a lot about audiences and myself and how to keep the anticipation of applause out of my writing space.

8) Where do you hope poetry is going? If you could speak to younger poets on what this form could and should be, what would you say?

I do speak to young poets, almost every day. You don’t need my words here, trust me, poetry has never been in better health.

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Ross Sutherland | Interview x Stand By For Tape Back-Up | Curated by Sophia Walker

Ross Sutherland | Interview x Stand By For Tape Back-Up | Curated by Sophia Walker

Every big name US poet I’ve ever met touring through the UK always tells me the same thing: Ross Sutherland is the best poet here. He is the ultimate halfway point between page and stage, one of the few spoken word artists whose collections are as strong as their sets. The UK spoken word world in some ways (or in some places) has grown out of our page world, and the two are still closely linked. We get page poets competing at our slams, and we read at their events. It benefits both sides of the genre, as we have to keep our writing standards high enough to work on the page, and they have to learn to read well. The poets who serve as bridges between the two aspects of the genre are crucial to the growth of our scene.

But the interesting thing about Ross is how he serves as a perfect example for what the UK spoken word scene is: we are diverse. We have to be. There is no psi here, no college circuit, few gigs that will put more than a hundred dollars in your pocket (which is about seventy quid). Touring will not make you money. You will not end up on telly, there’s no conference circuit….we get festivals, instead. Unpaid festivals that assume a free entrance ticket is pay (for 5 days work. Yes, a whole separate post on fair pay is coming). If you want to make spoken word your career here, you have to diversify. You have to have range. Either you have to work in other genres as well, or you have to stretch the boundaries of spoken word itself. Ross Sutherland does both.

The man has four collections, co-written nine live literature productions, written several screenplays, was a Times Young Writer of The Year, collected some serious awards for his full-length spoken word shows (by that, we mean plays written in spoken word, booked into theatres. Loosely themed sets don’t cut it, these are fully scripted, produced, directed plays. They just happen to be written in spoken word), and I’m still leaving most of his accomplishments out. For most of us, Ross pushes the boundaries and we follow behind. The first show I ever saw Ross do was entirely performed by the audience. Seriously. He stood in the back and guided the play, but the script had been written in such a way that we performed it. I had no idea we could do that. And that’s the thing about his shows, every time I find myself walking out thinking ‘I had no idea we could do that’. I’ve seen him perform entire features involving poetry he’s put into translation programs, translated through multiple languages and back into english. That’s normally the exact kind of thing leaving me rolling my eyes in the back of the room wishing I could play sudoku on my phone. Somehow, he managed to pull even that off brilliantly, it’s almost unfair.

But Ross isn’t someone to be jealous of, he’s a poet to engage with. The type of writer who continually sets himself new challenges, constantly engaging in experimentation. Keep an eye on Ross Sutherland, you’ll learn something.

Stand by for Tape Back-Up is his new show, a conversation between him and his grandfather, via the medium of an old VHS tape. It’s hard to get across how beautiful it is, but an early scratch is below (still in the writing process. A scratch is where you throw the first 10 minutes of a show in front of an audience for the first time. It has changed a fair bit since). You’ll be able to hear him slip into the poem. I love that the vid is a perfect example of how he links, even gives you an idea of how his poetry sets flow.

 

1.You were one of the first poets in the UK to really move spoken word into theatre, to see the cross-genre potential. What’s it like touring spoken word shows through theatres? Is it harder to sell, to market? Spoken Word is not a big thing in the UK yet. Do you think it harms or helps (both bums on seats and number of theatre bookings) to be labelled spoken word?

It’s always hard to ask an artist to define what they do, right? We’re often way too close to the art to be able to sell it. It’s so tricky to write your own press release, but so many of us have to do it.

Personally I think it’s always best to lead with the subject, not the form. Most of my theatre involves first-person storytelling, and people are naturally attracted to stories. Regardless of how it’s told, we always want to know how a story ends. So I put the story front and centre. I rarely put the word “poetry” or “spoken word” in my copy at all. For me, they suggest a kind-of generality. They direct attention inwards, towards a “scene”, which just doesn’t interest me. It becomes reductive, and suggests writing for a small group of peers, when I feel should be writing for everyone.

I find words like ‘poetry’ and ‘spoken word’ to be almost completely undefinable. For me, poetry is just the bin marked “other” – it’s where we put all the language stuff that we don’t know what else to do with, from all across the performing arts. Comedians that have stopped being funny; rappers that are sick of their beats; storytellers that can’t finish a sentence; musicians that don’t to play; etc, etc. Inside that manky festering bin, there is amazing opportunity for sharing and collaboration: we have a lot to learn from each other. Our difference is our strength! But there is little we all have in common, and that makes it a hard thing to sell to an outsider. Which is why when someone says to me “is there much of a poetry scene here?” I hear, “is there much of miscellaneous scene here?” The answer is…er… yes and no.

 

2.You’ve written film scripts, poetry collections, shows…you experiment with styles and genres probably more than any other writer. Was your decision to branch out into so many fields conscious? Is this from curiosity or is it the necessity of diversifying in order to make a living? If you were based in a scene where spoken word was more popular, and therefore more financially plausible, would you have diversified in the same way?

I’m interested in certain themes in my work, and moving between styles and genres helps me understand those themes better. I’m interested in learning how to do new things, but not very good at seeing those things through to the end. Sure, this kind of transience is probably a symptom of trying to stay solvent as an artist, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m a product of the unpopularity of my art form!
3.Your poetry sets really stand out for the way you craft your links. You flow between links and poems in such a way we realise we’re in the poem a few lines in. It’s beautiful. Is this something that came from your experience in writing shows? What have you learned from touring as a poet that informs your shows?

I wish I was as good at it as you say! But I acknowledge that it’s important to me!

I’ve always linked the bits in-between poems, ever since I saw Johnny Clarke (John Cooper Clarke) when I was 15 years old. John only does about 20 mins of poetry and the rest is nicked straight out of vaudeville, so that was the model I was working on. A poem can be a dense, intense experience, and we have to give the poem space to breathe, just like when a poem appears in a book. So- how do we create the stage equivalent of the blank paper at the bottom of the page? You need to find other registers of performance.

 

4.One of your shows, Comedian Dies In The Middle Of A Joke, was entirely performed by the audience. How do you approach writing a show the audience performs? How do you anticipate all the things the audience might do, in order to create a script that will always work?

Well, that was the challenge. I was fortunate to work with a great cast who helped me with the script immensely. We had to create a framework that allowed the audience to feel comfortable improvising. About half of the show was very tightly structured, so when the audience was allowed to take over, they knew that it was impossible to mess it up. Part of that was down to repetition- the audience was reliving the same five minutes over and over, like a miniature Groundhog Day. They felt safe, because no matter what they did, they knew what was going to come next. Like Bill Murray in that film- they start awkward, then become frustrated, then eventually they become prescient and start to enjoy themselves.

 

5.Your current show, Stand By For Tape Back-Up, involves you interacting with a video tape. It’s one of the cleverest uses of multimedia I’ve seen, largely because you’ve created a dialogue, almost to the extent it’d be odd to call it a solo show. You’ve taken advantage of technology in a variety of ways in your work thus far (the computer-generated translation poems are particularly fab). Do you think we’re missing a trick in not taking full advantage of what’s out there? Beatboxing has leaped forward with loop machines and kaoss pads. Could we be opening the genre to a wider audience if we embraced technology a bit more?

Thanks! I like to think of screen shows as double acts. When I used to do comedy shows, the screen would be the comedian and I would be the straight-man (handy because I wasn’t very good at landing jokes). Now, the screen is the poet… and I’m still the straight-man. I tell a straightforward story, and the screen reinterprets it in a symbolic, interesting way,

No doubt we will continue to use technology in writing. These tools are out there to be used. Technology opens new doors- allows us to do things we could never do on our own.

 

6.What do you know now (both about writing a great show and writing a successful show, which can be two different things) that you wished you’d known when you first branched into shows?

God I might skip this one, because I think I still keep making the same mistakes that I made when I started. I suppose one thing I’ve learnt is “you can get a meeting with anyone if there’s nothing on the table.” Meeting people is really useful, and it can help you find kindred spirits in other art-forms and industries. But that’s not about contacting people and asking for favours. It’s about building mutual friendships.

 

7.What should we be watching out for in the future? Thus far, you’ve pushed the boundaries and experimented more than perhaps any other UK poet: audience performed shows, a two hander between you and a videotape, the breadth of your poetry collections, film scripts…what’s next? Do you see a future in spoken word shows?

I’ve just written a screenplay for a drama that is completely palindromic (ie, the first line of dialogue is the same as the last, the second is the same as the penultimate, etc, until it meets in the middle.) I’m really pleased with that, but we’ll see if anyone funds it. I’m also making a board game. It’s probably bad. God I don’t know. I really don’t know how I can even afford the rent! I’m sure something will take.

Personally, I’m unsure whether I will be heading back into theatres anytime soon. This show has taken over the last three years of my life, so I’m looking forward to trying something else for a while. But there is so much great theatre being made right now: Chris Brett Bailey, Chris Thorpe and Hannah Walker, Byron Vincent… I don’t think any of those shows call themselves “spoken word”- in fact, I suspect none of them know what genre they work in. But I think that’s why I love them.

 

8.If someone wants to write their first spoken word show, what advice do you have for them? Where do they start?

Well, you’ve got to find that “thing”, right? The “thing” you want to share with people. Whatever that “thing” is, you have to really believe in it. Because two years later, you’re going to be in the back room of a pub in Shropshire, waiting to go out onstage and do the show to an audience of two. And you’ve still got to want to do it! You’ve still got to give it 100%. Because those two people have given up their night to come see you. And that might be the only thing they can come out to see that month.

So whatever that “thing” is, it’s got to be so big and important to you that it outweighs every small crowd, every shit review. Maybe it’s something from your life that scares you. Maybe it’s something that you want to “do” to an audience. It’s not got to be a big weighty thing, but it has to be important to you.

 

Stand By For Tape Back-Up:

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Ross Sutherland