Maybe We Could Be Famous


There was a fantastic argument on Dean Atta’s Facebook wall last week, with cameos from some hot poets:

Dean Atta We need Def Poetry UK or an equivalent platform for spoken word! 18 May at 01:07

Elizabeth Amato
bring the heat and the fire will build itself

Lux Campbell
Because …? (just curious)

Stuart Mackenzie
Motives and thoughts! Check ur motives and thoughts! xx

Harry Giles
HELL yes. Someone needs to take the plunge and put us on the goggle box. Where’s our Millions Poet? Where’s our Def Jam? No more half hour 10pm Radio 4 slots: we want prime time!
Raymond Antrobus
True.. It’s going to happen.. Give it 2-5 years and we’ll see a thriving UK based Spoken Word scene. Already got two feet on the pedel. ;-) and I know you do too Dean!x

Catherine Brogan
any film makers, programme makers get in touch!

Niall O’Sullivan
If I had a pound for every Spoken Word TV pilot I’ve seen or been part of in the last 15 years, I’d have at least four pounds.I think we already have a thriving UK spoken word scene, we don’t need telly to legitimise what is happening. If anything, it will just flood the scene with more fame whores, people with no passion or interest in poetry but lots of passion for themselves. There’s enough of those fuckers already.

Catherine Brogan
this is true, we dont want spoken word to go the way of hip hop, bitches and bling, poetry cant come from a place where you just want to get famous, or laid. I tink documentary is the way to go, the genuineness needs to beconveyed, thats the compelling part of what we do

Niall O’Sullivan
Hey I love this spoken word stuff, but what I thought would be really good is if we bring a game show element in, so the poets have to run an inflatable gauntlet assault course first and the first winner to climb out of the foam pit gets to be spun around until they’re really dizzy and then they get a minute to impress the audience with their … See morepoems, which will be judges by a panel consisting of our experts George Lamb, Alexa Chung and Peaches Geldoff. Also, we’ve just found out that Lily Allen has written some poems which she wants to perform so we’ll have her headlining it!”That’s the only way that poetry will ever make prime time.

Harry Giles
I don’t particularly mind if pop culture gets its rocks off on some prime time poetry — it’ll be disgusting, but it won’t *prevent* there from being great poetry, it won’t do any damage to grassroots poetry culture. (I don’t think . . .) I say, if there’s money and energy to tap, poetry should tap it, get some of that excitement — sure, the … See moremajority of the results will be shite, but at the same time, more people will be hearing poetry, getting excited about poetry, and, most crucially, making poetry.Hip hop spawned bitches and bling, but there’s still more conscious rap now than there ever was before, a wider access to rap. And that’s partly because of there being gangsta.

Sure, our poetry scene is incredible, exciting, full of joy. But most of the time we’re talking amongst ourselves, doing it to please ourselves. I want to increase poetry’s scope, the people it reaches, involves — however *they* want to be involved. Even if that means running an inflatable gauntlet while being cheered on by Peaches Geldof.

Niall O’Sullivan
I don’t think it will benefit real lovers of poetry (let’s say someone who bought a book by a living poet in the past year or paid to see a gig where they weren’t performing) one way or the other. Though grass roots poetry might have to suffer an influx of twats, or even lose their venues to promoters that want to tie into a more populist vein and … See moremake more bar money. Anyway, poetry prime time ain’t going to happen. It’s too intimate an art form in one sense, written poetry is perhaps the most intimate one to one art form; and poetry that aims at spectacle will always be out spectacled by other media. That’s what actually works about poetry, and has always worked since the earliest examples, it catches you in a rare moment between all the bangs, flashing lights and tabloid hysteria. Reading a short poem by a Tang dynasty poet from a pocketed book during a two minute gap in the working day transports you into another dimension, it connects you across time to the same aesthetics and archetypes that have seized human minds since the first word was written. Such methods and aesthetics simply cannot exist within the mind numbing idiocy of prime time entertainment, it is anathema to it. Not to say I don’t like my prime time idiocy and some intimate poetry, but like shellfish and ice cream, I don’t want them on the same plate.

Harry Giles
You make really important points about what’s essential to poetry — but I think you’re just a wee bit pessimistic about the toxic influence of the mainstream, a wee bit too eager to preserve the integrity of the artform. There’s the quality of the poetry itself, which is crucial, yeah, but there’s also who’s hearing it, how far it’s reaching, who’… See mores making it, the conditions of production.Shite, I never thought you’d hear me advocating allowing capitalism access to art . . . yes, co-optation is a huge risk, but I’d like the opportunity for some parasitism!

Anyway, important stuff — see you down the Poetry Café tonight and maybe we’ll keep the chat going!

Catherine Brogan
Niall’s just been in the game so long he’s synical

Niall O’Sullivan
Eh? eh, (gets his ear trumpet out, puts in his dentures and leans further on his walking stick) What’s that you whippersnappers said?To be fair on myself though, read everything I say about poetry in the comments above, there’s no cynicism in it, it’s all love and passion. Am I cynical about TV, fame and the mass media? Sure, always have been. But in that case, I’m not as cynical as the things I’m cynical about…

I’ve blogged about these issues before, and it’s something that me and Ray Antrobus have spent a lot of time talking about. In fact, one of the things our collaboration with Keats House, the Emerging Poets Forum (opening performance in the grounds of the museum this weekend! — details here), is hoping to do is to push new young poets further forward, give them a platform that can help launch careers. We want spoken word to have the kind of popular presence and mass audiences it deserves. I’m not talking about flash-in-the-pan poetry popstars (Murray Lachlan Young, anyone?), but more the kind of hard won popularity that comes from graft and talent (say Scroobius Pip). And I’m not talking about fame for fame’s sake, but talking about expanding poetry’s reach, the inspiring power of performance, the way it can really give voices to the marginalised, encourage people to speak out. I’m tired of going to open mic nights and just seeing the same people performing for the same audiences (mainly each other), the self-reinforcing cliquiness that can poison poetry. I’m not performing ’cause I have stuff to get off my chest, I’m not performing ’cause I like applause, I’m not performing for money (OK, sure, I do all these things) — I’m performing because I believe in what poetry can do. And I want more people to be able to have that.

But Niall (who really knows the poetry community, and really serves it — he runs the weekly massive open mic at the Poetry Café, amongst many other things) shook up my thinking about this a bit. There’s a lot of meat in the stuff he’s saying above — it’s not a misguided purism or elitism; it’s coming from a deep-seated love of poetry could do. He’s been around a while, and he has seen the damage that can be wrought when spoken word gets a foothold in the mainstream — the reams of poets who are just doing it to get fame or money, the flooding of open mics, the lack of respect for the medium and its performers. I’m happy to take the bitter pill of the TV format if it gets poetry out there, but it is possible that exposure could burn out the scene, undermine the community.

So I suppose the answer is to be careful about how we do this. There’s a difference between working hard — building exposure and careers, earning recognition — and opting for the fast buck, the fifteen minutes of fame. We’ve got to make the mainstream work for us, not the other way around. From a political perspective, being parasitic on it, rather than letting it eat us up. That’s a tricky balance to strike. I don’t even know where to start, to be honest. And at this point, most of it is just dreams.

Hot on the Heels

Poetry, Uncategorized

Aaand hot on the heels of Wednesday’s post, I got confirmation that I’m going to be performing more rapidly-spoken rhymes at the fantastic Fishtank Festival at the Queen of Hoxton on the 28th of May.

Fishtank is one of those incredibly dynamic artist-driven events that pours energy into creativity and performance; it’s going to be an amazing night. It’ll be featuring bands, acoustic musicians, MCs (and battles), spoken word poets, DJs, comedy, talks by entrepreneurs and scientists and a roof terrace sculpture garden — all spread over three flours and nine hours for several hundred people. I’m really excited to be part of it — performing for a big crowd, alongside some amazing poets, at a fantastic event.

Tickets are £7 in advance, and available from the website. Come!

Getting a Storm Brewing



Kate Tempest’s Poetry Storm at the Albany was a hot ticket: combing  a venue that”s doing fantastic work in hip-hop, spoken word and crossover, England’s most crucial poetry promoters, and the Storm herself, who I thinks one of the most exciting spoken worders we’ve got. So no surprise on having another night of poetry that cut through bullshit and mainlined perfect verse. I mean, I felt really good.

The Brother’s Grim, he spoke with an angry authenticity — political poetry with a staring eye that had me convinced. Sometimes his words were more power than poetry, but he had this total conviction of delivery that had me convinced. Dean McCaffrey was crossing from the hip-hop to the poetry stage for the first time, and there it was again — this poetry that’s testimony, that when the words are weak the passion is strong, that genuinely made me tear in the eye like the performer himself. My top poet for the night was Tshaka Campbell — born in the UK, bred in America, and with a deliciously sexual, powerfully poetic style that cut to the heart of life. Bleue Granada and Len Hovis, they both had something good too — but of course it was Kate who sucked our breath away and spat it back at us with wild rhymes that span into stratospheres of emotion and empowerment. She’d shambled her way through MCing, blushing and stuttering in a way I think was only half affected at most, just being straightforward and a little shy — but as soon as she was in her zone, her space to speak, as soon as she was rapping into the mic, she became someone else, the words flowed directly through her and into our hearts, she was a conduit for poetry and passion.

See, sometimes spoken word can be pretentious, and sometimes it can be glib, sometimes it takes itself too seriously and sometimes not seriously enough — but what we had that night was a fist of poets who had something important to say, who believed in the need for it to be said, and who mostly had the deftness and skill to say it well. It’s art as testimony. It’s when you can’t so anything but speak. When I think about why I love poetry and the mic, that’s the answer I come back to: the way these nights bring a bunch of people together to hear what w have to say. Even though it’s usually only one person at the mic at a time, the culture of the open mic prevails — the performers aren’t setting themselves apart, they’re speaking to empower us, to encourage us to speak too, because they have to, because we have to. That’s what it’s about. Seize the mic.

OK, but there’s a caveat I have to add at the end here. I grew up in Orkney, which is about as ethnically homogenous as Britain gets. That means I always took my skin for granted, never felt conscious of it when I was a kid. So I’m always a little freaked out when I go somewhere like Deptford and am reminded of my whiteness, of what it means, feeling (in a way rare for those in power) like my skin made me stick out sore because damn near everyone on the street was black. So why the fuck is it that the audience at the Storm was almost entirely white? Outside and inside have completely different ethnic make-ups. I mean, I’ve seen this at spoken word nights before, but I’ve blogged about Farrago’s successes in diversity, and I would have thought that if anywhere could break across racial segregation in the arts then the Albany could. That left a sour taste with me at the end of the night, despite how good it was. Something’s out of whack.