Do you make a distinction between spoken word artists and poets in the more general sense?
Not necessarily. Yes, spoken word poetry is of course a subset of poetry as the overall artform, but I’ve seen a lot of spoken word poets do what you may call traditional page poetry. I read a lot of page poetry for writing tips and inspiration; it can be really helpful. The lines between the two are more blurred than people realise and often artists borrow from each other’s styles.
How important is delivery in spoken word? Do you put more emphasis on content or the style of delivery?
I think that finding the balance between the two is the most difficult thing about what I do. I’ve seen a lot of spoken word artists who are wonderful performers, and the effect of their work lies in their performance; you have to be there to experience it.However, the reason I don’t try to emphasise performance as much is because when I’m doing something intricate with the words, I find it hard to emphasise both the content and the performance at the same time.I’m still trying to find the right balance: at the moment, content is the most important, because my performance skills are not as strong, but this is something I’ve been working on with the Durham Slam team by watching other universities perform. I recently saw a performance by Jasmine Gardosi who blends spoken word and stand-up, it was really interesting to see poetry done like that where both the performance and the content was equally hard hitting. Ultimately, a 50/50 balance between content and style is really the goal.
How important is spoken word in an increasingly intolerant and divided political world? Can you hope to change hearts and minds through poetry?
It’s the same as asking if music is should be a space for political engagement. Yes, it is a great platform but it’s not an obligation; if you feel that you should speak on the subject, then by all means. There are people who do it really well: champions of social justice or political issues who write poetry in very clever and intricate ways that have a powerful message that can really impact you. However, there is a worry that if it is forced it can come across as a rant rather than a poem, and the art is lost. I’d like to say that I do write with a political edge quite often, and hopefully it comes across more as poetry than as a rant. The worry can be that it becomes a self -congratulatory loop than a piece of work that provokes interesting and challenging thought.
With people like Kate Tempest really bringing it to the mainstream, why do you think spoken word is so popular at the moment?
The honest answer? Personally, I think it’s because middle class white kids have discovered it.
Is that a negative thing?
People often engage with songs but not understand its contexts or its backgrounds – they’ll sing lyrics that they don’t really understand. Spoken word poetry and slam poetry both had a rich history with a long tradition of it being a working class and ethnic minority platform for those who have never been heard, in a similar way to hip-hop. Just like with hip-hop, spoken word poetry has now taken off. Hip-Hop is now pop culture, and spoken word will never be pop culture, but it is growing thanks to people like Kate Tempest, who opened the door (thank you to her!), but also Warsan Shire’s influence of spoken word pieces on Beyoncé’s album Lemonade has given spoken word an exposure to a new audience.
How do you see the relationship between Spoken Word and Hip Hop? Does hip hop have a big influence on your work?
Ironically, Hip-Hop is more an influence than actual spoken words artists, and that is because of my focus on rhyming. Hip Hop taught me how to rhyme, how words work and how to break them down into sounds that have a particular effect. MF Doom and his unreal rhyme schemes have been a massive influence on me; I’ve been trying to write a piece which incorporates the sheer number of rhymes he uses in a single sentences, and I realised how hard it is! When it comes to narration, wordplay (such as intricate metaphors) and story-telling in a cohesive album, there are three people I believe are the best at it: Lupe Fiasco, Kendrick Lamar and Andre 3000.
When did you first start writing poetry and performing slam poetry? Did you experience self-consciousness when you first started to write?
Yes. I starting writing poetry when I was ten years old, and it took me two years to actually read out a poem to people, but it gave me a degree of confidence.
At around thirteen or fourteen I stopped writing poetry altogether, and I started moving towards short stories and screen plays just for fun. No matter what I do in life I will always write. I can’t imagine a future not writing in some way. Then, I started getting very self-conscious about my work, and I wouldn’t show it to anyone. I got into Hip-hop around twelve or thirteen, so even when I wasn’t writing or performing poetry, I was still surrounded by spoken word in songs by Kendrick, Chance the Rapper and Noname. At seventeen, my friend and I created creative writing magazine at school, where I published some of my poetry. I realised the poetry I was producing now was not the “Cat-in-the-Hat” rhymes I had done previously, it was starting to change and become mature. It was only until coming to Durham that I actually wrote my first two pieces, which I performed them in November, and they went really well, and now I’ve joined the Slam team. So really, I’ve only been doing spoken word for six months now, but it has just snowballed into what I’m doing now.
Is it more intimidating to perform your poems as opposed to merely publishing them in print, since you can see how your audience responds?
I think it is the opposite: I’d hate the fact that someone would read something that I’ve written and interpret it in a different tone to the one I was trying to convey through emphasis on certain words. This can be lost when the poetry isn’t spoken aloud. It is nerve-wracking, though…I thought I was going to pass out before my first performance!
What is the performance/poem you are most proud of?
None. Everything can be improved. I look back at everything I’ve done and always see improvements; I don’t think they’ll ever be a piece that I can be really happy with. If I had to choose a poem I most enjoy performing, then it would be I could’ve, because although I think the content could do with some editing, I think I got the tone right. It’s great to watch audience’s reactions to it.
How do you view the importance of collaboration in Spoken word?
I wouldn’t be the poet I am today without collaboration, there’s no way. I have two friends, Danny and Nikita: the former acts as my most savage editor since secondary school who would always push me to do better. Nikita is the person who pushed me up on stage and forced me to get my stuff out there through magazines and open mics. Here in Durham, the Slam team has been amazing here. Our captain, Kym, acts like an aunt to all of us, and fosters talent among us. I’ve seen poets like Charlie Spence, who was a really promising poet, become a highly skilled writer and performer. Being in a team forces us to do new things and learn off each other. It has been my dream to incorporate poetry and jazz and I was able to realise that dream after meeting Sander and Finlay at Thorn in November. We’ve only practiced twice but things are already going really well and I am looking forward to where we go next.
Where do you see the future of slam poetry?
I see it ebbing and flowing. I don’t want to say that spoken word’s popularity is permanent, and I worry about its popularity diminishing in the future, and coming into the public consciousness at different times. There is a chance that the current popularity could be permanent, and it could keep increasing with poets like Rudy Fransico getting massive public exposure by performing on Saturday Night Live, or Kate Tempest performing at music festivals such as Glastonbury. At the moment, I don’t know where the future is headed, but if there’s enough good talent out there, I don’t see why it can’t keep growing in popularity.
Photograph: Tyrone Lewis