Friday, 26 September 2014

Septemberisms: big update

Catching Up

This month is going really fast for me, probably because I've had a lot going on. Since finishing my dissertation, I've been flat-hunting, job-hunting, performing and catching up with the real world.

I also managed to go on holiday. And then I came back to this:




One of my many poetry highlights this month has been sitting - and then standing - on top of a table in the middle of Waterstone's bookshop in Piccadilly and sharing a few poems, alongside Dean Atta and Yrsa Daley-Ward, before a Q&A session. Apparently, that was a first for the venue. More than ever, the night reminded me of why I write and perform and how the two are connected: in short, I write to question myself and I perform because it helps me to connect with people; it can be very uncomfortable and scary doing both. I find writing opens me up emotionally where I can often be closed; reading out poetry that takes me back to those emotions can make me feel vulnerable. I know a few poets that are difficult to deal with (mentioning no names); that will probably be why.




'The Reading'

I did 'a reading' recently, after a spate of raucous entertainment-led gigs. I would say 'readings' are the polar opposite of poetry slams, and most poetry nights slot somewhere in between the two, with the performance circuit on the slammy side and anywhere where Greek/Latin references are made - or series of poems under two minutes are read out - falling on the 'reading' side. Much - and I mean much - has been written about the page/stage divide going back years but what struck me was how much the poetry world seems to mimic my religious upbringing.

If you substitute 'performance poetry' for 'evangelical Christianity', and Pentecostal-style churches overlapping at the far end with the 'slam' scene and, if you substitute 'poetry readings' for page poets with 'Anglicanism', you can see the similarities in their issues. The evangelicals are seen as the vulgar, younger upstarts, too emotion-led (with black Pentecostals springing up everywhere, unofficially), while Anglicans bicker amongst themselves in the corner, holding onto ancient customs that are, increasingly, seen as out of step with the public, fuddy-duddyish. Meanwhile, the secular majority try to ignore both and get on with their lives, deeming any brand of the religion as irrelevant...

The reason this imperfect analogy sprang to mind was my sudden nervousness just before reading at the poetry 'reading'. Everyone else was doing exactly that: reading from their published books - and notepads - in a quiet, orderly fashion, providing brief anecdotes and tight verses that I rather enjoyed; the poems spoke for themselves, so the poets didn't have to.

I realised I've been so used to the performance scene that, even on the quieter end of the circuit - and even at sessions like the Waterstone's event - I've found little trouble in reeling off some of my poems, performing most from memory and reading just one or two off my phone, knowing that the audience will be with me, not feeling that every inadequate word may well be scrutinised for its imprecisions, its tendency towards the vernacular and the conversational or confessional. Both poet and audience are allowed to be expressive in a way that normal interactions with strangers don't usually allow for in this city. Nights that veer on the 'stagey' end of the apparent poetry divide are great for emotional validation in ways that 'page' nights aren't.

Back to the reading and, after a lengthy break, the room hushed into pin drop silence. Another poet read out words that, at a performance event, would have received, at the very least, audible mmm-hmms or sighs or, at the more lively places, clicks during particularly memorable lines and loud applause/whooping at the end of each poem (not just at the end of the set). After her, I was called up to the mic and suddenly felt compelled to produce my (empty) notepad, at least to pretend to read. I scrabbled for my the book I published last year, wondering whether I could use it to rework my set into something sufficiently cerebral. Then I looked at the expectant audience, mostly a crowd of poets and supportive poetry lovers, then I took a deep breath, delivered the extensive pre-amble required in these situations and decided I would have to do it my way. I put my book and notepad down, looked at a friendly face and then performed my first poem. The rest of the set went quickly, some read, some recited, all a blur now.

Afterwards, speaking with a rather affable audience member, she commented - in an almost stage-whisper - that she had not expected to enjoy the work of a performance poet. 'Most of those performance poetry nights are dreadful', she added. 'And they shout all the time'. I smiled broadly, because I know what she means, even though I don't fully agree. A lot of spoken word nights don't produce the kind of poets you'll want to invite onto your bookshelf and, at times, some of the poetry is questionable by anyone's standards, especially when open mics become grounds for people who just want to vent. But I love them all the same because sometimes the incredible happens when a poet steps in front of a mic and performs their poem.

(And, as a lot of people have pointed out, the gap between 'page' and 'stage' is slightly invented. Good poetry is good poetry and should usually read well. Amen)

Don't Mention…. Politics

On a vaguely related note, I was tickled to see how shadow Prime Minister Ed Milliband's omissions during his hour-long Labour Conference speech were reported. He sees it as important to ditch the notes and orate from memory (even to the detriment of the content, already a little shaky, I fear). Although I don't think he's a particularly charismatic person, I do respect him sticking to his guns on this; I personally find, when I begin to memorise poetry, it helps me to edit the unnecessary, consider the rhythm and bring it to life. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

I also am one of those mean folks south of the border who, post-No vote, feel a bit sad that Scotland hasn't claimed independence from the Union. Perhaps some of my concerns were borne of a selfish wish for Scotland to share the misery the rest of us have to face; perhaps of a simple wariness of the unknown.

Something I have known for ages - and which is only really getting column inches recently - is that London is becoming increasingly unlivable. Unless something radical happens in the next month, I'm going to be making an exit plan (many people will be saying 'It's about time', I'm sure). I'm well behind people like the Focus E15 Mothers who are actively contesting the cynical ploys of local and national government to uproot the financially less well-off from areas of London that are now very lucrative for investors.

A lot of East London was seen as deprived, crime-ridden and/or too difficult to commute to/from until recently (Vice - among others - have been complaining about the wave of extreme gentrification there for ages). Now, it's a goldmine everyone wants their hands on. Go north-west and Camden - which I've been connected to for nearly a decade - was, apparently immune from Shoredification/Dalstonisation/Williamsburging… but not for long. Apart from the well-managed pop-ups (which I applaud) and the vegan cake shops (with allegations wafting from its doors), it doesn't bear the tell-tale signs of a place with a trendier demographic; instead, it's just the prices going up as people are cottoning on to the fact that it's pretty central and (was) relatively cheap to live. We'll see what happens...


We'll also see what happens with the new war we seemed to have signed up to. I'm confused. I'm also very wary of commenting and strongly believe that some kind of resolve must be taken when huge masses of people are being killed and displaced. Like it or not, as the the MH-17 flight crash showed, politics we think belong to 'other people' affect us all. All that said, I can't help feeling history is starting to repeat itself more and more rapidly. What happened to Al-Qaeda? What can be learnt from the last time this country started bombing other countries on America's say-so? Why does everything seem so familiar (but, of course, so different)? Who is really benefiting from all of this?

Safe Spaces… and cages

I said I shouldn't mention politics. I simply don't know enough history. History is the most important subject we can learn. It is also the most subjective/skewed/slippery subject. Even a historical document from a few years ago can be altered by a few clicks and tricks. Our memories are fickle.

Back on my home turf, I'm thinking more about how I can tell the truth - and encourage truth-telling - in a way that does the least harm. I'm thinking about conversations I've had with poets who have confessed they don't feel safe at certain poetry nights; I'm thinking of places where I have been invited but haven't felt particularly comfortable - and why; I'm thinking of how much I feel able to share of myself in my poetry without feeling I've compromised my privacy; I'm thinking of specific instances and of more general notions of 'safeness' and 'community'. The performance poetry circuit in London will definitely need to answer some of these questions soon. How far do we protect someone's right to express themselves… and when, exactly, do we draw the line… or do we wait for extreme, unequivocal offence to be caused?

I've been following the 'Exhibit B' controversy with interest. I was 100% behind the campaign to shut it down at the beginning, given the context (context is everything, people… I repeat, context is everything); I also respect the idea of freedom of speech, albeit with the understanding that one person's freedom may cause another's oppression. Having spoken to a few more people, my position has shifted to still being very suspicious of the exhibition whilst acknowledging that I could be mistaken and will never get to confirm it for myself (although with the pricey tickets, I would have been unlikely to go, anyway… Let's face it, if I want to see black people in cages, possibly being mistreated, I don't have to pay to go to a theatre space. Touché. I didn't just write that). What vexes me most was the way it was handled and the way it was initially reported. What vexes me most is the apparent arrogance of the authorities and the implications that people who campaigned to have it shut down are, effectively, ignorant and, worse still, potentially violent. I totally respect the idea that art should challenge, should occasionally offend, should be able to exert ambiguities. And yet, and yet, and yet…


Good News






I'm aware this hasn't been my most cheerful of posts. And yet, I've been having a blast. Once again, I performed at Stand Up and Slam - where the comedians won over poetry, after I lost my round for the first time ever (perhaps there's something in that, grumpy gits that we are…) - and then at Canterbury, doing street 'slam-style' performances all over the Old Town. I've also put together a draft of my next poetry collection… and I can't say more about it until I know more myself. In any case, I'm likely to have two new collections out next year - and I've been writing poetry like crazy. And I'm proud of what I've written.




I also got a copy of a poem I wrote for Beige magazine in the post the other day, 'Pulp-Inspired Pasta Poem...'; it looks great. I'm also having a memoir piece published in the anthology 'Black and Gay in the UK', coming out next month - details have just been finalised.

I'm no longer full-time at the school I was working in last year but continue to support the Spoken Word Educator project (the website will be back up in the next month or so). I'm actually getting regular sleep and exercise for the first time in months.


Finally, I'm getting back into the novel I had to abandon during my MA; I had too much going on - with full-time work, part-time studies, freelance projects and a tiny slip of a social life - to really take it seriously. I have a few ideas up my sleeve about ways to support this. I'm looking forward to hitting the London Metropolitan Archives and researching 1960s Notting Hill. Going to exhibitions such as Black Chronicles II in Shoreditch - and stimulating conversations with new friends and acquaintances - have been valuable in reigniting a flavour for these often-untold stories.

I've also had some mega-good news… but that deserves a separate post.

Suffice to say, I'll be going to RIO DE JANEIRO in November to take part in a literary festival of the favelas! Once I pinch myself a few times and work out some of the finer details, I'll say more… :) It definitely does need its own post…



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