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Friday, 24 April 2015

UPCOMING.... Let The Words Find You

West London, here we come! I'll be at the KPH in Ladbroke Grove next Weds, with Yrsa Daley-Ward, Dean Atta, Jasmine Cooray and Tapiwa Mugabe. If none of those names mean anything to you, they should! Click this link for the Facebook page.

Friday, 17 April 2015

10 Things I've Been Reading/Watching this Week (part 2)

6) 'The Emperor's New Clothes' Russell Brand

"Many years ago there was an Emperor so exceedingly fond of new clothes that he spent all his money on being well dressed...." 

So begins Hans Christian Anderson's tale and so begins the film, with footage of the Lord Mayor in all his fine regalia, in a parade through the City of London, near all the dazzling mirrored towers where the financial industry lives. I was excited to be given the chance to preview this film on Wednesday, and I'm glad I saw it. As Russell Brand warns, none of the information is particularly surprising or revelatory, but he compiles it in his own way, navigating stories that take us from his birth town of Grays, back to the power towers of London.

I think the man is clever and has a lot of great things to say,  and I also can't quite yet forgive Russell Brand's previous comments about not voting. I also struggle with his 'cheeky chappy' persona - in part due to my own hangups - which shone through too much for me in some places. But there's a lot of good stuff in there, and a big wake up call to us... and it's timely! I'm really hoping that more people will start to push for some of the changes he recommends in this film. It can only happen through solidarity/ working together/ actively pushing for the neoliberal agenda of profits before people to be halted.

Details on its release can be found on the website. And watch out for the #ThingsCanChange hashtag.

7) General Election Debate (the one without our two current leaders)

Got home late last night after a friend's engagement party, and decided to check it out on iPlayer, which seemed like a good idea at the time.

[Yawns widely]

[Takes another whoshouldIvotefor quiz]

[Makes coffee/ gets beaten in online scrabble... again]

[Almost spits coffee out when Ed Milliband does the whole "I challenge you to a duel" routine, directed at David Cameron, looking intently into the camera]

[Sighs... and wakes up following morning with a headache]

P.s. if you missed the Lib Dems last night (Nick Clegg wasn't allowed to take part, apparently) then feel free to complain... there are guidelines on this blog post here.

8) It's Mum Joke Time... 'Don't Flop' Battle Raps

I love going to Bristol, not least because of its thriving spoken word scene. Every time I've gone up to perform, I've had a really warm welcome and always want to stay a little longer. A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to Raise the Bar, which is a student poetry night at the university. The host, Danny, turns out to also be an aspiring battle rapper, Craft D. And over the weekend he sent me the video of his first battle rap.

Despite the intimate relationship between spoken word poetry/ poetry slams and the hip hop scene (Kate Tempest, Scroobius Pip, Harry Baker... need I say more?) I've never really been that familiar with UK hip hop, and most certainly not with rap battles. Standing opposite someone and having to deliver semi-prepared insults (and receive them), to the beat, isn't necessarily my idea of a good night out.

I was surprised at the slow tempo of this one, the absence of backing beats... and the obvious camaraderie in the room, fuelled by in jokes. I was also surprised to find out this one took place just down the road from me. I'm not sure I'll be entering the battle scene any time soon - and I've had enough confrontation and aggressiveness at previous jobs! - but find still find myself drawn to the challenge.

9) Disturbing videos... ('F*ck your breath')

I'll say little more, except if I see another person post a #BlackLivesMatter comment and someone else gets touchy about it, or corrects it to #AllLivesMatter, I will flip my lid. In the latest video, which I was unprepared for (can anyone who posts videos like this on social media give fair warning, so people can decide if they want to see or not?), a policeman shoots another unarmed black man... and we hear those callous words.

Of course all lives matter... disabled lives matter, teenage lives matter, women's lives matter and hey, even straight, white middle aged, middle class male lives matter. But the "Black Lives Matter" tag is to highlight the disproportionate level of black deaths in police hands and the complicity of the media and judicial systems to ignore, downplay, blame and belittle. Why do I care? 1) Because this country often takes the US lead on such matters and 2) because I believe in solidarity. Simple as.  

10) 'What I Mean When I Say I'm Working as An Artist' Harry Giles

This blog post includes a comprehensive audit of a poet's artistic life. I stumbled across part one when Harry originally wrote this two years ago and was pleased to see a follow up this week.

Tempted as I am, I'm not about to complete a full audit of my own time and money, but I think it's useful to be aware of both. I'm currently involved in several projects and now relying entirely on a freelance wage, for the first time ever (apart from a brief period in 2008-9).

I spend a lot of time on "soft" writing (see part 1 of this post for an example of what amounts to mucking about with my morning post) and admin (including anything from invoicing to (re)learning poems in front of the mirror or posting and 'liking' stuff on social media), with a fair amount of time on lesson planning and going to gigs/shows/exhibitions. Actual writing time isn't that much more than when I was working full-time, but I'm hoping it's more of an enriching experience making a solid commitment to writing.

I'm still reeling from a confrontation two years ago with a woman who was assessing some of my work. She was challenging me - and a couple of colleagues - on what she saw as time mismanagement. I complained that I struggled to prepare lessons, turn up on time to classes (I was teaching), do other part-time work, write for my own projects, perform at gigs and manage to be a balanced individual with a personal and social life. She was unimpressed, as a single mother of two children with a PhD in statistics. I sounded like a snivelling wimp when I told her about my frequent bouts of anxiety, my need for 'space' and my struggle to get organised. In some ways, she was correct in that a little organisation goes a long way to solving some of the more existential problems as a writer. But, she was wrong about everything else and I've now learned to stick up for myself and what I do. I realise I'm not lazy, after all. I have to spend more time reading and researching than writing, if I'm going to improve my craft. I also need to allow things to fertilise... and as a performer, I need to challenge myself in new ways or stagnate.... Some of this is hard to evidence; sometimes the fruits of what I'm doing don't bear until months or years later. I have to live with that and not constantly feel I have to validate my existence.

Now off to the library!


Tuesday, 14 April 2015

10 things I've Been Reading/Watching so far this week... (part 1)

in no particular order

1) Party Political literature

So... this came in the post this morning. Anyone would think there was an election going on!

The manifestos are all out, apparently; and so are the colourful flyers. It's great for basic poetry "stranging" warm-up exercises.

Take these sentences from Natalie Bennett's flyer, for example: "Camden is a special place. It's a community with a sense of its own identity, deeply concerned about justice and fairness, full of people who think we need real change in Britain - towards a society that works for the common good, not just for the few."

Then go to an online random word generator...

Pick one of three and find the wiki entry:
garden is a planned space, usually outdoors, set aside for the display, cultivation, and enjoyment of plants and other forms of nature. The garden can incorporate both natural and man-made materials. The most common form today is known as a residential garden, but the term garden has traditionally been a more general one. Zoos, which display wild animals in simulated natural habitats, were formerly called zoological gardens.[1][2] Western gardens are almost universally based on plants, with garden often signifying a shortened form of botanical garden.

Now the fun begins... A bit of word substitution and we've created a mashup:

"Camden is a special place, incorporating both natural and man-made materials, displaying wild animals in simulated natural habitats, formerly full of people who think we need real change in Britain."

At this stage it's only mildly amusing... and there's a fair number of combinations that can be done still. A bit of poetry workings out/ word association games and something more interesting could come up.

A Special Place, Inc./ formerly full of empty animals/please do not touch the display

Perhaps a haiku:

Kentish Town  West

The pay and display 
no longer accepts real change.
I can't vote it out.

Meh... Maybe it kind of works. Maybe it doesn't. In any case, this is how I sometimes waste several hours.

2) Cassette Boy mashup

Speaking of mashups, I was forwarded this over the weekend.

It's a shame that the main three parties look so similar in many respects... In this article, we get to see how scarily similar they dress, even. In fact, it's beyond scary.

3) Zac's Haunted House - Dennis Cooper

Moving topics somewhat, to another, deliberately spooky thing. I don't know what to make of this but I'm sure more experimental e-lit will appear. Zac's Haunted House is a story told entirely via animated GIFs. I've just got through Chapter 1 and genuinely don't know what to think yet.

4) The Spider King's Daughter - Chibundu Onuzo

Back to more conventional genre, and I've had this book on my desk for months, after first meeting Chibundu at FLUPP festival in Rio, last November (I haven't talked about Rio for ages, have I?). So, I picked it up expecting it to be a sweet(ish) story, but it turned out much darker and more complex than I imagined, and full of twists. I finished it yesterday, while doing Extra Pages duties (please check us out)... I hope bookshop customers weren't spooked by my shocked face!

5) [Settled Wanderers] The Poetry of Western SaharaSam Berkson/Mohamed Sulaiman

This is hot off the press!! I knew little about the plight of the people of Western Sahara before performing at a fundraising gig a couple of years back for a trip there. Since then, I've learnt a little about this long term, mass-scale displacement. Fellow performance poet Sam Berkson spent a while there as writer-in-residence at the refugee camps around Tindouf, meeting with local poets and helping with the translation of their work. And I just got my hands on a copy yesterday night! I'm particularly enjoying the farcical 'Why you should never do translation in the house of your Saharawi translator.'

Okay.... I really need to get on with some work now. Will post the 2nd part tomorrow.


Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Quick Update and UP NEXT: Boomerang... TONIGHT!!!

Back from Easter and it's great to see a little sunshine in the Big Smoke!

Apart from taking joke political quizzes, I've been having a pretty stress-free few days. (Anyone would think there was an election coming up...)

I'm in two minds about whether to post anything explicitly party-political. After letting loose on a Facebook group message board the other day, I get the feeling that I've said enough.

That aside, I've also been filling in questionnaires/ assessments that were due in weeks ago... (I thought the typo was my brain... it wasn't)

I'm also doing a bit of planning for my upcoming trip to Bilbao which I'll say more about in a week or so.

I just about managed to catch Indigo Williams last night at Hackney's Hammer & Tongue, had a quick shoe swap with her and then back home to read.

I've just finished re-reading We the Animals, by Justin Torres, who is going to be my mentor at Lambda Writers' Retreat this summer. I'm just over a third of the way to buying a ticket to get there - exciting - and could use all the help I can get so I'm fully there! Check out my fundraising page for more info.


And, now it's off to the Rutland Arms tonight for Boomerang Club. Looking forward to performing; really excited about hearing Amy Acre read again, and Hibaq Osman, who I've heard great things about. Come on over if you can!

Thursday, 2 April 2015

I Only Have One Story

I quoted the revolutionary Jamaican poet Oku Onuara* in my dissertation, which I wrote last year. His poem 'I write about' has stuck in my mind ever since. In that poem, when asked why he doesn't write about trees and love etc. he answers:

I write about trees –
trees with withered branches
& severed roots
I write about flowers –
flowers on graves
I write about birds –
caged birds struggling
I write about love –
love for destruction
of oppression**
It's a subversive statement, and I had to dig out this poem very quickly last week when a student nearly walked out of a workshop I was running at a school. The student in question is a keen poet and didn't take well to an exercise which involved everyone running around the hall, dancing and trying to make each other laugh, before writing down what exactly they found silly about the person in front of them. As far as he was concerned, it took away from the pressing issues he wanted to express; he wanted to write about his family, the dangerous parts of his neighbourhood, his alienation from the school and from society in general. In short, he didn't see the point of it all, and this wasn't a P.E./ dance/ drama lesson (none of which he enjoyed).

I've written little about the Spoken Word Educator project lately, but I'm immensely proud of all my colleagues who have created a spoken word poetry culture within their schools. While I'm no longer full time at any one school, I see the importance of being embedded in an institution, working from within, and I miss the challenge. With such a tight curriculum, there often isn't space for young people to express themselves and, when the space is given, it isn't consistently kept open. Too many places I know of see creative writing as a one-week/one-term box to tick, before returning to the important stuff. That said, when some pupils take up that space and run with it, any attempts to direct it or hone it can seem like a return to the controlling space of the regular classroom. And they rebel.

I would rather young people (or anyone, young or not, really) feel they are fully communicating what they need to say first before I - or anyone else - impose a rigid structure on it. After that initial barrier of self-expression/ creative therapy has been cleared, though, it is important to develop the craft of writing, to think about different approaches to poetry, and different ways of summoning emotions; otherwise it becomes stale.

I showed the pupil Onuora's poem. I told him that if he wants to write about his dysfunctional family, it will still come out in the silliness exercise, through the dysfunctional limbs of the shy pupils in one corner; if he wants to write about his dangerous neighbourhood, then the bizarre, frenetic movements of his friend in the middle as he clutches the wonky chair for support is a good place to begin; if he wants to write about his alienation at school, he will see it in the grimaces and whispers of all the classmates he doesn't quite relate to. I was asking him to focus on something outside of his comfort zone but I wasn't asking him to become a different person entirely. Even though that wasn't really the point of the poem, I was buying time, hoping his rebellion would take the form of defying my instructions and writing what he wanted and not walking out entirely.


I know I only really have one story inside me. All my writing is bunching up into themes at the moment: identity is the one larger quilt it all comes under, with patches of language, religion, relationships, sexuality and race/London culture lining everything I handle. I tried to finish a poem about cooking and it ended up being about identity; I wrote one about a Sega Mega Drive a week or so ago - somehow it ended up being about the end of a relationship (and not just my relationship with the late 90s); I wrote a story about politics - it ended up returning to a very personal space. I no longer worry too much that this happens; as long as I continue to challenge myself to write something new, to approach it from another angle, to interrogate these things through a different lens, then that pull towards what I really care about isn't such a bad thing. And I hope I have good enough friends to tell me when it does all go stale. And then I'll do something else like... I dunno... become a dance instructor.  

*he has often been dubbed 'the founder of dub poetry'.

** This was my original reference... Onuora, Oku ‘I write about’ (p.46) in Fiet, Lowell (ed.) Sargasso Special Issue (1999): Performance and Text in Caribbean Literature and Art (Río Piedras, P.R.: University of Puerto Rico, 1999). Accessed online at [26 August 2014]