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Sunday, 14 December 2014

Part 2/2: How to win an international slam and have a bit of a complex

(links/pics to follow)

Reading my post last Monday, you might think "he doth protest too much". I say my slam win was the "icing on the cake" and wasn't the most important thing about my Rio trip, then I go into more detail and post a picture of me holding said icing, grinning from ear to ear.

1: Not embellishing.
The thing is… most people who regularly take part in, or even attend, slams knows that they have very little to do with who's the best poet in the world or even, let's be honest, the best poet in the competition. I'm certainly not the best poet in the UK, nor the best performer (but I'm working on upping my game, so watch this space!) so the title 'Poetry Slam Champion' can sound a bit grand for what it actually is.

Winning a slam usually means, at one given point, a poetry performance has managed to capture the attention of an audience/ judging panel. It could be a poem written years ago that's done the rounds several times; it could be something written on a scrap of paper on the bus journey to the slam (although not in this case, as we had to email 6 poems in advance, to be translated and inputted into the computer for surtitling) Often, the poet nearest the end wins (and I've written about "score creep" before), especially if they're able to "catch the vibe" of the audience.

Each country is different: my experience of American slams is that louder, tougher poems about important issues do well; my experience of the London slam scene is that political satire, self-deprecating humour - and sometimes hard-hitting (but not too loud!) poems do well. There are regional patterns in cadence, in rhythm and in body movement too. From what I gather, the Dutch and the Swiss nearly always read from the page and use little body movement; irony works well. In any case, there isn't a set standard - either nationally or internationally - and there isn't meant to be. The whole reason slams were created was to shake up the poetry open mic scene. Now it's all about the exchange of ideas and rhymes. Those in the slam scene know all this - and this knowledge, generally, helps keep the scene convivial.

2: Personal Context
I think, after Rio, I experienced the feeling I had when I won the Farrago UK slam championship, almost exactly five years ago to the day. Hardly anyone had even heard of me… I had 25 friends on Myspace (bonus points if you remember how popular Myspace was; double that bonus if you still have an account) and I was expected to go and represent the country in a World Cup slam the following June! I knew performers who, for one reason or another, refused to go to Farrago slams; I also had some knowing comments from other poets. Standing next to David Jay at another poetry event, someone greeted me by my name. David Jay then turned to me. "Ah, you're the Keith Jarrett I've heard about!" There I was, next to an incredible performer who had spent years honing his style; any pride I'd had in my new title disappeared pretty quickly!

That win did take me to Paris; subsequently, I got to know some Polish poets and ended up in Warsaw for a festival. And then I kept going… It encouraged me to write more and start taking spoken word seriously. I doubt I'd still be performing if it weren't for the boost of winning slams. Slams were what brought me to the London poetry scene in the first place. You get to hear a variety of voices and be one of those voices in any given night. Anyone who absolutely decries their merit without having been to at least half a dozen is, frankly, disingenuous. (And those who have sometimes have ulterior motives)

I get that some poets can feel intimidated by slams. The name conjures up rap battles and wrestling contests, the epitome of macho culture you wouldn't normally ascribe to poetry (although it's useful when you're trying to sell the idea of writing poetry to stereotypical teenage boys). And, yes, in more than a few instances, the influence of hip-hop can be seen in slam delivery.

I deeply respect Kei Miller's readiness to admit being "ashamed of being ashamed" at having won slams. As the Guardian - and some of Kei's essays (particularly on dub poetry) - suggest, conflict does exist between 'respectable' poetry and 'establishment' literature. That's all fine. Without repeating many of my past posts, I know slams can be problematic. I know they can be unfair. And then so too can other poetry worlds.

3: The Great white/male divide
Back to Rio, and the Swiss poet Hazel Brugger, takes to the stage again after receiving a low score (the judges are averaging about 9.4 for everything! And Hazel's last score average was about 8… out of 10). She'd read the last one from the page; it was short and quiet and reading the surtitles required a lot of concentration from the audience considering there were three languages up on the screen. The next piece she delivers has a great energy to it and is, frankly, hilarious, with a very serious point about feminism sitting prominently behind it. She is describing what she would do with her newly-acquired penis. The audience is in uproar. Some of us - including me - are following the English above her head; the majority are manoeuvring their bodies to follow the Portuguese words disappearing behind her neck while laughing and applauding.
(As an aside, Hazel is the woman who I met a couple of days before at a planned trip for the slammers on a rooftop bar in a favela overlooking the city. She introduced a group of us to the new dance craze she is trying to introduce to the world: "the snail, who is having her eyes touched." Picture five or six poets on a roof terrace, trying not to choke on caipirinhas while mimicking the dance and laughing our guts out… )
This time, all five judges rewarded her efforts with high 9s. But she was still eliminated... That's just how things go. In an ideal world, she - or one of the other female poets from Colombia, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Spain or USA - would have helped make it become not another all-male final. I've been to too many of those - and, perhaps that's another aside. Perhaps not... because where slams are overwhelmingly more racially representative than the poetry publishing scene (not difficult.... although the trend in publishing is changing, according to this post), the gender balance has some way to go in certain places.

It seems when one battle is won, another presents itself.

4: Old stuff
Back to my own heat and, as I went up to the stage, I struggled to decide what to deliver to the audience. At some point, I would have to perform "Tell Me What You Believe", which I'd sent to the translators early on - it's a poem with a simple theme and message, and a catchy refrain. But the twenty-three/four year old who wrote that poem has a few more layers on now. I simply wouldn't write that poem in the same way, if the idea were to have come to me this year. So, oddly, it feels like cheating, or plagiarising myself; 'current me' is not the author of that poem.

I did manage to include stuff that I've written months, not years ago… but my newest poem, written the day before I flew out, didn't make it onto that list. Instead, I made do with one I'd written in response to a pupil asking me to write something back in the summer. That, and a poem about hip-hop felt most real to me on stage.

The only way I could bring myself to perform 'Gay Poem' again was to practice one section of the poem in Portuguese. Earlier this year, I wrote that I was sick of the poem; it's close to complete retirement. I now only make a habit of performing it in spaces where I can give it something new... where I feel I can give it new meaning or relevance.

5: Competition
The finals are tenser than I thought they would be. My competitive spirit has all but disappeared, but it is coming back as the scores are coming in. Of course, I want to win, but...

1) I'm in Rio
2) it's a lovely day outside
3) I've just finished leading a really satisfying writing and performance workshop and I'm thinking about that
4) I want to say a proper goodbye to colleagues Chris Redmond and Hannah Walker before they run off to catch their plane home
5) I want to process everything after what has been a very busy week and I simultaneously want to make this slam last longer... after this, the whole festival will soon come to an end.

So yes, when the scores are read out and my ears ring with applause, of course I feel good, but I also now it signals the end of something.


NEXT UP: THE LAST (ever) UTTER! @ Amersham Arms in New Cross (where I'll be taking part in a final Slam, ironically enough)

Before I get steamy-eyed, here are some comments from Richard Tyrone Jones and here's the official blurb:

2012-14’s PAID GIG CONTEST WINNERS inc Keith Jarrett, laurie bolger, jamie d huxley & danni antagonist BATTLE each other & Prev. champs  ALI BRUMFITT & GEORGE CHOPPING
for £300 TOTAL PRIZE MONEY in the last London ‘Utter!’
7pm, £7.50 door/5adv, Amersham Arms, new cross SE14 6TY
 For the last 10 years now ‘Utter!’ spoken word has brought quality established spoken word acts like John Hegley, Zena Edwards, Tim Key, Kate Tempest and Baba Brinkman, and five-star solo shows to stages in London, Luton, Edinburgh, across the UK and even Canada. Supporting stars of tomorrow who actually have become stars, like Harry Baker, Keith Jarrett and Rob Auton, and with the ever-popular ‘Paid Gig contest,’ we have done hundreds of original, themed shows such as ‘Utter!’ Cats, Agony, Evolution and Funeral to thousands, established spoken word at Edinburgh’s Free Fringe – not to mention bringing the first ever spoken word sitcom, ‘Big Heart’, to Radio 4. Yeah, we’re not bad.
“prepare to be left speechless by the tongues of these talented bards” – **** ThreeWeeks.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Last word on Rio, part 1 (in pictures)

I promised to blog again yesterday but got carried away with a post about slams (see pic below)… If I get the huge chunk of text down to a easy blog-worthy size in the time I have free tomorrow morning, I'll put it up. If not, then I'll just post about next week's gig… the final UTTER! (There are still tickets left, so come along!

So, in ten pictures:

1. Here's the famous samba school in Rio, which Mangueira is famous for. 

2. (And this is what it's like inside… at the beginning of the night)

And, not much more than 100m away, workshops and slams were taking place...

3. Workshop led by Chris Redmond
4. Early slam heat

5. And this is what O Globo newspaper had to say about the poetry (if you can read Portuguese, have a look here …or Google Translate):

6. Among other things, a rap battle, after discussion panels and other activities...
 And then… a few mornings later….

7. going up into the Complex de Alemão favela in the new controversial cable cars
8. it was rainy

 9. Some of the poetry family… from Mexico, Argentina, Ivory Coast, Netherlands, (me), UK and Spain.

10. attention - this could be a poem… apparently

Monday, 8 December 2014

I'm back!!! And Never Mind the Fullstops...

FLUPP festival took me to Rio and I still haven't shaken Rio from my shorts.
(Cue surprised face)

Decompression time: approx 2 weeks… and counting. 

Highlights weren't necessarily the expected ones - you know, like winning the Rio International Poetry Slam. Ok, I won't deny that was a pretty big one: the competition was fierce; the poets were numerous; the event was live streamed on the internet and reported in national press so, yes, it did send my adrenaline pumping way up there. 

But, away from the fast and furious poetry battle, I managed to run workshops with simultaneous interpretation, perform with a samba band at a Rio version of Tongue Fu (btw, Tongue Fu is on again on Thursday, and is looking good… and tickets are selling fast #justsaying) and write on-the-spot poems for visitors with various requests, in an event similar to The Poetry Takeaway. I also got to see some of Mangueira and dance in the samba school, as well as shaking my stuff at a funk event in the now-famous City of God. Plus all that other stuff, like hanging around with various authors and slam poets from around the world… maybe you'll start to get the idea why winning the slam was really just the icing on the cake.

(Cue pic of me smiling with the trophy #evidence)

Happy people from the British Council!

I'll be posting a few more snippets from the trip, starting tomorrow. And I'll be updating other stuff on this blog, too. So stay tuned.


Speaking of tomorrow, it's time again for Never Mind the Fullstops, the poetry gameshow that's the talk of the East End. I'll be on #TeamVarjack, doing a bit of poetry larkin' on a winter's Tuesday evening. Plenty of laughs, and reinterpretations of pop classics are in store in this Xmas special. More details on the Hackney Picturehouse website. Come along!

Ok, signing out till tomorrow. (Cue peace sign)

Monday, 10 November 2014

…and 5 more things!

1) Unwriteables news

I mentioned Olja Knezevic before - her bestelling Milena & druge društvene reforme took Montenegro, and Serbia and Croatia by storm - but I have been waiting patiently for a full English version to come out so I can finally read it. And then, suddenly, up it appears on Amazon! 

I am so pleased to be able to put it alongside C.E. Medford's Magic America, which is an enthralling read (maybe I'm biased… but maybe you should check it out for yourself)

I'm also celebrating the success of David Savill - whose first novel They Are Trying to Break Your Heart will be published by Bloomsbury early in 2016.

And this is not to mention Anna Hope - whose novel Wake will soon be coming out in paperback edition; nor Thea Bennett who, aside from her exhaustive knowledge of gin, has been claiming success in the ghostwriting world.

It's exciting that so much of this is happening at the same time; it's inspiring and heartwarming to see some results from all the hard work undertaken over the years since we have been workshopping some of our projects. I expect many more people will get to know their work - and that of the rest of the group - in years to come.  

2) Poetry Collections etc.

I've also got a couple of things up my sleeve. In May 2015, I can proudly announce, I will be releasing a poetry pamphlet with Eyewear Publishing, as part of their 20/20 series.

And in early 2016, my first full collection, Selah, will be coming out with Burning Eye.

I'm putting some of the final touches to the Eyewear collection, and can't wait to be able to say more!

If that isn't enough, I've also rekindled my research into my first novel and will be updating on my progress from December. It's a slow process - but I'm getting there.

I haven't posted much new poetry on here - mostly as it's either deeply personal (and I need to perform it where I feel safe), or I've been tweaking stuff for the collections, or I've been busy with projects that will enable me to write later - but I hope to again soon.

Also great to be reading through Black and Gay in the UK anthology - my piece is amongst all the poems, stories and other narratives that make it an informative, pivotal collection of voices. Despite the niche title, it's a heterogenous gathering.

B&G launch party - Waterstones, Piccadilly

3) Upcoming

MASSIVELY looking forward to FLUPP in Rio de Janeiro on Tuesday. My slam poems have been sent off for translation and I'll be battling against poets from fifteen different countries in the Americas, Africa and Europe. I'm nervously excited. I've prepared some poems for the Brazil edition of Tongue Fu, too. And, of course, I've bought some Blu Tack for the workshops I'll be running (which anyone who's ever taught will know comes in handy for so many different purposes… If in doubt, use Blu Tack and Post-It Notes whenever you need to improvise!) I'm almost ready! I just need to check the weather...

When I'm back, I'll be preparing for round two of Poetry Speakeasy on November 28th.

4) Meanwhile...

*Pleased to see a great review from BlahBlah in Bristol the other day. In fact, the last few poetry events I've been at have been pretty emotional the best of ways. Had a massive surprise at Poetry & Poppadoms, which I'm still getting over. All I can say is I have some great friends and family, who know who they are. Two things I've learnt: a) when nervous, I need to talk less and just stick to my original plan - last minute poem changes can be stressful! b) if there's a musician behind you, always ask them to join in!

*I'm also reading massively - apart from the Unwriteables books and Brazilian anthologies and the usual poetry, I seem to be balancing three or four novels and a couple of short story collections. If I have time before tomorrow's flight, I'll update my Currently Reading list.

*Also watched two films in the cinema that have been particularly interesting: CITIZENFOUR and Girlhood.

* I'm also moving out of my flat :(

*This is what happens when you start moving old books and papers as you're piling all your belongings into boxes. See if you can spot 7-year old me:

5) Cultural Collision

I promised to share a video but have been unable to upload it... Will try again when I'm back from Rio!

Friday, 7 November 2014

UPCOMING… Jazz Verse Jukebox on Sunday!

I'm at Ronnie Scott's on Sunday for Jazz Verse Jukebox. I haven't seen David Lee Morgan since he won the BBC Slam in Edinburgh back in August - battling against poets from cities up and down the country (days before the Scottish referendum). As usual, he delivered his high-powered, hard-hitting rhymes that earned him the title. I'm also looking forward to hearing Aisling Fahey - current Young Poet Laureate for London who I met recently at the Poetry Takeaway in Wimbledon.

Plus music and the house band… a great way to end the weekend! 

Monday, 3 November 2014

FLUPP FLUPP, Whoop whoop!!

In just over a week, I'll be in Rio de Janeiro for the FLUPP literary festival (Rio! I know, right?) It's the only literary festival in Brazil - and, as far as I know, in the world - that takes place in the favelas, run for and supported by people who live there.

This year, we're in Mangueira, which is notorious for its Samba school (it's a must-go place for a lot of music heads, I'm told). I'll be running a couple of workshops, taking part in discussion panels, performing with Chris Redmond for a Brazilian version of Tongue Fu, taking part in an international Slam, writing spontaneous poems on the street... And blogging if/when I can.

This is why it's so exciting:

I'm brushing up on my Portuguese a little, and hoping I'm on top form  - any advice more than welcome!

Monday, 27 October 2014

Postcard from home... Grrrr!!

Regents Park

Update coming soon!

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Postcard from Home: Tears


Don't forget… Archway with Words, tonight!!

Thursday, 16 October 2014

NEXT WEEK: the week where I'll be popping up in different guises…

In case half of my posts sound like I'm in a perpetual state of excitement and wonder, I'm not. But in the middle of what's a pretty uncertain time for me, I'm performing in such a variety spaces that I can't help feel a little overjoyed. And I still haven't properly talked about this… (In case you haven't clicked on the link - or in case you have, and still don't understand, FLUPP is the favela literary festival in Rio de Janeiro, now in its third year, that I'll be going to in 3 weeks time)

Back to next week and, if you're pretty observant, you'll notice that in 3 different pictures, on 3 different days, I'm wearing 3 different hats and performing at 3 different types of events… If you're particularly observant, you'll note that it's advisable to book 2 of the events in advance. It'd be great to have friendly faces at all of these, so come and join!

On Monday (20th), I'll be at the launch of this anthology at Waterstones Piccadilly, after performing at another event in Soho. I'm looking forward to getting my hands on a copy - and I have a feeling Black and Gay in the UK will become an important document in years to come.

Tuesday, I'll be hanging around Archway (it's the Archway with Words festival, in case you haven't noticed!) and working… 

**Wednesday, I'll be back in Archway for a Spoken Word Night as one of "five outstanding exponents from London's stand up poetry scene"… Phew! That sounds massive. And it is - when you realise they're referring to Tim Wells (the legend who I had the pleasure of performing in Bristol with on Monday), Laurie Bolger (the legend who I had the pleasure of writing poems in a packed takeaway van with on Wimbledon common last Sunday) Salena Godden (the legend whose new book I just got in the post, yay!) and Emily Berry (the legend whose well-thumbed Dear Boy sits on my shelf). I'll certainly enjoy the evening! It should be legendary!

**Thursday, I'll be doing a long feature set - with food! - at Poetry and Poppadoms at Chocolate Factory in Wood Green. It'll have that grab your curry and sit down for a proper feast of words kind of vibe. Hosted by Paul Lyalls, with Jasmine Cooray (am biased here but she's a good friend and a great poet) and Abe Gibson (whose Thatcher poem has stuck with me to this day since I first heard it). 

**Friday I won't be around but The Able Seaman and friends will be attending to all your poetry needs at Madam Scarlet's Poetry Speakeasy. It's the first of an ongoing round of secret poetry gigs in an as-yet undisclosed London location. I can't say much more, except that it's been so much fun creating characters with the other poets, and writing character-driven work. Meanwhile, if you come along, expect to hear some entertaining poems from one or all of us, and to have a good time.

Saturday, I'm going to see this at Camden People's Theatre to watch two superheroes take on society's ills.

Sunday, I'm planning to stay indoors and pack as I'm moving home the following week!

Sunday, 12 October 2014


I'm on my way to Wimbledon. Not for tennis or Wombles but to cook up some poetry as part of the takeaway team for Wimbledon Book Fest. There till 4.30 - come on down!

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Back to Black (History Month)

Obligatory UK Black History Month post here.

Don't worry, it'll be short(ish) and, hopefully, to the point.

The point is, I think it's important more than ever to appreciate the complex differences in black UK perspectives in relation to US viewpoints, whilst being careful to remain in solidarity with both sides of the pond. The point is, whatever your standpoint on Barbicangate*, more black people here - people who have historically been underrepresented in spheres of power, barred from cultural institutions, political institutions, academic institutions whilst being disproportionately institutionalised - are engaging politically and that can't be a bad thing. The point is, if we take BHM for what it is, celebrating the fact that the Mary Seacole Ward and the Florence Nightingale Ward now sit comfortably in the same hospital with the same number patients (although, trust the Daily Mail to dredge up someone to make Seacole out to be a higgler woman, profiting from war)**, we can now start to ask why is everybody so sick?

And the point is also that it's difficult to talk about race without the huge spectre of racism casting its shadow, as much as we want to depart from that. ("You know who talks about race? Racists," the angry guy says, without any sense of irony… which Jon Stewart cleverly satirises)

Back to the UK and the point is it is only in the interests of a few to promote the richness of black history and culture and, even among black Brits, concepts of "blackness" and "history" are contested. The only solution is to give voice to as many people as possible. I grew up just as "multi-culturalism" began to make way for "diversity" and I strongly adhere to its principles of not restricting society to just the one narrative. We lose out by only telling 'one story' (I love Chimamanda for her writing, but her TED talk on the danger of a single story is another good reason to love her.) I strongly believe that there is enough space for a wide range of people and views AND for argument. One of my favourite quotes, from Peter McLaren - as quoted by bell hooks - is:

'when we try to make culture an undisturbed space of harmony and agreement where social relations exist within cultural forms of uninterrupted accords we subscribe to a form of social amnesia in which we forget that all knowledge is fogged in histories that are played out in the field of social antagonisms.'***  


I felt it for Raven Symoné**** when she got pounced on for stating that she isn't "African-American" (or gay, for that matter, but that part largely went unnoticed); she didn't deny she was black, as she later explained:

“I never said I wasn’t black… I want to make that very clear. I said, I am not African-American. I never expected my personal beliefs and comments to spark such emotion in people. I think it is only positive when we can openly discuss race and being labeled in America".
All well and good and yes, as an outsider, I do find it - how shall we say? - problematic that white people get to be called Americans and black people largely become African Americans (which becomes especially tricky when African immigrants, or black people from the Caribbean with different histories then get brought into the mix), but that isn't my conundrum to solve. So Raven has every right to decide she's not AA. Although stating that she was 'colourless' hit a familiar nerve.

Bear in mind that I created a 50-minute poetry show that was all to do with labels (during which I covered myself in an A-Z of 26 self-adhesive labels, which I removed while deconstructing some of the different ways in which I have been labelled over time, in alphabetical order). Bear in mind that, at the end of the show, after I had explored diversity and race and gender, sexuality, religion… and after the floor was strewn with labels and all sorts of poetic paraphernalia that comes from creating a one-man show, I worked out that only the very privileged can afford not to have a label. I celebrate Raven's colourlessness, and her ability to transcend colour and sexuality, while knowing that I cannot afford the same, and while knowing that transcendence hides discrimination and inequalities and injustice.

I used to find it annoying filling out ethnic monitoring questions on forms - well, in fact, I still do… But, often, the purpose is to monitor and sometimes mitigate against prejudice (and there will always be prejudice in the world, it's natural). If, suddenly, we stop 'seeing' race, any need for people to address under-representation of certain races in certain areas will disappear (I don't think France has resolved this issue, for instance). The same goes for gender, disability, age… We should 'see' race in how we teach literature in schools.

We should 'see' race in how we look at films, music, art and other forms of culture. Sometimes that means getting angry about certain things; sometimes it means accepting other things; sometimes it means challenging our own failings; and sometimes it means agreeing that Raven is right in one respect, we should also see our shared humanity.

I'll post more on events I'm probably attending this month later on! Happy Black History Month!


*I really hate when people add 'gate' onto things to signify controversy but I shall do what many have done with other hateful turns of speech and reappropriate it ironically. Having said that, it's kind of tautologous, seeing as the word 'barbican' means gateway, so it's almost like saying gategate or doorgate; it actually makes no sense whatsoever.

**I try not to link to The Daily Mail too much. As much as a lot of their articles sound reasonable enough, they spew far too much hatred - here's a reminder of just some of the highlights.

***Peter McLaren from Steinberg, Shirley. “Critical multiculturalism and democratic schooling: An Interview with Peter McLaren and Joe Kincheloe.” In Christine Sleeter and Peter McLaren (eds). Multicultural education, critical pedagogy, and the Politics of difference (New York: SUNY Press, 1997)

****Ok, if you don't know who she is, who is you? (I grew up with her - almost literally as we're a similar age - watching The Cosbys to Hangin' With Mr Cooper etc...)

Postcard from Home… Oval (Thought of the day)

Friday, 3 October 2014

Postcard from home... National Poetry Day!

I hate the word 'selfie'... and I hate the fact that I can't leave home for more than half an hour before having to walk around someone taking a picture of themselves with their phone but, nevertheless, here I am, last night, the holiest night of any poet's calendar, managing to take one - with the obligatory toilet in the background - of me and my new neck tattoo. (It didn't come off in the shower this morning, I found out later when someone pointed it out)

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…

Thursday, 25 September 2014


Stand Up Tragedy hits The Dogstar in Brixton for a post-Edinburgh mash-up of all that is good and tragic. I'll be down there later and looking forward! (Particularly looking forward to seeing Adele Hampton again - co-participant at Capturing Fire this year)

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Upcoming gig... LIPPED INK at Poetry Cafe

Can't wait for this one! I've been meaning to get down to the famous Lipped Ink event for months now. Usually, their Friday evening time clashes with Unwriteables* meetings but Mark 'Mr. T' Thompson, 'cultural chameleon' and energetic host of the evening, has started running Saturday shows too. So there's no excuse not to come! Am well excited...



Two more events coming up this month - Pelmeni Poetry Series next Tuesday, 23rd (with some great international voices... including Simon Barraclough and Denise Saul - and I'm glad to have collections featuring both writers grinning at me from my bookshelf)

and In Yer Ear, following Tuesday, 30th (I'm fans of both Luke Wright and Iphgenia Baal)

I've also just updated my Coming Up section, so check it out for more info...


In somewhat related news, on the big elephant on the island, here's Luke Wright:

I agree that much of the separatist sentiment has come from an aversion to the ingrained pomp of Westminster/London-centric policies and our rightwing, regressive government - both of which do need to be addressed - but I don't think we should break up the whole country as a result. And some of the rhetoric I've heard from the 'Yes' camp sounds a bit like this, as spoken by Glasgow poet Chris Young.

Well, very shortly, we'll see what happens... Either way, there are likely to be interesting times ahead on this little island.

 *My talented prose workshop buddies. I haven't mentioned them for a while but I have a big reason to, coming up very soon...

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Wednesday, 10 September 2014


Interesting looking at drafts of posts I haven't published (including the one below, which I just did).

Taking a well-deserved break which comes to an end tomorrow, just in time for Stand Up and Slam.

Come along to Hackney Picturehouse and cheer on team poetry! (please note the new venue! NOT the comedy cafe this time)

Meanwhile, I have a few more gigs coming up over the next two months - will post more over the weekend. Stay tuned...

How to write a dissertation and submit it early for a change… (last part)

I forgot to post this one last week… am so over it now!

So, if the deadline's 5.30pm, and you email it over at 5.26pm, that's early, right?


So glad my dissertation is in; I get some of my time and energy back, although I'll miss being a student again (3rd time). PhD, anyone?

handing it in at Goldsmiths (supervisor's office)


Meanwhile, I managed to get distracted a few times during the writing process. At one point, after discovering the video below, I nearly gave up:

I felt like a kid being told Santa Claus no longer exists. Busta Rhymes? Busta! What's going on??!

I grew up emulating him - right from the catchy Woo Hah! through to his Flipmode Squad experiments (see, hip hop was fun back then), and duets with Redman (the other wild rapper who inspired my Hip hop poem)

Take my Romeo & Juliet Act II, Scene III rap, which I submitted as homework, aged about 13. I performed it in class (and my teacher actually gave me a good mark, thanks, Miss Mackenzie!):

I'm just writing some of what I remember off the top of my head…

This old scene begins with my mate Benvolio, 
Hanging with his homie, that one Mercutio
Bumps into old Tybalt and ….(something) poor Romeo
Big no-no, especially with Petruchio…. (etc)

If you really wanna start in Verona
You better don that bullet-proof ves'
Don't be putting my threats to the test
Or you'll find a massive hole in your chest…

It goes on… And it isn't that great, but I do summarise the whole scene… and fit it perfectly into Busta's "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See". It's one of my life's great achievements :)


Sure, hip-hop has always got a load of negativity… and it's been appropriated by a lot of people, from wannabe gangsters, to saccharine pop stars to advert-makers and beyond. And some rappers have forever just been going on about their cars and nothing else. And some people think hip-hop is dying. Or already dead. Fair enough… But, you too, Busta?

As I was in the final stages of updating my bibliography (yet again) something came up on my Facebook feed, and I saw him in front of a car, and I clicked on the link and, sure enough, there's a slightly offensive rap parody to promote some car… And he's a part of it. I need time to process this...

Friday, 29 August 2014


...are coming soon.

Deadline for dissertation is TUESDAY coming so a lot of things are on hold until then…

Will keep you posted.

In the meantime, on Wednesday 3rd of September, just one day afterwards, I'll be reading at Waterstone's Piccadilly with Dean Atta and Yrsa Daley-Ward, and will have copies of my recently long listed book :)

Postcards from Home… Closet

Camden alleyways are always full of the unexpected...

Monday, 25 August 2014

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Two Sides of Reluctance, two sides of the pond (with added bits)

Black as the new black

So, I begin this post with my own reluctance; in the absence of wanting to weigh in with my own opinions too much, I present the reflections of others.

Danez Smith begins his 'not an elegy for Mike Brown' with a begrudging:

"I'm sick of writing this poem
but bring the boy. his new name

his same body. ordinary, black

The tone of relentlessness, of being unable to conjure up the required emotion and the weighing up of his worth against others, is something that then transforms into a reflection on the canon, the "default" white.

"[A] white woman kidnapped and that's the Trojan war" brings to my mind studies that have been done on newspaper column inches for disappearances and murders. It's well-documented (Google it!) that missing white children get much more news coverage than non-white children. (Class plays its part too, it must be stated, especially in this country, where it means much more than simple economic status. But it's difficult to separate race from class entirely)

I first got to read Musa Okwanga's 'For Mike Brown: The black boy is the new nuclear deterrent' when
I came across his tweet which apologised for re-sharing, but a mother had asked him to.

" […]The black boy is so terrifying to America,
That now all of its enemies want one.
North Korea has just put in an order,
Offering twenty thousand black boys and their families
Free schooling, room and board […]"

Here the tone is ironic, sarcastic, full of awareness of international weight. It reminds me just how much "black" is a mark of fashion, of world-recognised oppression, of kudos. When Barack Obama was inaugurated as US President (do you remember all that hope?) it seemed like the whole world stopped to applaud.

I remember being in Paris at seventeen with a bunch of school friends; we were loud and getting in the way of commuters one evening as we walked the streets. "Fucking Americans", I kept hearing from Parisians (at least, that was the only thing I managed to understand). Just a few years later, when Obama was elected, there was graffiti all over the city of him, in different postures - in one impressive mural, he was in a Superman outfit, getting ready to change the world. I was with a friend at the time, and I found myself deliberately talking in loud English, deliberately stretching my vowels and walking tall; this is the only time I have ever wanted people to think I was American. The idea I felt - and the one reported widely - was that his blackness was a game changer. The notoriously racist America had moved onto the next chapter and anything was possible. (TuPac's "I wonder if heaven got a ghetto" and the line: "We ain't ready to see a black President" haunted me then - I wished he'd been alive to see he was wrong.)

If nothing else, black will always be political.

It was interesting for me to read both of these poems in the same afternoon. To me, they're great examples of the British/American divide; it feels typically British to go for humour to make a serious point, to stick to the absurd (or to downplay everything) in order to bring out anger. Danez Smith's poem, on the other hand, is full of his personal feeling right from the outset; despite the precision in his words, despite there being far fewer words in his poem, the feelings are clear and right at the heart of the poem.

Capturing Fire Workshop

Nearly three months later and I haven't managed to write about Capturing Fire in Washington, D.C. I think there was just too much to capture (as can be demonstrated by Thomas Hinyard's 8 blog posts on his journey there).

What I will share now is my memory of running a workshop with Sophia Walker on taking a "British" satirical approach to uncomfortable topics. Racism, ableism, sexism, sexual abuse, homophobia, transphobia and many other social ills came up over again in the workshop. It was clear that the participants - and society as a whole - had a lot to deal with!

The idea of the workshop had been to take painful experiences and craft them into a beautiful piece of art.

I was amazed at how people took to it, but also realised - just sometimes - it isn't easy to take something you feel passionate about, something that still hurts, and change it into something you can laugh at.

In the last two weeks, as I've been travelling around, news items related to Gaza, Ferguson and Robin Williams have all triggered strong reactions from me and friends of mine online. Sometimes I wish there were more space for humour in posts I've seen on Facebook and Twitter. And sometimes I feel not everyone's taking things seriously enough.


My own thoughts on this aren't going to be wildly different from previous posts I've put up here.
We've all read the news. Our thoughts should be with the family right now. But, somewhere, a resentment that has been rising for the longest time has bubbled up and it's not about to go down any time soon.

Boy becomes sacrificial lamb and, mostly, because he fits the profile. Unlike Mark Duggan, whose death initially sparked protest before turning into something else, the boy in question was apparently without a gun and would have ended up in college. Just as much as middle-class white children make for more extended reportage, the presumed guilty get sidelined. Towns throughout the States could have been protesting earlier, just as we need to protest against the fact that not a single suspicious death in police custody has ever resulted in a conviction.

I posted a link on Facebook yesterday which I found provocative and was pleasantly surprised to engage in conversation about it. One friend wanted to know if I've personally felt oppressed by "the system" and whether most of the advice there applies to a British reader.

I didn't answer that directly; for the moment, I'm reluctant. I have one more night of Edinburgh and the news is only faintly coming in through my phone in between poetry sets and redrafts of chapters from my dissertation. Let's wait and see what happens, shall we? 

Thursday, 14 August 2014

How to write a dissertation and submit it early for a change (part 2)

1. You know that stuff about your bibliography? Forget it… You've just read a ton of other essays and you've found a killer quote. And then you realise that you're also quoting extensively from just one writer… At the rate you're going, you'll be reciting her word for word.

2. Spend ages on the introduction. I mean, it's not actually about the study, right? Give an extensive personal history, complete with dental records, what you've had for lunch…

3. Oh, did I just mention lunch? There goes another four hours.

4. Get back and panic. You're only 3,595 words in and this part of the study needs to be 10,000 words.

5. Scream!

Then spend the next couple hours inserting then re-inserting a quote which may or may not be relevant but it sounds oh so good.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Edinburgh Itinerary… plus BBC Proms Plus tonight on Radio 3!

I'll be up in Edinburgh right at the end of the week! From reports so far, it's been yet another rewarding year for poets and other performers. I'm just glad I didn't register to do another show*.

I'll be popping up at the following shows to do a poetry set. They're all at The Banshee Labyrinth, which hosts most of the PBH Free Fringe Spoken Word shows… Oh yeah, forgot to add - they're all FREE to attend.

Sunday 17th - Other Voices @ 2.50pm
Sunday 17th - Stand Up Tragedy @ 7.30pm
Tuesday 19th - Stand Up Tragedy @ 7.30pm
Wednesday 20th - Outspoken @ 2.50pm

I'll arrive just in time to catch the BBC poetry slam on Saturday 16th.

Then, I'm looking forward to seeing one of my favourite writers, Kei Miller at this event.

And I also can't wait to see Frank Sent Me, which I saw in one of its earlier incarnations at Soho Theatre, just before it won an award. 

Looks like I'm going to have a decent few days up there!

*After all, I'm meant to be finishing a dissertation here! Word count so far: a pitiful 2,500/12,000… But I have successfully completed the appendices and selected most of the accompanying poetry portfolio. Let's see how today/tomorrow fare.

If that isn't enough excitement, snippets from last Saturday's show at the Proms will be broadcast on Radio 3 tonight at 9.30. Listen in here.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Five Movements: Part 1 - Twerk

Today I spotted an orange
butterfly twerking nervously

between the hoops hanging
from the rail of the overground

train and a look passed between
my eyes and yours, just as fleeting.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Update in brief

As usual, I'm having a full couple of weeks, but luckily I've also had some free time to read/research for my dissertation and enjoy the sun. Here are a few highlights of the past week or so and things that are coming up in the next couple of weeks:

Anti-Slam: Apocalypse

Feels much longer than a week ago! Ah, Anti-Slam... it shows me the potential the performative side of poetry has. All the poets were appalling; the hosts, and scorekeeper, were ridiculous; the judges - including my alter ego, The Conscious:Ness - behaved appallingly; and yet, the night was compelling. Perhaps it should be classified more as comedy theatre than poetry, but I think poetry nights could take a leaf from the book of the worst poetry gig you've ever attended.

Nozstock Festival

Far from the regular poetry slam mantra: "The points aren't the point; the point is the poetry", I actually had a great time getting to know fellow poets over intense conversations and wrestling bouts. The time I spent spitting any poems went very quickly and the rest was just much-cherished play time.

Polari First Book Prize

Remember how excited I got when I finally released this last year?

Hainault, via Newbury Park and other broken tracks

Well, it's now been longlisted for the Polari First Book Prize... I'm pleased to also see my colleague Dean Atta and two other books I've read and enjoyed. More on the prize can be found on Polari's website here.
(Oh yeah, and I'll be in Birmingham in November as part of the Polari tour, so also looking forward to that! I won't say any more until September-ish)

BBC Proms Plus Late

Before we get to Birmingham in November, I have a few gigs in London coming up. As per the last post, I'll be at the Proms on Saturday. I mean, how great is that?


Unlike last year's 10-day stint, involving doing my own show and getting involved in a few others, I'm taking it relatively easy (focus on dissertation, focus on dissertation, focus on dissertation...) so I'm only down for four days. I'm looking forward to seeing a few things up there and also performing at a few shows.

So far, here's my timetable for gigs I'm performing at:

August 17 - Other Voices @ 2.50pm
August 17 - Stand Up Tragedy @ 7.30pm
August 19 - Stand Up Tragedy @ 7.30pm
August 20 - Outspoken @ 2.50pm

I'm hoping to see a few shows too - and spend time reading over my (hopefully completed) dissertation. Links for the above shows to follow...


I'll be performing alongside Street-Nelms quartet on Saturday as part of BBC Proms Plus Late.

2014 BBC Proms

I'll post a radio link for those who can't physically be there on the night! Looking forward to getting my swing on... and doing some poems in between.