NORTHERN POETS – you can die of exposure – advice from 4 poets

IS THAT LINTON KWESI-JOHNSON HOLDING A COPY OF COLD LIPS?

Well, yes, it is.  Pictured with the fabulous Joy Francis who’s helped lead the Jerwood Charitable Foundation’s inaugural journey into poetry, with the new Jerwood Compton Poetry Fellowships – aiming to challenge what poetry is, and who creates it – this photo was taken at the recent – AMAZING talk on DUB POET Michael Smith – if you don’t know, learn.  He was killed in dispute with the Jamaica Labour Party in 1983, on the same date as Marcus Garvey’s birthday, standing up to what he called “politricks”.  We covered it on Insta.

But here, Cold Lips’ profiles four contemporary wordsmiths discussing what it’s like living, writing and surviving as poets outside of London.  Is it pure, a pursuit of pastoral beauty, away from the indignity of the capital’s priorities of flash cash and domination from hegemonic offices of profit over governance and responsibility – ah – shut up – listen to what these guys say…

Interviews by Jessica Ralph for Cold Lips.

TESTAMENT

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Testament is a rapper, poet, playwright and world record-breaking human beatboxer.  Yeah, we like a beatboxer here (you remember that party we with with NOKI and Killa Kella?).  Testament can express himself in a form that says more than the usual.  It’s hip-hop, saying something.  His most recent play Black Men Walking for Eclipse Theatre garnered critical acclaim and sold out venues around the UK. His work includes the celebrated Hip-Hop album Homecut: No Freedom Without, several spoken word performances for BBC Radio (1xtra, Radio 4 and 6 Music) and his acclaimed play Blake Remixed – a personal response to the work of William Blake. Testament’s work has been performed at Royal Court Theatre, The Globe and West Yorkshire Playhouse, among others. His poetry has been published in several anthologies and has been used as a teaching resource internationally. Testament is currently touring his new spoken word beatbox show WOKE.

www.testamenthomecut.com/

When did you start writing poetry?

My way into poetry was though Hip-Hop. I was listening  to the sounds of De La Soul coming from big brother’s bedroom. The album was De La Soul IS Dead Narrative, wordplay, rhythm, social commentary and humour all on one album. I was hooked.

What inspires you to write? Why is it important to you?

You can’t get more distilled than poetry. I’d just like the world to be a bit nicer. I’m still trying to work out new ways for words to help do that.  It’s actually often my work outside of ‘poetry’ that promotes my poetry: rap, playwriting and performing. Facebook has been effective for me, mainly because it has been spreading the word with networks I actually know, and then they may connect you to one or two other people who may end up coming to your show.

How does being northern shape your poetry and your identity as a poet?

It’s shaped me as a person. It can be hard to get people to stretch beyond the M25 sometimes. Especially when you’re rubbish at application forms.

What advice would you give to any starting out poets in regards to networking and getting exposure? Can you list 5 things?

1. Performing. Develop yourself as someone who can connect live with your audience. If you can do it, give it a go. The more we do it, the better we get. Open mic? A slam? Let’s go!
2. Videos. YouTube and Facebook. It has launched a lot of careers. I remember seeing Asma Elbadawi first video, and it really captured who she was and the power of that poem. All of a sudden, she’d given herself links all over the country.
3. Attend local poetry events. Meet people. Find out what people are doing – does what you are doing complement that? Is it your vibe? Is this a good connection?
4. Start you own event. If there’s not a good connection out here, make your own one. Build it and they will come. Why not try and book people you admire? Another good way to network and give your work a platform at the same time.
5. Cross art form collaborations. Why not work with visuals, music or dance? This not only gives a platform to your voice, it can develop your writing in new ways too.

KIM MOORE

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Kim Moore is modern, approachable and doesn’t try to be too ‘poet-y’.  Her first collection The Art of Falling (Seren, 2015) won the 2016 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. She won a Northern Writers Award in 2014, an Eric Gregory Award in 2011 and the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize in 2010. Her pamphlet If We Could Speak Like Wolves was a winner in the 2012 Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition and went on to be shortlisted for a Michael Marks Award. She is currently a PhD candidate at Manchester Metropolitan University examining how to use poetry to explore experiences of sexism and micro-aggression.

www.kimmoorepoet.wordpress.com

Suffragette

And if you saw her hiding in the air ducts of Parliament
it was only to listen to the speeches.

And if she set fire to post boxes and burnt letters,
it was only certain envelopes she put pepper in.

And if she threw a rock or two, at one carriage
or another, they were, at least, wrapped in words:

rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.
And if, being imprisoned, her and a thousand like her

went on hunger strike, at least no one died –
the Cat and Mouse Act of 1913

sent the starving women out on licence,
and brought them back when they were well again.

And if an angry guard forced a hose inside her cell
and filled it with water, at least she didn’t drown.

And if she hid in a cupboard in the House of Commons
the night of the Census it was only to claim it

as her official residence.  And if her friends delivered
themselves as human letters to Downing Street,

but were sent back, unopened, at least they made
the news.  And, not knowing whether she chose

to die or whether in her dreams, she saw the king’s horse
flying through the line, her sash around its neck,

at least we know of the bruised shins of the horse,
of the jockey, ‘haunted by that woman’s face.’

How and when did you start?

I started writing  seriously about 10 years ago when I went along to a local poetry group and shared my poems with other people, something I hadn’t done before.

At the moment, I’m working on a new collection that explores experiences of sexism.  So, at the moment , it’s experiences of sexism , past and present, that inspire me. Often, I write a poem to find out what really happened, to get to the truth of something.

When I started writing, I didn’t start with the aim of making a career from it,  because I was working as a music teacher.  For me, my writing ‘career’ has progressed gradually, and each time something happened it was like this wonderful surprise.   That’s not to say that I didn’t face the same kind of rejections that other poets face – hundreds of rejections from magazines and funding applications turned down or just ignored – but my training as a musician was really good preparation for being able to deal with rejection.

I want to say something honest with poetry, not necessarily the literal truth, but an emotional truth. Poetry makes me see the world in a different way, or see myself in a different way – it is a different way of making sense of things.

How does being northern shape your poetry/ your identity as a poet?

I’m originally from Leicester, but I haven’t lived there since I was 18.  I feel at home in the North. To me, living in the North feels like being at the edge of things, in some ways, which I think is a good place to be as a poet.

The big cultural events like the TS Eliot’s and the Forward Prizes are always held in London. When I was a teacher, I could never go because I was working the next day and couldn’t get back up North in time.  Now I’m not a teacher and I’m freelance, I can’t afford to go. These are great events for meeting other poets, and just feeling part of one type of conversation about contemporary poetry, so I think arts organisations need to find ways to make it more accessible for poets from anywhere, and not just London, to access them.

How do you self promote as a poet?

When I was starting out, I wrote a blog post every week where I found a poem I liked by a contemporary poet and talked about what I liked. It  was a really good way of being nice to other poets which didn’t cost me anything, as well as connecting readers with poets they may not have heard of.

What advice would you give to any starting out poets in regards to networking and getting exposure? Can you list 5 things?

  1. Read other people’s poetry.  If you find something you like, write to the poet and tell them, without any expectation other than letting them know.  It costs nothing apart from time. Or tweet about it and link to the publisher and poet. Or share it on Facebook or another social media platform of your choice.

2. Go to open mics and perform

3.Go to readings and listen to guest poets, tell them if you liked a particular poem. Try and stay to the end if you can even if you are not performing.  I cannot emphasise enough that generosity in the poetry world always comes back to you.  Be known as someone who is a supporter of poetry, not just themselves.

4.Find a supportive poetry group to share work with.

5.Remember that writing poetry is the important thing and that writing poetry is different to performance, winning awards, being published, networking or any of the other ‘froth’ around poetry.  Sometimes it is good to go back to the enjoyable moment of writing , rather than worrying about all the other stuff.

KATE FOX

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Kate is a stand-up poet. Her second comedy series was broadcast on Radio 4 last June, and she’s supported everyone.  Like Adelle Stripe, she flicks the Northern on in all of us, and the tragic comedy of being born a woman.  Poet in Residence for the Great North Run, Glastonbury Festival and Saturday Live on Radio 4.  Her recent PhD explored class, gender and Northern English regional identity in stand-up performance.

www.katefox.co.uk

Spinning a Yarn – Kate Fox 
Imagine
you’re holding a thread
which is held by your mother,
then her mother,
then her mother,
double, treble, quadruple twisted ties,
back, back in a long line that stretches further than you can see.
Maybe you’re all in a field.
Somehow it’s not chaos,
somehow your nan’s not distracted by the Yorkshire terrier
and your mum’s not said anything mean about your hair
though mostly every alternate woman in my chain
would get on better with each other
than the one right next to her.
Anyway, you’re holding the end,
the thread’s vibrating 
but it’s just this frozen moment,
as if you’re waiting for someone, 
to snap the lens shutter so you can go back to people who suit you,
your husband, your friends,
this is sort of an obligation, sort of a privilege,
this moment,
making the chain, of women you’ll still mostly never name,
as they stretch into the horizon’s edge
and you’re all worried it will rain,
but you’re hearing fragments of chatter.
Trekking from the city centre during the blitz
for just one good night’s sleep,
how that Auntie started a driving school,
the realisation that your brows all wrinkle in the same place
when you laugh because you’re nervous.
These women who are not on an official record,
who didn’t chuck themselves under a horse,
but who managed to steer their own course
through the things they were told they couldn’t do,
shouldn’t do. They made it work.
They weren’t allowed strategies, 
they couldn’t shuffle soldiers 
across maps, piece up and rearrange continents,
but they all had tactics, 
making the best of what they had,
the day-to-day resistances and choices,
and even though we can’t see their faces
or hear their voices,
you hold that thread that they’ve all spun,
and still the looms are clacking on,
the threads are criss-crossing with other chains,
from women written out of history,
with ones who shouted loudly.
The more twists a thread is given,
the stronger it becomes.
Black threads, white threads,
ones that got lost and trampled in the dirt for years, 
but at this moment it’s making a double helix
down your maternal line,
then springs back,
echoes of thunderous looms,
the shuttle’s clack,
you’re holding it, just this one thread
in the great weave of history.
Will you keep to the old pattern
or start a new one?
Lose the weft, keep the warp?
Find new materials,
a different yarn to spin? 
Can you drop that thread altogether,
take up ones from another kin?
These choices
which are not completely yours
and not completely not.
Take this moment
while you can
to throw a nod of recognition
to the thread holders down the line,
then it’s yours. Begin. 

When did you start writing poetry? What inspires you to write? What do you want to say with your poetry? Why is writing poetry important to you?

I started writing poetry when I was eight, but I started again when I was in my late-twenties and had a sense of having a lot to say but nowhere and no way to say it. For me, poetry is often about finding ways to say the unsaid. Sometimes this is about ego, sometimes it’s about connection.

How does being northern shape your poetry/ your identity as a poet?

It shapes how I’m heard and received. Northerners hear me as a fellow, non-Northerners hear me as Other. I don’t think there is an essential Northern identity or essential Northern voice. I want to disrupt the idea that there is.

What are the challenges you’ve faced in your career in regards to getting your voice heard/ exposure/ getting funding?

At first it was the challenge of being based in Newcastle. But at least I was young and new.  Now, I’m not young and new and I’m based in Thirsk. But I am funny, which is perennially useful.

Do you think any of these challenges are specific to northern poets? Would you say we’re still biased towards London in the creative industries? Have you seen any change in this picture?

I’ve done a PhD, partly about the bias towards London in the creative industries.  There’s not much of a positive change, no, but the Arts Council is now much more aware of regional imbalances in funding, which is good. The social and economic impact of the dominance of London and the South East goes far beyond nobody wanting to put their hand in their pocket to have Northern poets travel to London if they haven’t had the cultural good/bad sense to move there.

How do you self promote as a poet?  Do you utilise social media/the digital landscape? Other ways?

I tweet and have a Facebook page. I hate seeing photos/videos of myself, so it’s a pity I’m working in the YouTube and Instagram age. I mainly self-promote by being good at the craft of performing and writing so that people will continue to book me to do things. I go on Radio 4 a reasonable amount, as  a token female Northern poetic voice. I think that makes me a cultural de-influencer.

What advice would you give to any starting out poets in regards to networking and getting exposure? Can you list 5 things?

1. Be good at what you do.

2. Keep getting better at what you do.

3. Recognise that being good at what you do and getting better at what you do will not play the biggest role in your career, or in anyone’s, but is valuable.

4. Poetry is tribal. Find your tribe/s but find lots of people outside it. Be like the kid in the playground who is friends with lots of gangs, but not at the heart of any of them.

5. Be wary of the terms “networking and getting exposure” but find out what other people mean when they use them and know how to speak their language – whether it be the Arts Council, a poet or an internet zine you’ve never heard of.

JOE HAKIM

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Joe Hakim lives and works in Hull. Get a sense of that from this.  Hear the North sea creak above the sleep that never comes.  He’s an artist of words, asking the questions poetry is the only art that can.

Tell us about POETRY:

For a long time, poetry was like my dirty secret. It was scribbles in secret notebooks. I was incredibly self-conscious about it for a long time. Still am in a lot of ways. I would never dream of referring to myself as a poet.

I have a strange relationship with inspiration. Strained even. I’m in a position where I have deadline and commitments, so I can’t wait for it to arrive. I have to get on with things; just churn the words out and hope that inspiration will take care of itself.

I don’t know if I want to ‘say’ anything with any of my writing. I try and capture moments, stories, characters, things like that. I think poetry, like all art, is a conversation. What I want to say is not necessarily the thing that the audience/reader will hear.

How does being northern shape your poetry and your identity as a poet?

It’s complicated, because I don’t think you can boil down being Northern into a coherent set of attributes or ideals. Yorkshire is its own little world within the North. Hull is its own little world within Yorkshire. West Hull is its own little world within Hull. Newland Avenue is its own little world within West Hull. It’s a hall of mirrors.

I’ve always felt a distinct sense of ‘otherness’ which feeds into my work, but I don’t think that has anything to do with being Northern. It’s more of a case of me being me.

What are the challenges you’ve faced in your career in regards to getting your voice heard, exposure, and getting funding?

It’s an ongoing battle in any long-term creative endeavour. Surviving. People clam up whenever the subject of money comes up, myself included.

A lot of ‘opportunities’ that are presented offer ‘exposure’ as an alternative to payment. It’s carrot dangling, the promise of the reward in the future once you’ve attained some arbitrary degree of ‘profile’.

I have a stock response to people who offer ‘exposure’ as a recompense: You can die of exposure.

Are there any specific biases towards people working outside of London?

I don’t think any of these challenges are specific to Northern poets. I think they also apply to musicians, actors, directors and every other creative practitioner outside of London. That’s the way it’s always worked.

It’s not necessarily a wholly terrible thing either. That’s when you get interesting art and culture happening – small local or regional operators who go the DIY route and do their own thing on a shoestring budget for the sheer love of it. It’s nice when a bit of recognition of money comes your way, but you have to do it because you want to. Great art is born out of opposition.

How do you self promote as a poet?

I am shockingly bad at self-promotion, to the point of self-sabotage. I went back on Twitter last year after people kept approaching me and asking if I was OK, like my total absence from social media was an indication that I’d had some sort of serious illness or meltdown.

I’m not a Luddite. I understand the need to maintain some sort of online presence, if only so people can get in touch with you.

The vast majority of my work is distributed via the digital landscape in the form of video, MP3s and online publications. However, I struggle with the whole ‘putting yourself out there’ aspect of it. The media-savvy poet. I still can’t understand how anyone could be interested in the minutiae of being a writer. Most writers are terribly boring people. I always feel like replying: ‘Good for you mate. I’ve just spent the morning trying to open a jar of gherkins.’

What advice would you give to any starting out poets in regards to networking and getting exposure?

You can only maintain a career in poetry if it’s something you genuinely enjoy doing, because as soon as money enters the equation, your whole relationship to it changes, and not necessarily for the better. For the want of a better expression, engaging with the arts industry can feel like a hustle, and that aspect of it can distract you from the original intentions.

I don’t like to give too much advice, because there’s lots of advice out there, a lot of it conflicting, and I don’t want to add to the confusion.

Any long-term creative act is very much akin to conducting an occult ritual, and everyone needs to find their own set of rites. What may work for one writer may not work for another. There’s no set process or key to success. It’s more a case of finding what works for you, and then applying it to your practice. Trust yourself, and you’ll know what works – and when it is working.

***

SEE IT’S NOT ALL DARK SATANIC MILLS – with HUMBER LITERARY FESTIVAL, PUBLISHERS LIKE WRECKING BALL PRESS – let’s move North, in our minds at least, and take that space that’s long lost South.

 

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