I could tell you what made it so good, but poet and BBC Scottish National Slam Champion Sophia Walker has performed all over the world and is much better than I am at capturing the energy and beauty of performance poetry. So I interviewed her, and she also filmed one of her poems just for us, take a look...
I'm probably the only poet on the planet who ever got into it for the money. I was working for a theatre in America one summer when I was 20 and they weren't paying me enough to both manage to get to work and also eat. One of my mates told me about a poetry slam where top prize was $250 so I wrote a poem and entered. I think all the bribery and intentionally drugging the judges worked because miraculously I won. After that it's just about showing your face at every open mic night you can find till you learn stage craft, improve your writing, and slowly work your way up to being good enough for gigs.
What does being a poet involve? (How) do you make a living out of it?
Being a slam poet involves travelling to anywhere that'll pay you, sleeping on the promoter's floor (on my last tour I'd been booked by the landlord of the pub and he just locked up and told us to sleep on the tables. Note to landlord: when you're not going to pay your poets the agreed amount, maybe don't lock them in your pub overnight with all your booze), spending way too much time on Megabus, surviving on cheesy chips and gas station coffee...oh the glamour!
In all honesty though, it's probably the best job on the planet. The summer months are all about performing at festivals. I've had years where between May and October I've actually moved out of my flat and just gone from festival to festival. (There are poetry stages at Glastonbury, Leeds/Reading, Latitute, Shambala...the list goes on. Poetry is at almost every festival you can name) It was a blast, and if you have the stamina for it you can make most of the cash that'll get you through the rest of the year.
Unless you're very lucky, very good at marketing or very, very good, being a poet generally involves having another job. Since the recession and the decimation of Arts Council budgets you're increasingly expected to perform for free, and even if they can pay you, they're rarely able to help with travel costs. My tours used to be funded entirely by gigs and I earned enough to support myself fully. These days my tours are geared toward teaching workshops in schools, colleges, community centres, libraries...anywhere that'll have me. I earn far more through teaching than through poetry, but I've also got two other jobs.
When you tell someone you're a poet you can actually watch their heart sink. Their faces collapse in horror, desperation and fear. You can see them looking for the nearest exit. I completely understand the reaction, but it's frustrating because the slam scene is so far removed from what they're thinking of as poetry. I want to correct the preconception of what poetry is. We have such a limited view of what is actually one of the world's oldest, broadest forms of entertainment. It's as if someone played you death metal and told you that was the entirety of music.
The first time I ever came across performance poetry was in senior year of high school. I took this theatre class where we all had to direct a one act play. One of the girls in my class gave eight actors eight slam poems. She put the actors on a set designed to be a subway car, and staged the whole thing as if it was just a documentary view of an evening commute. I'd lay money on half the audience to this day not realizing they were listening to poetry. So my perspective of what slam is and can be has always been more to the theatrical. It's the half-way point between story-telling and theatre, it just happens to rhyme sometimes. When I take friends of mine to performance poetry nights (ok, when I force friends into it against their will) they're always shocked by how great poetry can be, and how it isn't remotely what they expected. What ultimately needs correcting is the way poetry is taught in schools. The most common thing I hear from people after their first time at a performance gig is 'if only they taught us poetry could be like that in school I wouldn't have dismissed it so easily'
Can you tell us a bit about how you work - are you constantly jotting down ideas, or do you sit and work at particular times?
See now this is a dangerous question. People are always mystified about how we write, and seem quite impressed by it (to all the people who think it's impressive we have the courage to get up on stage in the first place...we just like attention but thank you. When I'm not on stage I pay three dudes to follow me around with a spotlight, and another two just to sporadically ask me for my autograph. Don't get me started about the fake newspaper I started to get more coverage for myself). The truth, for me at least, is laughable. I have absolutely no control over when I write. A line comes into my head and I will sit down in the middle of the street and write a poem. A whole first draft will just hit me in one long rush and if I don't write it down then and there I lose it forever. I've actually been banned from Tesco for sitting in the middle of the fruit and veg section writing a poem called Swagger the Catwalk.
The first two or three years I was writing I just waited to be hit with inspiration. It's useful because those poems usually work straight off and you don't need to spend three months editing. But it means you only write about five or six poems a year. If you're gigging all the time you need more new work than that, so you start jotting down ideas and consciously thinking about what you can turn into a poem. You also start getting commissions, where not only are you having to write to deadline but you're being told specifically what to write about. I find that particularly difficult. I can write about anything, I just can't necessarily do it well. But commissions are highly paid (well, to a poet. It means you can actually buy something at a pound shop!) so you suck it up. There's also the whole struggling artist thing.. I find that if I'm in a good relationship and I'm happy, I barely write. There's a hiphop artist/slam poet called Sage Francis who intros one of his songs by saying "We started hanging out a lot. It was beautiful. And it was very close to the end of my musical career because I just couldn't write anymore....But then I had sex with her mom. I have a lot more to write about now" It's a crass joke but it's so true. I wonder if I've been intentionally dating all the wrong people just so I can have more poems. I know my disastrous choice of lovers is just bad judgment but I like pretending it's intentional and useful rather than moronic and self-destructive. Shush you, don't judge me.
A lot (all?) of your poetry is autobiographical - you tell some amazing stories about your friends and family in your work. Has that ever caused any problems with the people you write about?
Surprisingly no. But given that I don't even change people's names I do tell whoever the poem is about, give them a copy and ask their permission to perform it. If they say no, they keep the only copy and I forget I ever wrote it. Well, that's not strictly true. There's certainly a poem about an ex floating around that she's never allowed to hear. Though that's something that's personal to me, so I feel I have a right to use it in a poem. And the eternal truth of poetry is 'Don't fuck a poet', so she was warned. No, seriously. Unless you want to end up in a poem, don't. Ever. I recently had to judge a competition where someone got up and did a poem about sleeping with me. Imagine sitting in a crowded room hearing what you're like in bed (in rhyme, no less!) knowing half the room knows it's about you, and then having to assign the poem a numerical score. That night I found a whole new depth to awkward.
What's your favourite of your own poems?
If you'd asked me back in December I probably could've answered. I've been touring near-constantly since January, so I'm at the point where I'm sick of all my poems and if I never had to perform any of them again I'd be a happy chick. I've written quite a bit of new stuff in the last few months, but getting a poem from writing the first draft to it actually being good enough to add to your set is quite a long process. It's not just about having to edit it until the writing is strong enough. You then have to learn how to perform it. That involves a lot of talking to yourself in bathroom mirrors. For the first few months I lived here my flatmates thought I was crazy. They got so worried they actually confronted me about it. It was a bit intervention-y "Erm, we don't know how to say this but...you talk to yourself a lot in the bathroom. Like, a lot. Is there something we should know?"
If you had to recommend one poem to show why you love poetry which would you choose and why?
Ooh! Brutal question. Can I answer that with eleventybillion different poems? No? You're mean.
That'd depend on the person I was recommending to...see I take this question as a 'you've only got one chance to make someone give performance poetry a chance' thing. Because usually I can only convince people to give it one shot. If they're someone who's set against poetry in the first place and who would probably be quite surprised by how theatrical and how funny slam poetry can be then it'd be this:
The only thing more important than writing? Reading. I mentor a lot of young poets coming up, and the difference in how quickly they progress is always the difference in how many other poets they are reading. I got taken aside a few years ago by a phenomenal poet. He said to me "You're good, you've got potential. But you'll never get any better than this, no matter how hard you work." I asked him why and he said "Because you don't read enough poetry. I can hear it in your writing" You listen to someone as talented as Kate Tempest, who is streets ahead of folk like me, and you can hear how much better a writer is when they're well-schooled in the history of their discipline. Kate Tempest is a massive William Blake fan. People like Taylor Mali, Sarah Kay, Buddy Wakefield...they know their stuff.
The other advice I'd give is this: Don't be afraid. Just by stepping on stage and being willing to try your hand at this, you will have the respect and admiration of every person in the audience. You don't even have to be good, they will respect you just for giving it a bash. People are so supportive. In the time I've been a poet I have experienced more random acts of stranger kindness than I can count. People who turn up to poetry nights are some of the loveliest folk on the planet. Give it a go, you've absolutely nothing to lose.