I became a big fan of Warsan’s poetry after reading her first collection last year. The book is called ‘Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth’ and is full of powerfully affecting poems documenting narratives of journey and trauma with a strikingly simple beauty. Me and Raymond Antrobus booked her to perform at Keats House as part of an event there, and this first video is of Warsan reading her poem ‘conversations about home (at the deportation centre)’ at that event.
You can see Warsan read alongside Inua Ellams and John Agard as part of the (FREE) launch event for my role as the Brent Poet Laureate, which is on Friday June 21st. All the details for that can be found here…
I wanted also to include this video featuring Warsan’s writing. It’s called ‘Excuses for why we failed at love’ and has a really different feel to a lot of poetry videos around. Great stuff.
I first saw Inua performing in a library in Acton back in about 2007 when I didn’t even really know what spoken word was. It was another few years before the emphasis in my creative life shifted from hip hop to poetry and story-telling, but I always remember that funny little event as a turning point when I realised that poetry could speak to me so strongly through live performance.
This video is of Inua performing his basketball inspired poem ‘leather comets’, which is a favourite of mine.
Inua’s poetry is great to read on the page too, and his pamphlets ‘Candy Caoted Unicorns And Converse All Stars’ and ‘The Thirteen Fairy Negro Tales’ are available from Flipped Eye.
What follows is an informal Q&A conducted for Pistols and Pollinators by Naomi Woddis with myself and Peader Kirk about our process when collaborating on a new longer show ‘No More Worries’. As a bit of background, Peader is an artist and director who creates immersive performance environments where the audience become a part of the work and encounter becomes possible. His work has recently been shown at the ICA, London, The National Theatre of Greece, Athens and the Academy of Fine Arts, Turin. He also directed my first solo show ‘Indiana Jones and the extra chair’…
N:The premise of the show has got me really interested – whose idea was it ? Or was that also a collaborative effort ? Can you tell me a little bit more about it ? S:it was my idea. P:I think the question of “whose idea” is really difficult to get at, what’s been interesting is that it’s been something that’s been batted back and forth. The initial seed of conception came from Simon, and was passed back and forth to the point that it’s almost impossible now to work out or remember which bit was whose idea, and that’s irrelevant anyway. S:ok, it developed collaboratively – initially through chatting on breaks from rehearsing Indy, which is a totally different show. It was almost a release from the rehearsal process, which helped keep us fresh and creative. P:Wasn’t it Dostoyevski who would work two novels at the same time – one in the morning and one in the afternoon. S:so. a bit more about the show – here’s the copy we used for the scratch: “Ever wanted to get away from it all? Kieran’s 27 and he’s never been on holiday. Paul’s pushing sixty and looking to pull off his final disappearing act. Sometimes, doing the right thing means you tell no-one, because if you did it would stop being the right thing. ‘No more worries’ is a road-trip to the edge, two strangers in Hawaiian shirts staring out the windscreen at the rain, until the land runs out.” P: but we’re also still playing with the idea that it’s a road trip through austerity Britain too. S:What we found from doing the scratch is that it’s almost about too much at the moment. I guess one thing about an ideas based process is that having a good idea is one thing, but then when you have to make them do stuff, actually get up and come to life there’s less room. So we had a lot of exciting chats linking many themes and threads in mind-blowing ways but/ P:ideas don’t perform.
N:Why did you decide to change the way you worked together? how did the process work and who did what when especially when the boundaries of performer and director are blurred ? P: we didn’t change the way we worked together, it evolved. S: I think we’d had the plan to devise this show more than me writing it and then being directed to perform it, which was our process before, but maybe the idea of you performing in it too was something that happened more naturally. P: i have no idea what point i agreed to it. But someone did ask for my acting CV at the scratch. S: yeah. That didn’t happen for me. It was kind of mad showing some spoken word story telling stuff, which I’m much more comfortable with and more known for, and then also some other stuff that really pushed the idea of what spoken word can be within theatre. P: its a difficult thing as artist – people always want you to do your thing, while you want to find a new thing. We’d already made one show that was successful in one way. We wanted to keep that partnership that worked, but discover what else was possible with it. S: It felt like one show of me talking to myself was enough for now. Also, its knowing that while that show is something I’m really proud of, I’m not really a character performer P: i think you’re a great character performer. It doesn’t mean you’re acting a character, but you are a great character performer. For me it’s more that there’s a certain dynamic bounce that you can’t get delivering lines to yourself and us wanting to explore that. S: and wanting to honour the full dramatic potential of the story idea, and really bring it to life in a different way to how we had before, not to be restricted by knowing that two people talking in a scene would actually only be me. P: and a bit like the American writers room model in that they start to act out bits roughly as writing , we did that and then somehow that bled into being those characters consistently in the show and ended up with the director being a performer in the piece…
N: What were the advantages and what were the challenges of how you worked this time round ? S: Peader, you having a role in the writing process was great in terms of sounding board and ideas and sometimes crystallising what would have been a 2 hr write around something down to a 20 minute chat which left me much clearer around what I wanted to write. Conversely it did make it harder in some ways because I felt a bit like stuff had to be signed off, similarly for you directing I guess, in that I had a say in certain elements I might not have done before. P: collaboration is like co-habitation, you have to learn to live together S: and i think that learning takes space and time within a process, some days it was just flying along because we could throw ideas back and forth. I think another challenge of writing collaboratively was that we didn’t have as much time to look at performance P: My mind naturally sees structure and even when i’m inside it I can still sense that structure for an audience but it’s really hard to tweak it from within it, to find that flow and shape that i would if I was just the director. Again just a time thing but would have been great to video every rehearsal to get around that – in a way though the process was building the piece this time… S: and knowing there would be another phase of development in which we could work on performance. Which did though leave us out of our comfort zones for the scratch P: yeah. But that’s a good thing S: and i think we learnt more because of that. It was a scary experience in some ways, but made a lot of things clearer much quicker than would have happened otherwise. P: if you’re going to show something in progress, then you have to be risking something – if you’re totally sure in the material why are you sharing it in that format? No point bungee jumping off a chair. S: no. Not to mention that would probably really hurt. Ha ha! Sorry to end on a cheap joke. Thanks for asking the questions Naomi!
In spring last year I was lucky enough to be involved in an awesome project at Chisenhale Primary school in Bow, East London. I was working with two small-ish groups of boys aged 8 and 9, and a big chunk of what I did was supporting them to build the skills they need to confidently write and perform a group piece about their local area. For the first time on a project like this I also introduced the idea of each group ‘commissioning’ an original poem or rap written by me. They were my bosses, so it was up to them to tell me what they wanted their piece to be about, and to give me feedback at various points in the process. Some of the ideas they came up with were just awesome, and for them to see their off the cuff suggestions transformed into a piece of writing they were genuinely impressed by turned out to be an important part in their journey to writing more confidently themselves.
I’m only blogging about this now months later because life got busy, but also because the other day I found the piece about ‘King Bones’ (the only ninja skeleton living in Bow) and thought it might be fun to record myself speaking it and stick up here to document the project. So, that’s what I’ve done. It’s below, with the text included too. The kids liked it, but were disappointed I did not get to the bit where Bones has a battle on a spaghetti mountain because somebody keyed his car. Who knows, maybe a sequel is coming…
If you see a gold mini cooper with tinted windows
It’s probably King Bones, it’s King Bones!
The only ninja skeleton living in Bow. King Bones! King Bones!
Tyres screech. The fire breathing engine smokes out the entire street.
A little grey cat hides behind a tree. The slightest breeze.
Then the car doors open. In slow motion. King Bones has arrived!
King Bones has arrived! He slips out like a deadly whisper.
Moves quick. What would you expect from a ninja?!
Yep, King Bones has arrived!
The mid day sky clouds over, Thunderclaps,
Louder than a hundred hungry hands drumming empty pots and pans,
Then silence. Suddenly night,
Except for the stars, and the gold of the car, nothing is bright.
king bones has arrived. king bones has arrived.
If you hear the roar of the old Trafford crowd as a ring tone
It’s probably King Bones, it’s King Bones!
The only ninja skeleton living in Bow. King Bones! King Bones!
In a sparkling white karate suit and cool black shades
The top of his skull’s shiny, like the surface of a lake
He walks over to the cat, and that’s when we notice that
King bones white Karate suit has got a dark black skull and cross-bones on the back.
He bends down, voice like a rattle
Rattles “lets be friends now!”
The little grey cat looks up, confused
Bones strokes it’s head and it mews
Now this you wont believe but I tell you it’s true
From it’s skull to it’s claws, from that one touch,
the cat’s now a skeleton too
tail wiggling, bony tail wiggling,
follows Bones back to the car, gets in with him.
As soon as the door clicks shut, the sky switches up,
Just like that, the days back, bright sun.
Must be me Mr. Bones, if I were you I’d run!
Deptford market it an amazing place with an authentically local feel about it that is too often missing at more trendy boutique style markets. This is a real place for real people. Also, you can get anything you want. Anything. And almost always at a wildly reasonable price. One stallholder told me he had been working there for 32 years and the man’s patter was so on point I could believe he was three decades deep in the game.
“if you can’t see what you’re looking for, just ask. I’m looking for your money, and so far I can’t see it”
A recent addition to the market has been young marketers, trainee traders if you like, supported by a council development programme. On the Saturday we were there (9th December) the young traders were housed in a little market on the square. As part of the overall aim of the project to bring more people to the market (crucially in a way that supports what is already there) Chill Pill were invited to collaborate with site specific theatre director Peader Kirk in order to provide some Christmas entertainment. We thought that the best way to do this would be to fit in with the existing market, and see what happened if we tried to run a stall ourselves! As you can see it was decorated ‘tastefully’, although we did have a few people enquiring after the trees rather than our poems…
On arrival we got chatting to the young traders; about their wares, what inspired them to get started, their creative processes, business so far etc – The four of us chill pill poets (me, Raymond Antrobus, Deanna Rodger, and Adam Kammerling) then wrote little ‘instant’ poems about each stall-holder individually, before belting these out with a few of our own pieces over the PA. The marketers were really happy to have their stalls written about and promoted in this unusual way, as for young newcomers vocally attracting custom can be a daunting thing to go about.
Apart from these sporadic performances over the PA (at which we also read some of our favourite ‘seasonal’ poems by other authors) we also tried to bring a bit of poetry to those stall holders and bargain hunters who weren’t naturally passing our way. Our strategy was two fold:
Wandering with ‘the poetry stocking’, from which people could pull titles of Christmas poems, which we would then read to them. Check out Adam doing his thing below. These guys offered us a quid when we were done. Despite us reading them a pretty bleak (although brilliant) poem called ‘snow’ by Vladimir Holan
Chatting to stallholders and punters, and asking for their own Christmas moments or memories, or alternatively their wishes for themselves or others for this years festivities. We noted these contributions down on Christmas labels and hung them from our trees, before Ray compiled a beautiful little crowd sourced Christmas poem from the results.
The final service we offered was an idea I pinched from Poetry Takeaway which I saw at Latitiude – where people could come up and ask to have a poem written for them, about anything they wanted – again the turn around for these was mega quick but this video of Adam reading his to the young woman who requested is evidence of what can be achieved in five minutes!
All in all it was a cracking day, and definitely considering trying to get a plot for another stall in the future! Below you will find the text for my pieces for the marketers… Enjoy!
A battered leather suitcase
Full of old jeans, but
Everything is in here
Un-pick and re-stitch
Zips, hems, pockets
Make ties, bags, wallets
Make anything you want
Made to order, man’s on it.
Dr. Denim, if you’re passing the stall
Pop your head in, certified swag
What d’you reckon?!
Niamh went from jewellery to jam.
24 carat cake jam.
sticky fingers in the workshop,
berry red splatters on the worktop
roasted red pepper and peach,
each deep flavour worked on and brought through…
Compliment your cheese with a chutney,
have it with a brie or a cheese that’s more crumbly
Perfect for a feed if you’re hungry
Deep in the fridge late night with the munchies
Yeah that’s a brand that you’ve seen and heard
And so it may seem absurd,
but you’re much better off with one of Niamh’s preserves!
Adam and Cuth are two people I rate highly, and I have wholeheartedly enjoyed collaborating with both of them in the past (on that note, you can hear a tune Cuth produced for Mole & Iris here)
Needless to say when I heard the two of them had teamed up for this project I was suitably excited. It didn’t disappoint. Cuth cooks up them lush beats as he only he can, soul-tinged goodness that proves his ear for finding and attacking a sample only improves over time.
Adam brings a genuinely refreshingly combo of considered,well written content and an intricate but almost conversational flow – he’s a proper rapper, but also one who brings his spoken word skills and approach in to play at points with great results. Top lad, who is also the latest addition to the Chill Pill collective…
Basically, I recommend you check the ep here but I’ll let the boys do their own promo from here on in with this cracking little video they put together to mark the EP’s release…
Being made to feel welcome is important, and when I went to Newcastle to run for the first workshops on the north east leg of the ‘Indiana Jones and the extra chair’ tour that was certainly the case…
First up, my mate Mark met me at the station and drove me via the beer shop to his house, where his partner had prepared us a mighty pasta feast (with home-made pesto no less!) – they continued to feed me like an absolute king all weekend, including home-made soup on saturday lunch and a packed lunch box of leftover pie from the night before to take with me for the train home on Sunday. Quality stuff. Cheers guys.
Saturday was the first time I’d been to Live Theatre, and straight away I was impressed by the location on the quayside, and by the building itself…
Walking through the front door I was greeted by this sign, and then soon after met by Rachel from juice festival and Laura from New Writing North – I’d been chatting to these guys on phone and email for ages so it was great to finally meet them in person. The welcome party was made completed by the arrival of Kirsten from Apples and Snakes, and also by the presentation of my Juice Festival ‘welcome pack’. These guys know how to do what they do properly!
The young writers soon started to arrive as well, and then it was up to the studio to get started – not without stopping to check out this awesome view from the third floor…
The whole building immediately has the feel of somewhere you know you will get good creative work done, and that very much proved to be the case for the participants over the weekend – each one of them came up with a quality draft of a piece inspired by one or some or all of the themes of family, food, and heroes. You can keep up to speed with the project as it develops on here…
Thursday 4th October was National Poetry Day, and by happy accident also the final event for Indiana Jones & the extra chair residency project I had been running with director Peader Kirk for Warwick Words Festival. By 7.30, the restaurant at The Grand Union was full up with guests, and by 7.40 they were being treated to tapas and sangria served by the kitchen team and poems served by the local writers who had participated in the project.
Later in the evening, I massively enjoyed performing my show in what was a fantastically warm and receptive space, but perhaps my favourite part of the evening was watching the participants sharing their pieces with the tables of audience members; seeing them adjusting their delivery as they went, really responding to the subtle signals they got from the live interactions between them and the other people at the tables.
The atmosphere was incredible, similar to that magic sounding buzz that you get when you walk in to a bar or pub and just know the vibe is right. After sitting in the space as they performed I was proper psyched up and good to go – I have genuinely never had to warm up as little as I did for the show that night which is a true testament to the work the local writers did.
Here are a few pics of them performing:
Towards the end of the evening, the audience got chatting amongst themselves – sharing their own ideas, reflections, and memories. Here are some notes they left on their paper plates about what they felt were the classic ingredients for a family gathering…
Creating the space for the audience to chat about the show and their own experiences of family is a really important element of the event, and is always a lovely thing to watch and be a part of.
Some poems are so good they make me want to put the book down and start writing. And like a lot of poets I find it hard not to read as a writer these days – I automatically start assessing the use of language or form, I’m constantly on the hunt for clues or stepping stones to write better poems myself, and whilst that can be inspiring it is also frustrating at points.
‘Everything is Everything’ by Cristin O’ Keefe Aptowicz is the first collection for a long time to lift me out of this, to make me want to not stop, but to keep on reading. As a reader.
Aptowicz has a style I find easy to take in; simple and clean but full of such brave, quirky beauty within that. She uses everyday language to spark such strong poetic images, and fills each poem with a sense of something felt beyond the words themselves; of the hearts of the poems, their reasons for being poems rather than words in some other form.
The blurb on the back of ‘Everything is Everything’ (her fifth collection) states that inside Aptowicz ‘polishes her obsessions until they gleam’, but as I read the poems these obsessions shone out to me almost as personas – without being a straight autobiographical narrative in any way, the collection gave me a real sense of character and life-journey, of the different sides to her personality that seem to shape her writing, or rather personas that appear through it. By no means exclusively I enjoyed getting to know the geeky teen on the academic decatholon team, the passionate slam poetry ambassador, the proud lover and New Yorker, the shy and awkward recluse, the quirky trivia queen, and the embattled commuter on her 9-5 office grind. I also enjoyed finding I had been left space to read creatively, to imagine connections between the moments and experiences described.
Coming back to the collection with my writers head on was fun too, and particularly to read Aptowicz as a performance poet who is currently thinking about how best my stuff might work on the page. I hear her poems clearly as I read them, and the strength of her voice is enhanced by how the poems look. Second time through I also realised that part of the reason the book flowed so well for me is because Aptowicz uses shorter poems brilliantly throughout – they almost take the role of pre-amble in a spoken word set by giving you a break from such an intense level of required focus, and help her to frame or give context to the following poem or poems.
Anyway, I did end up inspired and hungry to write – which is what I’m going to go and do now! If you want to find out more about this collection and Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz in general then follow the link: http://aptowicz.com/poet/everything-is-everything/
“I have never seen the Alps, but the Cuchullins content me. Jaded and nervous after eleven months labour or disappointment, a man will find in Skye the medicine of silence and repose”
Alexander Smith (Scottish poet, 1830 – 1867)