On the run up to launching my first record ‘Talk in a bit’ I am sharing some bits of talking with poets I’ve been doing over the last few years for a new archive at the British Library ‘Black British Poets in Performance’. The archive is not yet launched (and might take a bit longer due to British Library website shenanigans). In the meantime I am going to post bits of the interviews…. On Friday it was Kayo Chingonyi, today it’s Jacob Sam-La Rose, who Kayo Chingonyi described in our interview as a kind of literary relation:
He was the first poet I read who reflected me in a way that was very direct. I felt part of the work. Jacob has written about his influences growing up in the nineties around the time of Jungle music and I guess I come from a later generation – UK Garage which is itself a mutation of Jungle or House so we’re kind of related in that way. We have a literary relations but we’re also related in terms of our influences. There’s a frame of reference that I get, it reflects me in a way that maybe reading Robert Lowell doesn’t and never will really, no matter how many educational institutions I go through or however much I become part of the “establishment”. – Kayo Chingonyi
Jacob Sam-La Rose first experienced poetry through the page ‘I was very much a reader of poetry’ and later encountered spoken word, he mentions the Chocolate Arts Event run by Roger Robinson – MCs actors and poets all in same space, and Apples and Snakes events at the Battersea Arts Centre, where he saw people like Saul Williams ‘at that time he was still emerging as a poet’. He describes an ‘In the dark’ season of poets reading in a blacked out black box theatre, ‘mind blowing in terms of what was possible just with the voice’ – that ‘marked my thinking’.
His early poetry came from hip hop culture, investigations of identity, self, assumed and adopted identity – British /American hip hop culture, considering his Black British identity and his family’s Guyanese heritage. He mentions Mannafest (which Malika Booker was part of early on) – the collective made work exploring Caribbean influences, for instance a carnival project using African and Caribbean mythology. He was inspired ‘to know there were actually stories behind some of these characters paraded through carnival processions’. He describes eventually finding a voice:
…which is a marriage of all of those influences but is very much more me. In the past I may have directly engaged with clichés, tropes, more celebrated aspects of African American cultures that are now ours and questioning that – at some point I was heavily into the Caribbean voice and what it means to adopt that – now my voice is me, my Black British identity, myself, routed in who it is I am now.
He discusses the Black British voice, threads of that voice and voices in the plural:
I challenge all of the poets I work with, whatever their background to look at different schools of thought and ways of thinking about who they are as poets.
He is interested in supporting successive generations, in questioning what school of thought they belong to, what movement, what they can draw from in terms of what has gone before:
I’m really interested in spoken word and poetry in archives and documents…. repositories and archives of materials for emerging artists to be able to access… in terms of published poetry we have records, libraries stocked to the brim, you can chase back movements and ways of thinking, we don’t have such access to those kinds of resources for spoken word.
For Sam-La Rose it is important to challenge the poets he works with to figure out what they have to contribute and how they can bring their worlds to stages and pages:
so that an understanding of a Black British voice within poetry can be complicated and detailed in some way not locked down and defined but so we can appreciate the depth of it.
He does not define himself as a ‘performance poet’ but as ‘a poet full stop’ with a dual investment in performance and page. He is excited by poets who are breaking down these categories such as Kayo Chingoni, for whom an interest in hip hop ‘doesn’t have to compromise his identity as poet’, and the work of Jay Bernard.
He discusses the use of ‘spoken word’ as a label and how this is often seen as a more accessible word to use in schools and outlines his work co-leading the Goldsmiths Spoken Word Educator programme – established by Peter Kahn. He is currently ‘Professor of Poetry’ working with the BA performance and creative enterprise at Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He works with poets and spoken word artists in spaces where they can collaborate with other artforms.
In his educational work (he runs the Barbican Young Poets and teaches on the Goldsmiths Spoken Word educators MA), he challenges poets to move beyond open mic slots, and a standard path of progression (open mic – feature poet – tour the one person show). He has been having conversations with producers about meeting the demands of the sheer number of poets and spoken word artists, and expanding other paths of progression and ways of working as a poet, on and beyond the page.
Sam-La Rose discusses the importance of discipline and having ‘a practice’ but that poets need to figure out what that means to them, rather than practising ‘whatever the poetic equivalent of scales would be’. He comments that the accessibility of performance events mean a poet can turn up without any training:
therein also lies the beauty, there are open doors […] but there is something that needs to happen for us in that evolution and maturity as artists.