On the run up to launching my first record ‘Talk in a bit’ I thought I would share some bits of talking with poets I’ve been doing over the last few years. I’ve been interviewing poets for a new archive at the British Library ‘Black British Poets in Performance’ as part of my PhD on analysing poetry in performance (particularly the work of Lemn Sissay, David J and Salena Godden). 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, one per day, starting with Malika Booker, who is so utterly brilliant I wished I could just transcribe her in full for the first chapter of my PhD.
Malika Booker on the craft of poetry in performance:
When you’re crafting your work you need to go over and over and over it. When I’m teaching performance I’m saying: What are you reading? What are you watching? What are you doing to develop your craft? What is your weakness? And how do you push that? Or are you alright with your weakness? Am I alright with not memorising my work? At the moment I’m trying to challenge myself to remember my work because I realised that I need to push out of that comfort zone – getting old – need to do something with the brain cells. We’re not interrogating craft so we’re responsible for people getting on stage and being mediocre and we’re responsible for people getting on stage and thinking they’re starting a new genre and not knowing who came before because we have not interrogated. We don’t hold those gazes up, we don’t say that if you’re going to do something that questions the audience there’s an artist that is great at that, Francesca Beard, she tries questionnaires out on stages with audiences then fine tunes because she needs that live essence to understand what will work, what won’t and what makes it just edgy and pushes it to the point – so if you’re going to do this questioning thing that you’re doing you need to study Francesca Beard. If you’re going to study how to bring the poem alive in every single performance that people hear the poem you need to study Salena Godden, if you’re going to think about how to make it almost like a sermon, preaching, shuffling and edgy sometimes to the point of uncomfortable or sometimes to where you just actually think God stop talking! – You need to study Lemn Sissay because sometimes he pushes to the edge, sometimes he goes over the edge and it’s completely live wire, he knows that this is the risk he takes, how does he take those risks? -Sometimes he talks more than the poem, and the audience get restless and don’t know. If you’re doing performance poetry you can’t start your studying with Polarbear, or you can’t start your studying with Kate Tempest, because actually if you’re starting with Kate Tempest, I say to someone who I’m mentoring, who are you looking at before? She comes from a hip hop tradition, who are you looking at before in that tradition? We’re doing it a disservice not giving it rigour, not looking at it as an artform that needs to be crafted.
Booker talks about starting out in poetry: ‘At that time there weren’t a lot of spaces for people to do poetry. The publishing world was a no go anyway. We started to create our own spaces’. Booker worked as the education coordinator for Apples and Snakes, and describes how Apples and Snakes programmed a variety of poets and how she became the MC for Apples and Snakes nights at Battersea Arts Centre. She describes being part of the collective Mannafest, and making one of the first ‘spoken word shows’.
We had big audiences…. Outside of Apples and Snakes as well we had big audiences who followed us. We had Charlie Dark who did Speakers Corner at the Brixton art gallery, a night for poets and rappers and dancers and singers, musicians, live art forms they were packed out nights. Jonzi D at that same time had the night called the Rhythmic in Shoreditch, Manifest started doing the Mango room which was more kind of very erotic sexy but really dressy kind of poetry. There was an audience then and they would spill over to different spaces and the audience were fine…. you would always get somebody who dragged a friend and would say ‘I didn’t realise poetry could be like that…’
Booker recounts studying the craft of performance and the need for poetry in performance to be interrogated as an artform:
I wanted to get better at performance so I sat down and watched every single favourite performer of mine. I watched Millie Jackson, I watched Betty Wright, I watched Michael Jackson – what are they doing on stage? Then I started going to comedy nights and getting out comedy videos because I realised that actually songs are backed up by musicians but comedians are more at risk, so what do they do, how do they use the stage? I started going to physical theatre workshops or theatre workshops so I don’t like moving around, I like to stand in one place, I don’t like memorising work I really don’t, I like to read from the book but I like to read from the book in a way that’s engaging. But when you see me do that, it doesn’t mean that there’s not a lot of works that’s gone into developing what I do to where I am now, to be able to understand the dynamics of performance.
Booker noticed a shift in how poetry in performance was perceived, perhaps connected to the success of performance events and poets working in schools and making poetry more accessible:
The establishment began to feel threatened and performance poetry became this kind of bastardised term and began to be marginalised and interestingly enough then performance poetry began to be linked with race and that’s when it began to become problematic.
She describes how Kwame Dawes’ collection (which won the Forward Prize) had been rejected by British publishers for being too ‘performative’ and remembers thinking ‘I don’t want to be published I’m never going to be published in this country I’m just never’. She describes searching for ways to develop – the organisation Spread the Word brought Kwame Dawes over and Booker took many of their classes.
Booker talks about starting her collective ‘Malika’s Poetry Kitchen’. She discusses the importance of adapting to different audiences, ‘I think about audiences as an interactive body’, different ways of introducing a performance, the ways in which a poet looks on stage. She talks in detail about developing her poem ‘My Mother’s Blues’ in response to her audience and call and response, and how this impacted the poem on the page too:
My Mother’s Blues
My mother knows pain
a sorrowful gospel type of pain –
a slowly losing her eyesight,
eye-drops every night pain,
a headache worrying for her children overseas,
praying for their safety pain,
a stare through each night, eyes blackening,
hope they are alright pain.
Yes, my mother knows pain.
My children don’t call,
do they still love me pain,
a will my daughter ever have children,
she is thirty-eight now pain,
a your womb is becoming stone sermon
for her only girl on her birthday pain.
Yes, my mother knows pain.
A what did I do wrong
bringing them up pain,
a my son has gone astray, someone put obeah on him
so I have to pray real hard pain,
a look how so-and-so children do so well,
I wish mine were like that pain.
Yes my mother knows pain.
It’s the house now empty
no one to cook for pain,
and I can’t let go, have to let go pain,
it’s a let me tell you how to bury me pain,
I want a plain box, no fancy coffin,
or I will come back and haunt you pain,
a don’t have no big set of people
coming around calling it a wake pain,
it’s a let me tell you who will get what
after I am gone, so you don’t fight pain,
it’s a don’t worry I go soon be dead and gone
and then you go miss me pain.
Yes my mother feels pain.
(Pepper Seed 79-80)
Booker describes how when she started reading the poem, she would pause before the word ‘pain’, ‘I think because it was new to me’. This first time she performed the poem her audience ‘seemed to know and understood the pauses’ and they started to join in with Booker on the word ‘pain’. She was still ‘trying to figure out how to read the poem live’, and the audience joined in ‘so half way through I was like “I need to start again, you guys are like… you guys are on it…”’ The second time she performed it she told her audience: ‘there’s a point where you say “pain” – but they [the audience] didn’t know when the ‘“pain” was coming’. Booker describes treating ‘the performance space as a laboratory’. She realised she needed to put her hand up to indicate to her audience that ‘pain’ was coming. Her description reveals the conscious way in which she uses gesture in performance. She became aware that her general gesturing was confusing the audience and she had to limit her gestures to her conducting of the choral ‘pain’:
The first time was right because it was an accident, and then by about the fifth time we’d worked it out, because sometimes my hand would go – to be my mother in the poem look how so and so… I put my hand up and everyone’s like ‘pain’ ‘pain’ ‘pain’, so that was worked out on the spot.
Booker describes how she struggled with writing ‘My Mother’s Blues’ on the page, that she wasn’t ‘sure how to use the “pain”’. She wrote ‘twenty-six drafts, trying to figure it out’. It was only when she did it for an audience that she realised the poem was ‘important’. She describes how, in ‘conversation with the audience’ the way to use the word ‘pain’ and the collectivity of that experience was revealed to her through the ‘call and response’ form. She uses the plural ‘we’ to describe the process, (‘we’d worked it out’), demonstrating how the audience collaborated with her in the live writing of the poem, as she says, ‘the live space can be a laboratory’.
She discusses being on the first Complete Works programme (mentored by WN Herbert), and the influences that fed into her first collection Pepper Seed. She describes how new it was to have her work critiqued in detail on the page:
[Herbert] said “I see there’s an intergenerational conversation happening between women”, no one had interrogated my work on that level before, I think I started crying. He wasn’t looking at a performativeness of it, he was looking at the poetics and he was just listening, he saw it was trying to talk about the unspoken, the taboo.
She continued working on the book through Cave Canem, a space for of ‘black excellence’ in the United States. She describes making a conscious decision to distance herself from performance because of the stigma attached to it. On performance poetry:
I think the label has negative connotations – for race, for working class, for non quality, for ranting, rap, for making it up on the spot, all of those things… I think when Apples and Snakes first started it was a space that all of us were happy to be under, and that’s why I find ‘spoken word’ problematic because it gets rid of the word ‘poet’, but I think that we need to start interrogating performance poetry. I find it interesting that in America I go on a scheme for writers and there will be slam poets there, working on their craft, nobody finds it problematic – they are poets.
Booker talks about judging the Forward Prizes, and the ways in which poets of colour are discussed in the mainstream press. She finishes by talking briefly about her work as a cultural fellow at Leeds University and new projects ‘interviewing Caribbean people in Chapel Town… about funeral, death, funeral rituals…’