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…. Yesterday it was Jacob Sam-La Rose, today it is Paula Varjack, the link between them is the Barbican Young Poets. In our interview Paula described listening to poets who had worked with Jacob and noticing that they did not have a kind of ‘house style’ delivery mode. She works with Jacob and the Barbican Young Poets. Looking back at our chat, Paula writes:
It’s very strange to read all this back, I feel like a lot of it has already really dated which is interesting. I think the presence of slam in the UK scene is even less relevant than before, and that there has been a lot more thought and dialogue (since our interview in fact) about critique and performance tropes that has meant there is a lot less work that falls into performance cliche’s.
I think it’s true that there is a lot more dialogue about performance craft today, however, I think the topic of performance cliche is still very current, and I really enjoyed Paula’s incisive critique on the topic.
Paula Varjack describes herself as an artist working in video, theatre and performance. She was born to a English father and Ghanaian mother in Washington. She began her training in stage management at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA). She became aware of the slam scene, and also had an interest in performance art, it was the late 90s and she was excited by monologue driven theatre such as the work of Spalding Grey, and she saw Eve Ensler’s first performance of The Vagina Monologues. She also started seeing performance poetry, attending events at the ICA and watching poets such as Cheryl B, Salena Godden and Francesca Beard. She was excited by the underground poetry scene and zine culture, such as Rising magazine.
Varjack then trained as a film maker and worked in video tech and production. She was a producer for an animation company specialising in the audio process – working on productions for CITV and CBeebies. However there was no progression and she left and moved to Berlin.
She describes her first performance in her ‘Paula Varjack’ persona, at the Poetry Café, and how playfully wearing pink hipster glasses gave her the confidence to sign up for the open mic slot. She continued using the glasses and persona in Berlin, where she got programmed by saying she was a big name in England. She performed at slams, got paid gigs, then returned to London where she got gigs through being established in Germany: ‘I’m all about fake it till you make it!’
After a period of time in the slam scene, she got frustrated with the performance clichés of spoken word. She was writing monologues, non-rhyming first person stories. After working hard to be recognised in spoken word she wanted to get back to performance, theatre and video. She retrained in performance with an MA at Goldsmiths university and started thinking about multiple platforms for her work – durational, sound based, performance, theatre, ‘out of that I’ve been more and more saying I’m an artist… or I’m a video and performance artist’.
On distinctive kinds of ‘spoken word voice’:
Every scene I’ve spent a bit of time in has their own library of cadences […] maybe it’s just something around being in a room with a self selecting small number of people telling stories, maybe it’s the way dialects form, maybe intonation is just something people pick up.
There’s not an embodied physical connection with what they’re saying, who they are saying it to or even where they feel with the place and narrative or even the tones they’re dealing with. There isn’t a lot of thought of musicality of voice. The body is often dead from the waist down.
She feels so strongly about performance clichés because ‘there are habits I picked up as a spoken word artist that I’m trying to shake’. She describes features such as increasing dynamic, gesturing, holding a pause, long run on sentences that then break into small fragments.
I think there’s an awful lot of people that sound like either Kate Tempest or Polarbear. Salena Godden wrote this once in a blog, maybe there are always some of these cadence things but I think what youtube has done, it makes it easier for those cadences to go viral. It’s so vague what the form even is, there’s no formal restraints on what this is, so it ends up being ‘this is what the form is’ .
Varjack describes slam being useful as it gave her pieces that she can open and close a set with, but that it can be ‘dangerous’ as slam poets then perform feature sets full of slam poems:
slam is about having a huge epic journey in 3 minutes – I don’t want to watch that in 30 minutes, it makes those moments feel staged and flat, ‘Oh no that’s just what you’ve done to get a ten’.
She comments on the lack of critique and academic and critical reflection on poetry in performance, and ‘not enough engagement with craft within the community itself’.
She talks about her fourth solo show, Show me the money. It came out of a period when she was in Madrid on a residency. She had graduated from her MA and had gone straight into paid residencies, ‘not thinking about the fact I spent the last 6 months of my Masters aggressively applying for things’. Then coming back she hit a point of panic, with no work lined up or savings, in her overdraft and so she harnessed that anxiety into investigating and researching a show. She found that a performance was an engaging way to start a conversation about artist earnings and careers, and took a documentary approach, interviewing people from a 6 year old girl to established artists in their sixties. Battersea Arts Centre came on board after she presented an extract at one of their ‘Freshly Scratched’ events. The research is ongoing and ‘it has kickstarted conversations on the topic’.
She summarises the key realisations of the project:
Transparency within the community is really vital.
How do you know you can raise your rate if you’re not honest with other people about what you’re charging?
It’s important to talk to people who work differently to you. Dancers and live artists are always training. Spoken word artists seems to think as soon as they get their 20 minute feature set they’re done with training
Being quite plastic about where you live in the country is important. Your sensibility might make more sense in Birmingham or Bristol.
Then from the older artists I talked to – Stop being obsessed with this increasingly professionalised idea of what an artist is and the idea you’re only a real artist if it’s where all your money comes from.
Varjack talks about her approach to continuous training and being a ‘workshop junkie’. She discusses her collaboration with Dan Simpson and the Anti-slam – an event she created in Berlin, in which the worst performance of the worst poem wins:
The brief is to write as bad as you can and perform to the worst of your ability but, and this is really important, while still being engaging or entertaining – which means you need to unpick what is it that makes a good poem.
I think the key thing that unleashes the comedy is to really think about what are the things that you try to avoid in your writing and performance. I’m really into ways of unblocking and unlocking creativity. Maybe there’s quite a lot that’s oppressive and repressive about going ‘I must be really careful not to be too self-indulgent, not to be too whimsical’, but actually if you allow yourself to really go deep into that, not by halves, really go into it and embrace it what happens is you unlock all this creative energy, and that’s exciting and liberating. It’s the same thing with performance. When it’s done right there’s a delicious thrill of the performer letting go and not taking themselves seriously, and that’s fun to watch.
It’s my playful critique of the scene. I’m hoping then people will get that thing [that performance cliche], now that a person has satirised it … It’s my way of keeping a link with spoken word and feel comfortable about the output of material, not allowing people to perform the same set they perform everywhere else.
The interview concludes with a discussion about her current project exploring identity, which came out of her development of her own persona – “Paula Varjack” as an invented name, and how the name allowed her to do what she couldn’t before, and now has become her identity:
That’s who I am now – I have seeded the world with my new name, I can’t shake it.