Interview with Deborah Stevenson from Mouthy Poets, Part I.
on founding the Mouthy Poets collective, touring, dyslexia & diversity
Mouthy Poets is a collective of 15 -30 year olds in Nottingham who write, edit and perform their own poetry as well as producing events, teaching poetry and helping each other to develop personally and professionally.
Mouthy Poets trains young people to produce and organise their own events and projects as a means of giving them concrete career skills and experiences.
Mouthy Poets are currently on tour. They are coming to Birmingham mac on the 7th March, and I’m delighted to be joining them as their guest poet.
Yesterday I had a Skype chat with Deborah Stevenson, poet, performer, and founder of Mouthy Poets.
So tell me about this touring show, why are you taking the work out of Nottingham and how does this show work?
Since I started Mouthy, four years ago, a lot of people have approached me with the idea of taking Mouthy to other places. A year and a half ago I set up LoewenMaul, which is a collective of poets in Germany, at the Staatstheater Braunschweig – that was the first test to see whether it could work somewhere else, and it could.
For a while I was like ‘yeah – world domination’, then I had an agenda about two years ago where I pushed myself to do gigs in other venues nationally, across the UK, because I felt I was doing more work internationally than nationally. That got me talking to a lot of other people in other regions and realising that actually, I don’t want to expand before I understand what is going on in other places. I realised we can learn from them as much as they can learn from us, and that we needed to identifying whether there could be another Mouthy, or whether someone else needs to create something else. I think it’s about people living in locations and understanding what is needed. I believe that the pedagogy of creative writing as much as the practice is really rewarding and has value for basically anyone. It’s not about my brand being everywhere, it’s just about that happening.
Obviously we’ve done that really well in Nottingham, we’re a collective of fifty people with two massive shows a year. The most people we’ve had at one show was just under five hundred. That would be big in London, but in Nottingham, that’s quite crazy.
We’re working with thousands of students in schools, and there’s such a spectrum of reward coming from our work… there’s something one of the Mouthy poets said… “After a fifth suicide attempt I was sectioned. A few months later I joined Mouthy. I knew someone was there and I had a sense of direction – future and hope.”
And a year later that person is producing and performing in one of our shows to just under 500 people – that’s pretty crazy.
Then you just have people who come and enjoy it and wouldn’t have that space otherwise, and people like Matt Miller, being commissioned by The Verb. Yesterday I found out that one of Mouthy, Raegan Sealy, got a Fulbright scholarship to go to New York where she wants to set up a division of Mouthy. So, a real spectrum of life stuff, social stuff, career stuff.
It’s a pilot tour, it’s quite small, just eight stops. It’s about taking a little cross-section of the work we do. I do a free workshop at every stop that acts as an insight into the weekly sessions that we have. When I do the workshop I’ll say – this exercise relates to Mouthy this way, this is what we do… then the show.
When we curated the show, and this is true of Mouthy in general, it wasn’t about “who’s the best?” because that’s not a dialogue that we have. I don’t believe in that sort of clear lineation of the worst and the best, it’s about being yourself, and how we can show a really diverse range of voices, in every sense of the word. This approach generates interesting and exciting shows, and that’s what we want.
We go to every location before the show and meet as many people doing poetry in that area as physically possible, and say “This is what we’re doing, how can we help you? How can this connect? Who do you want it to connect with? Are you working with any groups that we should give tickets to?” We’re working out what we can learn from each other and seeing if there could be some kind of Mouthy growth as a result of this, or if there should just be a growth of dialogue.
Mouthy grew to be pretty big, where did you start off? How did the growth happen?
The way it started was quite organic and reactive. I’d done a lot of research and development… It was basically my third year university project. My actual project was ‘becoming a poet’ – that was my dissertation, but a big section of that was Mouthy.
I’d just done my first paid teaching work as part of Lyric Lounge, at the New Art Exchange. Through that I was working with a lot of young people in Nottingham. Prior to that I’d done loads of work producing on a voluntary level with the Roundhouse and with Writing East Midlands, getting a taste for what was happening.
At the New Art Exchange I realised that young people in Nottingham do want to do this, but at the same time I was going to poetry events where I was the youngest person by 25 years. So I initiated a relationship with the Playhouse’s diversity producer, Bea Udeh, through programming a Black History Month event with Honey Williams, who runs the GOA choir, a really big community initiative in Nottingham. I said to Bea “I want to do something” and she just said “Do it.” I think that happened in September that year. Universities start third week in October, I’ve got space, momentum– let’s just do it.
I spoke to someone in my university about it, Helen Frost in marketing said “there’s this tiny widening participation budget of 3 grand, apply for that”. I’ve always found that funding bids give me a kind of structure – I didn’t get that funding for eight months, but it just helped me thinking about it, and then it was happening. I got a friend to make the flyers for nothing, the Playhouse printed them off, then I went everywhere possible telling people about it, and in the first workshop I had twenty-five people. Then next thing you know, the show is happening. We sold out our first show, in the Neville Studio, which is ninety capacity.
Then Bea found this date in the summer, in the auditorium. I managed to book Akala by scraping money together from Writing East Midlands and Apples and Snakes, and 200 odd people came, which doesn’t fill the auditorium but is still a lot of people.
The year after that we were asked to be producers for ‘Shake the Dust’ [youth slam produced by Apples and Snakes], and the auditorium got a bit fuller. Then I got writers Anne Holloway and Panya Banjoko on board to support and it just continued to grow organically. Before I stared Mouthy I was emailing everyone and going to every event in Nottingham, meeting everyone, going to dance shows, integrating myself into Nottingham as much as possible and I think that really helped.
You’ve mentioned that your experiences London had an impact on your approach to Mouthy, could you give examples?
There’s loads, but the key things that fed into Mouthy would be ‘Year Dot’, which was what I did with Channel Four. They followed fifteen of us, they said for a year, it was more like two, but for the sake of the title let’s say for a year of my life. We all had goals and tribulations and online blogs. It was a three series program that followed us achieving our goals. We also spoke to different young people online about what they were doing and how we could support them with their ideas. We met regularly in that period, so that meant that from 17 years old… if Channel Four is ringing you up every week, you can’t be like “Oh yeah I’m watching Eastenders and eating a sandwich,” you have to be doing things. I always attribute my work ethos to that. I realised how much you can achieve from a young age if you’re given that level of structure. And also the reflection was important. When you’re making video diaries every week you’re really reflecting on who you are and what your practice is.
How did you get selected for it? Were they only following artists?
They sifted through thousands and thousands of people. It was the longest application process I’ve been through – bar the Young Poet Laureate for London… For ‘Year Dot’ I had to have a psych-analysis test with the guy that does those tests with the people that go on Big Brother… They got references from my school, my doctor, it was a really extensive process.
I don’t know how or why they chose people, but there were loads of different people. Akilah Russell, who I’m still good friends with now, who wanted to be a journalist, then a girl who was a carer for her father and wanted to go to boarding school. There was a young dad with a 2nd child during the show, when he was 19 – he wanted to be a rapper and youth worker. There was someone who wanted to be on the Eurovision Song Contest, someone who wanted to be the youngest local MP. A real range of people, aspiring quite high within their circumstances.
Then there was ‘Turning Point’ Festival – the culmination of ‘Year Dot’, which was basically this festival that the Roundhouse ran where they gave thirty young people the responsibility of programming and organising , leading a three day festival in the entire building. I hosted that with Gary Bradnick, on the main day on the main stage. I programmed a market, with my team. We also did all the auditions and programmed all the unsigned talent for that whole week.
The organisational side of Mouthy is really important and I think it’s what differentiates us from a lot of other collectives. The young people, as much as possible, have ownership over what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, as well as the creative output of whatever we’re doing.
You’ve been doing these application forms, admin, big funding bids, lots of organisational things, from quite a young age, and I know you’re dyslexic. I think a lot of people with dyslexia would find that extremely difficult, how have you approached it?
My approach to my dyslexia has always been one of just “this is where I am, this is what I want, this is what I have, how do I use that to get there?” I’ve gone on a long journey with my dyslexia and there were points when people maybe accused me of being lazy, or slow… I could have succumbed to that and said “yeah I am”. But I always thought, “no that’s not true” – it’s just that for some reason I can’t do this in the way that you’re asking me to do it. So I’m going to find my way of doing it.
That’s probably behind everything that I do. A big part of Mouthy is about coming up with your own definitions. If the world is not giving you definitions for who you are, what you are, how you perceive, then you need to make them. If language is too binary for you, then find a way to make it nuanced.
It’s also meant that I’ve come up with comprehensive processes that inform how I do things and how I understand things, and I’ve created a secure network for myself. So I just don’t really care if I get spelling wrong, it doesn’t really bother me. The other director of my company, Anne Holloway, is brilliant at proof reading, and proof reads everything that I do. Everyone that proofs me marks everything in red, so I build a pattern of what mistakes I tend to make and do it less and less. It’s a learning process for me as well.
I read very very slowly, but very thoroughly. A part of my dyslexia is that I don’t understand something until I understand the meaning, the context. So it takes me a long time but probably works in my advantage when it comes to funding bids. I will go through that Arts Council document word for word, highlighting, annotating, building a list of questions. I will ask the Arts Council all of those questions then do that again with every application section. I’m making sure I know what they want, and I know that it aligns with my purpose. So it actually works well for me. My dyslexia means that I think three-dimensionally. I’ve got all these thoughts in my head like a crazy person, but I need a funnel to process them through. A funding bid helps me do that. I could probably write a ten-stage guide on how I do that because it’s quite an extensive process! Maybe next time.
In general the performance poetry world tends to be more diverse than page poetry, or certainly mainstream poetry. Do you agree with that? And do you have any theories as to why that is? Perhaps you could talk a bit about your approach to diversity.
A few things there!
Sorry, loads of questions. Basically – Diversity: Go!
[have to listen to the next bit as I can’t to justice to Deborah’s ‘wah’ noise on page]
A lot of Grime comes from east London, and if you look at the diversity statistics of East London and the scene, there were a lot of correlations. There is a big international diverse scene of spoken word too. It’s definitely more diverse than page poetry –I’d be interested to see if anyone wants to argue with that…
I think it’s because page poetry is quite terrifying. You sit in your little room and submit to all these magazines and get rejected and rejected and rejected and told you’re crap until eventually someone decides that you’re good. I’m not saying it’s entirely like that, but you know what I mean. I’ve met a lot of people who feel that way, who feel isolated, they don’t know where to go, and feel that it’s impossible. Then whenever they go to a talk or discussion or do a degree in it, they’re told that it’s never going to happen.
Whereas my experience of performance poetry, and the spoken word educator kind of movement is totally different – things like ‘Shake the Dust’, people like Joelle Taylor, like Jacob Sam la Rose, who are very much involved with the page world in many ways, but have come up through performance poetry, they’re all about asking “who are you?” and then “let’s use these tools – specificity, the strength of verbs, lineation – for you to learn how to articulate who you are and what you want to be. If ultimately you want to be a poet, be published, successful, then great, we can do that, but actually the most important thing is you working out who you are, let’s do that”.
There is this community of people where that is the priority, which makes it accessible, and attracts people who feel that the language they’re being given at school is not equipping them to understand who they are and where they want to go and what makes them happy. The job of these poets is to give them that space, a space where they are understanding of each other. That is accessibility, that is inclusion.
I just haven’t experienced that in the page world yet. I’m very unfamiliar with that world, so that’s just been my experience. When Jacob Sam la Rose is mentoring me, I’ll show him a poem, I’ll think it’s great, I’ll have another mentor who thinks it’s great, but he’ll ask “is that really what you’re trying to say?” and I’ll realise it’s more important that I say what I need to say, to my mum, in my head, than get this poem published.
So the focus has shifted? Rather than getting detailed line by line the focus is more – who are you? What do you want to say? Why are you doing this? Even if that doesn’t result in a poem that is published?
I think actually it does, it does result in a poem that is published. No one has given me more detailed feedback than Jacob, and a lot of it comes back to what I want to achieve. At the beginning, even at the early stages of Mouthy, rule one is to get out what you need to get out. Ultimately it ends up in the same place, and we’re seeing that now. A lot of performance poets are getting onto the page, working with high-end publishers, cutting their work down and nailing form, and nailing things that the page poets talk about. Their “why?” – their core is different, or it’s spoken about more, or more explicit… the rigour is the same, but first you understand why.
Hopefully that’s what people will see in our tour. The quality of the work is crazy high. We worked with Clare Pollard, she edited all the work, there’s a ‘zine, we thought about how it’s all presented on the page. But I just feel that the core is clearer and that comes through in the level of education and grass roots work that a lot of performance poets do.
Part II will be posted next week and goes deeper into questions of diversity and accessibility, Deborah introduces us to some of the members of Mouthy, and I ask some tough questions about ‘identity poems’. Here’s a taster: