So, what brought you to York?
I was hosting the BBC Fringe Slam in Edinburgh this August and I did this poem I was really really nervous about called “Faggot”, which the BBC chose not to air – unsurprisingly – and Stew (host and organiser of York’s Say Owt Slam) came up to me and said he really appreciated the poem and asked me to come do Say Owt, and I leapt at the chance!
Do you think that poetry will ever receive the same large scale audience that televised stand-up comedians get?
I don’t think so and, to be honest, I wouldn’t want it to. The thing about comedy is, yeah, you could make millions, but my mates that are comedians gig seven nights a week, have four of five gigs a night that they are running between, it’s all unpaid and the chances of you becoming one of the millionaires is zero, whereas if you work in poetry and if you’re creative, you work your arse off and also happen to be lucky, you can. There are probably about twenty or thirty of us in the UK who are doing this at the moment, and it’s not millions that we make, it’s not even twenty grand, but it’s a living.
How did you turn your love of poetry into a profession?
There are a few different ways to do it; the easiest route is to go after big slam titles which then become your CV, I then email promoters my youtube videos and tell them the titles that I have won and this often leads to bookings. Once you have received one booking, one turns into two, turns into five turns into crazily emailing this person in Utah.
Why do you think that Slam Poetry holds such an appeal to people over reading written poetry?
Because it is the only place left in the entire world where anyone off the street can say exactly what they want and people listen – and they listen in silence. Singer songwriters don’t get that, and once you’ve experienced that it’s powerful, especially in this day and age with the internet where nothing holds our attention. In a poetry slam you have a room of people listening to you for three minutes and that’s priceless.
I think you need a point. Not everyone is political, personally I’m a storyteller, and there is a meaning to every point of my poems. Sometimes they’re just about making people feel less alone, and hey! – we’re all idiots, and comedic stuff can be meaningful, but I think [you should] never think unless you have something to say.
Do you think being an openly out lesbian has had a large influence on your poetry?
Yes, and my poetry career. It’s a lot harder to make it as a woman than a man in poetry and I wouldn’t be where I am if I wasn’t openly gay, because I tick more boxes and I’ll take advantage of that. My career wasn’t really made until I won the world queer slam in America, so yay gay!
Was it an active choice to be an openly gay poet?
I think what it was, was that a mate of mine told me I didn’t have the balls to be vulnerable, so I wanted to make a poem to prove him wrong. Then my first girlfriend said to me, “if you were a man I would probably have proposed to you by now”. That really stuck with me and ever since then, out came the gay poems and you can’t deny your life. If I didn’t write about it I’d only write about around 20% of me. When I started in poetry, I thought I was bisexual so you can chart my coming out through my poetry and my comfort level. I find it really interesting that I have basically publicly diaried that whole process.
How do you write your poems?
Either they come out totally in a one off, for example Dyke; please excuse me for holding back the sea – when a guy beat me up and seemed to justify it by saying to me “dyke” repeatedly. I was walking down the street ranting about it to my friend who said, ‘write it down – that’s a poem’. But then Faggot took four months of blood, sweat and tears, so there’s an even split between some I actually wrote and some that just fall out.
Is writing your poetry a verbal process or a written one?
I write it out first. I like to play with internal rhyme and rhyming syllables, so it’s a slower process that one might think as I have to see it on the page.
Who has been your greatest influence in poetry?
Langston Hughes. When I was at school we had a poetry day and this boy called Mika Purter came up. He read this poem called “Advice” and it just blew me away. Hughes was black and gay in 1920s America – how is that a thing he managed to do? And then I just got into spoken word and my world exploded.
What advice would you give people on how to write?
Listen to what people tell you, unless they are giving you options – if they’re giving you options that’s ok, if they’re telling you what to do then ignore them. I think that’s the most important thing; if they say what they would have done if they were me then no, if they say these are the bits I feel don’t work, this is why, then take that.
Also, listen to the advice of people who don’t write. I always test my poems on my sister because she hates poetry – never preach to the choir. Don’t set your poems on fire, the number of poets who burn their notebooks after break-ups and then regret it forever – do not do that!
Say Owt Slam runs once a month in the basement of York Picturehouse. Ran by henry Raby and Stu Freestone – both hosts and performers at the slam – the two create a stunning duo. Poets from all over the North come together at this event, from Hull to Manchester. You might even spot a few of York’s own students amongst the poets! Regardless of where they’re from, all performers at Say Owt Slam are certainly people passionate about spoken word and are keen to perform for the coveted title of poetry slam champion. Scored by selected audience members and with drinks flowing in the bar above, this night is one of the friendliest and welcoming events York hosts, creating an inimitable haven for budding linguists to express their talents to an enthusiastic and welcoming audience.