Speaking Words: An Interview with Sophia Blackwell
In the second of a series on queer performance poets, Laura Macdougall talks to Sophia Blackwell about love poetry, blazing rants and social media.
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Sophia Blackwell is a performance poet, cabaret vamp, burlesque wannabe, feminist lesbian warrior princess and the author of short stories, a collection of poetry and a novel. Born in Newcastle, polished at Oxford and living in North London, she’s been on the poetry scene since winning her first slam and getting her first paycheque – which was immediately spent on petrol and a curry. An eclectic word-flinger, Sophia does quiet love poems, scary blazing rants against oppression and hypocrisy, and meditative rambles about dancing shoes, tomatoes, reality TV and killing your potted herbs; the stuff of life. She also owns a lot of red dresses.
Do you think spoken word is a form of theatre?
Yes, basically. I think you can see this in the rise of longer, more ambitious shows with more detailed staging and concepts. At the Edinburgh Fringe, as well as some small-to-medium London theatres, you can see poets really pushing the boundaries. Poets such as Kate Tempest, Rob Auton, Martin Figura, Molly Naylor and Kat Francois have included more narrative, characterisation, music and props in their longer work and these can make for a more satisfying experience, not least because the final show is informed by a more coherent concept than the traditional performance poet’s twenty-minute set, which they may have designed painstakingly beforehand – or, perhaps, not.
I have written three longer shows myself, one based on the poems of Sappho and two of them based on my novel After My Own Heart, and am currently writing the fourth, so I know that it’s potentially more rewarding for both you and the audience to experience something together for a sustained time period (50-90 minutes) that has a defined arc and an emotional pay-off that you might associate more with theatre than the kind of ‘poetry reading’ you might experience in a library, bookshop, coffee shop or university campus. I find it gets a stronger and deeper reaction from the audience, but this may be because they’ve had to invest more in the experience and can’t drop in and out, as they would in a club.
I’ve always been interested in the intersection between poetic texts and theatre and it doesn’t take too much of a leap to see Samuel Beckett’s shorter works as ‘performance poetry,’ or a one-woman monologue by Eve Ensler as an extended poem. I started performing poetry at the same time I was cast in a production of The Vagina Monologues at twenty-one so I could see where the parallels were.
Spoken word seems to be quite political, or provide quite incisive social commentary. Why do you think this is?
Spoken word has been traditionally associated with ‘ranting,’ for a variety of reasons: one, its place in the evolution of conscious hip-hop or rap (RAP: rhythm-assisted poetry) and the fact that performance poets, some of whom moved on to become comedians (such as Phill Jupitus, Craig Charles) used to support bands in the ’80s, whether they were politically oriented folk artists such as Billy Bragg or anti-establishment punk bands who had their support from ‘punk poets,’ such as Attila the Stockbroker and Joolz Denby. In the world of performance poetry, being ‘political’ can be an easy win, particularly in a competitive slam situation where people choose you as the winner because they agree with your message (which in itself is usually something quite uncontroversial like ‘war is bad’) rather than because you’ve written something good. However, performance poetry does remind us that ‘the personal is political’ and, in practice, locates the performer and the audience back in a world that we have the responsibility and agency to change, which I think is important in a society that consistently distracts and disempowers us, and seems to have little to offer us apart from more distractions. In societies where the government seems complacent, un-relatable and inconsistent, it’s more important than ever. You can see that in the agitprop theatre of the ’80s and you can see it now.
Photograph © Naomi Woddis
Do you think social media and social networking have been invaluable in the rise in popularity of spoken word, any more so than when compared to other art forms?
I think all art forms have benefited from the rise of social media, and in particular it has had a democratising effect on the art world; you don’t have to rise through the traditional ranks if you’ve got something good. I saw this when I was doing a project with Cuban hip-hop artists. YouTube completely changed the game because you no longer had to get together the money and prestige to go to the Buena Vista conservatories; you just had to film yourself rapping and put it on YouTube. It’s not just Cuba where artists have resorted to guerrilla strategies, partly as a result of finding themselves being pushed into a corner by the gatekeepers. Spoken word artists, particularly those who can’t make it out to gigs all the time and live in other parts of the UK than London have been using YouTube to spread the word and grow their fanbases. I’ve seen artists like Hollie McNish and Mark Grist make serious leaps in the size of their reputation and audience purely through the medium of video. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these aren’t London-based poets and that Hollie has other commitments – work and motherhood – that mean she’s had to be creative. Dean Atta’s online poem ‘I am Nobody’s Nigger’ went viral and secured him what you’d call a ‘traditional’ book deal by the end of the week. I think overall we have a long way to go, but most performance poets I know are aware of this and are committed to rethinking how they make use of social media.
Do you think spoken word should be featuring more on the arts scene and at festivals? Or do you think this is happening gradually and spoken word will catch up. For example, I’ve noticed that in Edinburgh this year there still aren’t that many spoken word artists on the programme…
Naturally I would say that I think it deserves a higher profile, because I love doing gigs and I want to do more of them! I think the problem is more that people aren’t yet quite confident in defining what performance poetry, or spoken word, is. If I had a pound for every time I heard someone say ‘I’ve never seen anything like that, I thought it might be awful, but it’s great,’ I could retire by now. Well, maybe not retire. Buy a Vivienne Westwood dress or something.
I think we have made great strides over the past ten years. There are always people questioning that in the media and talking about the ‘page vs. stage’ debate. For 90% of us, there isn’t a debate. We do both page and stage and we just keep working and get on with it. I think the big difference is that we don’t take ourselves too seriously and we don’t think we’re too special to have to engage with our audience in a broken-down pub, or spend time we don’t really have promoting our own work; unless we’re millionaires or have a big publishing deal, it’s not like anyone else is going to do that for us.
You mentioned at Queer’Say – I think all the artists at that first event did – feeling that spoken word has sort of taken over your life. Can you elaborate a bit? There also seems to be this great sense of freedom to it; what is it that makes you engage with it so much?
Yes, the first time I performed a poem I knew my life was going to change. It’s not often I’ve felt that strongly about anything. Everything just fell into place from that point on. It hasn’t always been an easy or practical life, but it’s a scene where I met most of my friends and most of the people I love; people who are genuine, who are creative, who are willing to make sacrifices in order to make the kind of lives they want. There’s also the joy of being validated, saying something that you thought might just be specific to you and seeing people nodding and agreeing or calling out to you like a revivalist church. The writer Cheryl B, who died in 2011 and was an integral part of New York’s arts scene in the ’90s, said that performance poetry took her to her ‘awesome place.’ I don’t really have anything to add to that.
Are there any particular spoken word artists you think we should be keeping an eye on, queer or otherwise?
If I was going to choose some established artists, I’d say Joolz Denby (still amazing) Benjamin Zephaniah and Buddy Wakefield. From the ‘already established’ in the UK I’d say Kate Tempest and Polar Bear. People you may not be familiar with but who are definitely worth looking out for: John Osborne, Warsan Shire, Jay Bernard, and Sophia Walker.
What do you think about events such as Queer’Say? Is there a need for them?
That’s a tough one. Whenever I organise an event that’s female or queer-focused I always get the backlash ‘Why not something that’s focused on straight, cis-gendered, financially secure white males, eh?’ I think they are necessary because, as you say, not much of the poetry was queer-focused but the show’s title means we don’t need to explain ourselves or ‘out ourselves,’ to the audience, or decide not to do so. This is an issue for queer artists that straight ones probably aren’t aware of. Also, think of all the parts of the world where we couldn’t do something like Queer’Say; why would we not make use of that opportunity when we’re lucky enough to live in a society that allows us to? Out of politeness?
Relating to events, do you always know what you’re going to perform in advance, or do you proceed based on the audience’s reaction or theme of the event?
I do allow the theme to influence what I perform every time, but if there’s something I particularly want to do, I tend to find a way to work it in! I place my poems against each other to get what I feel is the best contrast of light and shade, shortness and length. The only time I deviate from that is when someone does a poem that I don’t agree with, or consider misogynistic or ill-informed, or when someone’s done a poem that’s a long moan about things they don’t like, I then do something happy to piss them off. That’s something I learned as a slam poet; if you don’t agree with something, you’d better make sure you’ve come armed with a fully prepared rebuttal that will get the audience on your side, otherwise don‘t bother. I personally don’t like it when poets faff around with their set lists, asking the audience ‘Do you want one about love, or about cheese? Or my angry one about politics?’ I want one you’ve chosen with your audience in mind, so stop wasting my time.
Related to the above, do you think spoken word, as an art form, is more inclusive of minorities? Obviously working in publishing we’re both aware of the problems women often face, and that’s often discussed in relation to theatre as well. Is spoken word better/worse/the same for women/queer artists/those from other minorities? Have you ever experienced any kind of prejudice?
I’ve experienced people who don’t know what to make of me, as a high-femme, cis lesbian who’s also had relationships with men. To be honest, I don’t really blame them. I think the poetry scene is more forgiving than the stand-up scene, but it does have things in common with it: there are less women, the bills for big shows are usually designed with three men and one woman in the line-up which makes you, by default, the ‘token chick,’ or it’s an all-queer or all-female event, which as I’ve said are necessary but have the negative side of seeming ‘worthy’ or existing only because we can’t cut it alongside straight white men, which really isn’t true. When I perform I bring all of me: my theatricality, my history, my vulnerability. Other people can choose what they want to bring, but this is all me. And I think people honour that, which is why I haven’t faced too much prejudice, or rather, the prejudice I’ve faced has been insidious and not openly expressed; which, of course, is the same in every industry.
How do you approach the performance element of your poetry, given that this is such an integral part of spoken word?
I work at the physical side of it; the business of memorising, working out gestures, trying to use more of my whole body. Costume has always been an important part of performing for me; if I’ve come straight from work I always make sure I’ve changed part of my outfit, even if it’s just my shoes. That’s how I signal to myself that I’m ready to go on stage and I’m able to slip into a more exaggerated version of myself that can be read and understood more quickly. My look, and my attitude, has always been a showgirl’s, and there is a layer of polish – clothes, makeup – but rather than this detracting from the show, it’s part of it. I like to play with gender, and I like to make the audience do some work, but I never lose the awareness that I’m there to entertain them. That’s all it comes down to in the end.
The next Queer’Say event is on July 4 at the Canada Water Culture Space. Click here to find out more and to book tickets.
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