Speaking Words: An Interview with Keith Jarrett
In the third of a series on queer performance poets, Laura Macdougall talks to Keith Jarrett about performance poetry as social commentary and the importance of safe queer spaces.
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Keith Jarrett writes poetry and short fiction. A former London and UK poetry slam champion, and World Cup semi-finalist in 2010, he has hosted English and Spanish poetry showcases and co-ordinated festivals in schools. In 2013, his five-star reviewed poetry show Identity Mix-Up debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe festival. Keith’s short fiction has appeared in anthologies and magazines, including Attitude and Tell Tales IV. He currently teaches in a secondary school as part of a pioneering Spoken Word Educator programme, which includes an MA at Goldsmiths. He is writing his first novel.
Do you think spoken word is a form of theatre?
Yes and no. What spoken word poetry is, in relation to other performance-based art forms (stand up comedy/ theatre/ rap etc.) and to ‘page’ poetry read aloud, has always been up for debate. Great spoken word poetry is a performance because you form intimacy with the audience in the same ways an actor does: through the way lines are delivered, through timing, pitch, even movement to a degree. Where I would draw the line at calling it theatre is a question of emphasis. For me, it all comes down to the words – and if you take away everything else, you still have a poem. That’s not always the case with conventional theatre. The only people I know who frequently read scripts of modern plays are playwrights.
Spoken word seems to be quite political, or provide quite incisive social commentary. Why do you think this is?
There’s always been a link between poetry with political movements and protest; that it should continue to be the case is hardly surprising. Spoken word naturally lends itself to social commentary; you can take a poem to a rally and repeat it at a poetry night. You can then record it and post it on social media. The more repetitive poems can be catchy calls to action. Spoken word is versatile; I’m not sure whether the chicken or the egg came first, but spoken word audiences – to me, at least – seem socially engaged, and they want to hear words that challenge the status quo.
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?
Yes. The three-minute (or so) poem is easy to share on social networks; it isn’t too intrusive to the working day, and I can think of several examples where poetry videos have gone viral. Spoken word, in turn, has responded to social media better than other art forms; perhaps it had further to go. Poets have gone topical – responding to world issues within minutes of stories breaking – and tweeted video links to their poems, put them on newspaper blogs and forums. The poetry video has also taken off in a big way; I’m seeing poems presented with a visual aesthetic that just wasn’t there a couple of years ago, from hi-definition live recordings, to cinematographic rendering and even animation.
Do you think spoken word should be featuring more on the arts scene and at festivals etc? 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…
Despite gaining popularity, spoken word has kept up its underground status in the UK. Spoken word has embraced popular culture in a way that poetry of the establishment hasn’t. Go to a music festival in the summer and, more than likely, you’ll find a tent full of spoken word performers; go to a literature festival tucked away in a village somewhere and you’ll see ‘readings’ by more established page poets. Not many performance poets are going to pack out halls every night, so not many will fork out the thousands of pounds you need for a successful run at Edinburgh; however, scour the free fringe programme and you’ll find plenty of spoken word poets.
So, in short, spoken word is appearing a lot on the arts scene but there’s still a fault line between ‘low’ art and ‘high’ art. Poetry that appears in a more traditional written format gets read out on the radio; oral poetry doesn’t always get that recognition. But it’s alive and kicking!
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?
Poetry has taken over my life, but it was gradual. I’ve always written as a hobby – diary entries, stories, poems, raps – and when I discovered poetry slams, I was hooked. There’s an immediate buzz from sharing your work on a stage with an audience, and there’s a real sense of community at poetry events. I was gradually given more opportunities to perform, just from being at loads of spoken word gigs, and then, after taking part in the World Cup Slam, suddenly I found myself performing in Poland. And then, suddenly I was doing things, like co-running a workshop and slam in Jersey, and meanwhile building up my confidence on the scene back in London. And then, suddenly, I found myself last year performing my first solo show and putting together a book. Years down the line from the first time I stepped on a poetry slam stage, I’m teaching spoken word at a school and studying again. What was an occasional hobby has now transformed into my day job.
I feel free when I’m writing and performing because I get to be different aspects of myself. I can be reflective, introverted and crave the solitary experience of writing and observing, And then I can also be bursting with energy, with the desire to engage with people, with the need to express myself physically and vocally. I always tell the pupils I teach that poetry is a great leveller – the shy ones are often highly-literate, talented writers, and the louder ones often lack confidence when it comes to focussing on their writing. When you have to both write and perform, you get to be different people.
Are there any particular spoken word artists you think we should be keeping an eye on, queer or otherwise?
I’d have to get back to you on that for a fuller answer!! There are far too many to name, and I’m definitely not an authority on everyone. But I’ve just come back from a trip to the States with Sophia Walker, where we represented the UK at the Capturing Fire queer slam. She’s a real performance poet. She works at her craft and takes it seriously. And it pays off!
Shyla Hardwick & Thomas ‘Vocab’ Hill
There are some great US poets. I was blown away by Shyla Hardwick and Thomas Hill at the slam, and of course, the organiser Regie Cabico who has a zany connection with words. Then, UK-wise, two women who are mega popular – and not without reason – Kate Tempest and Hollie McNish, remain favourite poets of mine; their words are accessible, and they’re warm people. Then, some of my colleagues who teach on the same project as me, Raymond Antrobus, Indigo Williams, I could go on… The good vibes of Deanna Rodger… I don’t know who I should be watching, really… You tell me!
What do you think about events such as Queer’Say? Is there a need for them?
I always shied away from doing too many LGBT events, because I don’t need to be the ‘gay poet’ and my sexuality doesn’t always need to define me. That said, events like Queer’Say create a safe space where I’m able to do a full set of poetry and feel I’m in a safe community space. If you are LGBT, you’re constantly coming out to strangers, in a way, even after you’ve been out for years.
And there are places I feel less comfortable, where I feel less represented. Queer spaces redress that balance a little…
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 plan a basic set (I want to start with this poem, and I want to probably end with this poem, and have this related poem somewhere in the middle). Then I have standbys (I’ll do this poem or that poem, and this one too, if I cut down on the pre-amble). And when I’m particularly nervous, I have my go-to poems. And then, if I’m on towards the end of a poetry event, I’ll often have heard a poem related to something I’ve written, so that will get added on. I’ve usually scribbled a rough list on a piece of paper, and, inevitably, I forget to take it with me when I go up on stage.
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?
Spoken word gigs are often full of the nicest people, and the London scene is pretty tight – most of us know of each other and what nights are when etc. and I count spoken word poets as my closest friends, whom I’d trust with my life. Spoken word gigs are also full of poets and people who enjoy listening to poetry, who don’t just come to be entertained but to engage in (what I see as) a community activity. So the demographic (usually) tends to be quite liberal, politically aware, leftist.
All the above is my disclaimer.
Spoken word gigs can be very smug. Artists and organisers see themselves as liberated, liberal, working class (or, at least, allies of the working class), diverse members of society; but they’re no better or worse than the rest of society. The rest of society is divided by class, race, gender, sexual identity barriers. Poetry events tend to divide themselves just the same – and not enough organisers are honest about it. London has an extremely varied scene – no two nights are the same – and there is something for everyone, but I don’t necessarily feel that every night is targeted for people like me and the audience demographic reflects that.
I’m not sure there is a better or worse, however; the good thing about the poetry scene is it’s built from people who read and listen. As long as people are listening to each other, you get to curb extremes of prejudice.
How do you approach the performance element of your poetry, given that this is such an integral part of spoken word?
I practice at home; I practice on the street by pretending to be on the phone. I always try to learn the words unless it’s brand new – it makes such a difference if there isn’t a paper barrier between you and the people you’re in conversation with. I see performance poetry as a conversation – and that’s why I get particularly nervous if I can’t see the audience, or if I can’t hear/sense a reaction. I haven’t yet fully worked out what to do when that happens – I’ve died on stage before, because I wasn’t sure if the people listening were with me or not….
Sometimes I stand in the mirror at home and run through a poem. I just make sure it’s something I want to hear and not just read… and then I take it from there.
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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