Sound and vision blog

01 October 2020

‘Using your eyes as a pen’ – Black British Poets in Performance

By Dr Hannah Silva, British writer and performer and Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London.

Paula Varjack
Paula Varjack selfie.

“What you actually do is you use your eyes as a pen,” David J is telling me how he learned to freestyle, “off the dome.” We’re sitting in a studio at the British Library, recording an interview for an archive: Black British Poets in Performance.

David J developed his craft out loud. When freestyling “it’s your life really that gets played out.” He describes hiding in a corner: “a silent child hears more.” He picked up vocabulary from books in the family home, medical journals and the Encyclopedia Britannica, and integrated it into his freestyling, “we can have fun ’cause my family is medical so we’re gonnna do vocal autopsies so everyone is… ah! nah he’s gonna rip em apart... nah I’m gonna do it clinically, ’cause mum’s a health visitor.”

Throughout these interviews it becomes clear that writing ‘out loud’ and ‘on the page’ are not differentiated practices, that performance is as much a part of ‘writing’ as writing is performance.

Here’s Anthony Joseph discussing how vocalising a poem can connect you to “other musical ideas”:

Anthony Joseph [47.55-48.24] ref. C1874_1

Download Anthony Joseph transcript.

Vocalisation is a way of embodying writing, engaging not just the ears in listening, but the breath, diaphragm, larynx, and vocal folds. Malika Booker comments that she likes to walk whilst she writes: “because I need to get the rhythm, I need to hear things I need to feel things […] writing is not just a solitary sitting down act.”

In the padded windowless room David J is looking at me, “you see Hannah” and looking around: “you see: speaker” and now he’s inhaling the words and mixing them with “what’s inside of you… your thought.”

David J [17.56-18.33] ref. C1874_15

Download David J transcript.

Kayo Chingonyi comments that “the label of ‘poetry’ has shrunk over the centuries”, that performance has often not been accorded the same importance as “dancing that intellect on the page.” He analyses the racialised aspect of labels such as spoken word and performance poetry and how this is linked “to having bodies”:

Kayo Chingonyi [26.37-27.30] ref. C1874_9

Download Kayo Chingonyi transcript.

Jacob Sam-La Rose discusses the importance of having spoken word and performance poetry in archives that can be accessed by poets developing their craft:

Jacob Sam-La Rose [19.50-20.40] ref. C1874_16

Download Jacob Sam-La Rose transcript.

This is that kind of resource.

These interviews feel groundbreaking because of the depth to which each poet discusses their craft. As Malika Booker says, this is “an artform that needs to be interrogated.” Every interview is over an hour long, and is accompanied by readings. We discuss how labels can exclude, and conversely how self-naming can be a creative act. We have conversations about the Black British voice, the Lyric I, presence, audiences, artistic development, performance poetry criticism, and poetry within theatre. We discuss influences and inspirations, and zoom in on moments of writing and performing.

Booker writes on her feet both at the early compositional stage, and sometimes in performance. In our interview she explains that her poem ‘My Mother’s Blues’ was edited in performance in response to her audience. Initially she wasn’t “sure how to use the ‘pain’.” She wrote “twenty-six drafts, trying to figure it out.” It was only when she did it for an audience that she realised the poem was “important.” Her description provides an example of how the body, voice and audience can all play a part in the writing of poetry, she treated “the performance space as a laboratory.” It also illustrates the interactive joys of a poetry night:

Malika Booker [45.50-52.00] ref. C1847_12

Download Malika Booker transcript.

Other unforgettable moments in this archive include Paula Varjack revealing that her name and performance persona were constructed around a pair of sunglasses. Lemn Sissay, whom I interviewed by a pool in Brazil, demonstrating how he started to deconstruct the moment of performance as it happens, and how he uses gesture as part of his writing (read more here: Lemn Sissay: Defamiliarsation and Performed Palimpsests. There’s Inua Ellams on guerrilla gardening, Karen McCarthy Woolf on vulnerability and hybridity and how trauma made her especially sensitive to sound, and a chat with Raymond Antrobus and Deanna Rodger behind the Latitude Poetry Tent (already a historical event).

Also – we had fun. Here’s Joshua Idehen parodying poetry styles and prosodies:

Joshua Idehen [55.28-56.28] ref. C1874_5

Download Joshua Idehen transcript.

The poets in this archive are there because I wanted to talk to them, and because they were willing to talk to me. My own research interests and my connections and friendships inevitably shaped it. The interviews were recorded several years ago and the poets would record different interviews today, but this archive enables us to, as Sam-La Rose puts it, “chase back movements and ways of thinking.” It is by no means a finished project and I hope it continues to be expanded and that the interviews are an exciting resource that supports further research.

Thank you to all the poets who agreed to talk to me for the archive, and all those who talked to me outside of the British Library context too. So far this archive contains interviews with Raymond Antrobus, Dean Atta, Malika Booker, Kayo Chingonyi, Inua Ellams, Anthony Joseph, Ria Jade Hartley, Joshua Idehen, Keith Jarrett, David J, Chanje Kunda, Deanna Rodgers, Jacob Sam-La Rose, Andra Simons, Lemn Sissay, Mark Mace Smith, Paula Varjack, Indigo Williams and Karen McCarthy Woolf.

The archive was constructed as part of an AHRC collaborative doctoral award with Stirling University and The British Library.

This collection is available in the Library's Reading Rooms and will be online next year. If you would like to browse the collection online, please enter C1874 into the Library's Sound and Moving Image Catalogue.