A great review of Peter Knaggs’ “You’re so vain (you probably think this book is about you)” by Dick Ockleton in Dream Catcher Magazine.
It’s not every day you come across a poem with the title “Scunthorpe Police Swoop on Lunatic Bean Fetish Man”, but by the time you reach page 72 of Peter Knaggs’ “You’re so vain” collection, it doesn’t seem anything out of the ordinary. “Normal for Knaggs”, you might say.
You know you are in for something different from the off. The arresting cover – a face formed from a pair of scissors, a comb and a button, should seem harmless enough, but there is something unnervingly fierce about it and the significance of those bloody (literally) scissors comes back to haunt you. Page by page, Knaggs has the ability to surprise, intrigue, amuse, sadden and shock in equal measure and it makes for an oddly addictive collection. You really do want to know what happens next. The accessible style of these pithy, cleverly crafted pieces keeps you turning the pages. Knaggs’ gritty, witty poems take you on a journey through a world populated by meticulously observed and totally believable ordinary people, just trying to get by on a day to day basis. You are introduced to their shortcomings, their labours, their hopes, their dreams and their frequent disappointments. They just keep at it, ever more inventive in their efforts to keep their heads above water by whatever means, be it working in unrewarding jobs, lawbreaking, fighting, practical-joking, conning. And, now and again, the odd murder is dropped into the mix – quite literally in the case of an adulterous trapeze artist. Those scissors also make a couple of appearances, broken and sinister. They are a motley bunch, Bobby, Billy, Ox, Banana Dave, Arnie, Stiggy and the rest. You join their lunch breaks and eavesdrop on their conversations. The author’s acutely-observed scenarios and quirky fine detail (“White bread impressed with grey fingertips like dabs down the nick”) put you right there with the characters. You could perhaps warm to some of these lads, but you definitely wouldn’t want to meet Gasher on a dark night. But the hapless, ever-optimistic Crusoe is the star of the show. He appears as a steady thread running through the book. There is more to Crusoe than meets the eye. Stuck in an unhappy marriage, too scared of his wife’s brothers to get out, he “sometimes wants God to give him his receipt so he can take his whole life back and get a refund”. Even his own mouse traps attack him. Crusoe has firm opinions on what does not constitute modern art, and is meticulous about cleaning his van. He is on a relentless (so far unsuccessful) quest for self-improvement, but has also been known to “moon” in Macdonald’s. His frequent appearances and obviously sympathetic treatment might lead you to the conclusion that he is the narrator’s best mate. Recurring themes of poverty, law-breaking and tediously stupid, incompetent bosses, are lightened by moments of joy and release. There is a character who goes up on the roof in all weathers to escape – “it’s the quietness, the otherness, the being above”. There are “boisterous shirts” which apparently make the wearers irresistible to the opposite sex – or is that just the beer talking? Even the relentless bashing of inept managers is punctuated by a couple of moments of (almost) sympathy for their situation. The ongoing fight between the “Devil” and “God”, or the pitying parallel drawn between a boss and an old library book that nobody wants to borrow. But now and again you are brought down to earth with a bump. The gnawing poignancy of a woman who dies, alone, with “two losing lottery tickets in her purse”, or the helplessness and horror of a football stadium tragedy. And then there are moments of pure whimsy – a relationship with a mermaid, or a “Clockwork Orange” style over-luxurious use of language to describe the gluttonous “Badger the Cadger”. You can almost hear the slobbering. This collection is a pick and mix of real lives. It takes you through the highs and lows and it makes you stop and think. Never boring, it crackles with originality. The wry wit keeps going right through to the end, with the final poem’s take on being hard up – directions given to an imaginary bargain hunter on how to navigate by a succession of “Pound shops” to reach the ultimate goal – a shop that sells everything for 10p – Paradise! All in all, a refreshing read.
So what (un)earthly delights are we offering in 2017?
Here’s the line-up so far :
Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile
by Adelle Stripe
“You write what’s said, you don’t lie. Or say it didn’t happen when it did all the time…”
Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile is the keenly anticipated debut novel by Adelle Stripe and is inspired by the life and work of the Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar.
This slice of kitchen sink noir tells Dunbar’s story in print for the very first time. Featuring a cast of real and imagined characters, it is the result of four years’ painstaking research that has unearthed the hidden story of one of the North’s most enigmatic figures. It is a tale of the North / South divide and reveals how a shy teenage girl defied the circumstances she was born into to become one of West Yorkshire’s greatest dramatists.
Set in the Thatcher era, it maps the extraordinary rise of a young woman from the Buttershaw estate, who is discovered via a Women’s Aid refuge. She is propelled into the London theatre establishment and an adapted screenplay of two of her early plays brings her wealth, accolades and notoriety, while raising three young children.
Rita, Sue and Bob Too! is a national scandal upon its release, and its tagline ‘Thatcher’s Britain with Her Knickers Down’ ensures it is a box office sensation. Fame brings anxiety however, and Dunbar is unable to cope with the media attention, pressures of family life and writer’s block. She slowly succumbs to the pitfalls of drink and spends her last days in her local pub The Beacon, where she completes her final script based on a gang of unscrupulous debt collectors. In 1990, aged 29, she collapses from a fatal brain haemorrhage.
One of the most important writers of her generation, this remarkably stubborn ‘genius straight from the slums’ recorded the everyday realities of working-class life. Dunbar’s unflinching autobiographical plays included themes of domestic violence, underage sex, poverty, racism, alcoholism and the declining status of men. By using frank and expletive-ridden dialogue she created a no-holds-barred account of the underclass composed in the tradition of social realism.
A bittersweet literary depiction, Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile explores a world whose themes are more relevant today than ever. It marks the arrival of one of the UK literary underground’s best kept secrets.
Adelle Stripe was born in 1976 and grew up in Tadcaster. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Manchester University and is the recipient of the 2016 K Blundell Award for Fiction. She teaches at MMU.
Adelle is the author of three chapbook collections of poetry, the most recent, Dark Corners of the Land, was 3:AM Magazine’s Poetry Book of the Year. Her writing has appeared in publications in the US and UK including The Guardian, Stool Pigeon, Caught by the River, Penny Dreadful and Chiron Review.
Her prose-poem The Humber Star will feature at Hull City of Culture 2017 as part of John Grant’s North Atlantic Flux programme. She has recently recorded vocals and lyrics for production duo Smagghe & Cross. Their experimental ambient track Cock of the North will be released in spring on Offen Music.
Spit and Hiss is the fourth collection by Hull born poet Mike Watts. As well as carrying Mike’s trademark brutal honesty and hardboiled insight, these poems betray a deeper and more lyrical maturity to Mike’s current way of looking at the world. From corrupt local councillors and lost weekend lovers to memories of youthful exuberance and present-tense mid-life panic, all life is here, in all it’s marvellous bare- arsed glory.
Here’s a little taster, a poem called Let The Good Times Roll, which has been selected for publication in The Morning Star:
Let The Good Times Roll
His tearful mug crumbling from the front page of the local rag,
the political candidate swore-blind he’d been punched
simply for posting his party’s propaganda.
Turns out he was being economical with the facts,
the alleged ‘man-mountain’ of an assailant insisting he
didn’t take a swing at all,
he merely objected to having unwanted junk posted
through his letterbox and attempted to return it
by pushing it back into the posters pocket.
The candidate assumed it would be good publicity if he
so the local press sent out a team to capture HIS version
The paper has an on-line comments section.
It stirred-up quite a debate.
Some said the guy was probably an unemployed thug
whilst others defended him.
Personally, I think the political candidate is a weasel
(I think most of them are)
and in this town I think he got off pretty lightly,
considering his politics.
This crappy bull-shit no-news story made front page,
so obviously all is well;
diminishing crime rate, zero unemployment and
the local economy booming.
Quick, pour the cognac, light the fire-works,
pass the cigars;
at last, we’ve cracked it!
In other news, Mike has just had a poem “Yorkshire Princess” selected in this year’s “Anthology Of Yorkshire Poetry”.
International Poetry Collection … TBC (!)
We Know What We Are
Short stories by Russ Litten
painting by Mark Hebblewhite
The debut short story collection from the author of “Scream If You Want To Go Faster”, Swear Down” and “Kingdom”. This latest batch of tales are all centred in and around Hull in the year 2017 and feature a cast of citizens whose lives play out in the furthest edges of the penumbra of the City of Culture spotlight.
Here’s a short excerpt from “The Light That Lights The Dark”, which previously appeared in “Pearl” in the USA and “Verbal” in the UK.
He gets up before you, goes downstairs and lays the table; a plate of toast with the margarine at two o’clock, the jam at three o’clock, a mug of tea on the right hand side and the knife on the left. You sit and eat together and talk about the day ahead. He tells you that it looks like it’s going to be a nice day outside and you should both go for a walk, blow away the cobwebs. When you’ve finished breakfast he runs you a bath and holds your hand as you step in. He washes and conditions and rinses your hair and then goes through to the bedroom and lays your clothes out on the bed from left to right; knickers, bra, fishnets, the long multi layered black and mauve skirt, the black satin bustier, your favourite mesh top. Then he gets himself dressed and flicks through the TV channels until you call for him to help you out of the water.
And when you’re dressed he blow-dries your hair, your head between your knees as the heat roars around your scalp. Then the backcombing, the gentle tugging and teasing of his fingertips and then the throat catching blasts of hairspray, the mist settling on your spikes like a sticky net. He sits you down in front of the mirror and does your make up. The cold lick of foundation and the tickle of the brush on your cheeks and forehead. He describes the colours he’s using around your eyes, the purples and the greys and the greens and then falls silent as he leans in closer and concentrates on drawing in the lines around your eyes, the arch of the brows and the cat lick at each corner, his warm breath at the side of your face.
I’m getting good at this, he says, and you say that you’ll be the judge of that.
Debut Poetry Collection from exciting northern punk poet … TBC!
We’ve also got amazing short story and poetry collections coming up from some very exciting new and established names. But that’s not until next year. In the meantime, if you want to get on the Wrecking Ball Press Book Club and take advantage of our ludicrously generous nature, please follow this link here:
Can you cook? What do you consider your signature dish?
I don’t like to comment on my ability as a cook, I’ll leave that to those that eat my food. I really love cooking, especially things that you can get involved in like a soufflé or a risotto. Of course I’m far too working class to have developed a signature dish, but it goes without saying, that my Yorkshire puddings and Toad in the Hole come out well every time.
A few years ago, I become besotted with baking bread and that has stayed with me. Sourdoughs are the way to go. Scotch morning rolls, always good. My bread explorations led me to discover Arkatena bread, a Cypriot recipe which uses gram flour, chickpea flour that is, for the polish. Truly, it is the most amazing bread I have ever tasted.
Recommend a book to cheer us all up?
The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty
The most triumphant, jubilant, pump your fist in the air and cheer book I have read. It is impossible to read this book and not be happy or cheered up. Buy it right now! I don’t say this lightly, because I’ve read thousands of books and this is singular in springing to mind in that this story, which is a good story, it is so up-lifting. What else is there? Do you know any? The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint maybe. If you are going on holiday, take Ron McLarty with you. It will make your holiday.
What was your favourite game as a child, and why?
My favourite game is psst, which I still play, given four people who will acquiesce, at any given opportunity. There is the normal version, or you can introduce a tennis ball or football for variation. Endlessly amusing, everyone should play psst everyday and the world would be a better place. In fact here’s an idea for a book. Lose Weight by playing psst… For those uninitiated, you need five players who form a quincunx, the corners being roughly four metres apart. The participants psst each other and if the psst is acknowledged, the psster and the acknowledger exchange places. The person in the centre of the quincunx attempts to steal a vacant corner and replace the switchers. If successful, the runner heading towards the now occupied corner goes to the middle (does that make sense?) Anyone fancying a go, I’m always happy to demonstrate.
If you weren’t a writer, what else would you have liked to be?
Are you presuming writing to be my career and asking what other career I fancy or if I have a propensity for another proportionally futile and self-indulgent activity? I have always enjoyed being Peter Knaggs and I think I am the best person for the role. In the eighties I co-ran a mobile disco called Itchy Feet. Itchy Feet Pete, available for weddings, birthdays and football dos. I would have liked to have been a highscoring winger such as Andrei Kanchelskis. If I could sing I would front a rock-a-Billy band, The Love Cats.
I fantasize about monetarizing the things that I am good at. I am good at and enjoy listening to music. Would it be possible for a workaholic time-skint stiggy who, in wanting to be cool, may pass over this role so that somehow he could become vicariously cool? Re-holidays, I am good at going on holiday, so maybe there is a time-skint workaholic who hates holidays who would pay another to go on holiday for them?? I have this other fantasy (impossible to exist) job. I can see myself presiding in a comfy upholstered chair in a room not dissimilar to the James Reckitt Reading Room at the library, a bow-tied Jucundus; I have the vision of being sat there turning the page of a poetry book and reading it silently to myself. I’d be wearing a dog tooth jacket and my lectern style desk would have an ink pot, for some reason I would swaddle a quill and get paid for being a poem reader. As well as this I’d like to be taller and more handsome. Radio DJ that would be a good one, getting paid to play music, that would be good.
Which part of the world has made the biggest impression on you?
I have been lucky enough to go to Croatia, Montenegro and Portugal out of these, today, the memories of Montenegro spring to mind. It is utterly beautiful, rugged. Snow-capped mountains descend to the sea, so unlike Hull. Because of it’s troubled recent past and it’s slow economic development, there is very little infrastructure. By this, I mean there are endless tracts of coastline with no adjacent road. This results in a touristless, tranquil unspoilt beguiling sea.
There was this one day, my wife and I and our two kids went on a boat – I call it a boat it was like a Spanish Galleon – to the Bay of Kotor. The crew were pirate-like. Unexpectedly halfway through our journey the crew brought out a feast of Mediterranean fare; cheese, olives, bread salami and brescola, as much as we could eat, and then they brought out the wine. The boat anchored up and the passengers could jump off the boat, swim in the sea and climb up the rigging to get back on board. Swimming in that ocean, the mountains right there. That was magic.
When was the last time you were utterly terrified?
I took my kids to Go Ape. Now, my son is of the type … well, listening to health and safety talks at seven wasn’t his thing. Anyhow, you go up into the canopy of the forest and they have these zip wires. Now having both my son and my daughter, I was a bit uneasy, because it meant at any given time we would be on a platform fifty foot up in the air, then if the girl went first, she would have to unhook herself, using the correct method and in the right order – safety hoist, carabiner, belt-hook, second safety rope etc – and me being at the other end of the zip wire, I would be unable to check and if she got it wrong. Consequences could be fatal. Being in between my two, that petrified me.
Favourite book cover?
I own hardbacks of all Bukowski’s prose published by Black Sparrow Press, Hollywood, Hot Water Music, South of No North, they all spring to mind … and the cover of The Reater number one … and I like the cover of The Slab of Fun, mostly though, or numero uno, I would say is The Book of Fuck.
Writing is about one thing, doing it. Write! Fill the wheelie bin every week… In the longer term, write like you. Write with individuality, write like no one else, then you will be remembered, if you are lucky.
Pull a portrait out of a magazine and have a go at describing a person’s face. don’t just do it once, do it a few times. Practise, get good at getting down the detail.
Favourite TV moment of the last 50 years?
Well, remember that programme, I forget what it was called but it was on BBC4 on Worldwide Egalitarian Day, where justices are restored to their natural equilibrium. It was great programme, firstly the BBC itself, as a concern paid for by the populace, had to restore the workforce to an equilibrium where it contained seven percent or less of staff who hadn’t attended public school. Then it was the bit were Cameron had to go to Scunthorpe and give three of his vehicles to Martin, who was on a zero hour contract at Asda. The best bit though, it was the faces, those public schoolboys walking out of the BBC buildings with their glum looks and their folders and files. Anyhow, this bit where they erected a Marshall speaker outside Dom, of Dick and Dom’s house and every seventeen minutes it emitted a BOGIES at volume. Twenty one days in and Dom comes out and he kicks the speaker, he starts punching it, wild-eyed and addled. We knew, of course, that the speaker was rigged so that if it was punched it would broadcast a BOGIES thirty seconds later, which riled Dom even more. Justice was truly done that day, he was zany, demented, off his head and I laughed my head off.
The last song to stop you in your tracks?
Music, eh! I’ve been listening to and enjoying the Mexican band Cafe Tacuna a lot. The last music that made me go f**king hell. That has to be William Onyeabor, ever since I’ve been slightly hooked on Nigerian funk from the sixties, there are two tracks that are particularly gobsmacking, from Who is William Onyeabor? The first is Atomic Bomb, the second is Fantastic Man. If I wasn’t on question 10, I would probably say more. But do have a listen. It is remarkable and you would have difficulty pinpointing which decade this stuff comes from, so ambient, so funky, so mysterious, so bloody cool.
Here’s a happy notion – a brand new Wrecking Ball Press title delivered to your door every single month! Here’s how it works – you send us a cheque for sixty five quid and we send you a book on the same day every month for a year. We’ll pluck one out at random, or you can go through our back catalogue and pick the book you want.* Choose from literary legends like Dan Fante, Roddy Lumsden, Geoff Hattersley, Niall Griffiths and exciting new voices like Dean Wilson, Lee Harrison, celeste doaks, Andy Fletcher and Peter Knaggs. Good, eh?
Wrecking Ball Press have teamed up with The Roundhouse and the BBC in a global project that will see Hull performance poet Joe Hakim travel to Trinidad & Tobago. Talking Doorsteps is for spoken word artists aged 16-25yrs and offers an accessible and interactive physical and digital community to share and platform work centered on the theme of HOME. Starting from next week, Joe will be observing and participating in workshops with young Caribbean poets before returning home and working with young Hull poets, then bringing the two artistic communities together for a performance in September as part of the “Contains Strong Language” Poetry Festival, which will be programmed by the BBC and Wrecking Ball Press. Joe will be writing daily blog entries so we can follow his progress. Here’s the last instalment.
It was the final night of the project. There would have to be a day of evaluation and that kind of stuff, but essentially this was the end of the line. The Café Mariposa was buzzing, and it wasn’t just the hummingbirds. When the place opened around five years ago, it was just a café. Eventually they added the guest rooms, and their latest project was the construction of the amphitheatre as a performance space. The idea being to just build a small family enterprise, a little business that could show visitors another side of Trinidad, a rural retreat away from the hub of Port of Spain. And it was working. There was a good vibe about the place, and the surroundings and good food were the icing on the cake. There was the issue of remoteness, but the bumpy ride to and from Lopinot became part of ritual. It was a small price to pay for that feeling of being truly away from it all. At the foot of the hills, surrounded by the dense rainforest, it was easy to put ‘real life’ to one side and just get on with creating stuff.
I wrote a small poem as part of the project, and even though it was a slight, little thing, there was still the question of whether I’d be able to edit it and get it committed to memory. But out at Mariposa, in-between the workshops and gigs, I found that I managed to do it just by taking the odd ten minutes and wandering about in the grounds of the café.
In addition to it being the culmination of the project, it also marked the launch of the performance space out the back. Everyone was mucking in to make sure it was a success. A lot of the village are related to the Guerrero family, cousins, nephews, nieces, so we had plenty of volunteers to help out. While a cocoa-covered suckling pig cooked over charcoal, people, from old to young, dashed about, arranging seating, putting up lights and trimming back bushes and shrubs. This was their chance to sell their burgeoning bed and breakfast not just as a place to stay, but as a performance space as well.
Marcia remarked that she had seen us on the telly the previous morning, and that she’d received a load of bookings just after it aired, so she was feeling cautiously optimistic. I was pleased for her.
The space at the back was special to be fair. Dug into the ground, with staggered sides providing three tiers of seating, the small stage area faced away from the property and up towards the wild, wild hills. There was a sweet-spot in the middle of the stage, an area that would produce a crystal-clear reverb, meaning you could hear your own voice as though it was coming through in a monitor, meaning you could get your levels just right. You could stage a mad play in it.
As the participants arrived, we convened and warmed up, and set about working on the running order. Debris plotted the order of the performers like a graph. They had been restricted to a short set time, around four minutes, and they were asked to think about how the tone and content of their poems might fit into the bigger picture of the show, highs and lows, when to follow intense with more light-hearted, that kind of thing.
In a way, this was the final part of the ongoing lessons over the course of the week. As I’ve said previously, Trinidad’s spoken word scene has gained momentum over the past few years due in part to the popularity of poetry slams, so this has produced a slam-orientated culture. Now I’m going to go out on a limb here, and state for the record that I’m not really a fan of poetry slams. Although I think they are a great tool in education, an effective way of grabbing attention and getting people up and reading, I have great reservations about the long-term effects of engaging in slams. I think a lot of it is down to the overt competitive nature of it. I’m all for competition in art, and in many ways, art is dependent on using the achievements of others to spur you on – ‘that’s a great bit of writing, I need to up my game’ or ‘that’s a killer tune, I need to get out and gig more’ – but once it becomes all about points and judges, something changes. What happens is that people tend to find they have one or two good slam poems, crowd-pleasers, and they end up performing the same ones over and over again. And when they set out to write something new, they find themselves trying to emulate the style and impact of their previous work in order to conform to the standard that they feel that they have set previously. Experimentation, messing about, trying something new, takes a back-seat and becomes a secondary concern. You get stuck in a slam rut. Sometimes the rut is so big, that other people become trapped in it. Seeing the success that someone has had with a certain sort of winning style and approach, all the up-and-comers start to model their work and performance on the visible face of the winners; before you know it, you’ve got a scene built on clones.
Maybe, deep down, it’s just the binary nature of it; it becomes about winning or losing.
One of the great things about watching 2 Cents prepare is how they manage to cast aside their usual modes of approach for one that is more egalitarian. Tonight is just a show, a chance for them to do their thing. There’s no winners or losers, just a chance to dazzle a crowd with what they do, what they say. The pressure of having to battle to win the favour of a panel of judges has been replaced by a different kind of buzz, the one of getting out there and doing it for the sake of doing it.
As the night falls and the guests arrive, the whole space lights up. Seeing it illuminated by lanterns and beaded-strings of little lights gives the whole place an ethereal quality. I half expect to see some little goblin wandering around.
To Marcia’s great relief, the place quickly packs out. Not only will the space be baptised in proper fashion, but all of the food she’s spent the day toiling over will be eaten.
Poetry Under the Stars commenced, and I kicked off proceedings with my little poem. And then 2 Cents delivers an absolutely storming set. Freed from the need to compete, they instead weave their individual performances into a bigger structure, one that manages to encompass the whole experience of life in Trinidad, the good and the bad, the beauty and the tragedy, the warmth of the sun and life in the dark. From the impassioned sermons of Emmanuel and Michael, to the comedy skits of Jonathan and Kyle; from the feminist dialogues of Denika and Ashlee to the meditations on peace and relationships from Alex and Kaveesha; from the soul-searching of Idrees and Seth to the exuberance of Isaiah and Leeum; from the explorations of the personal of Ariana, Shania and Kirby to the confrontation of political realities from Marcus and Derron.
Debris topped off the evening with an emotionally charged performance that had the audience looking on agog. It was clear that everyone felt something extraordinary had taken place. (Later on in the evening I would be approached by a woman with tears in her eyes: “I’m so glad I came here to see this,” she said. “I worry about the future that the young people in Trinidad are facing, and this gives me hope.”)
Before we went to eat, the Guererro family took to the stage. They explained that their journey had begun years before, when they toured as a family band, performing parang music, a traditional Trinidadian folk music with its roots stemming from the Venezuelan migrants that made places like Lopinot their homes. After winning a national competition, they returned home, to begin building the place in which we were all sitting. Their father encouraged them, hoping they would build a creative place that musicians, artists and poems could feel welcome in.
Parang has a strong nocturnal connection, they explained. Traditionally, and especially at Christmas, people would visit each other’s houses and perform together. And with that being the case, they couldn’t let us leave without sharing something with us. They played a couple of songs, concluding with, fittingly, a version of ‘Consider Yourself’.
As we headed to over to the house to fill our bellies with pork and tortillas, there was no doubt that in some way we were part of a family.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS AND THANKS
WRECKING BALL PRESS
BOCAS LIT FEST
2 CENTS MOVEMENT
And also Isaiah and Vincent
The Guererro family:
And everyone else
And also thank you to anyone else I may have forgot to mention.
Wrecking Ball Press have teamed up with The Roundhouse and the BBC in a global project that will see Hull performance poet Joe Hakim travel to Trinidad & Tobago. Talking Doorsteps is for spoken word artists aged 16-25yrs and offers an accessible and interactive physical and digital community to share and platform work centered on the theme of HOME. Starting from next week, Joe will be observing and participating in workshops with young Caribbean poets before returning home and working with young Hull poets, then bringing the two artistic communities together for a performance in September as part of the “Contains Strong Language” Poetry Festival, which will be programmed by the BBC and Wrecking Ball Press. Joe will be writing daily blog entries so we can follow his progress. Here’s the eighth instalment.
As the project hurtled towards its conclusion, the already packed schedule steps up a notch. In addition to evaluations, paperwork and the planning of the Poetry Under the Stars gig that will take place at the Mariposa on the night, we also have to film and record the participants’ poems that they’ve written as part of the project. The blogs that I have tried to diligently write each day (made it to number 5) have become a series of notes and meanderings that I will have to type up at a later date. There’s also the small matter of another school gig to attend.
It’s yet another early start, and the always dependable Ariana shows up to take us to the school before she heads off to work, so we take the drive down the road and onto the highway in the dark.
The conversations that take place in the cars every time we’ve made this journey have been wide-ranging, with subjects ranging from: How many classic stand-the-test-of-time albums has UK grime produced? to Is the British secret service anything like the James Bond films? and the perennial Why the hell is there a billboard advertising paternal DNA testing on the main highway?
But by far my favourite are the conversations that unearth something odd or quirky about Trinidad culture or tradition. On this particular morning, Ariana told us about some aspects of Trinidadian folklore. She tells us about the Duppies, phantom stragglers who wander lost at night, who are confounded by the sprinkling of salt around a house or doorway, because they feel impelled to count the individual grains. And then she tells us about the Douens, the souls of unbaptised children whom died in childbirth, doomed to forever walk the earth. Their faces are blank, featureless, and their feet are turned backwards. They roam through the forests and hang about near rivers. Near places very similar to the one in which we’ve been staying, funnily enough.
“Every night I’ve had to make the drive in the dark by myself, I’ve expected to see one,” she tells us.
The school we’re visiting today is the South East Port of Spain Secondary school. After escaping the stop-start chug of the Macoya highway, we arrive at the school gates. Straight away it’s clear that this is a different set-up to what we’ve experienced previously. All of the schools we have visited have had visible, uniformed security at the entrance/exit, but in this instance, the security is backed by wire fences and big rolling gate topped with barbed-wire. It would take a tank to break in here. The actual school buildings resemble the rectangular concrete high-rises that are dotted around UK housing estates, with class-rooms where the apartments would usually be. The kids are like all the other school-children in Trinidad, smartly attired in matching uniforms, clean white trainers for the girls, clean black trainers for the lads.
There’s a buzz in the air, and the kids whizz about, getting fruit and juice for their breakfasts while I try to limber-up inconspicuously in the car-park (among the many other things I’ve learned this week, the importance of posture is one of them). Eventually the bell rings, and we all file into the assembly hall for the performance. The kids stand assembled while we set up on stage (they stand through the entire assembly too), patiently waiting for us to set up, and then it’s on with the show. Today’s show is being hosted and presented by Idrees and Derron, both of whom are also participants in the workshops. They are both on the older end of the spectrum of the participants, on their way to their mid-twenties, but even at this relatively young age, they are seasoned performers, veterans and champions of the slam-scene that dominates the Trinidad spoken word circuit.
Although they both come across as quite serious, stoic guys when you first meet them, as you get to know them, another side becomes available, and seeing them performing here in front of the kids is a bit of a revelation. Idrees starts things off with a clapping exercise to wake the kids up. Idrees is a deep, deep bloke, a man of faith whose poetry grapples with the kind of unflinchingly soul-searching questions that many of us spend our lives trying to avoid. But in contrast to the measured countenance, he also possesses a gift for expression that can be deployed to great comedic effect (he also has a great knack for accents and voices; by the end of the week he had the Hull twang down. It was uncanny). Within minutes, he had the whole crowd in the palm of his hand, ready for him to deliver his first poem.
Derron is very much a political speaker, his fierce machine-gun delivery and heartfelt pleas taking a hatchet to the headlines of the papers that shriek about murder and corruption. This is a man driven by quest for justice, and a need to highlight injustice. But here, in this context, he delivers a really funny piece about his first girlfriend, and how he learned to respect women, with easy-going warmth that has most of the girls in the audience swooning. It’s a revelation, and it heartens me no end to learn that these guys will be undertaking a 44 date tour of schools after we leave.
It’s my turn, so I get up and do the whole ‘Err Nerr’ shtick again, and once again I’m blown away by the way in which its received
After the gig is over, it turns out to be a two-birds-with-one-stone situation, because both Idrees and Derron want to film their poems in and around this area, and Marcus, who also performed at the assembly, wants to do his just around the corner. We retrieve the equipment from the car and leave it parked at the school, and then we head on out.
Turns out we’re filming Derron’s poem on one of the corners of Nelson Street, which runs parallel to the school, and which also happens to be one of the most dangerous districts in Trinidad. Crime and violence are a way of life here. Jean Claude comes over to me while Debo and Pip are setting up the equipment to shoot and record. “See those two?” he asks, pointing over to a couple of onlookers who have popped up to see what we’re up to. “They’re look-outs. This is a bad, bad place.”
Jean Claude is one of the hardest-working people I’ve met, but he’s also one of the most laid-back. Seeing him on edge like this is disconcerting, to say the least.
We wrap up and make our way to the second location, which is on the roof of a local building. As nerve-wracking and tense as it is, I feel as though it’s vital for me to be here at this moment. It was always important for me to treat this journey for what it was, a cultural exchange. Despite my loud shirts and ready-to-burn pale skin, I didn’t want to be seen as being all ‘Brits-On-Tour’; chugging beers, quaffing rum and stumbling to the next party spot, that kind of carry on. To be fair, it was never going to be about that, due to the full-on schedule and the very nature of the project, but deep down I had major fears about my authenticity, that my being here was somehow a gimmick, born out of the uncanny alignment that is Hull getting City of Culture this year, and me just happening to have a reasonably long track record of slinging words about in Hull. There was no doubting that a lot of my insecurities sprang from the deep-well marked: ‘Hull mentality’, that mysterious reservoir of self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy that runs as deep as the Humber. But here on Nelson Street – surrounded by people whom genuinely cared about my safety, but also wanted to share the actual, physical source of the pain that drove them to write – something inside me clicked, and my petty hang-ups evaporated and dissipated in the Caribbean heat.
The roof-top where Idrees recorded his film gave us a 360 panoramic view of Nelson Street and the surrounding area. With its oddly pretty run-down wooden tenements, painted green and shielded by white plantation shutters. With its corrugated iron-stalls hawking coconuts and water. With its crumbling concrete buildings. This little flat patch of chaos, looking out to the indifferent hug of the Northern Range mountains.
The classic signs were there: the all-day bars, the gambling parlours, the rum-shops. But being on the roof-top, shut off from the street via a chained iron gate, the tension dropped slightly, and we giggled and larked about like school-kids. While Idrees was recording with Pip and Debo, Jean Claude, Marcus, Denika and Derron found an area of the roof where a lip jutted out from behind the wall, meaning that from inside the confines of the roof, it was possible to make it look like you could jump clean off the roof. They hastily put together the idea for a video. Jean Claude filmed Derron as he sat on the wall. Off-camera, Marcus can be heard saying: “Don’t do it. I’m sure you’ll start getting more gigs soon. Don’t listen to them, your spoken word career is really taking off.”
Derron says something along the lines of: “It’s no use, I can’t take it anymore,” and then he appears to roll off the roof and we all scream.
To the uninformed the clip looks truly terrifying, like the last will and testament of a doomed man, but to us it was hilarious, and laughed until our sides hurt when we watched it back.
Marcus was the last to be filmed, and the original plan was to film him down Charlotte Street, just a block or so away from Nelson Street, but a world away in terms of activity. The nearest analogue I can think of is Holderness Road, and I mean that as no disrespect to either party. Charlotte Street is shopping district, lined with multitudes of shops and stalls, the kind of place you go to when you want to ‘ger on rerd for a bargain’ (I swear I will never use Hullisms again after this project). It’s a vibrant busy place, the swarm and chatter sound tracked by the massive sound-systems that serve as storefronts for DVDs and music.
It’s at this point that I must mention ‘Full Extreme’ by Ultimate Rejects. If there’s one song that came to define my time in Trinidad, it’s this one, simply for the fact that I heard it most, in the clubs, on the streets, blaring from car stereos as they past. For better or for worse, it’s a bit of an anthem in Trinidad at the moment, as evidenced by the fact that it often will be played two or three times within a single night in a club.
People often make the mistake of assuming that reggae is the national music of Trinidad and Tobago, and while it is very popular, the national music of Trinidad and Tobago is soca, closely followed (and sometimes incorporating) by parang music, which is a little like folk music. Like most musical styles and genres, soca is a hybrid, incorporating elements of soul and funk like reggae, but also really taking its cue from calypso. Big booming brass stabs and horn sections, with fast up-tempo Indian influenced percussion. Modern soca has increasingly mechanised the style into a more electronic form of music, using sequenced drums and synth-lines to provide the big stabs. It’s unashamed party music, designed to get people up and moving, something it’s very successful at. Seriously, if you’re feeling down in the dumps, put ‘Full Extreme’ on at top-volume and crack open a beer. I defy you not to wiggle something.
Anyway, between the competing sound-systems and the general noise of the market, it quickly became apparent that we wouldn’t be able to get a decent recording of Marcus performing his piece to camera. The idea behind Marcus’ piece was one of motion, the general public rushing by while huge decisions were being made for them. Eventually, we settled on the bus-station as the place to shoot, as we were unsure whether security would be unhappy with us shooting it.
Marcus took a seat on the curb, and Pip began rolling. I’ve mentioned Marcus before, but what I didn’t mention was just how talented and focused this guy is. Not yet twenty, yet able to write, rehearse and perform a poem within a day, and able to perform it to camera without making any mistakes. It was a powerful piece of writing as well. Constrained by the remit of creating a short poem for the film, Marcus managed to condense his epic worldview into a short, white-hot piece of rhetoric. A diatribe against the cold, unfeeling wheels of big business as they crush the dreams and opportunities of the average man.
He was so on point that he managed to finish seconds before the security arrived to move us on.
We had the big gig on the night at the Mariposa to get ready for, so Pip and Debo packed up the equipment and we headed back to the car. It was only lunch-time but there was still so much to do.
On the way back, we passed the South East Secondary school. A group of kids had congregated on a balcony overlooking Nelson Street, peering over the side at us. As we got closer I looked up at them and waved. They waved back, and then in unison, they pointed at me and said together: “Er ner, it’s Jer.”
Wrecking Ball Press have teamed up with The Roundhouse and the BBC in a global project that will see Hull performance poet Joe Hakim travel to Trinidad & Tobago. Talking Doorsteps is for spoken word artists aged 16-25yrs and offers an accessible and interactive physical and digital community to share and platform work centered on the theme of HOME. Starting from next week, Joe will be observing and participating in workshops with young Caribbean poets before returning home and working with young Hull poets, then bringing the two artistic communities together for a performance in September as part of the “Contains Strong Language” Poetry Festival, which will be programmed by the BBC and Wrecking Ball Press. Joe will be writing daily blog entries so we can follow his progress. Here’s the seventh instalment.
Some thoughts about poetry…
We’re at the U.We.Speak open mic at the University of West Indies at the St. Augustine campus. The night originally began as a place for debate, a place where students could gather to discuss issues that affected them and the issues at large that face Trinidad and Tobago. What started as a forum for political discourse quickly caught the spoken word bug, causing it to shift towards its current form, which is as one of the longest running consistently popular open mics in the area.
We’ve been invited to perform, so Debris I turn up with some of the workshop participants. The event is open air, hosted on the bank of a grass verge near the canteen and social areas of the campus. A PA and a mic is set up, and mats are placed on the floor for people to sit, or crash out, on. The atmosphere is relaxed and informal, and a crowd quickly gathers to hang out and enjoy some poetry. I’ve learned that in Trinidad, rather than clap loudly, very often appreciation is shown by a click of the fingers. And I learn something else this evening. As the host takes to the mic to introduce the night, he explains that the audience will often throw their shoes when a poem is really good, but, he says, turning to the newcomers, under-arm throws only. He doesn’t want anyone to get clobbered in the head by a stiletto or sandal, after all.
After some excellent poetry, my name is called, the first guest of the night. I’ve travelled very far, the host explains, to be here this evening. All the way from Hull as part of the Talking Doorsteps project, so give me a big round of applause. I take to the mic, and after a brief accent challenge with Idrees, I do my first poem. It’s hot, and my lips are dry. There are halogen lights either side of me, so I have to squint to try and make out the crowd. How are they doing? Do they understand me? Are they enjoying it? I’m not sure.
For reasons I still can’t explain, an idea pops into my head. One of the things we’ve been covering in the workshops is the concept of ‘liveness’, incorporating and reacting to the environment in which we perform, letting it influence the performance, living in the moment. I head over to one of the discarded shoes at the edge of the performance area. I pick it up. Here we go. A bit of banter, Hull-style. Responding. Reacting. I pick up the shoe and hold it up to my face. I inhale deeply. An audible gasp reverberates around the audience. This is solid gold, trust me. “It’s ok,” I say. “Trust me, in Hull, we do this all the time.”
I sniff again. “It’s called shoe divination. I can tell a person’s fortune just by smelling the inside of their shoe.”
Suddenly, I find I’m able to see beyond the lights. For the first time, I can see the faces of the crowd. They look shocked, upset even.
It’s too late now, I’ve committed, so I blunder on. “Er, this person eats a lot of cheese. And they’re really into football. And unfortunately, two years from now, they will lose their leg after a vicious attack by a Cayman croc.”
“Sorry, but the shoes don’t lie.”
I smile and look at the audience. “Time for another poem then?”
I don’t take any pride in my somewhat strange behaviour that night, but, with all the subtlety of using a bowling ball to open a tin of beans, it allows me briefly talk about how the culture of spoken word and poetry in Trinidad and Tobago differs from what I’ve experienced in the UK.
And at this point, I think it’s important to state that I am in no-way trying to speak on behalf of UK poetry as a scene, or a thing, because that would presumptuous and impossible. UK poetry is so broad and diverse in its styles from region to region that it would be churlish to attempt to put myself forward as some sort of expert. Likewise, I can’t pretend to have experienced all that Trinidad has to offer in just one week. This is just from my perspective, talking about what I’ve noticed. Totally subjective, like.
One of the aims of the Talking Doorstep project is to film the participants performing a short poem inspired by the theme of ‘home’, utilising some of the elements that they have taken on board as part of the whole workshop process. By necessity of the length of time we had to work with, and then film and record, combined with the number of participants (17!), means that we had to limit the pieces to a running time of just over a minute. From the off, it quickly became clear that the idea of writing and performing a one-minute piece was almost an alien concept to the participants. The general consensus reaction was one of: ‘How in god’s name can you say everything you need to say in one-minute?’
From the first day of the workshop, when we gathered in the performance space at the back of the Mariposa, it was clear that they all wrote and performed work that was long and packed with detail. Once again, I can’t speak for all UK spoken word, but here we tend to write shorter pieces and do more of them. In the space of a ten-minute open mic slot, someone such as myself could cram in three, maybe four, maybe five pieces. In Trinidad however, the poets tend to see that slot as a challenge to write a single piece. One of the primary reasons for this is because they have a lot they want to say.
UK poetry tends to be more concerned with the self, and the exploration of it. Even though we are often trying to say something about the world and our immediate present, this is often done through the filter of subjective experience. By talking about our internal lives and our inner-most thoughts and feelings, we hope to land on something universal, something that reverberates through our audience so they recognise something of themselves within the author’s personal view of reality. But the majority of poetry in Trinidad is politically charged, and seeks to address the visceral reality of what they are experience through polemic, through the use of eloquence as tool for change. This is, at its heart, protest poetry. This poetry wants to pull down established orders by shining a harsh light on what is fundamentally wrong with Trinidadian society. The drugs and violence. The vile treatment of women. The corrupt political system with its ties to gas and oil. The lack of opportunities for the young, and all the temptations that seek to destroy their peers. The quest for truth and the battles of faith. The failures of the previous generations and the lack of role-models.
That’s not to say there’s no room for sentiment or humour in Trinidadian spoken word. There’s still room for poetry about nostalgic tales of childhood romance gone wrong. There’s still room for witty recollections of family gatherings. There’s still room for theatrical explorations of dancing and popular culture. But one of the defining elements of the poetry I experienced in Trinidad, and one of the core ethos at the heart of 2 Cents Movement, is the heartfelt belief that words and poetry can affect real change within their immediate surroundings. That by encouraging the young to write and perform, they are giving them the tools for empowerment. That they are giving them opportunity to rewrite and remake the world around them, to offer them another path, another way of living. They are saying to the young that they too can change their lives, and the lives of those around them, for the better. And the way to do that is through awareness, through knowledge; through art, and through culture.
The innate musicality of their language and expression is sharpened and weaponised. ‘We will not use guns and knives to defeat the forces that threaten us,’ they are saying. ‘We will do it using the sounds from within our mouths, the words from within our minds.’
One of the most beautiful aspects of working with Debris was the way in which she introduced the concept of the poems having as much power on the page, albeit in a different form. Because of the strong spoken nature of Trinidad poetry, much of it exists ephemerally, recorded into mobile phones, hastily written notes tapped onto electronic screens. Poems that, aside from the odd MP3 or WAV, only exist in the moments when they are uttered into a microphone on the stage. By giving them access to another outlook, another approach, they began to explore the possibility of a permanently recording their work by turning those incredibly slick diatribes, full of wordplay and rhythmic digression, into something physical, ink stamped onto paper. Something that will be able to survive longer, and travel further, than those brief moments on stage. Because as vital and important as those performance are, this blinding flash of white-light of expression, this super-nova of creativity, needs to be captured and preserved, for all of the future generations that will follow this initial burst of activity.
Wrecking Ball Press have teamed up with The Roundhouse and the BBC in a global project that will see Hull performance poet Joe Hakim travel to Trinidad & Tobago. Talking Doorsteps is for spoken word artists aged 16-25yrs and offers an accessible and interactive physical and digital community to share and platform work centered on the theme of HOME. Starting from next week, Joe will be observing and participating in workshops with young Caribbean poets before returning home and working with young Hull poets, then bringing the two artistic communities together for a performance in September as part of the “Contains Strong Language” Poetry Festival, which will be programmed by the BBC and Wrecking Ball Press. Joe will be writing daily blog entries so we can follow his progress. Here’s the sixth instalment.
We had been booked to appear on an early morning talk show, so it necessitated getting up at the ridiculous hour of 4 am to try and beat the morning rush. Luckily, this didn’t prove to be a problem, because the neighbourhood strays had decided to hook up for an early morning dog ruck, making the alarm I set surplus to requirements. There’s nothing quite like the barking, growling and gnashing of teeth to spring you from your pit.
To be fair, it was proving impossible to lay around in bed anyway. When the heat is that thick and close, you tend to sleep lightly, ready to get up and jump in the shower as soon as the sun shows up.
Realising that we couldn’t function without a morning hit of concentrated caffeine, the Mariposa team hooked up a coffee machine so we could help ourselves on these early starts. The fact we were prepared to get up and forgo breakfast was of grave concern to Marcia and her family. We had to convince them to not get up at some ungodly hour to fix something up for us. I restrained from telling them that my morning routine usually entailed missing breakfast entirely, instead relying on the double whammy of coffee and a fag. It would just upset and confuse them.
We made our way down the mountain road, heading out to the Macoya highway. As I keep mentioning, the average speed of the average Trinidadian driver is ‘Holy shit! Slow down’, so the early morning rush tends to make the traffic exist in two extreme states: either blazing quick, or not moving at all. Even though it was still dark, already the heat and humidity were beginning to rise, causing shirts to stick to backs. It was then that I had a sudden epiphany for one of the reasons why people drove so fast in a culture that prides itself on being laid-back. Let’s say you’re in a car with poor or non-functioning air-con. Find yourself in that position and it make sense that you’re going to want to drive at high-speed with all your windows down. The wind-rush keeps you cool.
We arrived at the TV6 studios early, so it gave us a chance to wander around Independence Square in the heart of Port of Spain’s centre. The streets were already filling up with commuters and traders. Homeless men sleeping on cardboard beds began waking up, and buses and cars beeped and charged through crossings. Hastily constructed stalls selling fresh fruit, water and sugary treats opened for business, and sound systems were being wired up to car radios.
Jean Claude took us to a popular little breakfast spot and bought a lucky bag of sandwiches and bakes (a bake is a type of flat, doughy bread, a Bake ‘n Shark being a particular favourite). Fortunately, I got one that contained a basic ham and scrambled egg filling, meaning that I didn’t have to fiddle with any bones, so I drizzled it in the regulation half a charge of hot pepper sauce and shoved it into my face.
After breakfast, we headed back to the TV station. After being buzzed in by security, we stood around in the lobby, watched over by a big 2 and a Half Men era Charlie Sheen poster. Television in Trinidad is a funny beast. The majority of it is split into three main categories: Educational programming, religious programming, and the commercial programming. The station we were appearing on was TV6, part of the Caribbean Communications Network, a national organisation that also has publishing interests like Barbados Nation and the Trinidad Express, which caters primarily for the English speaking audience. A large part of their schedule is made-up of American imports, shows such as CSI and The Big Bang Theory, meaning it has broad appeal and healthy audience figures.
A security guard led us into a lift, and we got off at the floor which broadcasts and edits Morning Edition, a popular early morning chat-show of the Good Morning Britain variety, featuring news and current affairs. We made our way to a small green room, with a little TV set in the corner displaying the show, a kettle and some instant coffee. We were told to help ourselves. In the corner of the room, another group of guests chatted and drank coffee as they waited to be summoned onto the set. One of them was a tall, reedy American with horned-rimmed glasses. For some reason, he reminded of a Bond villain. Not the main big-bad, but the right-hand man and chief henchmen, the one with the weirdly specific defining character trait.
We each took a seat around the table and guzzled our sugary coffee and waited for our call. I picked up a copy of the Trinidad Express. The headlines screamed about a series of brutal murders that had happened overnight, five in total. The photo on the cover showed the grisly scene of the aftermath of a shooting, a blood-splattered wall and pavement, while the inset profile picture showed a relative screaming in anguish.
It was at this point things took a turn for the surreal. I looked up to see someone dressed in a big foam cartoon Caesar costume being manoeuvred into the room by a woman wearing a laurel crown and toga. The cartoon Caesar didn’t have a neck, his big cartoon head sat atop an amorphous body, and his face was defined by giant roman nose. He waved at us amiably and we all waved back. I think it was the way in which he daintily raised the hem of his toga to sit down that set me off. I felt a slight pang of panic as the giggles took hold. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before the cartoon Caesar and the girl in the toga were summoned to the set. As we turned our attention to the TV set, the ad-break drew to a close and then cut to the studio. “There he is!” I exclaimed, and indeed there he was, cartoon Caesar waving out at us from the telly, sat to the next to the toga, his huge torso-sized smile beaming out for all to see.
Maybe it was a combination of the early morning start and rising humidity, but the giggling fit doubled in intensity, and as the tears rolled down my face, I had serious misgivings about my ability to function in an interview scenario.
Matters weren’t helped by the fact that the host of Morning Edition, Fazeer Mohammed, had a reputation of being a bit of ball-breaker. I was warned that his easy going demeanour could switch into a Paxman-esque grilling on a whim, so it was best to keep our wits about us.
Eventually we were called, and myself, Debris and Jean Claude were taken over to the set for our interview. As we took our seats and were miced up for the slot, our host Fazeer introduced himself. Debris is originally from East London, and he explained that his daughter was studying in the UK, and was familiar with Nottingham. He introduced himself to me by talking about Hull City and their current position in the Premier League (of course he did). All in all, he seemed like an amiable guy. So far so good.
With that the cameras rolled and Fazeer began the introduction to our section of the show by talking about the Talking Doorsteps project and the 2 Cents Movement. He spoke to Jean Claude first. Turns out Jean Claude had also appeared on the show the week previously to talk about a different project, so he made the necessary “You’re becoming a regular fixture” jokes. If footage of this show ever makes it online, take note of how I’m looking around, confused. That’s because cameras were pointing at us from all angles and we hadn’t been told which, if any, we should look at.
After his back and forth with Jean Claude, he turned our attention to us. Debris was first. After greeting her and asking her to introduce herself he went in with his first big question: “So tell me how your work is different from the average angry white woman approach to poetry?”
Wait a minute, what? What did he just say? Did he just say something about ‘angry white women’? What’s going on?
To her credit, Debris responded coolly, turning it around and turning it back to the matters at hand, namely the project and her role within it, as well as her work as performer, writer and educator. Now it was my turn.
“So Joe, tell me, Hull is characterised as being your typically depressed Northern town with a struggling economy – how do you think the City of Culture can possibly turn around perceptions?”
To be fair, the guy had done his research. Here I was, looking around the studio like a twonk, expecting a ‘hey, it’s very hot here, how you coping?’ type question, but he had steamed in with an actual question that I had to think about in order to respond. I did my usual trick of saying ‘Errrr’ for a long time while my brain came up with something comprehensible. I played it safe and gave the stock diplomatic response along these lines: “Well, one of the reasons that City of Culture is so important is that not only is it leading to economic regeneration, it allows us to communicate with our art and culture so we can challenge negative perceptions.”
You’re welcome City of Culture team; please put my cheque in the post promptly.
The interview didn’t last much longer after that. As we were led from the studio, I couldn’t help but think about how we had just a fraction of the space afforded to cartoon Ceaser and Toga girl, whom, as it turned out, were there to promote the opening of a new restaurant in a famous pizza-chain franchise. Those pesky sponsors.
We had the morning earmarked for getting some paperwork done; myself, Debris, Pip and Debo had things we needed to catch up with, be it copy for shows, funding bids, reports, blogs or whatever, but Jean Claude wanted to quickly take us somewhere. “I have somewhere special that you need to see,” he said enigmatically as we drove out of the studio car-park.
After passing a downtrodden market area, where stalls threatened to sell you dolphins to eat, we drove up another winding road, this time up the hills to the north of St James. As we got higher, the view of the Port of Spain spread out further, until we arrived at a place at the top. As we stepped out of the car and made our way over to a picnic area located at the bottom of the site, the entirety of the Port of Spain spread out before us. Here we were, high in the hills, this spectacular dizzying vista before us, the whole of Port of Spain reduced to a real-time, real-life google map, entire districts that we could pretend to cover up with the shadows of the hands we held up to cover our eyes. I can’t keep saying breath-taking over and over again, but what else can you say?
We were at a historical site called Fort George. Originally named La Vigie, or ‘lookout’, it was chosen for development precisely for its strategic panoramic view, and was built and developed by African slaves as a defensive post in the Napoleonic wars.
As we walked around, gasping and taking photos, Jean Claude took it as an opportunity for him to speak about Port of Spain, and his experiences of it. Up here, looking down on it from this perch, we were able to take in the full spectrum of the Trinidad experience, as related to us by one of its sons. We explored the full gamut of all it had to offer, with added benefit of perspective, both visually and figuratively. From the crime-struck areas of working-class Laventille, with its Rasta Cities and Muslim Cities that violently clashed, both with one another and within (“The drugs tend to pass through Trinidad on their way to America,” Jean Claude explained. “The guns, the automatic rifles, they tend to get left behind.”), through the suburbs of Belmont, to the night-life district of St James, leading to the sky-scraper strewn downtown area of Port of Spain’s financial hub, and finally towards the bays and harbours of Chaguaramas.
From the run-down shacks to the multi-million beachfront apartments. From the ghettos to the skyscrapers. From the murder-filled streets to the party-filled bars and clubs. From the no-go districts to the must-be spots. From the places without pity and prospects, to the places where anything can happen and the opportunities are endless. From the blood-soaked pavements to the sun-kissed bays.
Wrecking Ball Press have teamed up with The Roundhouse and the BBC in a global project that will see Hull performance poet Joe Hakim travel to Trinidad & Tobago. Talking Doorsteps is for spoken word artists aged 16-25yrs and offers an accessible and interactive physical and digital community to share and platform work centered on the theme of HOME. Starting from next week, Joe will be observing and participating in workshops with young Caribbean poets before returning home and working with young Hull poets, then bringing the two artistic communities together for a performance in September as part of the “Contains Strong Language” Poetry Festival, which will be programmed by the BBC and Wrecking Ball Press. Joe will be writing daily blog entries so we can follow his progress. Here’s the fifth instalment:
Before I go any further, I have a proposal. Of the many, many foods I have stuffed into my face during my time here, one of the most familiar is the Alloo Pie. Now the Alloo Pie is not a pie as we know it. It’s not a pastry; it’s actually made of mashed spud, seasoned with spices (one of which is cumin, I believe) and then coated with a kind of batter and fried. Sounds familiar? Pattie, anyone? With that being the case, I think we should arrange some sort of food twinning as opposed to a town twinning. The Pattie-Alloo connection; you know it makes sense.
Anyway, it turns out that the previous day’s school performance was just a warm-up. Jean Claude picked us up nice and early. Hurtling along the Macoya highway, the main artery for traffic heading into and out of the Port of Spain, we pass the huge flag of Trinidad and Tobago flapping in the wind, flanked by the massive billboards that feature strangely white faces guzzling various sugary juice drinks and rum-infused beverages, and the Coca-Cola bottling plant. Men with carts filled with fruit and water patrol the embankments, waiting for the traffic to sufficiently slow so they can peddle their wares from car-to-car.
As I said in my previous blog, performing in front of kids makes me all kinds of nervous, so you can imagine the state I was in when we rolled up to Carapichaima West School and discovered we were performing in front of the entire school. Jean Claude informed us that the school was one of the poorer schools in Trinidad. All the kids were assembled in an outdoor area and we arrived to find the event in full swing. Hosted by Marcus and Denika, two of the younger members of the 2 Cents Movement, I was immediately struck by just how professional and slick they were. They whipped the crowd up with poems that involved audience participation. They hosted and performed with an assured style that belied their youthful appearances, and here I was flapping like a wounded seagull.
I took to the stage, ably introduced by Marcus. “Does anyone here like football?” Huge cheers. “Does anyone like the Premier League?” Another chorus of cheers. “Has anyone heard of Hull?” Confused murmuring. “Hull, as in Hull City, the Tigers?” A cheer of recognition.
I have to admit, I’ve never really been a massive fan of football. Although liking football and music is not mutually exclusive, I’ve always used to pride myself on being an alternative sort at school, choosing to spend my time soaking up books and culture (and cigarettes if I’m honest) rather than sport. But one of the things that I’ve discovered is that football really is an international language, so performing a poem that includes references to the KC Stadium and the Tigers has really helped bridge the cultural divide, and given me an ‘in’ with the young people of Trinidad.
After taking to the stage and utilising my “Er ner” shtick (I hate to admit it, but this has also been invaluable in introducing myself) I performed the poem. What happened next blew my mind. After the concluding line, “We are Tigers/now hear us roar,” the kids roared back at me. Unbelievable. Just … unbelievable.
After I finished my routine, Debris took to the stage and blew the roof off. Debris’ style is very much grime influenced, and she can switch back and forth between spitting and a more traditional poetical delivery with ease, all the while incorporating movement and dancing. They went wild, and after the set, Denika did an accent swap with Debris, each of them taking it in turns to mimic each other’s accents by swapping slang and local turns of phrase.
After the performance, a bunch of girls came over to Debris to take selfies and get autographs. Trinidad has quite a macho, patriarchal culture, so seeing them respond so positively to Debris was really heartening. It was like a rock-star had arrived in their midst, and from their sheer exuberance, it was clear to see that they saw Debris as a role-model.
After the performance, we returned to the Cafe Mariposa to prepare for the evening’s workshop. Yesterday was concerned with the written aspect of poetry, but today we would be focusing on the performance aspect. Debris started the session by taking a set of characters and situations, prompts such as ‘Perform as a prisoner on death row’ or ‘Perform as an excited child’ or ‘Perform drunk’ (That was the one I felt most comfortable with, funnily enough). She then put them all into a hat and jumbled them up, and we split off into pairs. In our pairs we took it in turns filming each other performing in the style of whatever we’d picked. I partnered up with Ashley, and we performed drunk, without blinking and in the style of a newsreader. The ‘without blinking’ one was the most difficult. Turns out not blinking in the baking Caribbean sun is really, really difficult.
As we reconvened into our circle, Debris elaborated on the purpose of the day’s session. It was about ‘liveness’ – responding to the environment and circumstances during the performance, and then incorporating that into the performance itself. As she succinctly put it: “If you were performing on stage and a cat strolled on, you would have to acknowledge it, otherwise the audience would spend the rest of your gig looking at the cat.”
Following on from this, we engaged in an exercise where we got into groups of three. One of the three had to try and perform a poem while answering simple maths questions posed by one of the members, while simultaneously mirroring the physical movements of another. While it might seem pretty mad, the idea of the exercise was break regular patterns, to be able to think on your feet so to speak, so that if you find yourself distracted, or make a mistake, you learn to adapt on the spot and incorporate it into the performance. It also really makes you focus if you’re learning a new poem.
Once the exercise was over, we got into a circle again and discussed the role of emotion within delivery. Debris shared one of her poems with us, and then discussed the circumstances that led to her writing it for four minutes. We got into pairs again, and were encouraged to do the same. I partnered up with Denika, the very talented young poet I mentioned earlier, and we ended up having a really intense and enlightening conversation.
A major reoccurring theme that runs through all of the 2 Cents poets’ work is the notion of representing the real Trinidad and confronting its problems head on. It’s very easy for tourists and outsiders to just see the surface of Trinidad, the paradise that is promised in the travel brochures; the lush tropical beaches, the fresh coconuts and the balmy climate, the scrumptious food, the dense foliage and exotic wildlife. And for a large part of the Trinidad experience, this is absolutely true. But once you start to peel back the layers of the image that is presented to the outside world, a very different picture begins to emerge. Some of the inner-city areas of Trinidad are wracked by of massive levels of crime. Gang violence is at peak levels, and gun and drug related crime is a real problem. This year alone (and don’t forget we’re still in January) there have been around 30 brutal murders. And a large proportion of that violence is directed at women.
Denika identifies herself as a feminist, which in Trinidad is a very progressive thing to do. So much so that she has to take a lot of shit. She explained to me that a lot of the time the criticism she receives is quite subtle, designed to make her question herself and undermine her beliefs. People (usually men but not always) try to call her out over the subjects she writes about, with a common line of attack being of the ‘Why do you only write about women’s issues, what about men?’ variety. It was fascinating to hear such honesty. Despite the distance between us – geographically and culturally – we connected on a deep, fundamental, human level, so I gave her the only advice I know how to give: stick to your guns, keep moving forward even if it’s lonely and painful at times; because if people attack you or abuse you because of what you’re saying with your art, it’s because they see you as a threat, which means that what you’re saying is vitally important, and needs to be heard.
It restores my faith in humanity to know that people like Denika and the 2 Cents Movement are out there on the front-lines, showing the youth of Trinidad that drugs and guns aren’t the only path that’s available to them, that there’s another way to live. She has a big heart and a sharp brain, and she, like all of the of the 2 Cents crew, are the leaders that the youth of Trinidad so desperately need right now to educate and inspire them. It’s going to be a long, arduous journey towards the light, but I truly believe the healing process has begun, and it’s the spoken word movement spear-headed by Jean Claude and rest of the collective that is tending to the wounds.
After the workshop was over, Marcia and Ayinde from the Mariposa took Debo, Pip, and myself down to the steel-drum site at the foot of the hills so we could hear them practise. I’ve spoken before about the road that leads to Lopinot, the long, twisting, winding path that was originally laid for horses, which has only just begun to be improved for cars and buses. Marcia told us about how she and her sisters would often turn off their headlights and navigate the perilous journey using only moonlight. Ayinde decided to give us a quick demonstration by flicking off the lights but not slowing down. I’m not embarrassed to admit that we all screamed.
We arrived at the practise just as the steel band were warming up. In fact, calling them a band does them a dis-service – it was a full-on orchestra. I’ve heard steel drums before, but never so many played in unison. The sound and vibrations generated by the symphony shook me to my core, resonated throughout every cell in my body. As I sat there, watching all the young people working together to create such a powerful noise, it felt good to bask in the beauty of Trinidad, its people and its culture.
Wrecking Ball Press have teamed up with The Roundhouse and the BBC in a global project that will see Hull performance poet Joe Hakim travel to Trinidad & Tobago. Talking Doorsteps is for spoken word artists aged 16-25yrs and offers an accessible and interactive physical and digital community to share and platform work centered on the theme of HOME. Starting from next week, Joe will be observing and participating in workshops with young Caribbean poets before returning home and working with young Hull poets, then bringing the two artistic communities together for a performance in September as part of the “Contains Strong Language” Poetry Festival, which will be programmed by the BBC and Wrecking Ball Press. Joe will be writing daily blog entries so we can follow his progress. Here’s the fourth instalment:
At this point I have to give a couple of shout-outs to some great people.
Marcia Guerrera at the Cafe Mariposa is amazing. Not only does she cook for us, clean up after us and serenade us at breakfast, but she is also a font of local knowledge. She’s able to point at a bird and tell you what species it is. She can give you a quick rundown about local history, give you practical advice about what to do and where to go to get whatever you may need, and she’s just a wonderful human being who welcomed us with open arms.
I’d also like to thank Ariana. Not only is she participating in the workshops and working full-time, but she’s also made time to ferry us about as well. Plus, her Dad gave me a lesson in how to dance. She’s a truly beautiful person, and she has a truly beautiful family.
So today, Monday (I think it’s Monday… yeah Monday … turns out jet-lag makes you as confused about the days of the week as Christmas) marked our first trip into a Trinidad school. This was something that I was particularly nervous about. Late last year, my friends and partners in crime LIFE invited me to tag along and perform with them on a few dates on the UK leg of their European tour. But the nerves I experienced getting ready to go on stage at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire paled in comparison to what I felt as we rolled up to the gates of the San Fernando Secondary School. Luckily, I was with Debris, whose professionalism and experience in these situations worked wonders as a calming influence. Debris Stevenson exudes and transmits energy and has that rare ability to influence an environment just by being present within it. When someone has travelled to and performed in 23 different countries, you just know that they have something special to give and that they’re prepared for every eventuality.
I don’t know exactly why I find performing in front of kids so nerve-wracking. I think it has to do with the fact that I credit kids and young people with having extraordinarily well-tuned bullshit detectors. You can’t blag it, because they’ll sniff out insincerity the same way a pig sniffs out a truffle.
Jean Claude, our man in Trinidad, the 2 Cents guru, and the guy who set up our school appearances, led us into the hallway. We were set to perform in front of the school’s spoken word club (yeah, a spoken word club – how amazing is that?) so we took to the stage. As I said earlier, Debris has worked in situations similar to this all over the world, so I watched her intently. One of the big concerns that I had with this trip was how my work, and more importantly my accent, would carry over to an international audience. Beyond slowing down my delivery a little, I was really worried about the audience just not getting it. I mean, people from other parts of the UK sometimes struggle to fathom out the Hull accent – how the hell would a group of kids from Trinidad manage? Debris assured me that the secret to successfully communicating to an international audience isn’t actually that big a secret; just be honest, tell them who are you are, what you’re about and where you’re coming from, both geographically and in terms of your work.
I decided that the best approach was to confront the accent anxiety head-on. And I’m so glad that I did. Hearing a group of Trinidad school kids repeat: “Er ner, there’s sner on the rerd,” as a means of acclimatising to my accent is one of the highlights – if not the highlight – of my spoken word career. It was beautiful. And once again, I had this wave of emotion hit me. I’m a horribly repressed working-class bloke from Yorkshire – just what the hell was Trinidad doing to me?
After the school performance was over we headed back to Cafe Mariposa for the second workshop session with the 2 Cents group. Today’s session was focusing on editing techniques. The workshop was designed as both a means to give the participants a set of tools to carry into their practise beyond the workshops, but also as an exercise to get them working on the poems that Pip would be filming as part of the Talking Doorsteps project. Speaking to the participants, I got the impression that they were all particularly looking forward to this phase of the process, so there was a real buzz in the air.
Debris started the session by placing different prompts on all the tables. The prompts were focused on different aspects of the editing process, things like: What are the specifics of what you’re trying to say? How are you using verbs? How do the nouns affect the poem? What are you trying to communicate to the audience?
We drifted around the room in loose groups, discussing the prompts with each other before reconvening in a circle. We did an exercise where we moved to different parts of the room depending on how we felt about the editing process. One side of the room was “extremely dislike”, the other side “really like”. And then we did the same again, but this time addressing how we felt about others doing it, and then again about how we felt about editing other people’s work. We were then set the task of coming up with three things that we wanted to achieve/communicate with our poems.
After this wrapped up, Debris began to discuss redundancies in poetry. She handed around copies of a Simon Armitage poem, which had been re-edited to include superfluous words, and in groups we had to remove all the words we found redundant, in some cases changing the words entirely.
We then moved on to lineation/realisation. Debris handed round another poem, “Michiko Dead” by Jack Gilbert. This time, the exercise was to look at and discuss the line-breaks in the poem; the visual effect on the page itself, how it affected the reading of it. Immediately following this, she handed round the same poem, this time re-edited into a different structure, with a different set of line-breaks. We discussed what effect changing the structure had: did you read it differently? What were the line-breaks telling us? Were they informing the rhythm of it? Were they little epiphanies that the narrator was experiencing as he moved through the poem? Did they make the meaning of the poem covert or explicit?
It took me a moment to realise what was going on, but when I did, it hit me like a slap in the face. The Trinidad poetry scene is very much a spoken word scene. In fact, at the beginning of the process, one of the participants declared: “I don’t write poetry, I record it.” But here they were, sat round in a circle, discussing form, structure and traditional poetic techniques. If you had said to me at the start of the session we’d have a group of slam poets from Trinidad discussing Simon Armitage poems, I’d have called you a nutter. But there we were. It is the single most effective method for teaching “page” poetry to “stage” poets that I’ve ever seen. I was absolutely dumbstruck.
After the session finished, we were set the task of further refining our poems for the next session and then we all had dinner together. It was great, and for some reason, they all really enjoyed my crap jokes, which did wonders for my frankly fragile ego.
After everyone had left, Debo, Pip and I watched one of the neighbourhood cats grapple with something in the garden. We were about to go investigate, when Marcia informed us that it might be a snake. Marcia helpfully added that Trinidad was home to no less than four different species of venomous snake. It was at this point that a clearly distressed Debo uttered one of the best statements of the trip so far: “Wait, you’re telling me there’s poisonous snakes around here?”
Shortly before retiring, Pip and I went for a little walk. As we made our way around the bloc, we noticed that the cute little stray dogs that seem to be everywhere in Trinidad were forming into packs and following us, growling at first, then barking as they gained confidence. We both started to freak out a little, worried that our stroll was about to turn into a sinister Stephen King story. I could almost see the headlines: “Talking Doorstep project ends in tragedy after savage dog mauling.’” Luckily, it turned out to be a case of bark being worse than bite, and we made it back to Mariposa safely.
Incidentally, my new collection, “Fido was a Psycho’ will be available from Wrecking Ball Press later this year.