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TALKING DOORSTEPS – BLOG ENTRY #8

 

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.”  

TALKING DOORSTEPS – BLOG ENTRY #7

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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.”

Silence.

“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.    

TALKING DOORSTEPS – BLOG ENTRY #6

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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.

It was all here.

TALKING DOORSTEPS: BLOG ENTRY #5

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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.

TALKING DOORSTEPS – BLOG ENTRY #4

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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.

PRODUCTION MANAGER REQUIRED FOR HUMBER MOUTH LITERATURE FESTIVAL

Production Manager Required

For Humber Mouth Literature Festival and Contains Strong Language

About Humber Mouth Literature Festival

Humber Mouth is one of the most established literature festivals in the country, with its own distinctive style. We present writers who aren’t necessarily mainstream in an informal and accessible way; over previous years we’ve welcomed artists as diverse as Chuck Palahniuk, Amanda Coe, DBC Pierre and James Kelman. With all eyes on Hull as the UK City of Culture, we’re seeking a dynamic production manager to support us in delivering the Festival for 2017. Contains Strong Language is a new poetry festival produced in collaboration with the BBC, forming part of this year’s Humber Mouth.

About Wrecking Ball Press

Wrecking Ball Press has been publishing high quality, cutting-edge literature for twenty years. For the last six years, editor Shane Rhodes has been artistic director of the Humber Mouth.

Production Manager Role and Responsibilities
The production manager will be responsible for both Humber Mouth Literature Festival and Contains Strong Language, which opens on National Poetry Day (September 28).
Duties will include:
Managing the delivery of all production and operational aspects of the Festivals;
Working closely with the BBC, the artistic director and City of Culture team on Contains Strong Language to ensure that all planning and preparation is completed to time and on budget;
Managing all festival logistics, including venues, technical arrangements, artist travel and accommodation, itineraries, production elements and set dressing;
Recruiting and managing a team of volunteers to help deliver the Festival, including drawing up a suitable volunteer policy;
Carrying out appropriate risk assessments for festival events and activities and ensuring schedules and health and safety regulations are adhered to;
Managing Festival events on the ground and briefing others in working on those events;
Overseeing the collection of audience data and ensuring appropriate evaluation is carried out after the Festival, including collating any data relating to funding or future planning, as required;
Providing support and advice in the coordination of the Festival’s production activities, including scheduling staff and resources;
Providing advice to the artistic director and other partners regarding issues of venue suitability, technical management, and production costs;
Undertaking research and providing quotations for suppliers and equipment hire for the Festival:
Preparing production briefs and sourcing quotes from potential suppliers;
Liaising with suppliers and venues on technical and production matters;
Identifying and making recommendations on new venues;
Supporting in the preparation of technical event documentation including technical and event schedules, spreadsheets etc;
Managing the get in and get out of festival events, including all personnel and contractors;
Any other duties as agreed with the artistic director and other partners.

Type of Work

Contract – Full Time Length
90 Days
February – October 2017
Reporting to:
Shane Rhodes
Editor/Wrecking Ball Press
Artistic Director / Humber Mouth Literature Festival Salary
£10,500
Core Skills Required:
Experience of producing festivals or large scale events;
Excellent interpersonal and communication skills;
Experience of managing multiple events in different venues;
Experience of managing and organising staff and crew;
Proficiency in Word, Excel, Outlook;
Excellent time-management skills;
Excellent attention to detail.
Desirable Skills
An interest in literature and a desire to make it accessible;
Experience of working specifically in literature festivals.
For further information or to apply for this position, please send a covering letter and resume to editor@wreckingballpress.com.
Applications close Wednesday 25th January. Interviews will be on Thursday 2nd February.
For further information or to apply for this position, please send a cover letter and resume to Shane Rhodes, Artistic Director, at editor@wreckingballpress.com.

Applications close Wednesday 25th January. Interviews w/c Thursday 2nd February.

 

TALKING DOORSTEPS – BLOG ENTRY #3

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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 third instalment:

And so we arrive at the business part of the journey, the reason we came to Trinidad in the first place: poetry.

But we before we get into that, I just have to say something: Debris Stevenson is without a doubt the best dancer that I have ever met. She absolutely tears it up, owns the dance floor. I quickly adapted my one technique, a version of the Mancunian Simian Shuffle, by adding in some subtle hip movement, but I’m convinced the only reason I got away with it is down to Debris taking the spotlight.

Anyway, after another hearty breakfast, Jean Claude, our man in Trinidad, arrived at the Cafe Mariposa with the participants. Now, in addition to being a dynamite wheelsman, Jean Claude also happens to the leader and driving force (ahem) behind 2 Cents, a spoken word collective of young people aged between 16-25. They arrived a little earlier than expected, but Debris just happened to have a plan for such eventualities. And so, right from the off I learn an important lesson, and that is to have a ‘rolling’ workshop, one that accounts for the possibility of things veering slightly off-track due to people being late, or in this case, early. Debris had brought a word-based card game, just a little something to keep everyone occupied while we finished setting up. It may seem simple, but had I been in the same situation, I would have probably got myself into a right flap, which would have gotten the session off to a tense start.

Once we were good to go, Debris started the session by writing quotes on large sheets of paper, and then placing them around the space. She also had some music playing in the background, once again something that seems obvious in retrospect, but had never occurred to me before. The participants (myself included) then moved around the space, and were encouraged to add lines to the sheets of paper, using the quote as a jumping off point to get the ideas flowing. And then with each subsequent line that was added, we moved along to the next sheet and added one, and so forth and so forth until the sheets were full of words. There was no pressure to maintain a line of thought, or structure or anything like that. It wasn’t even necessary to adhere to the themes that had been established by the previous line.

After this phase of the exercise was over, we all took part in some simple breathing exercises and physical warm ups, like stretches and vocalisations. I have to be totally honest here; up until now, I have never utilised any physical training as part of the workshop work that I have facilitated so far, partly due to the fact that I’ve felt self-consciousness, and partly due to the mistaken belief that things like that are a bit ‘theatre’. But there’s definitely something in it, not only because it wakes everyone up, but also because it gets people to loosen up and ditch some of their own feelings of self consciousness. One of the big difficulties in encouraging people to write and recite poetry in front of each other, especially young people (and especially young people in Hull) is getting them beyond the fear of ridicule. Getting everyone to participate in something together first places them on the same level.

Following on from that, we split off into groups, and each group was given one the sheets that we had filled in on the table, an asked to create a short impromptu group piece. As before, this was more an exercise to get everyone working on the same page, but it quickly became apparent that this was a seriously talented group of young people. Despite only having a few minutes to get something together, each of the groups managed to include elements of choreography and movement as part of their delivery.

After this session, Debris asked them all to gather round and think about the kind of things that may hold them back or affect them when working in a situation such as this. In the main, it was an opportunity for everyone to open to up each other, and establish trust. Most of the things that they relayed back to the group were small anxieties or idiosyncrasies, such as the need to feel comfortable before fully contributing, or the need to be left alone when writing, things like that. It was another way to establish trust in the group by giving everyone the chance to express themselves, but I was starting to pick up on something else; Debris was managing to get everyone’s attention and keep them focused without ever having to raise her voice. As she said to me later on, it’s all about finding ways to implicitly create the rules of a space, without resort to traditional teaching methods, methods that place barriers.

After another quick writing session, we headed out into the wonderful space at the back of Mariposa, the little amphitheatre. It was an opportunity for us each of us to share a poem, and we took it in turns to stand on the stage under the Caribbean sun and recite our work. It has to be said that the work of 2 Cents was absolutely phenomenal. Everything, from their delivery to the actual words, was slick. They’re the real deal, and they’ve got a passion, sincerity and intensity that could really teach the youth of the UK a thing or two.

After the sharing, we had another amazing meal. As I explained to Marcia, our host, one of my real concerns is how I’m going to manage when I get back home. All of the food is outstanding; fresh juices, vegetables and ingredients gathered from the garden of the property, as organic as you can get.

After lunch, we head over to the park. As part of the Talking Doorsteps project, Pip, our lovely and talented film-maker, will be making short films of each of the participants performing a specially written piece around the theme of home, so we spent the afternoon engaging in writing exercises that managed to be quite intense, yet accessible. Already, Debris was managing to push the participants out of their comfort zones, but with a subtlety that only comes through experience. By the end of the session, we had clear agenda for the following day’s session, which would focus on editing techniques.

After we finished for the day, Jean Claude invited us to the 2 Cents Lime. Now for anyone who is unfamiliar with the concept of a Lime, it’s basically this: Take the best house party that you’ve ever been to and times it by ten, and then you’re getting close. Seriously, if anyone in Hull tried to throw a party like a Lime, the police would shut it down. However, here, instead of complaining, the neighbours all come out and get involved. The vibe was unbelievable. I’ve never felt more welcome at a party. We had an intense game of Taboo – party games are a serious business in Trinidad – we danced, we ate. Parents turned up, relatives turned up, friends turned up.

They also had a small catering cart there, serving Doubles. Doubles are pretty much the Trinidad equivalent of a kebab, a little flatbread with beans and sauces. Spicy, messy and absolutely delicious. I had to have two. To be fair, they are called Doubles.

After the Dad of one of the participants gave me a dancing lesson, I came to realise something; that a big part of the reason why 2 Cents are so good at their work is because they are not just a poetry group, they’re a community, a family. They hang together, work together, and play together. And this goes way beyond spoken word. Being part of the collective provides an outlet for them, something for them to feel part of, to feel proud of – an example of a way for them to live and function within society, keeping safe and out of trouble by keeping them busy. It’s incredible.

And for a project that deals with the theme of home, it provides a template for something that we desperately need in the UK right now, especially for the young people in a place like Hull.

TALKING DOORSTEPS – BLOG ENTRY #2

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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 second instalment:

I’m caught in the phase in between being asleep and being awake and I briefly forget where I am. And then I become aware of the heat, and I remember that I’m on the other side of the world, in the Caribbean.

The room I’m staying in has a small veranda at the back with a table and chair, so after dunking my head in cold water, I go and sit and look out the window (well, not a window as such, more of a mesh). It’s dense with foliage outside, and I suddenly become aware of a persistent buzz, a strange rhythmic pulse. To my absolute delight, I realise that the sound is emanating from hummingbirds. Lots of hummingbirds. A fleet of them.

I get dressed and head downstairs. The place where I’m staying for the week is called the Cafe Mariposa (Mariposa is Spanish for butterfly). It’s a beautiful open plan building, family owned, and the main eating area is a porch that faces the garden of the property. There are sugar-water dispensers dotted about, and the place is alive with hummingbirds, little neon flecked helicopters hovering around everywhere, hung suspended on the breeze in a way that seems to defy reason, before undertaking dive-bombing raids on the nectar fortresses.

Bleary-eyed, I stumble out into the vast garden. Just to my left is a small church, and located at the back of the property is a small man-made amphitheatre, which will serve as our performance space for the first day of the workshops. Lopinot is located at the foothills of the Northern Range, and everywhere I look there are huge trees and shrubs that look as though they have been transported from the Jurassic age. Because I arrived at night, I couldn’t see just how big and green and magnificent it all was. It’s breath taking, and for a moment I experience total sensory overload. A whole range of emotions floods my body, and I become giddy with it. At that particular moment I’m glad there’s no one around, because I end up blubbing for a bit, unable to fully comprehend what I’m experiencing. Fortunately, it passes quickly, and I pull myself together and head for breakfast.

I’m joined by Debris, poet and workshop facilitator for the Talking Doorsteps project, whom I’ve come to observe and shadow, Pip, film-maker and documentarian for the trip, and finally Debo, a representative from the British Council. We are joined by a couple of other guests who are staying here, Sam and Jacob, two American students who are about to undertake a period of study at the University of the West Indies. We dine on grapefruit washed down with hot chocolate sweetened with condensed milk. The hot chocolate is actually hand made by the siblings who run the establishment, who peel and refine the cocoa by hand. Needless to say, it’s amazing. I’m about to get up and leave the table when I’m informed that this is actually just the first course. Usually, I skip breakfast, so the idea of having a breakfast that consists of courses is completely alien to me. I eat it anyway, because it tastes amazing; yam porridge sweetened with jam and tortillas with a warm salsa, garnished with a peppercorn sauce that is quickly becoming an obsession.

After breakfast, Bianca, one of the owners takes us for a walk around the district. The sun beams down relentlessly, so I slather myself in sun cream and head out. As we head down the hill, the true glory of the stunning vista, previously obscured by the night, opens up. It’s paradise in every sense of the word; big rolling hills dense with thick, lush vegetation. Music is blasting out everywhere, from the houses, from the cars. As we cross a little stream to reach the lower part of the village, a group of revellers are unloading a huge sound-system from the back of car ready for an impromptu early morning rave.

Bianca explains that the people who live in them build all all of the houses -little one-story bungalows with big porches -. As we pass by, everyone greets us.

After stopping by one of Bianca’s cousins to say hello and eat fresh coconuts, we head back towards the cafe, stopping at the last remnants of the La Reconnaissance estate. Lopinot the village is named after Count Lopinot, a French general who originally settled in Haiti in order to become a sugar planter, a lucrative market. After the slave uprisings that began in 1791, Lopinot petitioned the British government for compensation and arrived in Trinidad in 1800, trekking through the mountains until he found this flat plateau, deciding it was ideal for planting and cultivating cocoa. For the slaves, it was a brutal existence. Pointing at a young tree, Bianca informs us that the cashew trees are where they would hang the slaves.

After our walk is over, Arianna, one of the participants of the workshop, picks us up. We have one free day to cram everything in.

“Where would you like to go?” she asks.

“The beach,” we reply in unison.

As we head down into Port of Spain, the daylight reveals just how precarious and scary the road that connects Lopinot to the Port of Spain is. And it quickly becomes apparent that Jean Claude is not unique in his approach to driving, but merely representative of the way that everyone in Trinidad drives – foot-down all the way.

Passing through the Port of Spain, I eagerly crane my neck to try and take everything in. The beauty of the climate and the scenery is often contrasted with glimpses of poverty and destitution. Just before you reach the main centre of Port of Spain, you pass a huge, stinking open landfill and a slum district before hitting the central district, with its large buildings, shops, cafes and bars. We arranged to meet some of the students at the National Academy of Performing Arts; a big sliver building that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Sydney Opera House. After meeting up, we headed to Maracas Bay, which necessitated another clench-inducing drive, this time up a hill, granting us an incredible view of the whole area. Once we’d reached the top, we then had to drive down again, eventually arriving at a beach, the likes of which I’d only ever seen in films before.

It was at this point that I had to make a frank admission to myself. I’d planned on playing it cool, taking it all in my stride, letting it all wash over me. I didn’t want to be the atypical slack-jawed ‘Brits on tour’ tourist. But I was kidding myself. Everything I see and experience blows me away, and I find that I’m running out of adjectives and superlatives. You all better get used to hearing me say, ‘amazing’ and ‘brilliant’ a lot.

The beach is nestled in a bay surrounded by big, rainforest covered hills. The surf crashed and roared, and I pushed my toes into the sand. A guy with a guitar approached our group.

“Can I play you all a song?” he asks, flashing us a big gap-toothed grin.

“Sure,” we say.

I smile as he takes the plastic spoon that he uses as a plectrum and begins to strum. I’m expecting to be regaled with some lilting Caribbean melody, or a Bob Marley tune or something, but then he opens his mouth and begins singing:

“Today is gonna be the day that I’m gonna throw it back to you,

By now you shoulda somehow worked out what yer gonna do,

I don’t believe that anybody feels the way I do,

About yer noooooooow….”

 

TALKING DOORSTEPS – BLOG ENTRY #1

 

JOEHAKIMROAD

 

Photo by Graeme Oxby

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 first: 

I didn’t sleep much the night before. For some reason, I kept replaying that scene from Airplane over and over in my head, that bit when an obviously distressed Ted Striker sits next to the little old lady on the plane, who turns and asks:

‘Nervous?”

‘Yes.”

“First time?”

“No, I’ve been nervous lots of times.”

Fortunately, my girlfriend, who has flown many times, took charge of the packing. It was a good job too, as I took it upon myself to have a couple of glasses of wine and start ringing round people to tell them things like: “If anything happens to me, I just want you to know that I’ve always been very fond of you.”

General Zod, my cat, usually wakes me up by planting himself on my chest and sticking his paw in my mouth, but on this particular morning he seemed to be a bit subdued, so I immediately took it as a bad omen, a sign that he was aware that something was about to happen, utilising that creepy extra-sensory pet sense that people often attribute to animals.

I like to think that I’m a rationalist, someone not swayed by vague non-existent spiritual forces, but like most people from Hull, I have a large superstitious streak that emerges during times of stress, and the fact that I was flying on Friday the 13th was all a bit much for me.

Eventually my girlfriend managed to tear me away from touching all the wooden surfaces in the house and shepherded me out the door and dropped me at the train station.

The extreme cold weather that the news had been warning us about for days was starting to hit, and as the train passed through Leeds the snow had started to fall, becoming a thick white blanket that covered the ground by the time I arrived at Manchester Airport.

My anxiety about flying for the first time was compounded by the fact that I was travelling alone, because I had no one to guide me through the whole thing. The first big test was passing through customs. As anyone who knows me reasonably well will attest, I have a very shady looking face, so it was almost inevitable that I was searched on my way through. After being manhandled by a bear-like bloke, I was let loose into the departure lounge. My original intention was to settle down to some work, but I was just too jittery, so I occupied myself by pacing up and down the lounge trundling my case behind me.

Eventually the big moment arrived, and I, along with my fellow passengers, was huddled into a big metal tube on the runway. Despite my nerves, I was chuffed to see that I had a window seat, so I sat down and prepared myself for the big moment, and it didn’t take long for my anxiety shift into pure exhilaration. For the first time, I was leaving the borders of my country.

Mercifully, the flight was smooth and uneventful, aside from a bit off turbulence that kicked in just as we were landing in Barbados, the place where I was due to catch my connecting flight. As I stepped off the plane and onto the tarmac, the warm air filling my lungs felt incredible. After a very brief stop it was time to board another plane for the next leg of the journey. I felt confident now, bordering on cocky, as I strolled out onto the runway. This new found swagger was short-lived however, because we got closer to the plane, I realised it was a small two-propeller craft. Once again I had been given a window seat, but I wasn’t as thrilled as I was last time, mainly due to the fact that the view from the window was that of the one of the engines. It was a bumpy, juddering flight, and my hands gripped the armrests every time we hit a pocket of turbulence. Not only that, the plane stopped off in Grenada, meaning I had to go through the whole take-off/landing again.

I was a bit burnt out by the time I landed in Trinidad, but buzzing. I met up with Debris and Pip at the airport, and after a gruelling trek through customs, I had finally arrived at my destination, Trinidad. Debo and Jean Claude, our man in Trinidad, picked us up at the airport.

It was dark out by this time, and our place was up in Lopinot, a village located a few miles outside of Port of Spain. This journey entailed driving up a long, thin, unlit winding road, bordered with thick bushes and trees, and the odd sheer drop. Jean Claude tackled the drive with much aplomb; foot down almost all the way, navigating the all the twists and turns with the speed and determination of a rally driver, even swerving to avoid the stray dogs did little to put him off. Indeed, he was so at ease that even managed to turn around and converse with us directly.

After being given a warm welcome by our host Hyacynth, we each retired to our rooms, knackered by our journeys. After taking off my shoes, I headed out onto my veranda to type this, the first of my blog entries.

Tired and sweaty, surrounded by the unfamiliar noise of thousands of exotic creatures, it suddenly dawned on me: I had made it, I was here, in Trinidad, and the real journey was just beginning.

FROM HULL TO TRINIDAD & TOBAGO

Flag_of_Trinidad_and_Tobago
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. Keep your eye on the Wrecking Ball Press website and the usual social media outlets.

We also have some very exciting books lined up for 2017. Adelle Stripe’s keenly anticipated novel about Andrea Dunbar “Black Teeth And A Brilliant Smile” will be launched at this year’s Bradford Literature Festival in the summer. We’re working on the cover right now and ARC’s will be available come the Spring.

Internationally acclaimed poet and Hull favourite Helen Mort will publish her debut short story collection “Exire” with us in 2017. Helen’s prose is every bit as wonderful as her poetry and we are very proud to get behind this landmark book.

Hull poet Mike Watts fourth collection will also be appearing in 2017. We’ve yet to decide on a title, but it’s Mike’s most mature and accomplished work yet. A brilliant addition to an accomplished canon.

And lastly, local magazine Tenfoot City ran an interview with our shy and retiring Chief Editor Shane Rhodes in their latest issue. Turn to page 36 here: