The Roundhouse’s The Last Word, a festival of spoken word, storytelling and poetry, highlights the increasing overlap between spoken word and other arts forms – theatre, installation, music and film – and provides a showcase for those at the beginning of their careers as well as more established performers. Here four of the artists involved in The Last Word talk about he festival and their different approaches to the spoken word.
John Berkavitch is a multi-facted live artist specialising in the audio-visual language of hip hop culture. He will be presenting a scratch excerpt of his new show Shame at The Last Word.
At 12 years old I started doing graffiti and this has informed every aspect of my creative. The driving force behind a “graffiti mentality” is getting out, getting up and getting seen. We call it bombing. Within what I do as a poet and story-teller this approach still applies. I started rapping when I was 15. Six years later I ‘bombed’ the mic at an open mic night and someone told me they liked my “poetry” so I stuck with it. At 17, I started b-boying. Again the idea of getting seen was prevalent and it was something I never saw as needing permission to do. As I went along I always drew parallels between the different forms I worked with. Syllables translated to the count of steps. The movement of a spray can mirrored the movement of rhyme patterns and the flow of body parts. Most of all, the idea of get out, get up, get seen stayed at the forefront. These days I’m working on bringing all the different elements of my practice together. Into theatre.
My writing has been influenced by many different artists from different fields. From rappers like El-P and Aesop Rock to comic book writers and artists like Alan Moore and Frank Miller to contemporary poets like Polarbear, Inua Ellems and Kate Tempest. My new piece Shame is essentially a narrative spoken word piece with integrated breakdance and animation. I am attempting to push what is expected/possible with a spoken word show. After all it’s not just the story you are telling but also how you tell that story.
Paul Cree is a writer and performer. His piece, A Tale from the Bedsit, is a show for just eight people set in his bedsit recreated in the Camden Lock Hotel.
Before I’d heard of spoken word and thought theatre was plays and pantomimes, I wrote rap lyrics. I always liked Hip Hop but I never thought I could write lyrics and rap myself, until I heard badly copied rave tapes from big raves where DJs played Drum & Bass and MCs like Stevie Hyper Dee and Skibbadee rapped along to it in London accents, using flows and rhythms that excited me, and inspired me to try it for myself.
When I began MCing, I realised quickly about how important conviction is. There is a competitive element – any sign of weakness was a prompt for other MCs to take over, and when they had all their mates with them this could be quite difficult. Though I was never particularly confident, I had to own the stage as if it was mine and defend it. That’s something I’ve always carried with me in any type of performance since. I’ve spent over four years working a variety of different shows, from large scale outdoor shows to intimate one-on-one performances, all of which has fed in to what I do. Comedy is a big influence and comics also play a big part in how I write things. I love the way in comics, characters come in and out of a fictional world, so you’ve got several story arches all happening at once.
Talia Randall is spoken word artist and former Roundhouse Poetry Collective member. She presents a free work-in-progress performance of her new work Bloodlines at The Last Word festival.
My work is rooted in spoken word but exists between spoken word, theatre and music. It has been heavily influenced by hip-hop, particularly artists that find a balance between word play and telling a story. I’m now going through a stage in my work where I’m finding influences in other forms, like theatre or live art. For me, the most exciting thing about spoken word is its versatility. From listening to a poet passionately speak in a small room with no microphone, to an epic story told with an orchestra, to a story weaved with break-dancing or soundscape or immersive theatre. There are so many artists exploring the boundaries of spoken word.
I’m inspired by artists from straight up rappers like Aesop Rock or Angel Haze, to writers like Charles Bukowski, to visual artists like Grayson Perry or Sophie Calle. The thing that connects them is that I totally buy into the worlds they create. I see them all as have such conviction in their work but I also see a vulnerability in what they do. For me, that balance is really important.
Bloodlines sits between genres – spoken word, soundscape and theatre. The show explores how our past governs our futures. It’s a personal story where I trace my family history – from the expulsion of the Jews in Spain over 500 years ago to boil-in-the-bag dinners in inner city London – in order to question whether I should continue to fit into the mould my ancestors have created for me or break it altogether. I hope the show speaks to anyone who has thought about who they are and where they come from.
Joshua Idehen is founder of Poejazzi. Poejazzi presents Howl 2.0, a reimagining of the classic Allen Ginsberg poet by a new generation of poets.
These days, in my time as a spoken word artist, I work almost most exclusively with music. I have a band, Benin City, where every track is a new journey in the space between singing and spoken word, mostly because I don’t sing but at the same time I try not to just drop a poem flat on a track and hope my listeners are enlightened enough to ‘enjoy’ the clash of un-rhythmic wordplay and beats. The great thing about working with music is the restrictions: the melody has its own narrative which you should recognise and respect. When it comes to writing with music I think important rules are: less is more, repetition has higher value, and you can always be too smart.
So many artists are making art that challenges what can be done in the genre at the moment, or performing in new spaces and winning awards. We’ve had spoken word artists everywhere, from Jools Holland to the Royal Albert Hall. As well as getting millions of views on youtube and a spoken word app (that’ll be us) and now a spoken word festival.
My influences include Luke Temple – his work as a solo artist and in Here We Go Magic is often breathtaking. Son Lux production skills are a class above; Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis – two of the finest comic book writers and my initial inspirations to become a writer. And Musa Okwonga, Deanna Rodgers, Jack Rooke, James Massiah and Kareem Parkins Brown are poets who inspire me at the moment.
For The Last Word, Poejazzi asked five of the best young poets in London to re-envision Allen Ginsberg’s Howl for a new generation. Each of the poets: Jack Rooke, James Massiah, Deanna Rodger, Kareem Parkins Brown and Rosie Knight, brings to the poem their individual voice, personal stories and interpretations of the themes in Howl, injecting moments of hilarity, pure rage and moments of abstract brilliance.
The Last Word at the Roundhouse runs until 1st December 2013. John Berkavitch’s Shame is on 30th November, Paul Cree’s A Tale from the Bedsit, runs from the 26th November – 1st December, Talia Randall’s Bloodlines is on 1st December, and Poejazzi’s Howl 2.0 is on 1st December.