Tell me a bit about how and when you got into Spoken Word
I first got into Spoken Word around 2001. I was a part of a DJ outfit & we used to play Funk/Hip Hop/Garage/R&B at clubs up and down the UK (And even hit Ibiza). We were planning a special Valentine's night & there was this guy who wanted to propose to his girlfriend by reading her a poem. Now the idea of stopping the music in a club for one guy to read a poem seemed too risky. So we decided to have a poetry section within the night where 3 of us would all read out poems & then the last guy would read his out & pop the question to his girl.
Luckily she said "Yes" and the night was a big success. people came up to me & said that they really liked the poems & that we should do it again. Since I wasn't a proper poet (I'd only written one poem for the night), I figured that I needed a place to practice & get my writing game up to speed. This is where I discovered Brixton Art Gallery & the night called Brix-Tongue. This was a monthly night (which I eventually hosted) where I would hone my routines & figure out which style of poetry worked for me. This was groundbreaking night: actors, comedians & radio executives used to turn up just to listen to the poetry that was coming from this tiny gallery in South London. It was from here that I got "spotted" & ended up working on BBC Radio.
What's changed about the spoken word scene since you've been doing it?
Back then there was no YouTube, no facebook, no soundcloud, no twitter (not even Myspace!). So the only way to experience a poet's work was to see them live. This meant that most reputations were forged on the live circuit with little or no other avenues for a poet's work to be heard elsewhere. It also meant that a poet's world could be very insular, the "Brixton scene" (that I was apart of) was at one time the center of my universe, we were unaware of poets in Brighton, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool or Glasgow.
Nowadays with the rise of social media, poetry worlds are much more connected. I can easily access the work of a poet in Norwich & already be familiar with their work before seeing them live. It also means that you can promote your night across a broader platform with less leg-work. In my day (God I sound ancient!) you had to perform at a million open-mic nights & make a noticeable impression, just to get a man to even consider taking your flyer. The live show was everything, competition was high but it created an amazing atmosphere, because you were seeing something that you couldn't see anywhere else.
Is it more or less popular now?
That's a hard one to gauge. Poetry has always been this underground beast. The mainstream hasn't been able to properly harness it because it's range is too extreme. On the one hand you've got poets calling for the government to be smashed but in the next verse they'll speak about a conversation between two red robins. There is a genuine need for men & women to vent their thoughts, voices & opinions about life, love, the deeply serious & the eccentrically trivial. Poetry taps into this in a very unique way. Britain has long had a strong relationship with the poetic art-form, it's in our DNA, we just have to re-embrace it.
How and when did Chill Pill start? And who are the core members?
Chill Pill started in 2010. I had spent the previous years reciting my poems for a West End show as well as touring the world with the comedian Russell Brand. I'd achieved a lot since 2001 & was the 1st performance poet to do a full set at the o2 in front of 17,000 people. Despite this, I realised that most people still had no clue about the Spoken Word scene that had birthed me.
I wanted to get back to the grassroots & create something similar to the Brix-tongue vibe from a decade before. I went around to a few open-mic nights where I met Raymond Antrobus. He seemed to be the man of the moment, his poems were thoughtful, witty & conveyed a genuine curiosity about life. I contacted him to appear in this TV pilot that I was working on (which featured Tony Benn & David Dimbleby) and he agreed to come down. The pilot flopped, but we started talking about setting up a night that was purely devoted to promoting poetry.
He introduced me to Deanna Rodger who was ripping up stages everywhere that she went. So we all decided to get together & create the night "Chill Pill". We initially started off in the small basement of a bar in Shoreditch. With just a small rug or a stage & no mic, we opened our doors & started doing shows week-in, week out. From my experience as a DJ & on the comedy circuit. I wanted our nights to be primarily entertaining & not just an endless recitation of verse. We would crack jokes about each other & sometimes argue on stage. I would play cartoon theme tunes & adverts between the poems just to create a different atmosphere from a regular night.
We had two regular themes: "The headline poem" - where we write a poem about the day's news & "Classic Corner" - where we read an esteemed work from an established poem of yesteryear (eg Shakespeare or Pablo Neruda). By doing this we showed that we embraced ALL poetry from the immediate to words bathed in antiquity. Basically, if you wanted to be entertained at a poetry night, Chill Pill was the place. Within a month we were packed out, people came from all over & a spot on our open-mic list was highly sought after. Artists like Scroobius Pip, Polar bear, Kate Tempest, Ed Sheeran would just turn up & perform.
By the end of 2010 & due to our quick success, we were approached by both the Soho & the Albany theatres who wanted to build upon our night, rather than choose one.. we chose both. Around this time we brought in Simon Mole (who was a regular at our original Shoreditch nights) to help with this expansion & bring his own unique style to our nights (Simon is a stickler for punctuation & is known as the "Timekeeper") So we branched out into the two theatres & put on a successful series of Sell-out nights during 2011/12.
The fifth member of the Chill Pill squad is Adam Kamerling. Both he & Simon hail from a battle-rap background & give our nights the extra musical dimension that it needed to keep it fresh. So now the "headline poem" can be performed as a freestyle conversation between them, which is an audience favourite. So now with 5 of us on board in 2013, we ventured into creating live podcasts from shows that we've been doing at the Roundhouse theatre (watch this space!).
What do you think the future is for Spoken Word as an art form?
The future of Spoken Word is whatever it wants to be. Unlike music or comedy, there is no formalised industry behind it. So it is still in that beautiful creative place where anyone can help define it. Chill Pill is just one chapter in the eclectic book of Spoken Word. We're just trying to put on entertaining live nights because that's the path that we've chosen. But you have poets venturing into theatre, film, music & animation. I've presented 3 separate series on Radio 4 all using poetry in a different way, the last of which had me performing Spoken Word in prisons around the UK.
There will always be a plethora of different artists all stretching the boundaries on what people can expect from a poet. My dream is that it recaptures people's hearts like music & comedy. So that in some point in the future, it won't seem so out of place to say that you're going to check out a Spoken Word night, much in the same way that people check out comedy nights & live music. Of course, the only way that this is ever going to happen is if us poets get busy writing new poems & putting on enjoyable nights.