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Kate Tempest, in Brockley, London (Photo by Simon Sarin/Redferns)

Feeling poetry in the body

By and
Q&A | 10 minute read
'It's a physical thing' says the award-winning poet and rapper, Kate Tempest

Kate Tempest is an award-winning poet, musician, novelist and playwright. She has won the Ted Hughes Award (for Brand New Ancients) and was nominated as Best Solo Performer at the 2018 Brit Awards. She has also been nominated for the Mercury Prize (for albums, Everybody Down and Let Them Eat Chaos) and shortlisted for the Costa Prize for Best Poetry Book for Let Them Eat Chaos, which accompanied the eponymous album.

Born in London, she grew up in Lewisham and is part of a new generation of lyricists, poets and rappers who perform their work live and whose work is politically and socially engaged. Songs such as ‘Europe is Lost’, ‘Tunnel Vision’ and ‘Perfect Coffee’ address social inequality and her work consistently grapples with issues of class, gender and injustice. Her debut novel, The Bricks that Built the Houses, was a Sunday Times bestseller and won the 2017 ‘Books Are My Bag’ Readers Award for breakthrough author. She is currently working on her second novel. Running Upon The Wires is her new poetry collection. 

Arifa Akbar: The poems in Running Upon The Wires feel deeply personal – both melancholic and full of yearning but also a celebration of what it means to love. Did you consciously seek to avoid writing about bigger politics in the collection?

Kate Tempest: In an early draft, I did include political and more outward-looking poems but I had a conversation with Don Paterson, my editor, and he encouraged me to stick with the heartbreak, and not to pull focus. Not to be afraid of excluding the more ‘Tempestian’ ones, which was good advice, because it’s what I wanted to do, but I didn’t quite have the courage to commit at first. As I began to compile the poems and think about them as a whole, I worried that people would miss the bigger-picture poems, but I’m glad I made the decision to keep it so intimate. Even though this collection is different, tonally, to my previous ones, I have this idea that all of my works relate to one another; the last words of Let Them Eat Chaos were ‘wake up and love more’, which leads us into the world of Wires pretty well.

AA: Did something specific inspire it?

KT: My marriage broke up, I was on tour, my head was a mess, and these were the poems I was writing. Then, as the collection started to take shape, I realised I wanted to resolve the heartbreak. I wanted the poems to reflect the healing that was going on. I fell in love. I kept writing. I wanted the collection to move through the states of heartbreak, and into loving again. I thought that would be a more useful and interesting prospect to offer the world. 

AA: It is is organised in three parts beginning with ‘the end’, then ‘the middle’ and, finally, ‘the beginning’. Will you talk about this reverse chronology?

KT: The collection needed an organising principle, some parameters. And this seemed like a good way of giving each segment its own space and at the same time recognising the cyclical nature of loving. There is new love by the end; it may be no less doomed than the initial love but there’s always the hope that your pattern has changed and that this time it will be different – that blind faith. 

AA: You write across many forms: poems, prose, songs, plays. How and when in your writing process do you know when a poem is a poem, a song a song, and so on?

KT: It starts with listening to the idea, asking it what it wants. There’s usually a moment where you can feel what the ideas want to be. But it’s also about context. If I’m in the recording studio, and I’m making an album, music is all I’m thinking about and everything that comes out [in ideas] is music. A poem feels very different in the body, it’s in the stomach and the veins. The only way I can explain it is if I liken it to a sense – like a sense of smell or a brightness in your eyes. It’s a physical thing. With music, it begins in my mouth. With fiction, it’s more in my mind, it’s brain work. Dialogue for theatre, funnily enough, is not in my mouth but begins in the ears.

AA: Do you write your poems to be spoken or sung or performed?

KT: All poetry needs to be spoken for its deep sonics to be fully understood, not necessarily recited in a room, but maybe to yourself. The poet has read it aloud to themselves when they’ve been writing it. There are things your eyes will miss if you don’t read the poem aloud.

But I don’t think the poem needs to be ‘performed’ in a room full of people. With some poems, the way the text is set on the page is the performance. The space around the lines, where the line is broken. 

AA: You have spoken of the writers who have influenced you such as Samuel Beckett and James Joyce. Who are the poets around now that you enjoy reading? And what about singers who have made an impact or been an inspiration?

KT: I love people like Polarbear (Steven Camden), Salena Godden, Anthony Anaxagorou, John Berkavitch, Hollie Mcnish, Zia Ahmed. It’s the sense of community that I feel with them that enables me to consider myself a poet. Don Paterson has had a huge impact on my poetic imagination, because he has taught me so much about a kind of poetics I didn’t know about before.

With music, I connect to the integrity of performance, my tastes are wide ranging, but when someone means it, I feel it. At the moment I’m listening to everything from the new Idles record, to the rapper Ka from Brooklyn, to Daniel Avery to Shingai Shoniwa who has a new solo project coming to Jam Baxter and Confucius MC. I really love the label Erased Tapes and listen to their artists regularly. Tirzah’s album Devotion is getting some heavy rotation in my house as well. 

AA: What are you currently reading?

KT: A debut poetry collection called The New Testament by Jericho Brown, who is an American poet. I just began reading it this morning and already it feels like it’s recalibrating my soul. He’s a master. I’m also reading William Faulkner’s Sanctuary again. I get a thirst for re-reading a book or revisiting a writer sometimes. It’s a little niggling thing like I need to find out what that book will mean to me now, where I’m at now. I love going back to books I’ve read and loved and seeing how differently they hit me each time. 

I’ve also just read Heart Berries, which is a memoir by Terese Marie Mailhot [a Native Canadian writer] and I was floored by it. The depiction of her relationship [with her partner] felt so real and refreshing, and I felt so glad to be reading this woman who was not afraid to describe her feelings for fear of her desire not making perfect sense. 

AA: What book marked you as a child or teenager? And what book/s and music inspired you enough to become a writer and singer?

KT: To be completely honest, it was just books in general that marked me. Even if I read a book that I ended up not enjoying, the act of reading was so important to me that I got through a hell of a lot of books. As for who inspired me, I was crazy about discovering artists and writers on my own terms. It was like, OK I’ve heard about Miles Davis, but I need to know him, for myself. Not just know he’s deep because everyone tells me he’s deep. I needed my own epiphanies. So, I sought out the legends; Nina Simone, George Clinton, Thelonious Monk, Albert Camus, Malcolm X, George Orwell, Sophocles, Lao Tzu, Jimi Hendrix, Alice Coltrane, Bahadmadia, Mos Def, Gravediggaz, Shakespeare, Toni Morrison, Alex Haley, Carson Macullers, Kathy Acker, Lauryn Hill, James Joyce, whatever it was, everything I was listening to or reading, I was doing it with an appetite to learn from it. I was studying. 

AA: You’ve spoken about night-time and how ‘there is something really magic about the couple of hours before dawn.’ Do you find the peace of night-time conducive to writing?

KT: Not at the moment. I have been working on a challenging first draft of a novel and sometimes it’s so demanding that you have to be structured about your routine or else it will consume every moment of your day and night. So now I get up to write early in the morning and I’ll write until the afternoon. I still love the couple of hours before dawn, but these days I’m waking up to them rather than going through the night. I’ve got my desk in the studio outside, in the garden-shed, so I write there. 

AA: Do you listen to music as you write, and if so, what?

KT: It depends what stage I’m at in my writing. Sometimes I will but never music with lyrics. Only instrumental stuff. Sometimes it helps to snap you out of a stale mindset but I have to be careful because it can also take me too much into the music, you begin to write to the feeling of the music rather than to the feeling of the character. 

AA: Is rap a form of poetry in its own right?

KT: Rap is a complex form that takes years of serious application and study to master. And as with other forms of poetry, you have to be invested in the culture to appreciate the complexity of the techniques. People have different understandings of what a rapper is or isn’t (unfortunately, these opinions are often rooted in ignorance) but for me, a good lyricist will have at their disposal many styles and flows to aid their process, they will be dexterous, committed to their craft and constantly interrogating language when they write, and you will hear it in their lyrics from the first listen.

My initial contact with poetry was through lyricism and hip hop culture. It completely changed the parameters of language for me – I saw the possibilities of how words could be put together, how fluid and pliable they can become. It felt alive and direct. Through that contact, I journeyed back to poetry. 

AA: Some have thought of poetry as a rarefied, middle-class, artistic medium. Do you think the generation of poets to which you belong has changed that or do you think it is still overwhelmingly middle-class?

KT: It depends what you mean when you talk about poetry. In my view, poetry is as old as humanity itself. It doesn’t belong to a rarefied set, any more than it belongs to anyone else. It’s happening all over the world, all the time – in people’s homes, in their places of worship, between lovers, between children and their grandparents, in every language that exists on this planet.

Yes, mainstream publishing, as with all the creative industries, is overwhelmingly white and privileged. Yes, it should be more diverse. There are small presses who are actively redressing the balance, like OutSpoken or Influx or Burning Eye Books, and hopefully the mainstream publishers will follow suit. But the thing is, poetry is as various as people are – and the ways that you can experience poetry are also as various.

You can read Milton or Chaucer, fine, or you can watch a video of someone you’ve never heard of telling poems in a place you’ve never been to. Also fine. The experiences of doing either are not mutually exclusive. Poetry, as I’ve experienced it, is about packed rooms, people gathered to hear different voices, expressions of different perspectives. But that’s my experience of it, if someone else thinks of poetry as something solemn and private that happens between them and a page, who am I to say that’s not what it should be? And why can’t it be both?

Kate Tempest’s poetry collection, Running Upon The Wires is published by Picador. Buy here