U.K. Poet Henry Raby The Face of Shakespeare Part 2
iBardBooks: What forms of poetry seem to be the most powerful to youth culture? Why?
Henry Raby: I don’t come from a rap background, I come from a punk background. But Don’t Flop have done wonders to invigorate the rap battle scene. But instead of relying on the same old styles, they’ve invited poets like Mark Grist and Harry Baker to battle. It’s important to show these styles next to one another. You can go to a night in Manchester or London, or Edinburgh, and see rappers doing spoken word alongside traditional poets. I think young people are probably more excited by the rap battle side of spoken word as an immediate form of style, and Scroobius Pip, PolarBear and Kate Tempest have helped that. But poetry is important because it’s minimal. Check out education projects like Apples & Snakes’ Shake The Dust. I’ve not been involved, but it’s an amazing programme.
What topics most lend themselves to poetry?
HR: At the moment, I’m fascinated by ‘protest poetry’. Not just poetry about politics, but poetry used as part of activism. Right now in the UK we’re in the middle of ‘Black April’, where the ConDems have slashed welfare and currently privatising our Health Service. People are feeling angry, betrayed, helpless etc. I feel I hear a fair bit of political and protest work these days. Either that, or people want escapism. Love poems will always exist, but there’s a bit of a geeky culture to try and go viral with a daft and odd poem. So you’ll get poets trying to write about Pokemon or Board games or PacMan or Star Wars or Bacon or the Robot Apocalypse, Redheads, the colour Yellow, the Fresh Prince of Bell Air, Chickens, Mortal Kombat etc etc. I’m guilty of this too, but they are often pure crowd-pleasers! I think it’s a piss-take of the ‘establishment’ saying poetry has to be serious and lends well to breaking the ice with informal perceptions of poetry. A student from New York did some poetry in London, and she was saying how the US is more competitive. Whilst we do have that edge, most nights are just forums to share stuff and being inventively silly (or sillyishly inventive) really has its value.
Why are youth turning to poetry these days?
HR: If the council or government have closed your youth centre or arts centre or whatever projects, you still have your words and writings, house parties to share those words, street corners or the internet. That’s almost a punky traditional of minimalism, and it’s what has always appealed to me about poetry/spoken word. You just get up and do it. You don’t need a set, lights, a stage, or even a bar or venue. You don’t even need a PA or a soundsystem or a band or even a guitar. Just your voice.
Does poetry speak to the disenfranchised?
HR: Hmmm. I think lots of things speak to the disenfranchised. Football, sports, nationalism, socialism, gaming, fantasy role-playing, music…I think poetry is just one more thing which people believe in. But the thing with all these, they are social activates. You go the football with your mates, you plan revolutions with your comrades etc. Sure, you might write poetry alone, but what’s changing is you share with your peers and that forum for discussion. The safe place is vital. I mean, really vital.
Here’s an example: In the UK, a company called ATOS have been given the task of finding disabled people ‘fit to work’ in their thousands. They basically ask you whether you can lift your arm, and if so your benefits are removed. It’s led to a huge amount of deaths, including suicides. A group began a project called Fit To Work: Poets Against ATOS. Now, the government will never change their mind just because someone wrote a poem, but it gives people a way of expressing themselves, talking with other poets, activists and people hit by these cuts. Poetry can be a very persona and private matter, but it can also be a force to show solidarity, unity, friendship and community.
Whose work do you recommend? Who inspires you?
HR: In the Grand Scheme of History, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing without Joe Strummer (lead singer of The Clash) and John Cooper Clarke. In the current scene, avoiding obvious names, check out Ross Sutherland’s Stand By For Tape Back-Up on vimeo. I genuinely believe Inua Ellams to be one of the best poets alive at the moment. Comedian Andrew O’Neil never fails to make me giggle and feel inspired. I love theatre-makers Tim Crouch and Chris Thorpe for their intimate story-telling work, and if you have chance check out the music of Grace Petrie and ONSIND.
Shakespeare had to leave his little town of Stratford- Upon –Avon for the opportunities of London. Is that in the cards for you?
HR: In my little town of York, There’s always something happening, but you have to look for it. And if it’s not happening, it’s easy to make it happen. Plenty of venues, word-of-mouth…it feels more like home than a vast expanse. I come from a DIY background. If you build it, they will come. We do not have the vast funding, resources or even experience but we have the passion and the friendliness. I’m not saying I’d never consider moving to London ever ever, but never never for the sake of it.
I think many poets writers, artists and creative-types hotfoot it to London sharpish. I think sometimes they’re right to, and they conquer the city, sometimes London can conquer them. I think Shakespeare made the right choice, I guess it worked out for him in the long-run yet? But as the old Pepys saying goes: “Tired of London, tired of life”. Well I’m not tired of York just yet, York has my heart.