BBC Radio 4 Slam Champion Ben Mellor talks to us about his Spoken Word show Anthropoetry which will be performed in our Studio Theatre on Thursday 8 May at 8pm.
So Ben, how did you come up with Anthropoetry? What was the idea and what was the inspiration?
As I explain in the show, I was looking at my list of poem ideas, trying to think of a theme that could tie some of them together into some semblance of a coherent set to take to Edinburgh, and it seemed that quite a few of them were related to the body in some way. So I hit on the idea of using the human anatomy as a framework to hang the show off, and when I did a bit more research I came across the area of study known as Anthropometry – the study of body measurements – and so, with the omission of a letter, the show’s title was born!
Without giving too much away, what’s the show about?
Well, it’s not really about Anthropometry for a start – or the anatomy in general really! That’s just a concept I used to link together pieces I wanted to write that are about a range of different things but use body parts as metaphors. Some, such as the piece about the head or the belly are about politics, how governments affect the way we think, or the way we eat. The spleen piece is about anger and the big and small things we get angry about, the heart piece is about love and what happens without it, and so on. But the pieces are connected by informative and hopefully humorous links about the parts of the body themselves and what we know about them, what past practitioners used to think about them and how they may have entered our language to be used to describe other things.
What’s a spoken word show and how is it different to a traditional theatre show?
Well, for me the modern spoken word scene can and does incorporate elements of stand-up comedy, story-telling, theatre, hip hop and other forms of rhythmical lyrical expression born out of music as well as more traditional forms of oral poetry. There are many different styles and voices within it. So a spoken word theatre show by a single artist or company may differ from a traditional theatre show or well-made play in that it might not have a conventional narrative arc (though many do) or it may not feature actors playing characters (though again, many do). Sometimes a spoken word show may include autobiographical material from the performer’s own life experiences, akin to some live or performance art pieces, but it may just as likely be a third-person epic narrative spoken over a live musical score, a la Kate Tempest’s recent show Brand New Ancients. Anthropoetry is more like an extended themed set, backed by live music created on stage using looping technology. I’m myself on stage, saying poems about things I want to talk about, but often slipping into different versions of myself or different character voices as I’m doing so.
How did you become a poet and what is slam poetry?
A poetry slam is a competitive event where each poet has a timed slot, usually about 3 minutes, and then a panel of judges or members of the audience picked at random give each poet a score. It’s like ice skating, but less graceful. Or like a rap battle, but less cool.
As for how I became a poet, I used to like to write stories from a young age, and also liked acting and dancing and generally showing off, then got into writing songs and being in a band and at some point in all of that started writing poetry as well. The little town I’m from has a great youth theatre which I was part of, plus was pretty good at organising poetry events – I got to see poets like Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, Roger McGough, Brian Patten, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Benjamin Zephaniah who were all big influences.
At school I got to go on a couple of creative writing courses at Ty Newydd in Wales which really kick-started my poetry writing and then when I was about 17 I had an amazing English teacher who let us write a poem for our course work and I ended up performing that poem at a youth event at the Poetry Cafe in London and then getting invited onto a young people’s poetry programme on the BBC World Service with Roger Robinson.
I wrote bits and bobs at university in Manchester but was too busy getting drunk and trying on different versions of myself (and working of course!). However, shortly after I graduated I got picked for a young poets project with the RSC and the piece I wrote for that (which I’m currently turning into a play) was the first piece that I started entering into slams. Things like that and the projects I was getting involved with in Manchester around the same time, at theatres like Contact and the Royal Exchange, were what finally gave me the confidence to come out as a poet.
So, who’s your favourite poet and what’s one of your favourite poems?
Man! That is such a hard question to answer. Can I have a few? One of my favourite ‘traditional’ poets is Louis MacNiece, his poem Christmas Landscape is one of the most magical I know. One of the most important poets and poems to me when I was just starting to write was Carol Ann Duffy’s and her poem Psychopath (that whole collection in fact) – it’s the one I wrote my poem in response to during my A levels that I mentioned above. Another seminal poet for me was Gil Scott Heron and The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and Sarah Jones’ later brilliant version Your Revolution Will Not Happen Between These Thighs for showing me that creative theft and reimagination is not only possible but essential. I could go on… but I think I’ve said too much already in this interview!
What advice do you have for aspiring poets and spoken word artists?
The truest piece of artistic advice I’ve ever heard came from Ira Glass of This American Life. He said:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
I’m definitely still working within that gap, I still compare myself endlessly and unfavourably with writers I look up to and sometimes I feel like I’ll never get to where they are and feel like giving up. But I know that the only chance I stand to close that gap is to keep writing as much as possible and to keep fighting my way through, to try not to be too attached to the outcomes and just enjoy the process.
There’s music in the show – can you tell us a bit more about it and your collaboration with Dan?
I met Dan when he was production managing my first solo show at Contact and he went on to design sound for a few other shows I created or co-created and over the course of a few years I realised what a brilliant musician he was. He also wrote music for and produced a few of the tracks on my first spoken word album, Light Made Solid, and I really enjoyed working with him in the studio so he was a natural choice to work with when I decided to do my first full live spoken word and music show.
The demands of creating a live score that can rival the fullness of a studio-produced sound have really pushed him on as a musician I think, and me too as I create a bit of the music with him on stage too. We use a programme called Ableton that allows you to loop and layer tracks in real time using banks of sound that Dan has created in the studio and applying effects to his guitar and keyboard and my beatbox to create a a wide array of different textures. We hop across genres too, being influenced variously by jazz, hip hop, dubstep, reggae and metal as well as more ambient soundscapes. I think the music in this show, and how we’ve managed to integrate it so effectively with the spoken word, is one of things I’m most proud of in this show – vicariously of course as nearly all of that is down to Dan!
How do you hope the audience will feel having seen Anthropoetry?
Invigorated, informed, inspired, ignited, entertained and ever so slightly grubby.
This is the final chance for audiences to see Anthropoetry. What’s next?
Well, Dan and I have started making a new show called Shaggy Doggerel, but that’s taking a bit of a back seat at the moment as we’ve been working on a new piece called Prelude to a Number with our other company/band Geddes Loom (which also features Léonie Kate Higgins). That show was commissioned by Routes North, devised in collaboration with and directed by Leo Kay, and will be going to Edinburgh in the summer. Plus, I’m writing this spoken word play based on an old poem of mine, Goat’s Song, which I mentioned above. So it’s busy times, but we’ll be back with a new Mellor & Steele show as soon as we can, hopefully next year.