In July this year Rick Dove became the oldest ever Hammer & Tongue National Slam Champion.
On the 4th July 2021, I won the Hammer & Tongue National Poetry Slam Final at The Royal Albert Hall. The preceding is a sentence that, some six weeks later, still feels more than a little surreal to say, or type, or even hold in my head for more than a few seconds. I have actually had people ask me how I feel about stuff, so here are some answers to Questions Asked Increasing Frequently:
National Poetry Slam Champion then, so how did you get there?
As a teenager and young adult, I loved poetry, and was winning age-group competitions with both London South Bank University and my alma mater, Durham University. I am not entirely sure when it happened, but at some point after graduation, writing became less practical for me. Writing and performing eventually took a back seat, squeezed out by things that paid the bills. I still consumed poems (one summer obsession with Basho and haiku stands out), and I continued to write poems, performing at work events, friends’ parties, around festival campfires, at weddings, christenings, and funerals, but I had genuinely given up any hope of doing it for a career.
It wasn’t until my cousin died suddenly in December 2014, that I started committing to writing again. I started sharing my work on Twitter (@multistable). Someone read my work there and suggested I share poems in public and at that stage I wasn’t even aware poetry readings and spoken word were even a thing. I found an event. I shared poems. I found I enjoyed having an audience that *intended* to experience poetry, and decided this was the life for me. I began visiting as many different events as I could. I started reading and writing more than ever before.
It felt like coming home, if a little late.
And perhaps precisely because I had spent nearly twenty years away, I was hungry for experience to make up for all that lost time. I obsessed a bit, worked hard, watched all the videos, went to all the events, and it was this borderline fixation that has carried me.
What difficulties did you face going into writing poetry and the arts a bit later in life?
With all things that you want to get good at, you have to practice. You have to “do time”, and “pay your dues”. No matter how talented you are, or the foundation that you have, you have to learn, you have to develop, you have to grow.
There are two things about starting later in life; Firstly, you have less time, because you have another career, or a family, or both, and because, let’s face it, you have fewer years left breathing; and secondly, the opportunities to learn become more limited. Getting over the former is about time management, spinning plates, and burning midnight oil. You can do this with determination and fixation but overcoming the latter is far more difficult.
I started again at 37. This meant that even before I was even an emerging artist, I had aged out of many emerging artist writing programmes. But having just started, I was still completely oblivious to this fact. After all, you don’t know what you don’t know, especially at the beginning, so I wasn’t even aware I should be looking for mentors or workshops.
So much so, that I took part in only my second extended* workshop course in March of 2021, the Red Sky Sessions by Apples & Snakes, I was struck immediately by how valuable structured learning can be, especially when you have been doing something with some success for quite a while.
To use a gaming analogy, it is the difference between “grinding” doing the same things over and over for tiny improvements, and “levelling up. Suddenly I was being given the superweapon to take down the boss at the end of the level with ease. After each Red Sky session, I felt like I had “levelled up” and that combined with having new roads to go down, new maps to play (games are cool, alright), and it felt like my practice moved forward as much in five weeks than it had in years previously.
Red Sky was huge for me because as I began emerging, I found those seemingly arbitrary age limits on emerging artist programmes maddening.
I would often read about an opportunity, get excited, then read the small print and find that although I had the exactly the right number of books out, the right number of maternal aunts, and supported the right Lacrosse team, I was a just a few years too old.
I couldn’t help feeling that they were unnecessarily discriminatory and a barrier to entry to the arts. In my opinion, these limits dictating you must be under 30 to be an emerging writer are unintentionally both sexist and classist, with certain demographics far less likely to find time to devote to artistic pursuits in their “building a life” years or “having children” years. This is particularly frustrating when there are submission calls for EXACTLY the kinds of demographics excluded from these writers’ programmes, to submit to journals and festivals desperate to improve their representation.
Also, speaking on being time poor, doing things like taking annual leave for your day job to perform in another city, may seem cunning, but it is exhausting to do for years on end, especially if you are saving money (for the organiser and/or yourself) by using the coaches over trains. A Megabus to Edinburgh from London for the festival in your one week off in the summer may be efficient but if you are over 5ft 10ins and have to spend 9 straight hours with your knees around your ears, it is not exactly sustainable.
So yeah, emerging does not equal young. And efficient does not equal sustainable.
*I have done A LOT of day courses for those I know from such.
What extra, do you feel you bring to poetry coming into it a bit later?
There are a lot of “soft skills” that no-one really talks about when it comes to writing that I feel that time, knowledge, and a bit more life experience, have really helped me hone. Working full-time in events means I get what poetry event organisers go through intrinsically, so hopefully, I deliver my bios and turn up for soundchecks on time. I am also used to networking (even when drunk!) and having lived in many places in the UK, I am used to being misunderstood speaking English to English speakers. I constantly rephrase EVERYTHING in my head as second nature. As a result, my vocabulary is much bigger now than when I was 20. As the lexicon has changed, I have learnt a new dialect with every socioeconomic group I have been part of, and region I have lived in. All this has helped me develop the ability to speak with nuance to different types of people. If you remain open, the older you get, the more this will be true, and it helps loads more with poetry than you realise. There is no substitute for experience, take advantage of all the experiences you have.
What would advice would you give?
Read widely, go to as many different events with different audiences as you can, watch all the poetry videos, read all the journals and zines that you can lay your hands on. Find your niche, and when you have, experiment with others. Sign up to every mailing list you can find, keep an eye on all the opportunities, the short workshops, the masterclasses in an afternoon, everything.
Be greedy with your consumption. Try and fail, and next time fail better. Experience makes you better, there is no short cut to mastery.
What is next for you?
I want to attend all the workshops I can, and learn from experienced facilitators how they run a classroom, and how they stamp their personality on the teaching and participation, because ultimately, I really want to run my own workshops, specifically for marginalised voices. I want to pass on what I have learned about starting later, and how it can be a benefit not a restriction.
But most of all, I just want to keep improving and learning with regards the writing itself, to continue surprising myself with new directions and inspiration from new sources. To that end, I am making plans to apply for the next round of the Arts Council’s Develop Your Creative Practice grant, and I have already signed up for the second incarnation of Apples & Snakes’ Red Sky Sessions.
Isaac Asimov said, “Education isn’t something you can finish”, and I firmly believe that my best work is still to come (provided I keep developing), and maybe, eventually, I will get to deliver the workshop for someone who came to writing later in life, that helps them to have a career and some success too, that, I think, would be perfect.
Red Sky Sessions: Season 2 starts again on Wed 8 September. Lead by Rachel Long, the online sessions span over 5 weeks, are free to attend, and are open to anyone aged 18 – infinity. We believe that emerging happens at any age – we can’t wait to see you there. Sign up here.