Sophia Walker is a touring spoken word poet and educator who will be headlining The Flint & Pitch Revue on Friday 24th March, with an extract from her new show In Fidelity. (Tickets here)
Sophia has toured globally with her passionate, political verse and her shows ‘Can’t Care, Won’t Care,’ ‘Around The World in Eight Mistakes’ and ‘Cult Friction’ have gained her much acclaim and many awards at the Edinburgh Fringe festival. She was recently announced as one of the UK writers who will be part of the International Literature Showcase 2017. Her debut collection Opposite The Tourbus is published by Burning Eye Books.
Below, she talks to Freddie Alexander about her work, her views on spoken word, and what on earth this thing called ‘a scene’ is!
FA: You will be performing an extract of ‘In Fidelity’ at the upcoming Flint and Pitch Revue. What parts of the show will we not get to see?
SW: The bits I’ll write after I realise what’s missing? Hehe.
The audience at Flint & Pitch will be the first people to see ‘In Fidelity’, so how they react will completely reshape the show. Honestly, I set out to write a funny show about marriage and relationships, and my own terrible history as an awful 20-something having far too much fun.
I’m mostly political in my work and I just can’t handle that right now. I’m not sure audiences want to either. We all need a break. But it turns out this isn’t a funny subject to me. There are funny sections but… I’ve never seen a marriage work, so I don’t know how to achieve that. I just know I can’t fail.
FA: You once wrote ‘we don’t just need writers, we are in desperate need of builders: people who want to shape, to strengthen, to grow and to expand this scene for all of us.’ There is a temptation, especially among younger artists, to see success in the arts as a zero-sum game. How do you wrestle with the desire to be a writer and a builder?
SW: Once you’ve been in spoken word for about five years, you look around and most of the people you came up with have quit. Five years after that you’re an elder for no other reason than you’re one of the few folk still kicking about. There’s no money in this.
At a certain point you realise that becoming a scene builder is the only option. We do this partly to diversify income streams, but mostly because without scene builders we would all have to quit. It’s not just about running a night, though that’s lovely and there’s space for that. Being a scene builder is about creating actual opportunity.
Many people run nights for reasons of self-promotion. That’s fine, absolutely. But what we need are the folk who come along and go “hrm…that hop between being a five minute open mic’er and a twenty minute feature poet, there’s no midway point to learn how do that. Let me make it.” That’s a scene builder.
They are the person who notices that, actually, there are loads of nights doing the exact same thing, but not a single one that would allow performers to move up a level. Or none that would provide a proper paycheck. Or none that could book people big enough that the local acts get to see where the bar really is.
I guess it’s not about wrestling with the divide between writing and building. It’s about staying in the game long enough to realise that unless you yourself become builder, there will be no scene to progress through.
FA: Is there a ‘spoken word scene’? If so, what is it like? If not, why do everyone and their Nan keep talking about it?
SW: Depends who you ask and what mood they’re in. It’s complicated.
Some people are performance poets. That seemed to be a particularly British thing, and is what the scene was about ten years ago. This involved a broad age range.
Some people are slammers, and that typically refers to a very specific style of poem. It doesn’t just refer to people who compete anymore, it’s a specific way of sounding.
Some people call themselves spoken word artists. They tend to be under-25, and are very YouTube oriented. Things like ‘number of views’ get bandied about a lot. The fascinating after-effect of that is the change it’s had in promoters. There’s a massive difference between your ability to say one 3 minute poem well to camera, and your ability to actually hold a room.
Promoters are increasingly requesting poets send them footage of gigs. They need to see that performers can actually hold a room, have the skills to do all this live. I’m fascinated that what was a live art-form has, in some corners, become so internet focused that the live performance skills are being lost.
So I guess there are multiple scenes.
FA: What about the ‘UK spoken word scene?’
SW: I think saying “UK” gets a bit problematic, because there are such geographical divides. There’s the ‘London is the centre of the world’ perspective, and there’s the fact that all the truly interesting stuff is happening regionally. There’s the fact that the Scottish, Irish and Northern Irish scenes are so disconnected from the English scene, in a way the Welsh scene isn’t.
Honestly, the coolest scene right now is Manchester, and that’s mostly because it’s the scene with the least ego in it. If you see a poetry night that seems to have a diverse age range among attendees and performers, go there. That’s the good stuff.
FA: What would you tell the young performance poet who is, as you described, ‘working [her] butt off to sleep on the ground for nearly a week, paying 20 bucks a pop for shite food, and inevitably leaving [a] gig over a hundred dollars poorer than you came in’? What would you tell the promoter that has put her in this position?
SW: I’d say that this is your passion and this is what you need to do to make it work. Tour on your own dime while you have other full time jobs. It sucks, but that’s what this takes.
To the promoter I ask, are you funded? ”How much did you make off the night?” Promoters, at least the good ones, too often are out of pocket themselves to pay acts. I don’t know many good promoters who get paid for all the work they do.
The system is the problem. We don’t value art enough, the money isn’t there. And where it is there, it often goes to the more business minded people and less to the community minded people.
Promoters often aren’t the enemy. But they should know that every poet they book to headline is doing a headcount, knows the door fee and has done the maths on the back of an envelope. We know when we’re being cheated and we remember.
FA: What will you be doing five minutes before your performance?
SW: Watching the audience. Trying to get a gauge on the vibe of the room, what they’re responding to, what they aren’t.
It’s interesting, if you asked me what the most important skill set for a performing poet to have – it’s not writing ability, it’s emotional intelligence. The performer who is best at reading the room is the performer you walk away remembering.
To see Sophia Walker’s In Fidelity (excerpt) alongside words from Ellen Renton and Ryan Van Winkle,PLUS tunes from Djana Gabrielle and Urban Farm Hand, buy yer ticket now! http://bit.ly/2lGYxxY