Hammer and Tongue: An Interview with Steve Larkin

Steve Larkin is a spoken word artist, former international poetry slam champion, and founder and president of Hammer & Tongue, the UK’s premier poetry slam and professional touring network. He spoke to John Wadsworth about his latest work, TES, and his Kickstarter campaign to take it to the Edinburgh Fringe.

Your new spoken-word piece, TES, sees the tragic heroine of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles reimagined as a teenage boy from a Newcastle council estate. What attracted you to Hardy’s novel, and how did you approach the adaptation process?

I read Tess in my final year at university when studying a philosophy and literature module, and was gripped by it. Such an emotional impact, so well written. I wrote an essay on the novel arguing that Hardy pre-empted material reductionists in the careful authoring of a determinist thought-experiment. As time went on aspects of people’s real-life stories and experiences of my own spoke to this story.

A sensitivity to the will to quickly divide, categorize, and value depending on family or old school tie is something that underpinned the thinking that went into TES. My career as a poet has seen me perform to a huge variety of audiences, from prisoners to MP’s and invited dignitaries at the House of Commons, and conduct workshop programmes in a huge variety of schools, from failing inner city schools to extremely well resourced private schools. If there’s any career that gives a clearer view of the appalling unlikeliness of social mobility in this country, I’ll be surprised.

People often ask me if I’m related to Philip Larkin, and as soon as I’d conceived the idea of a boy from the wrong side of the tracks found to be descended from an aristocratic poet, it all fell into place. I reread Tess of the D’Urbervilles and sought out every TV and film version or adaptation that there was. I looked for modern-day equivalents and collected enough highly apposite gems to fill a TV mini-series, which is still an eventual aim. The world of TES was alive and thriving in my head, fuelled by what was unfolding in the political events all around me.

You have collaborated with Olivier Award nominee Chris Full to create an immersive, 3D audioscape. How was this conceived, and what does it add to the show?

Chris Full is so highly regarded in the world of sound. He’s the man that created the sounds for Walking with Dinosaurs – they all started life in his mouth! I learned so much from Chris; he taught me valuable lessons about creating a reality in people’s minds through sound suggestion. I got to help produce the piece that I’d initially conceived, with urban soundscapes taking the place of Hardy’s bucolic pastoral passages.

In the scene which is the equivalent to Hardy’s ‘rape’ scene in the mist in the woods, my character finds himself in a car under a railway bridge, by the banks of the Tyne, as the fog rolls in. The sound of rumbling trains can be heard from speakers above and behind the audience, and the fog horn can be heard through another speaker in the distance, as the car stereo plays Gazza’s version of ‘Fog On the Tyne’ on stage from speakers behind the characters. This attention to detail and this full immersion in each scene makes a huge difference.

Like much of the script there are layers of meaning that people are unlikely to appreciate on a first hearing, if at all. For instance, there are the sounds of recordings made on electro-magnetic microphones of the machinery of financial institutions! Such sounds help create a richer textured experience for the audience. It very much feels like I’m gradually adding the components of a cinema or television piece.

You are currently running a Kickstarter campaign to take TES to this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. For those readers unfamiliar with Kickstarter, what is it and why is it so useful for artists?

A Kickstarter campaign can help you connect with people, potentially all over the world. It’s essentially a crowdfunding service. I think it’s used mostly for business innovations and inventions, but it’s really valuable for artists because it can help launch a project that otherwise wouldn’t have been commercially viable or fundable. A run at the Edinburgh Fringe is a perfect example. Arts Council England won’t fund anything taking place in Scotland, the Scottish equivalent won’t fund someone from the South of England, and no one has ever made money in Edinburgh!

I really like Kickstarter because it has personal elements. I like the chance to connect with people through the rewards they choose, and I like the fact that there’s an opportunity for people to help you out financially without you approaching them directly. It opens channels of communication and appreciation, and creates a dialogue that wouldn’t otherwise exist. I’m really excited about the campaign; if it works it will really make a massive difference. It will act as a springboard, get this important story launched and help me sustain a career. It will mean that making poetry my livelihood is a realistic proposition.

What rewards are you offering in return for pledges?

I’m offering a range of things depending on the amount of the pledge, including: a DVD of the show, an original limited edition poetry bookmark, tickets and a post-performance chat, a show in your house, public speaking/poetry workshops, directing your show, and being punted round the River Cherwell or Isis whilst I perform political poetry at you!

The DVD will be of a performance of TES in front of a packed North Wall Theatre. A good audience draws out a good performance like a sponge, so I’m very happy to have captured that. The poetry punting has been taken up by a few people so far, and I can’t wait. I love the idea of the juxtaposition of the serene Oxford scenery and my abrasive Northern brogue.

The limited edition poetry bookmark is interesting – a written version of my poem ‘The Post-Colonial Global Blues’. I’ve never published work in the written form before; it’s always been something that I’ve been reluctant to do because of my belief in the value of the oral form. This poem is a good example of a piece that works well on the stage but people want to refer back to it to unpack the meaning. So it will be more valuable to me than people might think, and I’m looking forward to gauging reactions from people who have shown a keen interest in my work. I like the idea that people I know will read books for years to come, maybe even Tess of the D’Urbervilles itself, whilst occasionally referring to the poem on the bookmark.

Alongside being an international poetry slam champion yourself, you are the president of Hammer & Tongue, the UK’s premier poetry slam, which you founded in 2003. Beyond their increased popularity, how do you think that poetry slams have changed in the last twelve years?

They remain extremely diverse; there are perhaps signs that that dangerous beast of homogeneity is raising its head, but right now it’s not a massive concern. As people’s first exposure increasingly becomes artists who have been funnelled through the algorithm of the internet, the risk is that they won’t move too far from that starting point. I’ve seen the scene in Vancouver descend from being one of the most vibrant scenes in the world to one where the majority of young people read prophet-of-the-hart style poems in Shane Koyczan cadences off of a smartphone. That’s always the danger when a scene is dominated by one figure, or when an art form comes into the mainstream. I’m happy to report that all of us at Hammer & Tongue are committed to fighting homogeny and championing diversity!

Would you consider ‘slam poetry’ a literary genre in itself, and if so, what do you believe to be its defining features?

A slam is a live spoken word competition, not a genre. I wouldn’t want it to become one either, as those that practise it would look to restrict what they do and look to identifiers that narrowed the definition and the scope of what was possible in live literature. I like what has happened in the UK, with a hugely varied live literature scene being exposed to the crude but useful filter of poetry slams. If we resist the idea of ‘slam poetry’ as a genre, we can celebrate and support talent in whatever form it takes.

You were nominated for Oxford Professor of Poetry in 2010. Do you believe that the worlds of poetry slams and academia are reconcilable? Harold Bloom, an eminent literary critic, has been vocal in his dislike for slams, going as far as to call it the ‘death of art’.

I was nominated by enthusiastic graduates of Oxford University in 2010 and was happy to stand, as I thought there needed to be a redressing of the balance of attention between written poetry and poetry in the oral form. Some people argue that the printed press is the worst thing to happen to poetry; I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I find it pleasing that, at the dawn of the multimedia age, we are seeing a resurrection of the oral tradition.

As for Harold Bloom, I haven’t read the whole article but know that he was commenting on ‘these poetry slams that he hears about’. Every once in a while a newspaper or journal will publish a similarly contentious opinion piece that portrays ‘slam poetry’ – as they’ve decided to atomise it – as a gimmick without literary value. I think I had similar preconceptions of a competitive poetry session initially, until I saw how it functioned to help people progress with their writing in a way that writing in isolation doesn’t, and how it attracted larger audiences and more diverse scrutiny for the art.

As John Cooper Clarke repeatedly says, Shakespeare wrote for mouths. The statement ‘an audience for written poetry’ is strictly speaking a misnomer but ‘an audience for oral poetry’ is a reasonable statement. I’m reminded of Adrian Mitchell’s statement, ‘Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people.’ What is sad is that the academic world of literature should in the main part shunt vibrant oral forms of poetry just at the time when they appear to be heading towards a zenith.

There are signs of a slight cultural shift, though: Kate Tempest winning the Ted Hughes prize for a spoken word theatre show; Oxford University students this year asking me to talk and contribute to the ‘Alternative Reading List’, which aimed to provide an alternative to the dead, white, male-dominated canon. I’ll continue to plough on producing and promoting what people will, hopefully, consider to be sophisticated and accessible works of literature. Right now my challenge remains to expose my work to larger audiences, firstly at The Edinburgh Fringe, then hopefully as a consequence through theatre tours, live poetry events, and eventually radio, film, and television.

J. Wadsworth

You can visit Steve’s Kickstarter page and make a pledge here.

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One comment

  1. […] The subject of origins also forms the basis of MCS’s regional poetry competition, the winners of which will have the opportunity to take to the stage alongside Roger McGough at St John the Evangelist Church (Tuesday 30th June, 7.30pm). McGough, President of the Poetry Society, will be performing works from his most recent collection, As Far As I Know. This is one of many literature events taking place over the course of the festival, amongst them an assortment of poetry and storytelling workshops held between Friday 26th and Tuesday 30th June. The Oxfordshire Youth Poetry Slam, organised in association with Hammer & Tongue, will be held at MCS on Saturday 27th June. (You can read our recent interview with H&T’s founder, Steve Larkin, here.) […]

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