Editor’s Note- I met the poet at the Dhaka Lit Fest in 2017 where I was moderating a panel featuring Sophia, Kaiser Haq and Nausheen Yusuf titled ‘Words of Conscience? Poetry and Activism’. What immediately struck me over the course of our conversation then and the subsequent interview was her unapologetic honesty and constant desire to improve and discover more ways to infuse her vast experiences into script and deliver it in performances that took on a collective and universal form. I realised I had an opportunity to discuss in depth; the world of Slam poetry from one of its truly global stars. We discussed beginnings, influences, issues about the world of Slam Poetry as well as where it maybe headed.
Syed Shehzar M.Doja
About the poet: BBC Slam Champion Sophia Walker is an internationally renowned poet and teaching artist. 2015 UK representative for the World Slam Championships, 2015 London Slam Champion, winner of the 2012 Poetry Olympics, and the Edinburgh International Book Festival Improv Slam, among other titles, she represents the UK for the World Queer Slam, where she has previously ranked third.
Sophia has performed everywhere from Holyrood, the Scottish Parliament, to Royal Holloway Prison, with a TEDx talk for London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in between. She is the host and organiser of the annual BBC Slam Championship, now viewed by many as the most prestigious slam on the UK circuit. Her poems have aired on BBC iplayer, BBC Arts, Radio 4, Franceinter and stations across the US, India, Singapore, Vietnam, Italy and Ireland.
Her debut poetry collection Opposite the Tourbus was published in 2014, and was shortlisted for the Reader’s Choice section of The Guardian’s First Book Award. She was called “a highlight of the list”. (Source:Website)
Shehzar: Sophia, Hi, thank you for doing the interview with the Luxembourg review.
Sophia: Thank you for asking me, I’m honoured.
Shehzar: Tell me a bit more about yourself, how you got into poetry, slam poetry.
Sophia: I lost a bet. There’s a TV show, or was a TV show in the states called Def Poetry Jam. Poets would get up and do one poem and it was televised on HBO and was a hugely popular series and we were watching it one night and I was 21 and I’d never written anything in my life and the last poet who performed was not very good and ‘cause I was arrogant as 21 years olds are, I said I could do better than that in less than 10 minutes and my friends were tired of my shit and they handed me a pen and paper and pulled out a stopwatch and it took much longer than 10 minutes. That’s where it all started.
Shehzar: And how did that move onto this career? Going across the world and performing and being the host? (of the BBC Slam)
Sophia: I don’t know. I’m not sure whether its like a snowball affect or a Sisyphus thing but it gets away from you. You start doing something as a hobby and then people respond to it so you engage in it more and it moves from being a side hobby to one of the main things that you do outside of your job and then you start getting asked to do stuff and travel and I find that the rest of the world takes you seriously before you take yourself seriously. So it’s almost like we don’t decide we can pursue this, until we are shown they want to hear from us.
Shehzar: There is always a sense of dissonance with poets and their writing, something I have experienced as well that others do take you more seriously before you take yourself because we are our own harshest critics.
Sophia: Well Ira Glass had that famous comment that he made about how your taste always advances more quickly than your talent. You are never gonna think you are great if your taste develops faster than your talent because you have taste that immediately tells you that you could and should do better.
Shehzar: Is that a boon or does the sense of always self-criticising hamper you?
Sophia: I think it’s a real asset because where I get sad is when the poets that really excited you, that you used to go to a different city on a train to go and see; and you see them 6 years later and they are not 6 years better and it kind of breaks your heart and I am sure there is a point in which the hunger stops but for as long as you are always expecting more from yourself, you are forcing yourself to always get better and that’s how you maintain career longevity. Because every time people see you, you are better than the last time they saw you and that’s how you maintain audience loyalty. This is about respect. You have to have more respect for your audience than anything else. They’ve given you their time. That’s priceless. Show up and show up having put effort.
Shehzar: One thing I’ve told up and coming writers is whether you have an audience of one or one thousand, you go out there and give your best performance no matter what.
Sophia: And know that performing to an audience of one is far harder. So if you are showing up to readings again and again and it’s a small audience, as you progress and start speaking to larger and larger rooms you will be so grateful because in that small room, you properly learnt everything you needed to learn to be good in front of a larger audience and when you see people ascend very quickly and almost come from nowhere, you watch them die, and you watch them die publicly on stage in front of 400 because they haven’t learnt the basic skills.
Shehzar: So what are some rituals you have before you start writing or performing?In fact, do you have any?
Sophia: I used to. I used to listen to certain music en-route. I preferred to walk to a venue. I can only write outside, which in England is difficult because of the rain so I had to buy a waterproof notebook. I walk around a lot and the rhythms of walking process are how I do my editing process. I need to walk to the venue, that gets me in the headspace, increasingly you get to a certain level and the bookers don’t think of things like that. That you’ll need. You’ll show up to a conference or a festival or something and they’ll put you in back to back things. So you don’t even have the ten-minute headspace that you need to get yourself straight to perform properly so you are forced very quickly to dispense with any needs that you have. You have to learn how to be able to just step up on a stage with no warning and do it – and do it well.
Shehzar: So you have been hosting the BBC slam, what are your thoughts regarding the current ‘scene’ in the UK?
Sophia– Umm, I worry about it because our scene oddly has always been slightly behind the states and the states had this problem with YouTube voice and all slam poets sound the same 5-10 years ago and I would say they that have broken away from it in a huge way and that really only exists still in a younger crowd, in a small way. That’s different, how you learn when you are younger is more challenging so its more important to look at YouTube and those kinds of things. We are still in the midst of YouTube voice, we are deeply embedded in it and I think the other difficulty is that in the 90’s quite a few poets I knew in the states started doing ads and the ad companies only want to work with poets for a fad for a couple of years and then they go away and those poets were never accepted back in the literary community because they’d sold out. Long term – we’re the people who hire you, long term you need to be aware of how your community feels about things because the ad companies go away. They’ve just been this surge of poets hired to do ad campaigns and I just worry where they will be in 5 -10 years because the scene is angry about it. It’s alienating people . I don’t think that’s right either. We‘re poets, we’re not cool and we’re not big, we’re fringe so let’s have each other’s backs.
Shehzar: Who would you say were your influences coming into the whole scene, whether it’s a traditional poet or fellow slammer?
Sophia: My first huge influence was Langston Hughes from the age of 12 and I didn’t hear of performance poetry until I was 18, but as soon as I heard of performance poetry, I went “Oh, that’s what Langston Hughes was” -so he’s my favourite. That was a massive influence. In terms of contemporary poets, I am hugely influenced by a British writer called Ross Sutherland, who has an ability to work across so many genres, like he’s currently writing a libretto, the guys a poet, like you know – that’s amazing. But when I was little I never got bedtime stories, my parents read me poems every night.
Shehzar: Exact same thing happened with me, that’s why I decided to become a poet.
Sophia: It’s a wonderful privilege
Shehzar: Langston Hughes for example, he was not only a great poet but a jazz musician and one of the main features of jazz is the ability to add on top of pre-existing music and make it your own. Do you believe that new poets coming in are drawing anything from this malleability?
Sophia– I think so, yes, for a lot of us in spoken word, me certainly. I’m a massive hip hop head and my love for hip hop always eclipsed my love for poetry. If you properly love hip hop, and I don’t mean gangster rap, I don’t mean Drake, that’s not Hip Hop. I mean people who can properly rhyme. I mean Talib Kweli, I mean Mos Def, you’re schooled in word play, schooled in near rhyme and slant rhyme and how to play with syllables and not whole words and lot of us are coming to poetry only because. In my case, I’m a privileged white girl, if I try to be a rapper that would be the most ridiculous thing on the planet.
Shehzar: What advice would you give to up and coming scenes?
Sophia: A lot of people are gonna tell you to write every day, every time I teach a workshop I say the exact opposite. I think- I believe that you should only write when you have something to say. I go to too many slams and poetry nights where people are saying what they should say or what they think will be popular rather than saying what they need to say. If it’s not what you need to say and if its not in your voice, your audience isn’t going to connect with it. Think of every single time you switched off in a slam or in an open mic night. Pay attention to yourself and what you are reacting to and what you are not reacting to. You’ll learn from that because input is always more important that output. It’s not what you’re writing that’s going to make you better, its what you’re reading, listening and what you’re seeing. So in the first instance, input over output, read every day, absolutely every single day, in as many genres as possible and particularly in poetry; you have to read back, the reason the stuff still holds up 500 years or in the case of Rumi, even longer. That needs to be studied because that stuff is amazing and nothing I’ve written is ever gonna have any value at all in 100 years. The best advice I ever received in my life was from my best friend who is not a poet. I was ranting about not being where I should be career wise 5-6 years ago and she said
“I’m not being funny but have you ever thought you just need to write better” – Stay humble, keep writing, write better.
Shehzar: It’s always difficult for a poet to hear that they need to improve because you always have this sense that now matter what we write, at least in the initial stages of writing – you always feel that whatever you write is great and you want to immediately share it with the world. What do you think? How would you break those particular barriers in order to reach the next level?
Sophia– Every time I write something I send it out to 3 specific people and not one of them is a poet or in anyway involved in the poetry scene.I find that priceless feedback because if your stuff works for people who don’t particularly like poetry, your stuff works. Find 3 people who give you; or even one, who give you honest feedback that you are willing to drop your ego and listen to. You cannot afford to be precious about your work. If you wanna be precious about your work, don’t share it.
Shehzar: How do you see the next evolution of slam poetry?
Sophia: I don’t to be honest. I think slam poetry is a limited form. I don’t know whether it’s run its course or if it will keep going as it has. I don’t see any evolution there. What I see is that people progress out of it into becoming – I don’t want to say proper writers but writers who work in wider forms- slam is a specific thing and because it’s competitive there are tactics that work, there are tropes that work and it’s very easy to fall into that and you don’t need to write very well to win a slam. That’s a problem so you need to break out of it into the wider literary world where you will be forced to take yourself more seriously and you will be forced to work much harder. Slam is typically won by gimmickry and gimmickry has very little place it the lit world…or in an audience. Gimmickry is bloody boring. When I see people do gimmickry, like in the BBC slam this year, beforehand, one of the guys emailed me (I don’t allow singing or music or any of that), he said; “can I beat box?” and I responded back “yes- of course” but what I was thinking of course – ‘but you will not make it out the first round’ and he didn’t.
Shehzar: So what are your judging criteria for someone at a national level?
Sophia: Because I organise and host the slam, I have another person who deals with the 3 judges. I pick the judges but I don’t see the score and I don’t speak to them and I don’t brief them because I think one of the hardest things to achieve in Slam is transparency. I don’t believe in audience judge slams. I think they are ridiculous and they are usually won by gimmickry. When we say the best poet never wins- because of audience judged slams- the audience don’t really know what they are talking about. They don’t know how to sift through the gimmickry so I find slams where there are actual judges taken across from the lit world or even outside of it. People who are properly briefed- or at least been to a slam before and have some idea. They are far more interesting and in the UK we tend to brief whoever has the scorecards, they should be looking at writing, performance, audience reaction and it should be equally weighted in your mind across those. The BBC slam does not work like that. We very very heavily weigh the writing. It’s almost like; say you get 10 points for writing, 10 poems for the poem and only 5 points are available for audience reaction. Because we are writers first and foremost and yes this might be performance but if you can’t write well, go and do something else.
Shehzar: Have you noticed any sense of nepotism in the slam poetry world or is that not seen?
Sophia:I think that changes from slam to slam. All slams are run quite differently. It’s a very cliquey world but it would be because it’s a young world. People tend to leave slam in the UK by 25 and move on with your life. I’m 32 and how much I’ve changed as a person between 25 and now, I sort of understand, from a different perspective, all of the things that go on with slam. It’s just that it’s the province of youth and that’s wonderful and we need that. Its also harder to handle competition and there are a lot more self-doubt, anxiety and people are maybe more fragile because they have not been beaten up by the world yet and they haven’t developed the carapace that slam can be cliquey and there is often is nepotism. There are certainly popular groups and in crowds and I see a lot of people getting quite hurt by the slam world.
Shehzar: Hurt in what sense?
Sophia: It’s a very very hard thing to stand up there and say the stuff of your life and have a stranger assign your life a numerical value. That’s a hard thing to take.