Why We Write

The Power of Poetry and the Written Word: In this exclusive series of interviews, we speak to Dr Maya Angelou (1928-2014, a celebrated poet, memoirist, novelist, educator, dramatist, producer, actress, historian, filmmaker, and civil rights activist), Sir Andrew Motion (Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1999 to 2009, Founder of the Poetry Archive), Lemn Sissay MBE (Internationally acclaimed poet, and Chancellor of the University of Manchester), Saul Williams (internationally acclaimed rapper, poet and actor), George the Poet (Poet and spoken word performer), Yann Martel (multi award-winning author, best known for his internationally acclaimed work ‘Life of Pi’) and Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter (Grammy Award Winning Founder & MC of ‘The Roots’).  We discuss the very fundamental question of why we write and explore the role of the written-word in culture, social change and the story of humanity itself.

…Of all mankind’s manifold creations,” wrote Guy Deutscher…language must take pride of place. Other inventions – the wheel, agriculture, sliced bread – may have transformed our material existence, but the advent of language is what made us human. Compared to language, all other inventions pale in significance, since everything we have ever achieved depends on language and originates from it. Without language, we could never have embarked on our ascent to unparalleled power over all other animals, and even over nature itself...”

For humanity, communication has been intrinsic to our very existence. Almost 40,000 years ago, man made his first impressions on the world- in the form of pictures in caves. These were the first in a line of innovations, culminating with the extraordinary achievement – the art of writing.

…Each human being, according to his innate capacity, learns something as the days go on. He accumulates experience, to some extent he correlates it and interprets it. He becomes wiser as the years pass. And then he dies; and the complex neural mechanism, developed and refined so laboriously, disintegrates into dust. In primitive society, something of the gathered wisdom is passed on by word of mouth. Folklore is gathered and sagas are learned by rote; but progress by this means is very slow. The real turning point in human evolution came when some brilliant innovator in a given society conceived the idea of the written symbol; and the way was gradually opened for full transfer of human thought to coming generations. The thinker attained immortality; and the process of real psychological and social evolution was opened to mankind…” (Atwater et. al, American Journal of Public Health, Volume 38 April, 1948 Number 4)

Our consumption of the word is almost as profound as its creation. In ‘A History of Reading‘, Steven Fischer explains that “Today’s white-collar worker spends more time reading than eating, drinking, grooming, travelling, socializing or on general entertainment and sport – that is, five to eight hours of each working day. (Only sleep appears to claim as much time.) The computer and Internet? Both are reading revolutions.” He continues to explain that, “…reading embraces so much more than work or web. What music is to the spirit, reading is to the mind. Reading challenges, empowers, bewitches, enriches. We perceive little black marks on white paper or PC screen and they move us to tears, open up our lives to new insights and understandings, inspire us, organize our existences and connect us with all creation…. Surely there can be no greater wonder?

So what is the role of the written word in human culture?

In this exclusive series of interviews, we speak to Dr Maya Angelou (1928-2014, a celebrated poet, memoirist, novelist, educator, dramatist, producer, actress, historian, filmmaker, and civil rights activist), Sir Andrew Motion (Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1999 to 2009, Founder of the Poetry Archive), Lemn Sissay MBE (Internationally acclaimed poet, and Chancellor of the University of Manchester), Saul Williams (internationally acclaimed poet, rapper and actor), George the Poet (Poet and spoken word performer), Yann Martel (multi award-winning author, best known for his internationally acclaimed work ‘Life of Pi’) and Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter (Grammy Award Winning Founder & MC of ‘The Roots’). We discuss the very fundamental question of why we write and explore the role of the written-word in culture, social change and the story of humanity itself.

View Interviewee Biography

NOTE: Maya Angelou was interviewed by Vikas Shah in October, 2012.  


Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928. She grew up in St. Louis and Stamps, Arkansas. She was an author, poet, historian, songwriter, playwright, dancer, stage and screen producer, director, performer, singer, and civil rights activist. She was best known for her autobiographical books: Mom & Me & Mom (Random House, 2013); Letter to My Daughter (2008); All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986); The Heart of a Woman (1981); Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976); Gather Together in My Name (1974); and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), which was nominated for the National Book Award.


Among her volumes of poetry are A Brave and Startling Truth (Random House, 1995); The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (1994); Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now (1993); Now Sheba Sings the Song (1987); I Shall Not Be Moved (1990); Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing? (1983); Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well (1975); and Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie (1971), which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.


In 1959, at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Angelou became the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. From 1961 to 1962 she was associate editor of The Arab Observer in Cairo, Egypt, the only English-language news weekly in the Middle East, and from 1964 to 1966 she was feature editor of the African Review in Accra, Ghana. She returned to the United States in 1974 and was appointed by Gerald Ford to the Bicentennial Commission and later by Jimmy Carter to the Commission for International Woman of the Year. She accepted a lifetime appointment in 1982 as Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In 1993, Angelou wrote and delivered a poem, “On The Pulse of the Morning,” at the inauguration for President Bill Clinton at his request. In 2000, she received the National Medal of Arts, and in 2010 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.


The first black woman director in Hollywood, Angelou wrote, produced, directed, and starred in productions for stage, film, and television. In 1971, she wrote the original screenplay and musical score for the film Georgia, Georgia, and was both author and executive producer of a five-part television miniseries “Three Way Choice.” She also wrote and produced several prize-winning documentaries, including “Afro-Americans in the Arts,” a PBS special for which she received the Golden Eagle Award. Angelou was twice nominated for a Tony award for acting: once for her Broadway debut in Look Away (1973), and again for her performance in Roots (1977).


Angelou died on May 28, 2014, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she had served as Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University since 1982. She was eighty-six.


Born in London in October 26, 1952, Sir Andrew Motion was raised in Stisted, in Essex, the son of an army colonel and brewery executive. He studied at Radley College from 1965 to 1970, where he was introduced to the poetry of Thomas Hardy, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, William Wordsworth, John Keats, and others. He later studied weekly with W. H. Auden at University College, Oxford.


In 1977, Motion’s first collection of poems, The Pleasure Steamers, was published by Sycamore Press. Other early collections include Independence (Salamander Press, 1981); Secret Narratives (1983); Dangerous Play: Poems 1974-1984 (Salamander Press / Penguin, 1984), which received the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize; and Natural Causes (1987), which won the Dylan Thomas Award.


Since then, Motion has published numerous volumes of poetry, most recently The Cinder Path (Faber and Faber, 2009), which was shortlisted for the 2010 Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry; The Mower: New & Selected Poems (David R Godine, 2009); Public Property (Faber and Faber, 2002), comprised of verses written during years of service as Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom; Selected Poems 1976-1997 (1998); The Price of Everything (1994); and Love in a Life (1991).


Neil Corcoran has commented on Motion’s relationship to “narrative” poetry, explaining that “effects of pathos are created by the attempt at some kind of interiority of empathy with the sufferings of fictionalized characters drawn usually from episodes of English history: the seventeenth-century Fenland, World War II, the end of the British Empire in India.” Motion’s style has also often been compared to the British poet Edward Thomas.


Summarizing Motion’s style for the Continuum Encyclopedia of British Literature, Rose Atfield has written: “His poetry is meditative, lyrical, and understated. The clarity and directness of his personal and narrative poems make them readily accessible, yet there are intriguing images and a sense of restraint that draw the reader in to the poems and suggest undisclosed undercurrents.”


From 1977 until 1981, Motion served as Lecturer in English at the University of Hull, where he met and became close friends with the poet and librarian Philip Larkin. When Larkin died in 1985, his longtime companion Monica Jones requested that Motion consider writing a biography of his mentor and friend. Already serving as Larkin’s literary executor, Motion obliged her and in 1993 published Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life (Faber and Faber), which won the Whitbread Prize for Biography. Motion also wrote Keats: A Biography (Faber and Faber, 1987), which inspired film director Jane Campion’s adaptation, Bright Star in 2009.


Motion has also published several collections of autobiographical prose, including Ways of Life: On Places, Painters and Poets (Faber and Faber, 2008) and the memoir In the Blood (2006), as well as fiction, including The Invention of Dr Cake (2003).


Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1984 and knighted in 1999, Motion served as Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1999 to 2009. His other honors include the Arvon Observer Prize and the Somerset Maugham Award, among many others.


Lemn Sissay MBE is associate artist at Southbank Centre, patron of The Letterbox Club and The Reader Organisation, ambassador for The Children’s Reading Fund, trustee of Forward Arts Foundation and inaugural trustee of World Book Night and an honorary doctor of Letters.  In 2015, he was appointed as Chancellor of the University of Manchester. He has been a writer from birth and foremost he is a poet.


Lemn is author of a series of books of poetry alongside articles, records, broadcasts, public art, commissions and plays. Sissay was the first poet commissioned to write for London Olympics. His Landmark Poems are installed throughout Manchester and London. They can be seen in The Royal Festival Hall and The Olympic Park. His Landmark Poem,Guilt of Cain, was unveiled by Bishop Desmond Tutu in Fen Court near Fenchurch St Station.


Sissay’s installation poem what if was exhibited at The Royal Academy alongside Tracey Emin and Antony Gormley. It came from his Disko Bay Expedition to the Arctic alongside Jarvis Cocker, Laurie Anderson, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Leslie Feist and KT Tunstall. His 21st century poem was released on multi-million award winning album Leftism by Leftfield. A violin concerto performed at The BBC by Viktoria Mullova was inspired by Lemn Sissay’s poem Advice For The Living.


Sissay’s award winning play Something Dark directed by National Theatre of Wales artistic director John McGrath has been performed throughout the world and his stage adaptation of Benjamin Zephaniah’s Novel Refugee Boy at West Yorkshire Playhouse tours Britain in 2014. A BBC TV documentary, Internal Flight , and a radio documentary, Child of the State, were both broadcast about his life and his Ted Talk has close to a million views. His documentary on the late Gil Scott Heron was the first pubic announcement of Scott-Heron’s comeback album.


Sissay describes dawn in one tweet every day. His Morning Tweets. One Morning Tweet became an award winning building MVMNT Café commissioned by Cathedral group designed and built by Supergroup’s Morag Myerscough. It is the only building in the world built below a tweet. Cathedral also commissioned a Landmark Poem, Shipping Good, which will be laid into the streets of Greenwich.


He was the first Black Writers Development Worker in the North of England. He created and established Cultureword (part of Commonword) where Sissay developed supported and published many new writers who’ve gone on to a life of creativity. Sissay received an MBE from The Queen for services to literature and an honorary doctorate from University of Huddersfield who run The Sissay Scholarship for care leavers: It is the first of its kind in the UK.


The Guardian newspaper heralded the arrival of his first book Tender Fingers In A Clenched Fist. “Lemn Sissay has Success written all over his forehead”. He was 21. Between the ages of 18 and 32 he tracked his family down across the world. His career as a writer happened in spite of his incredible life story not because of it.


He has made various BBC radio documentaries on or with writers such as Gil Scott Heron, The last Poets, JB Priestley, Edgar Allan Poe and poetry films broadcast to the nation. His head is in London where he’s based, his heart is in Manchester where he is not, his soul is in Addis and his vibe is in New York where his mother lives. He blogs openly for personal reasons..


Saul Williams is an American rapper, singer, songwriter, musician, poet, writer, and actor. He is known for his blend of poetry and alternative hip hop, and for his lead roles in the 1998 film Slam and Holler If Ya Hear Me, a Broadway musical featuring music by Tupac Shakur.


First establishing himself as an influential poet, and then as an award-winning screenwriter/actor, Saul Williams then went on to establish himself as an MC. His approach to MC’ing, though, wasn’t exactly in line with the traditional school of hip-hop. His rhymes weren’t really rhymes but rather his poetry delivered in a frenzied spoken word manner that was more rhythmic than alliterative. His first major recording was a collaboration with KRS-One, “Ocean Within,” which appeared on the soundtrack to Slam, the award-winning film he not only co-wrote but also starred in. Around this same time in the late ’90s, he began collaborating with other musicians, one of the more notable and impressive being the title track to drum’n’bass producer Krust‘s Coded Language album. These one-off performances, along with the attention that Williams garnered thanks to Slam, led to a deal with Rick Rubin‘s American Recordings.


In late 2001, the long-awaited and much-hyped Williams solo debut album, Amethyst Rock Star, hit the streets. The album featured a full-scale band and Rubin’s production, with Williams’ manic vocals taking the fore. It wasn’t a straight-ahead rap album, more rock-rap in the style of Rage Against the Machine than anything. Critical opinion wavered, though Williams indeed seemed to impress many; he was not only invited to the 2001 Detroit Electronic Music Festival but also found himself to be a popular concert draw in Europe. The 2003 release of Not in My Name on Synchronic found Williams being remixed by Coldcut and DJ Spooky. His 2004 self-titled release appeared on the Fader label. Three years later he would return with The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust, an album recorded with Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor and initially offered as a free download from Reznor’s website. The album was released on CD in 2008. Williams continued to tour and collaborate with artists from all over the globe. He eventually signed to Sony’s Columbia imprint in 2010. He recorded Volcanic Sunlight — his debut for the label — in Paris with renowned producer Renaud Letang and engineer Thomas Moulin. The album was released in November of 2011.


George the Poet is a London-born spoken word performer of Ugandan heritage. His innovative brand of musical poetry has won him critical acclaim both as a recording artist and a social commentator.


George took up spoken word while studying Social and Political Sciences at King’s College, Cambridge. During his first year, while chairing the King’s College Student Union, he gained a small following by uploading webcam performances to YouTube and gigging at universities across the country. At this time, George won a social enterprise competition called “The Stake“, organised by Barclays and Channel 4, earning him a £16,000 grant to deliver poetry workshops to disadvantaged young people.


Shortly after graduating, George the Poet embarked on a music career, culminating in the 2014 release of his debut effort, “The Chicken & the Egg EP“. A critical success, the EP earned George a string of nominations, including the Brits Critics’ Choice Award, MTV ‘Brand New’ Award and BBC Sound of 2015 Shortlist.


Yann Martel was born in Salamanca, Spain, in 1963, of Canadian parents who were doing graduate studies.


Later they both joined the Canadian foreign service and he grew up in Costa Rica, France, Spain and Mexico, in addition to Canada. He continued to travel widely as an adult, spending time in Iran, Turkey and India, but is now based mainly in Montreal. He obtained a degree in Philosophy from Trent University in Ontario, then worked variously as a tree planter, dishwasher and security guard before taking up writing full-time from the age of 27.


His first book, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, was published in 1993 and is a collection of short stories, dealing with such themes as illness, storytelling and the history of the twentieth century; music, war and the anguish of youth; how we die; and grief, loss and the reasons we are attached to material objects. This was followed by his first novel, Self (1996), a tale of sexual identity, orientation and Orlando-like transformation. It is described by Charles Foran in the Montreal Gazette as a ‘ … superb psychological acute observation on love, attraction and belonging …


In 2002 Yann Martel came to public attention when he won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction for his second novel, Life of Pi (2002), an epic survival story with an overarching religious theme. The novel tells the story of one Pi Patel, the son of an Indian family of zookeepers. They decide to emigrate to Canada and embark on a ship with their animals to cross the Pacific. They are shipwrecked and Pi is left bobbing in a lifeboat in the company of a zebra, a hyena, an orang-utan and a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Life of Pi will eventually be published in over forty countries and territories, representing well over thirty languages, and a film of the book, adapted by Ang Lee, was released in 2012.


In 2004, a collection of short stories was published entitled We Ate The Children Last. His latest books are the novel Beatrice and Virgil (2010), a New York Time Bestseller and winner of the Financial Times Fiction of Year Award; 101 Letters to a Prime Minister (2012), a collection of letters to the prime minister of Canada; and his latest novel The High Mountains of Portugal (2016).


Tariq Luqmaan Trotter, better known as Black Thought, is an American artist who is the lead MC of the Philadelphia-based hip hop group The Roots, as well as an occasional actor. Black Thought, who co-founded The Roots with drummer Questlove (Ahmir Thompson), is widely lauded for his live performance skills, continuous multisyllabic rhyme schemes, complex lyricism, double entendres, and politically aware lyrics.


The Roots is an American hip hop group, formed in 1987 by Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States. The Roots are known for a jazzy and eclectic approach to hip-hop featuring live musical instruments.  Malik B., Leonard “Hub” Hubbard, and Josh Abrams were added to the band (formerly named “The Square Roots”).


Since its first independent album-length release the band has released 10 studio albums, two EPs, two collaboration albums (with other artists), and also collaborated on recordings and in live shows with a wide variety of artists in many musical genres. The Roots served as the house band on NBC’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon from 2009 to 2014, and in the same role (and accompanying show guest artists) on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon since 2014. The Roots’ work has consistently been met with critical acclaim. About.com ranked the band #7 on its list of the 25 Best Hip-Hop Groups of All-Time, calling them “Hip-hop’s first legitimate band.”

 

Q: What is the role of the author and the reader?

[Yann Martel] The author gives, the reader takes. It’s a free-for-all. I don’t believe particularly in the importance of determining author intent. I think reader reception is more important, how a reader understands a work. It always slightly bothers me when people ask me an interpretative question about my books, as if my answers were somehow more correct than theirs. True, I can say what I meant about this or that aspect of a novel I wrote—but what of that? That’s like saying that what one parent says about their child is more important than what the other parent says. A book is the child of two parents, the author and the reader, and that child is raised by both parents.

Q: How does literature shape us as individuals and as a society?

[Yann Martel] Writing and books are the place where we do our deepest thinking and they are vital to our knowledge-based cultures. It’s not essential to be a literate society. Oral cultures did very well living in their worlds. But you must be one or the other, in a conscious way. A literate society that leaves off creating and reading books doesn’t, ipso facto, become an oral culture, with the ways of knowing of oral cultures. Instead, a literate society that drifts into illiteracy is blind and deaf and dumb and vows itself to anarchy and dissolution.

Literature lives when it is read. Then it can operate its magic.

Q: What is poetry?

[Saul Williams] Poetry represents the residue of the work I’m doing on myself. We are socialised to be many things… our understanding of gender, of race, and even our accents come from being socialised. There are so many outside forces that affect us in life, and for some of us, it’s become crucial to find from neutral ground beyond our socialisation- and poetry itself has provided the safe-place for artists like myself to raise questions, to emote, to ponder silently and be allowed to breathe. It’s a workshop of emotive responses, visions, ideas, dreams and seeing how we can piece all those things together or take them apart. I see poetry as being an engineer or carpenter’s workspace.

Only yesterday, I read the idea of poetry beginning where meaning ends…. I think it’s also true that poetry is how we seek meaning beyond what we’re told, what was said, what we’re socialised to believe… It’s often said that we should believe nothing, but just entertain possibilities.

Poetry is a place where we entertain worlds of possibilities, while simultaneously dismantling feelings and realities that are impossible to stay fixed within us.

Q: Why do we write poetry?

[Sir Andrew Motion] Although we might go-out and learn a complex language to write poetry, it is, in essence, primal, and we forget that at our peril. As a species, we have a strong appetite for using words that sound similar- or alike. We have a strong appetite for discernable rhythms, and an interestingly strong appetite for using language that exists at a point where it doesn’t spell an exact proposition.

As a species, we have an appetite for- loosely- nonsense. If you use the word nonsense in ordinary discourse, you mean something that purely doesn’t make sense (to put it politely). In terms of poetry, nonsense refers to an idea where the sound of words can communicate a meaning, regardless of whether those words appear in a dictionary.

Poetry has something to do with rhyme (but it doesn’t need to be orthodox), with units of expression that are somehow rhythmical, and- crucially- with not spelling an exact proposition.

Almost everything else that we read in our lives, and indeed a conversation such as the one we’re having now, does consist largely of somebody trying to say something that can be understood in one way and not another, by the person listening to it. Poetry doesn’t do that; it picks up it’s skirt, kicks up it’s heels and vanishes over the horizon saying, “you can’t catch me!” It’s interested in delivering multiple meanings, associations, references, illusions and enrichments simultaneously.

Since almost everything else in our experience of being alive; of talking, and being socialised – is about expressing things of value, significance and intent- poetry… because it doesn’t have the same kind of intentionality, has an even greater value. It creates a counterpoint to the other forms of discourse in our lives, and reminds us of the primitive side of our nature, which needs feeding.

[Lemn Sissay] The honest answer is that I don’t know. I don’t know what poetry is. I can’t give a definitive answer. However. I’ve a lifetime of exploration and discovery ahead of me. And through reading and writing I may be lucky enough to experience flashes of the miraculous nature of poetry. If I’m lucky I’ll see it crush mountains and swallow rivers. I’ll experience poetry calling a nation to its feet. I will hear poetry shouted by revolutionaries. I will hear it sung by women as they take their rightful place. I will see it bring grown men to tears at the wedding of a daughter. I will witness poetry form a bridge between this world and the next. I will hear it in Birthday letters and On Beauty. If I am luckier I will feel it in me like a sea might feel the wind and respond with a wave.

[Saul Williams] I don’t think poetry is something that is simply written, I believe it’s a perspective, and offers a perspective. Poetry is a way of understanding and detangling the world; it’s way more than just a literary art-form… it’s more about deciphering what is literally in front of us.

Right now, I’m sat on a wooden bench, with wooden planks that are space about an inch apart. Surrounding that bench are young and old bamboo trees.. there’s a drought here, and so what would normally be green, becomes a yellowish orange brown… with jade….

Poetry is in the observation of the moment, juxtaposed to the thing that rests in memory, behind and beyond the eye.

It’s more than something just literary… it [poetry] has a way of pointing out more than what is just literal.

Q: What have been the stories in your life that have shaped who you are today?

[Dr. Maya Angelou] The African American poets Paul Laurence Dunbar and James Weldon Johnson meant the earth to me, as did Charles Dickens. Where I grew up in the South, White People were called “white-folks” and it seemed to me that they were empty… that if you put your hand on one… it would go right through. And they were so mean and nasty. However… when I read Charles Dickens? I saw there were some kind ones. And little Oliver! I knew exactly what he was going through, he was my friend- he was white skinned, but nothing like the white-folk I was used to. One of the gifts to me from Dickens and European writers was to inform me that all White People were not evil and mean, and all of them didn’t hate me. That opened my eyes.

Young people who don’t read today, don’t know they’re not alone…

[Yann Martel] Gosh, what a broad question. The bookish answer would be a list of all the books that marked me. That’s a long one. The adult portion would include a number of classics. The Russians of the 19th century. The Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun. The Japanese Yukio Mishima. Franz Kafka. Dante’s Divine Comedy (likely the single most impressive book I’ve every read). And more. Collectively they widened my sense of what it meant to be human. They showed me, from the inside, the lives of others, and I was invited to compare and contrast those lives to mine. In doing so, I gained a measure of wisdom (or I hope I did). What is certain is that I got a sense of what the written word could do. The power and beauty of it. Books showed me emotions, situations, conundrums, options, mistakes, reprieves, endings, beginnings—pretty much everything that can confront a life.

Q: How did poetry become a part of your life?

[George the Poet] The story starts with hip-hop.

Rap music gave me an appreciation of ‘the word’ in general, and how they [words] could be put together for artistic effect.

The older I grew, the more I realised just how clever hip-hop music was and how much life experience was coded into it.

When I was 15, I started a GCSE English Literature course, and poetry was part of that paper.  Learning the literary devices of traditional poetry; and unpacking the level of meaning within it fuelled my passion for this coded messaging called poetry.

By the time I was 19, I made the decision to really, really try my hand at spoken word poetry.

Q: How did you find your voice?

[George the Poet] Part of the reason I was enamoured with hip-hop was that it spoke to experiences that I’d witnessed and lived that weren’t necessarily represented in the British mainstream.

I experienced the limits of hip-hop too.  Although it narrated a lot of my life, it didn’t do enough to transform it and that’s when I took-up the mantle.  I wanted my words to be functional.

If I have your attention because of the art that I’m able to demonstrate, and I have your heart because of the sentiment I’m able to express… then why don’t I use that moment to try and impact your decision or your outlook.

[Black Thought] My earliest memories of school are of English class, literature and the transformative power of narratives that resonated with me.  I wasn’t into math, but I loved history, English and creative writing.

Speaking personally, hip hop and I are the same age.  The first hip hop party was in the Bronx in 1973, DJ’d by Kool Herc.  I was born on the third day of October, 1973 – we evolved together.  Hip Hop is all I’ve ever known as an artist, it has always been my voice, and I have always been a voice for it.   Hip hop has evolved naturally, like aerosol art, and many forms of urban dance.

Q: What is the aesthetic of poetry? 

[Sir Andrew Motion] Poetry, by it’s nature and multiple-ness, has an interesting opportunity to put us in the mind and shoes of someone else in an intense, emotionally charged and concise way. In this respect, poetry is liberalising – and allows us to see the world through other people’s eyes (which is another reason why poetry is a necessary thing in our world).

Q: What is the role of poetry in culture?

[Lemn Sissay] The role of poetry in culture is to be found in a thousand poems It’s as revolutionary to read a love poem on the front line as it is to read a poem about anger to people who want to hear anger. Poets create the role of poetry in culture each time they write a poem.

Q: How does poetry relate to contemporary culture?

[Saul Williams] Sometimes people perceive this paradox between young people being connected to music such as hip-hop, yet disconnected with poetry. That’s just a fault of the teachers. If students aren’t able to make a bridge between hip-hop and poetry, it’s because teachers haven’t investigated it.

The role of poetry is unchanging through time. It always has, and always will, represent the essence of culture. For a time hip-hop represented the essence of a culture and identity in the USA, but now it has broadened it’s reach to so many more cultures and people.

Q: How does poetry give people a safe space? 

[George the Poet] Poetry invites you to open up.

When you’re on-stage, you find yourself in a situation where you want the audience to remember you.  It’s like an important conversation- when you have the microphone, you wouldn’t want to use to make small talk- you want to say something with substance.  You could either research something really intensely, or look inside yourself and present your experience- and that’s where most people speak from.

In a society where we don’t always have the space to be as honest as we want, and where our social and other media aren’t inviting of life’s messy experiences, poetry gives people a quiet moment.

Poetry is a space where you can speak your most intimate feelings as is expected of you in the tradition of poetry.

For many people with anxiety or depression, they feel an invisible and heavy burden, like a yolk. Channelling that burden into a poem and sharing it with people can alleviate some of that weight.

For people like me for are perpetual over thinkers, poetry is a safe haven.

Q: What is the role of the poet.

[Lemn Sissay] The only role of the poet is to write. The poet is answerable to the creativity that runs through her. The role of the poet is to write.   In writing the poet connects and in connecting the poet defines herself and her role in community.

The poem is a lightening conductor transporting energy to people culture and the earth. For this to happen the poet must create. Her role is to create and make electricity and power.   In so doing we are rebels and peacemakers.

I wouldn’t want to define the role of the poet. In fact I refuse to. The poet is so central to us all that to define the role is to limit reality.   Poets stand at funerals to exalt the passing. Poets stand at the inauguration of presidents and the birth of children. Poets rally the masses and comfort the lonely.

Something with such greatness is limited by a singular idea of what the carrier should do other than to write. To show you the power professor John Burnside of St Andrews University said “Metaphor is as close a human being can get to their environment”.

Like it or not religion is one of the most Herculean generators of mass belief. It’s not a coincidence that poetry is used to transport the messages of religion. It’s also no coincidence that the poet is not exalted. The words are. It is not a coincidence that the power of the poet is often maligned.

[George the Poet] I’ve got a poem called, “All Existence is Contribution.”  The crux of that is that as long as you are here? You’ve impacted the world.

You don’t have complete control, yet you are infinitely powerful.

The impact you can have on a person’s life, a geographic location or on events around us is infinite yet we don’t have control over that impact.

The role of the poet has to be to narrate your contribution, that’s all you can do.

You can do your best to control your intentions and actions, but the consequences are out of your hands- we’re in an inherently social environment where people and variables are moving all the time. All you can do for certain is stand up and tell the world about your contribution and be counted for it.

This was one of the lessons I learned from hip-hop.  For a long time, I was back and forth about the value of hip-hop’s contribution.  I felt it gave with one hand and took with the other.  While it narrates reality, it fuels many of the situations we have and can become stagnant.  It’s function is articulation and expression- the mechanisms of change have to come from the individual, the art form is about standing up and being counted, speaking your mind, and that being recognised as an experience parallel to everything else we do.

It doesn’t matter who you are, you can say your piece.

Individuals should have a social conscience and a social agenda, that’s my personal conviction and I stand up and try to speak that.  I’ve departed from my previous belief that all public figures should feel the same as me- everyone’s individual, everyone’s different and poetry is not about being anyone’s ideal; it’s about being honest.

Q: What is the aesthetic of poetry as it relates to our world?

[Sir Andrew Motion] Poetry can’t help us understand the world, but it provides a liberalising counterweight…

Characteristically, and at it’s best, poetry doesn’t necessarily have an idea of ‘where’ it needs to end up, and exists in multiples, and deals in ambiguities.

Poetry can be a present help in times of trouble, but does so in curious and closed ways. What anybody writing a poem that other’s enjoy has managed to do, arises out of that fact. A good poem creates emotions in the reader, that the reader can resonate with, “I have felt like that…” It allows us some insight into ourselves thanks to the person writing the poem being at once particular and- in their particularity- general enough for us to associate with.

I’ve never much-liked the idea of us going to poems to take an idea that we’ve never had before. Perhaps provocatively, I am not interested in poems that- in the first instance- express an idea. I don’t think I’ve ever read a poem and thought it put forward an idea that I’ve never considered before… It’s very often however, that I think, “Yes, that’s right, that’s how it feels, that’s how it looks…

Poetry gives us the recognition of that which we already know, yet has been forgotten or buried. The revelations in poetry are given to us by different means to ‘conventional’ literature.

There is a safety in poetry, yet also a danger. It can make us uncomfortable, it can make us think.

Commissioned poems are commissioned by someone who wants it to spell an exact proposition. This was something I found difficult about my role as Poet Laureate. There was an expectation that a poem would be about a definite ‘thing’. The best poems are rarely written by someone who goes in through the front-door of a subject; most often, they enter through the side-door, round-the-back, down the chimney or through a window! They take a subject by surprise, and the commissioner can often be resistant to that idea.

[Lemn Sissay] Poetry already relates to our wider world. And it always has. Read   “Rime of an Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Read Paul Dunbar, Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Tupac Shakur.   Read poets outside of your world and consider if they change you.

Last year I was invited to Buckingham Palace by the queen. It wasn’t as personal as it sounds. It was the biggest congregation of poets that I’ve seen. Ever. It was a poetry reading with poets as audience.

I heard three poet laureates read in the palace that night: Carol Ann Duffy The English poet laureate, Sinead Morrissey The Belfast Poet Laureate and Gillian Clarke The Welsh Poet Laureate. I also heard John Agard the Caribbean poet who was selected for The Queens Gold Medal for Poetry.

Only a few years earlier this list of people would have been singular in its nature. I felt like I experienced the future at that reading. I think of poets as psalm readers   at the fair and conveners of séances. We are the GPS – Global Poetry Systems – of society. We are the disseminators. We are infiltrators.

We are rebels and peacemakers. We are at weddings and funerals, at inaugurations and retirements.     Politicians would do themselves a favour by reading poems written by their constituents. It will show how people really feel. We  read the poets of the past to see how they felt then.

I wouldn’t want you to think that I spend all my time at Buckingham Palace. I don’t.

I found out my legal name (via my birth certificate) at eighteen years of age. All this is true. And I only tell you this as a means to letting you know how much I was meant to be the poet I am. I found my mother at 21. But it was only when in Ethiopia that I was told what my name means. It is a strange strange name. In Ethiopia NOONE is called Lemn. In fact there is only one person with my name in the whole world. “Lemn” simply means “Why?”. How could I not be a poet with a name like “why?”.

Q: What makes a truly great piece of written word?

[Saul Williams] Asking a poet why some poems are great or stand the test of time, is like asking a song-writer the same question. There are some songs which stand the test of time, and others that don’t.

Poems that stand the test of time are called scripture; people gather in buildings and pray in the name of it. Songs that stand the test of time are usually called anthems, and people wave flags and march to it.

Some people write from a very particular place, and some write from a broader-perspective, they reach deep within, or explore further out. There’s a reason why Whitman, Hafez and Rumi continue to resonate…. There’s a reason why Shakespeare continues to resonate…   There are so many works, from so many poets, from so many eras that speak to the whole, and speak to ideas that are still blossoming.

[Black Thought] The ability for people to identify with the journey of the artist can cross generations.  The more inclusive the piece… the more conscious the artist… the longer it will be understood and appreciated.  The great artists are the ones who connect with their surroundings, and their world.  The more concerned we are- as artists- with the quality of what we put out, the longer our works will survive.

Q: What is the role of the written word in spirituality?

[Dr. Maya Angelou] There’s a spiritual, which to me, is one of the most telling in the history of the African American experience from slavery onwards and it goes, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from home… a long way from home…” That’s a statement which could be understood by anybody. A person who’s been in slavery may compare it to their experience of being taken from their home, to another continent… but anyone can relate to it.

There is another poem by Burns, “The Slaves Lament” which talks of a lonely slave, who was home in Africa, and thrown onto the shores of Virginia. Burns was a man who never, I think, even went to London. He spent most of his time in Scotland- in his village. Yet he had heard enough about the world, and the pain of slavery, that he could (in his own mind) become a black slave and write that poem.

Q: What makes certain poems timeless?

[Sir Andrew Motion] The recurring popularity of a poem is always interesting. If we think of Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” it quite quickly became a poem that a lot of people liked, and has never really lost it’s popularity. This is partly a tribute to the way in which it describes a set of feelings we recognise, partly because the language feels beautiful and true in ways that time can’t erode, and partly that other people’s enjoyment of the poem puts a shine on it, in the same way that we may enjoy an old piece of furniture knowing the joy that other people have had from it.

The great, popular, poems acquire a pattern- through time- which is there, and part of them, but wasn’t part of their lives at the beginning.

I set up ‘Poetry By Heart’ to encourage secondary school kids to learn projects by heart, it’s turned out to be a great success! Quite a lot of the poems in the anthology had fallen out of favour during my generation, but re-presented to kids now, and without the historic baggage attached, they’re re-establishing, and that’s fascinating!

Q: How has poetry changed through history?

[Sir Andrew Motion] The role of poems has changed a very great deal over the centuries. We don’t sit down and listen to poems in the way that civilisation did to hear The Iliad. We also don’t expect poems to serve the same function. We don’t read poems in the same way we read John Donne’s works, or Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam.’

We know the audience for poems, at least in terms of book sales, is smaller than it has been in the past. It’s not there as a form as expression quite as visibly as it has been in the past.   Poetry has also become associated with teaching, in a way that it hasn’t in the past. It’s become at once more veiled, and more specific than it’s intended uses.

There’s a perception that poetry may have become intellectually distanced from the rest of culture, and there are certainly some poets who are valued more by the academy than by general readers. Rather confusingly…. On the Poetry Archive for instance, we have over 250,000 people using the site each month and reading over 2,000,000 pages of poetry in their visits.

Startlingly it turns out, there are more people reading poetry now than at any time in the history of the human race! Bad news for books, but the internet has been a great friend for poetry.

There’s probably never been more tolerance for the idea that poetry is a broad church, an extended rainbow. For those who’s first acquaintance of poetry is made through hip-hop for example, get told quite soon in this relationship that it is only one room in an enormous palace, and that they should explore as far and wide as possible.

Capturing attention is the first step of the teacher in poetry, but we can take great pleasure in guiding people through a journey they never knew existed.

Q: How is technology changing literature?

[Yann Martel]  For the better, I’d say. Computers and printers make writing much easier, and e-books and the like give readers more options. The problem lies elsewhere, I think, with laissez-faire capitalism, the corporatization of publishing and the proprietary branding of technology. It’s greed that kills art, not technology. Technology is just a tool.

Q: What has been your legacy as an artist?

[Black Thought] I hope that my legacy will be one of excellence in my art.  I hope my art stands as a point of reference to the things that mattered and were impactful during my time.

I hope my art inspires young people to go out and change the system.

Q: What would be your message to the next generation as they relate to poetry?

[Sir Andrew Motion] Whereas almost everything else in our lives has the intention to give a message quite high-up on it’s agenda, I would say poetry should and (at it’s best) does not.

I am reminded of a line from one of Keates’ letters where he notes that we hate poetry that has a palpable design on us.

Whatever it is that someone is trying to sell me through their writing, I am much more likely to buy if I’m made to feel it rather than if they’re wagging their finger in my face and telling me what to think.

Poetry which enjoys delivering thoughtfulness by sensual means will have a great advantage in our future.

[Saul Williams] Feel free and be… Feel free and explore your freedom.

I’ve never taken a course on poetry. In University, I majored in philosophy and drama… I’ve always been a big reader, and I grew up in a Church because my father was a Pastor. I had a lot of words and ideas bouncing around in my head, and it wasn’t until I decided to put pen to paper in my own time that I found a navigational course that allowed me to explore and juxtapose my own thinking, and all of the things I had ingested.

My first instances of writing were a sort of freedom. The freedom of writing something that wasn’t an assignment… I didn’t have to worry about grammar, or punctuation or what a teacher was going to say about it…. I explored everything from penmanship to list, and allsorts of things before I got into writing poems themselves.

The ‘Academy’ has a stronghold on poetry of course, and a lot of people are intimidated by poetry because of the academic relationship that it has. The academics realise how crucial poetry is to our understanding of language and culture, but their relationship to poetry is not much different to an anthropologist’s relationship with a fossil.   That’s why I often find it so hard to judge poets or poetry-competitions, as my first reaction is to applaud the writer for going there in the first place- it’s such a mundane practice!

In truth, poetry is about your own exploration, your own interests, and how you make sense of those things.

Poetry offers perspective, and emotional breakthroughs and breakdowns. It’s been enormously therapeutic for me. It’s always been there regardless of what I’ve been going through, and those moments of release have often enabled me to gain perspective, and release things to the wind.

There’s an enormous truth, and an enormous freedom in poetry.

Q: What would be your message to the next generation?

[George the Poet] All existence is contribution.  If people knew the worth of their experience, they would feel compelled to share it.

I’m not qualified at anything other than to narrate my experience.

There’s a lot of dormant potential in our world.  Talent doesn’t die, it just goes unnoticed but potential doesn’t exist until you realise it.

I mean ‘realise it’ in the literal sense- you make it real.  Once you’ve made you potential real, that is evidence of the potential you’ve had that was dormant.  If you don’t do that? You’ve denied yourself that potential.

I wish everyone knew their potential.  I wish everyone loved themselves and had pride for  who they are and what they’ve been through.

Q: What would be your advice to the next generation of writers?

[Yann Martel] Look at the world, study it, feel it, then turn your back on the world and write about it. Read, read, read, across all ages and all genres. Don’t be attached to ends. Learn the rules and then ignore them selectively until you find what works. Don’t hope to make money with it; do it for the same reason you want to have sex.

[Black Thought] Be fearless in your creativity, use revolution as your medium and approach everything you do with fearlessness.

The artists who change the world are the ones who had no fear, and were less concerned with the status-quo and their own fame.

We’re living at a very unprecedented point in history, and it’s those fearless, courageous artists who will help us create the change we need.

The iconic figures in history, going back to Dr. King, the Black Panthers and the freedom fighters of their day, were all very young when they did their most important work.  They were in their teenage years, their early twenties and thirties.  They were young when they rewrote history and rewrote the code.

There is something about youth that enables you to change the world.  There’s a natural fearlessness in your youth, and there’s a thin line between that fearlessness and revolution.

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In her book ‘A Man Without Words‘, Susan Schaller describes how the eighteenth century French philosophers continually exercised speculation as to how much of human nature was “given” and native, and how much dependent on language and culture. Schaller (as a graduate student) encountered Ildefonso, a Mexican Indian who lived in the most unique form of isolation. He was born deaf, and had never been taught even the most basic language. She set herself the challenge to make contact with this man, and introduce him to language. The renowned neuroscientist Prof. Oliver Sacks noted that, “…the magnitude of this enterprise is hard to grasp- it is, indeed, almost literally beyond imagination’ for Ildefonso not only lacked any language but lacked any idea of language: he had no conception, at first, of what Susan Schaller was trying to do, or of what other people, so mysteriously, ‘did’ between themselves…” Ildefonso had a yearning to communicate, a yearning to be more than just himself in isolation.

Prof Sacks picks out the moment Ildefonso picked up his first word (“cat”). “...suddenly he sat up, straight and rigid, his head back and his chin pointing forward. The whites of his eyes expanded as if in terror…. he broke through. he understood. he had forded the same river Helen Keller did at the water pump when she suddenly connected the water rushing over her hand with the word spelled into it… He had entered the universe of humanity, discovered the communion of minds. He now knew that he and a cat and the table all had names… he could see the prison where he had existed alone, shut out of the human race for twenty-seven years.

For most of us, the profound magnificence of language and the written-word are lost- in the same way we take for granted the complexity of consciousness, and of life itself. These ‘phenomena‘ are ever-present, from our first moment on the earth, and it is only- perhaps- when stepping back that we may see their true stature.

Humanity is built on stories. Human experience itself is unique, each of us has only one statement we can say with absolute conviction…. “I Am“. This statement may then be followed with a qualifier to reveal our nature… “I am a brother“, “I am a son“, “I am a writer“- but fundamentally, our assertion of existence, and the fact that a society exists to hear that assertion, qualifies that very existence itself to be part of life’s greater narrative.

One cannot be human in isolation, and it is the story that connects us.

 

 


Note: Maya Angelou was interviewed in 2012.  Sir Andrew Motion, and Lemn Sissay in 2015

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas S. Shah MBE is an award winning entrepreneur, strategist and educator who has built businesses in diverse sectors around the world for almost 20 years. He is also a consultant and advisor to numerous entrepreneurs, business and organisations globally.

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