Narrative by Jess Ralph
It can be tempting to ascribe certain social and artistic movements to a specific point of history, and a handful of people that were the movers and shakers of that time. The chronology of culture neatly boxed and segmented into easily understood, consumable little chunks. But of course, that’s not how culture works. It evolves, it reacts, it absorbs, with the creative happenings of yesteryear providing the framework of inspiration to a new generation of artists; to mould and metamorphize and become part of the rich bricolage of references that makes a contemporary artist’s work feel so right and relevant for now.
A couple of weeks ago, Underground deep dived into the history of punk poetry. In this article, we’ll look at how a new vanguard of poets, spoken word and performance artists have harnessed the cultural spirit and explosive creative energy of punk poets past to breathe new life and make their mark on the literary art form. Though these writers and performers may not be sporting the spiked hair and safety pinned looks we associate with punk de facto, they and their artistic output represents punk in a way that runs far deeper than mere aesthetics – using their art as a medium to bring attention to social and political issues. More to use their art as a tool to incite and inspire social and cultural change.
Poetry has undergone something of a cultural renaissance in recent years, and much like the poets and the words they pen, the medium has evolved for the post digital age. Once seen as elitist, the democratisation of social media, free publishing platforms and resurgence of DIY zines has opened up poetry to diverse range of voices, particularly female, queer, POC and working-class artists. Similarly, the viscerally and gig-like energy of spoken word and performance poetry (much of the contemporary scene’s roots taking heed from the dub poetry movement in the 80s, which was trailblazed by the Caribbean diaspora) has grown in popularity in recent years.
A performance poet, playwright and novelist, South Londoner Kae Tempest is arguably one of Britain’s most popular and critically acclaimed young bards, who at the age of 36 has already mounted an impressive list of accolades including the Ted Hughes Award, being named a Next Generation Poet by The Poetry Book Society (a tile only awarded once a decade) and bagging a Brit Award in 2018. A regular performer at festivals such as Glastonbury, Tempest began their career supporting politico-poetry greats such as Benjamin Zephaniah, Billy Bragg and John Cooper Clark. With a performance style that simultaneously merges the rhythmic flow of hip-hop and the crafted tradition of ancient epic storytelling, Tempest’s poetic mix of grit and romanticism (they cite Wu-Tang Clan and William Blake amongst their influences) is centred on the anxieties of modern life; themes of urban gentrification, inequality, consumerism, identity, pop culture and class.
Another South Londoner, Jay Bernard is a writer, performance poet, artist and film programmer – they’ve worked with BFI Flare (the institute’s annual LGBTQ+ film festival) since 2014. Bernard won the Ted Hughes Prize for new poetry in 2017 for Surge, a multimedia anthology of written verses, spoken word and film exploring the issues surrounding the infamous New Cross Fire in 1981; a tragedy that killed 13 young black people celebrating a 16th birthday party, and in its aftermath became a catalyst for discussions surrounding racial equality and the tabloid media’s demonisation of the black British community. Surge, with its verses in Patois and imagined first person perspectives of the fire’s victims, is arguably the best example of Bernard’s artistic practice- using social history and documentary archives as a text to mythologise and transform, using poetry to not only contextualise and create empathy for these events, but also to draw parallels and critique contemporary happenings that echo with the same injustices. Bernard was elected a fellow of The Royal Society Of Literature in 2018.
British born Cypriot Anthony Anaxagorou is a writer, performance poet, essayist and founder of Out Spoken Press; an independent London based publishing house that focuses on platforming the voices of poets and writers who are underrepresented in mainstream publishing. Out Spoken Press also runs monthly slam poetry events, and runs an emerging poet development scheme in collaboration with New Writing North, a charity supporting young writers in the north of England. Anaxagorou’s own poetry – a bricolage of historical and literary references, academic theory and his own experiences- explores the motifs of his dualistic heritage, the simultaneous violence and joys of city life and the contradictions and complexities of working-class masculinity, all delivered in his signature cuttingly sharp and colloquial poetic style. His second collection of poetry, After The Formalities, was shortlisted for the T.S. Elliot poetry prize in 2019 and was named as one of The Guardians poetry books of the year.
Joelle Taylor won the title of UK Slam Poetry Champion in 2000, and this year won the Polari and T.S. Elliot prize for her written poetry collection C+nto & Othered Poems. The anthology stands as a testament to Taylor’s life experiences as a queer woman; leaving the stifling oppression of her home in Lancashire to make the much-trodden pilgrimage to London. Its here that she immersed herself in radical lesbian counterculture in the late 80’s – a world of Soho bars, sex workers, squatters and grassroots activism- finding kinship in a community of ‘rebel dykes’, a world of women whose life’s, legacies and voices would go to inspire and be mythologised in Taylor’s prize-winning work. The complexities of navigating a patriarchal society as a butch presenting lesbian, and more broadly the politicised female body, are motifs that are not only explored in Taylor’s poetic output but also her activism; using her platform to promote the work of unpublished female writers, speaking publicly about global queer oppression and running workshops for survivors of sexual abuse, refugees and for school children on the role of poetry in social activism.