I’ve been gutted about missing performance, trains, planes, friends gigs and birthday parties before, but I have never been so disappointed at being denied to perform at a gig because of illness. I had been Scheduled to read/perform between, Hanif Kureshi and Yusuf Kumonyakaa and my voice had deserted me, left me with what sounded lke sandpaper being dragged across the back of a miserable toad. Gutted. I was in Paris, it was the coming into Autumn, the air was fresh, the festival buzzing and my voice was gone. The festival organisers were really cool and told me to take it easy, “take the pressure off”, relax. they realized before I did that I had been working to hard. My voice folded half way though a performance of my one woman show “Security” at the Shizoka Theatre Festival in Japan. I attempted to sing. Toad croaked instead.
But I had a great interview that got me tracking my career path, investigating why had reached a point of exhaustion that my voice packed and went on vacation without me.
Zena E’s Festival Interview by Adam Biles
“I fell into poetry when I was training to do stage management. I did the lighting and designing for a group of dynamic, young, black writers. I went to the group for a while and started re-exploring my writing, which was something I had always done as a child. But there wasn’t much of a scene in London at the time, and it wasn’t until I was in South Africa eight years later, working with a musician friend of mine, that I started writing some poetry again. I went along to a night called Monday Blues and got up and read this rough little poem I had in my notebook, and I really enjoyed it. So when I got back to London I checked out the spoken word scene and found myself falling back into it again, and it escalated from there. I never believed it would get me to the point when I could come to a festival like this. I was just having fun, but people kept inviting me back.
“The scene in London has exploded over the last seven years. There are so many circles that occasionally overlap. I’m lucky enough that I can pretty much move through all of them. There’s a spoken word cabaret scene, a spoken word comedy scene, another very literary scene, a black scene, a music and spoken word scene, which is huge in London now.
“London is a great place. I’ve got a love-hate relationship with it, but I definitely wouldn’t be the person I am if I hadn’t endured the tensions and joys of that city. It’s a place of constant flux, people always moving through, different cultures different languages, and I pick that up as a way of being, as well as a way of writing. But I consider myself a global child.
“There’s a big argument in the UK about performance poetry versus ‘real poetry’ – meaning poetry on the page – and it’s a struggle as a performance poet to get taken seriously and published. Nobody is really prepared to take on a performance poet, because they think it’s a kind of dumbed down version of the real stuff, which is a load of rubbish, of course. I study the craft of performance as much as I study the craft of poetry.
“I get asked a lot whether I write for performance, or whether I write for the page. Some people think that the two are really different. I don’t see it. I believe all writing should be read aloud because in reading it aloud you get a fuller understanding of the text. Of course there is something important about the intimacy of reading silently from the page, which is a beautiful thing to be enjoyed. But at the same time there is something special about the resonance of words, about enjoying words sonically. I’m a human being, I have eardrums, I feel the resonance of people’s voices on my body. So I believe that we have the power to unlock certain emotions through the power of our voices.
“I draw from different literary traditions. I consider myself first of all as a storyteller, and I will use whatever I need to tell my story. So for me, all of the authors I’ve read, poets that I’ve read, radio plays I enjoy listening to, films that I see, theatre I enjoy, ordinary people who I know that are just wonderful storytellers. I draw from it all how a painter draws from her palette. I enjoy languages very much. I’ve studied Portuguese, I dabble in French, German, South African languages. All to help me to tell the story.
“My stories are about human relationships, how human beings connect, our frailties and the bravado we put on the protect ourselves. I often create characters as a means of telling my own story, to help me process the world. It’s a lot easier for me to take some gangly looking guy walking down the street, who in some way reminds me of me, and explode and expand his character much more. I have a character called High-Hat, who loves music, who talks in musical tones, and who doesn’t really engage with normal people because he can’t understand them. And that’s how I feel about music, and how music saved my life. My writing is not overtly political. It’s difficult to write political poetry without sounding clichéd. But all writing about human relationships is in some way political.
“How you’re marketed is also a political act. You have to be boxed in, write about this or that, so you can be marketed. You have to be able to label things. I don’t believe that at all. You can’t start telling audiences what they want to listen to. That just kills poetry. One of the freshest poets I know believes that spoken word will be latched onto and marketed to death. I don’t believe that. It’s for the audiences to decide what they want to listen to. Write what you want, don’t compromise, and if people like it, they will come.”