Cassette Tape Radio. Transcription by Christabel Smith with additions by Talia Randall
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Singing – (Cassette Tape Radio) (Cassette Tape Radio) (Cassette Tape Radio)
Welcome to Cassette Tape Radio bonus episode, I’m your host Talia Randall. This little bonus episode is an interview I did with Toby Campion who is the director of a poetry organisation called UniSlam.
If you’ve listened to the previous episode – episode number eight then you’ll know all about this. If you haven’t listened to that episode yet I recommend that you do.
And in this interview we talk about lots of things. We talk about poetry, we talk about the spoken word scene in which toby and myself sort of started out. And I say the word ‘absolutely’ ‘absolutely yeah yeah’ a lot to everything that Toby says.
That’s it – enjoy the interview.
Interview between Talia Randall and Toby Campion, (Director of UniSlam)
So to start off, just tell us about yourself. Who are you, babe?
I’m Toby Campion. I’m a poet, playwright, writer, performer, host, producer.
No big deal!
I’m Iike, what am I? What actually am I? I do writing, basically, and gigs and also facilitating other things and facilitating poetry-based events and programmes.
How have you been finding that during lockdown because so much of your stuff has been live?
Do you know what, it’s been quite nice. I had a break from doing gigs. I’ve only done one gig during the lockdown and I’ve actually really enjoyed not doing gigs. I love doing them normally, but it’s been nice just to have a bit of a break and to be a little bit more reflective and try and do a bit more writing and that kind of thing. I’ve actually quite enjoyed that. It’s been a bit trickier to do producing live events with people there because you can’t really do that, so we’ve changed some of the stuff we had planned. We were going to do some work with schools through UniSlam, but we’ve had to change that now. It’s been quite good to think about ways in which we can work online more in the future and actually, it makes a lot of the stuff more accessible for more people in some ways. You can reach more people and do recordings and stuff. It’s been quite good, actually.
It’s interesting how it’s in some ways more accessible and in some ways less accessible, but these questions, the mainstream are asking themselves a little bit more. I’m calling us the mainstream, by the way. It’s quite a bold statement.
(laughter) we’re absolutely not mainstream.
People who don’t normally have to think about access are suddenly thinking about it, which hopefully will translate to things being more accessible after this.
Yes. It’s also quite interesting, I think, because at a start, everyone was just putting out loads of stuff for free, workshops for free. And you know we did a series of free workshops, but they were funded through Arts Council. I applied for the other Arts Council funding.
The emergency funding?
Yeah and it was kind of like ‘how are you going to think about your practice now?’ I wrote about thinking about how to create an income from stuff online. I don’t know, it’s difficult when everything… The immediate reaction was kind of to make everything free and everything accessible for people and enter the spirit of the lockdown by making everything open, but also on the flipside of that, it’s really difficult for people to monetise or earn any kind of living from the stuff they would have been earning a living from before, by doing it online.
This is it.
It’s hard because some people may potentially be, not better off, but if they’re furloughed, they’re not spending money on travel. Lots of people are obviously clearly much worse off. So it’s thinking about the ask in a new way as well. It’s going to be a question we’re going to have to keep asking ourselves, I think, especially when most of my work is subsidised either through the Arts Council or through a theatre that’s subsidised through the Arts Council. It’s generally not direct, me and a consumer, but that’s kind of changing now. Lots of people are thinking about that in a new way.
Also we think about these workshops for things online being accessible, but also there are lots of people who can’t access things online and it’s thinking about that as well.
Absolutely, not having internet access and not being able to use a computer or having a shared computer or having the bandwidth taken out because everyone at home is working. All these other things are important things we have to consider.
Well that was great. That was just the first question and we went off into loads of different tangents. I should probably ask at this point was UniSlam is.
Yes. For people who don’t know what a poetry slam is, it’s a competitive poetry event where people get up and perform poems and they’re then scored by the audience or by a panel of judges and the highest scores progress onto the next round and so on, until there’s a winner. So UniSlam is the UK national university poetry slam and summit. It’s an annual event and we get teams from universities across the UK and Ireland coming together to compete in the Varsity Poetry League. The festival is not just the slam, there are also lots of workshops and talks and fringe events for participants and other people as well.
So there’s all this other activity built around this main event, this main slam. It’s quite a prestigious thing, to win a slam, in many ways. It can help get you noticed, it can help develop your practice. It’s great there are all these other things connected to it so it’s about that, but it’s not just about that, it’s about a whole lot more.
I think UniSlam is really community-focused. A lot of slam claims to be that. I genuinely believe that UniSlam is more focused on community building and thinking about developing the people who are part of it. So part of UniSlam is the participants get feedback if they want it from judges and access to loads of workshops and chances to see people perform that they might not otherwise be able to, people from different regions or professional poets. Also, the structure, how we structure the prizes so there are certain prizes that don’t necessarily go to the highest-scoring team. We do individual prizes, so shifting the focus away from this idea of a winner or the teams that score highest are the best and therefore worthy of accolades or attention or whatever and thinking about ways we can divert that a little bit. We’ve taken teams to the equivalent competition in America called CUPSI, about four teams over the years, so that was also an experience.
I bet. An overseas trip. I miss those. Not that I go on many. I’m suddenly like ‘oh my God, I want to book an airplane ticket’. That’s generally not what I do anyway, but I want to be in an airport (audio fades)
I’m Talia Randall, you’re listening to Cassette Tape Radio. Do you like what you’re hearing? If you do – like, subscribe, share the episode with a friend, leave us a lovely review, that really really helps.
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So this episode is like a bit of a UniSlam takeover in the sense we’ve got a bunch of poems from fantastic poets, both you and me included, babe, of course, in what is called a mid-career or post-emerging cohort. None of us are in uni, some of us haven’t been to uni, so what’s that programme about and what’s its connection to UniSlam?
As well as the annual festival, UniSlam also runs programmes throughout the year. So one of those, for example, we do workshops with young people in the Midlands who face various barriers in accessing literature and education. This past year, we received some funding from Arts Council to work with people who are post-emerging or mid-career, which is a bit of a weird terminology.
What does it mean?
Exactly. What does it mean? Basically, I think it means people who have left the emerging stage of their practice, the initial stage of their practice, and also on top of that, the associated 16-25 age bracket. I think there are a lot of funded opportunities and development opportunities for people that are aged 16-25 and also people that are right at the start of their career. But for artists who have been working for a while and released one or more bodies of work, either published or performed, there are actually not that many funded opportunities for them to keep developing their practice.
Apparently, we’ve figured it all out. We’ve been to a couple of workshops and it’s just like yeah, we know what we’re doing, so we don’t need any of that development at all.
Exactly. Even really great places that provide really amazing opportunities for people in that age bracket, there’s kind of a cut-off after that. When you reach 26, it’s kind of ‘see you later’. I know the Roundhouse are thinking about that a lot because they have really great programmes for 16-25-year-olds, so that’s partly why we partnered with them. So the Roundhouse also support the post-emerging, mid-career programme. We basically support a group of poets who identify as mid-career. Also we did a series of workshops and mentoring sessions and peer workshops. I guess it’s similar to the festival, it’s about building a community amongst those people, hopefully one that then becomes self-sustaining, which I think it has really. In the lockdown, we’ve carried on with meetings off our own back.
We’ve had meetings every week, when we just share. We have a little chat and a moan at first, which is really lush.
Yes. The grumble.
So nice. We have a mini grumble on Zoom, then we present our poems and give each other the feedback. We were talking about how nice it has been to have that because we were planning on doing that anyway, but to have that since this whole lockdown, social- distancing situation, I think has been really great for a lot of us. It feels still quite gentle. Everyone knows each other’s work a bit by now because we’ve had a couple of months of already having worked together, so it feels really considered and lush.
It’s really nice to invest in other people’s work as well, beyond your own, and invest time in people’s work who you care about. I really enjoy doing that.
Writing feedback on other people’s work has taught me as much if not more about receiving feedback. It’s been brilliant. It would be interesting to hear you talk a little bit about the difference between emerging and 16-25 or 11-25 because sometimes they are assumed to be the same thing, but actually lots of people emerge from the ‘artist cocoon’ when they’re much older.
Absolutely. That was also the start when we were coming up with the programme and what the offer would be. We were kind of deciding whether to work with people who were still emerging, but were older emerging artists, or whether to work with post-emerging or mid-career post, which is what we ended up doing. I was also really interested in thinking about those people who come to writing later, who for whatever reason are developing their practice at a later age.
Maybe they’ve come from a different art form or something, they’ve written or performed or whatever, but are just starting poetry and spoken word in their 30s, 40s, 50s, whatever.
Or even like a different career, something completely different, and are coming to it later on, but for whom those opportunities for 16-25-year-olds who are emerging aren’t available. But in the end, we decided to do something for post-emerging, that kind of category. It’s something that I’m still really interested in figuring out an offer for because it is something we lack. We lack something for that and we really lack something for this post-emerging or mid-career group, which is why we set it up. Toast Poetry was around for a couple of years with Lewis Buxton, Georgina and a couple of other programmes, but apart from that, it’s kind of like Arvon, which is very expensive, or a degree, so it’s really difficult.
Absolutely. Also, it felt very informal, which was really nice, so there are some great courses, I’ve done some amazing courses at the Poetry School, for instance, and they’ve been brilliant, but it still feels like you’re going to a course. This felt a lot more freefall, the sessions. I think it’s because they’re whole-day sessions and we are a bunch of gobby idiots. I say that as the highest compliment. If someone called me a gobby idiot, I would take that as a compliment, so no offence to other poets who feature on this podcast. Love you in real life!
(laughter) It is true.
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So in your career, from emerging, to post-emerging, to post-lockdown in the future. That’s going to be a new thing, post-lockdown. What are some of the changes you’ve seen or experienced in poetry or spoken word? Some of the changes that have been really good and positive and some of the changes that you think ‘ooh, that’s not so great’?
I’m not 100% sure. I kind of feel I was emerging, I lived in America for a little bit and was doing open mics and early slams and stuff there and then I moved back to Edinburgh. I was doing more open mics and my first gigs there and then moved back to Leicester and then moved to London. I feel I’ve not been in one consistent space to observe the spoken-word culture there. I feel like it’s actually quite different in different places. I don’t know if I have an observation about the change over time in a particular place, but I do think the poetry and spoken-word scenes are weirdly different in different places and I think I came to London with a bit of a… Not a chip on my shoulder, but an awareness that everything is quite London-centric, which is why we’ve never hosted UniSlam in London and would intend hopefully to not do that so it’s easier for other people to get to. I came here with that in mind, but at the same time, have really enjoyed all of the opportunities that have been afforded to me by being based in London at the moment. So it’s a bit tricky.
It’s really challenging, isn’t it? It’s such an important conversation and you’re right, everything is London-centric. Really sorry about that, by the way. As part of that conversation, London also has some of the highest levels of poverty in the whole of the UK, so it’s about making sure the opportunities that do exist are not just accessible, but actively seeking out those people who wouldn’t normally go to those opportunities or know about those opportunities. I think that’s part of it as well, because often it doesn’t feel like that and there are some places and venues that are doing that really brilliantly. We’ve mentioned the Roundhouse already, there are many others, so it’s just marrying those two things, isn’t it?
Yeah and it’s doing the work. You have to do the work to do that, which is difficult and it is hard. But I think you’re right, that’s spot on.
Especially because austerity has completely dismantled a lot of really great work that had been done previously. I work a lot in the arts and also education sector and have really noticed that arts centres are having to take on a lot of the pastoral or support or welfare work that would have been done by a local authority or charity or something. So many people have really taken on those other jobs, but it shouldn’t have to be that way. It’s going to be really tricky once we come out from this because who knows where the arts sector is going to be in a couple of months’ time or a year’s time?
Absolutely and touching on that, thinking how things have changed, I’ve been writing a chapter on slam at the moment and it’s really made me think about the elders in our community and in spoken word and poetry, but particularly the people who were out there right at the start, pushing spoken word and the importance of poetry being performed with a crowd, just as much as it being on the page. Kind of thinking about how we honour those people and thinking about them and their legacy more, celebrating them. People like seeing Roger Robinson winning, TS Eliot and the award that he’s winning now and those people getting recognition for those things and Joelle Taylor and everybody. I’ve been thinking about things like that a lot recently and the ways in which events we’re programming now, for example UniSlam, involving those people and making the young people coming up aware of the work that came before them. I think we’ve always had that at UniSlam, we’ve always had a real mix of people and backgrounds and experiences as judges and facilitators. I think that’s a real important part of the work.
[Music fades in] You’re listening to Cassette Tape Radio a mix-tape-style podcast, each episode totally different to the next, interviews, comedy, original music and Poetry like this:
[Music fades out to another voice]
We’ve been made homeless in language / Kicked out of our own word / A community centre so hostile / that we clumsy through umbrella terms
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If you’re working class you inherit anger. If you’re middle class you inherit manners. And a house (audience laughs)
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snap poll / which racist do you want on your bank note / give you default sitar solo / aka indian banjo / (audience laughs) / fuck / election time / gotta hang low / this guy’s telling me / to go back home / type nw2 / what does your sat nav show?
[Fade out to another voice]
Proverbs for a woman drinking alone / If a woman drinks / undisturbed in a forest, / does she even exist? / A man walks / into a bar, / and ruins the woman’s evening.
[Fade out to another voice]
Don’t push me. I’m close to the edge / at the end of my tether / whatever the weather / whatever the method / it’s all of my effort not to – / I’m doing ten toes
[Fade out to another voice]
I was not born under a rhyming planet, / I was born a conclusion to her motherhood / premature, spitting fire from belly / shattering uterus, taking her womb / out into the world with me.
[Fade out to another voice]
And it wasn’t until I saw someone on stage / Rapping away with words I’d used everyday / For years, that the tears started rolling, / There was no controlling, my mind was unfolding, / Beholding the true nature of what I had lost / that not reading books
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So many of these people paved the way for us. I think we often take for granted the fact so many audiences are ‘used to’ being in a spoken-word or poetry crowd because the sort of expectations that come with different art forms can often prevent people from coming to a gig in the first place. But when you’re pioneering an art form and people aren’t really sure about what you’re doing, you have to steal a little bit of space in a pub or club or whatever and just do your thing, whereas now you run a massive festival every year, that’s massively attended. Like you were saying, so much of that is owed to people having to swim upstream and get audiences interested and involved in this incredible art form.
Totally. It’s interesting as well, I try and book features who are people that have been around for a while and who are big, but who also embody that idea of legacy. It’s interesting that some of the younger people at UniSlam don’t know those people. We had Hollie McNish a couple of years ago. Hollie McNish did the first one when I took over UniSlam years and years ago, then we got her back last year. Some of the young people didn’t know her and she is really big now.
With any art form, the more you know about the ins and outs and what’s happening right now and what happened 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago or whatever, is so important. I also think it speaks to this thing of what does a spoken word or poet’s career look like? Because it’s so much more unknown than say… I mean everything in the arts is unknown and a lot of it is up to chance or existing privilege or whatever, but there is a kind of trajectory, I don’t know if I’m saying that just because this is my job, but it feels like with other art forms, there might be a bit more of a set path, sort of, and maybe with spoken word or the type of poetry that’s happening now, it seems less clear. So I wonder if that means that people’s knowledge of what came before therefore has more holes in it because you might not know where to go to find spoken-word history, other than a few organisations who kind of do that really well. Whereas you could Google the career of an actor or musician and even that’s not conventional, obviously, but you could maybe think ‘oh, I could do this, this and this.’ Whereas for what we do, you have to be a bit more wily I guess.
(Laughter) and because people go off and do different things, go off to be playwrights or go into songwriting or just a completely different career. Also, the nature of slam, in this country anyway, I think it’s seen a bit more as a rite of passage, more of a thing you do when you’re starting out and you don’t continue, whereas in other places, I don’t think that’s as much the case. That means then there aren’t these people continually around in the slam scene and therefore people recognise or know them. Also, part of it is because poetry and particularly poetry that’s performed, or spoken word, is about ‘I’ve got something to say and I’m going to say it now. I need to say it and I’m getting out there and saying it’. But actually, in some ways, it’s great that those young people aren’t bogged down by needing to know who the elders are, letting that hold them back.
I think obviously that only holds true to a certain extent and when you get to a certain place, you need to be reading up more and thinking a lot more about that, but I also think actually, it’s great to have that attitude of ‘well, I’m here, I’m doing it, I don’t need permission from people.’
The gatekeepers or whatever. I think that sense of urgency is so important. I just think it’s even more compelling when it’s rooted in finding out more. Also, the thing that’s really important is that knowledge that we might want to know or find out more, isn’t just one thing? There’s not just one canon, is there? There’s lots we definitely, you and I, absolutely, I mean there’s so much I don’t know, babe, just in life!
I know. I’m like ‘we should know everyone.’
Yeah, but in terms of what’s happening now, what happened five minutes ago, 50 years ago, whatever, because there are obviously some voices that have still been uplifted, but loads of others that have been lost, especially because the ease with which we record things now, we don’t even think about it. We’re doing this podcast remotely on a phone and a dictaphone, but when I was starting out, I had some crappy brick for a phone, so getting something filmed felt really special. It’s amazing because there’s so much more you can do to get your work out there, but there are so many voices that haven’t been recorded in that way. That would be a really interesting project. Maybe we’ll send this direct to the Arts Council, be like ‘when you’re giving out money again, can you do a Hidden Histories?’
Well I’m reading a book at the moment that’s really great. It kind of touches on that. It’s called How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by… edit out the big pause.
What if I want to leave in the big pause, babe?
(Laughter) you can leave it in. It’s by Alexander Chee. It’s kind of like a series of fragment or chapter essay bits that are really cool. One of them is him in a queer book store, cataloguing this new collection of queer poetry and fiction and prose and all kinds of writing that was taken over by this particular bookshop, and him talking about how it was amazing to see these people who would have been so influential in his work, like James Baldwin and Audre Lorde and these people, but also how many other people had written stuff and they just weren’t captured by the mainstream, or weren’t picked up or listened to, and how powerful that was to him. Seeing how for every Audre Lorde, there’s 10 people who were also saying important things about queer issues and other things, but just weren’t listened to or heard. Just really interesting on that point.
I might buy that book. I think a lot of that spoken-word impulse, you were talking about that urgency earlier, comes from wanting to record that nowness.
Definitely with a night I run, What Words Are Ours?, I feel like it’s trying to be a snapshot of what’s happening now, with D/deaf and hearing poets. You’ve performed, you’ve been to the night before, but there’s no headliner as such. Everyone gets the same amount of time on stage and people are very intentionally representing very different styles and ways of performing because it’s meant to be just a snippet of all the things that exist now. Some people are quite well-known in our scene, some people are well-known beyond the scene and others aren’t as well-known as they should be. That’s the sort of thing of being hey, let’s just take stock and see what’s there, because like you said, for every one brilliant person, there are 10 brilliant people and all of those voices deserve to be listened to.
Yea and What Words Are Ours? does that so well, I always think that. It never feels tokenistic or gimmicky.
It really feels like a snapshot, a cabaret of these amazing people, doing really interesting different things that are all equal to one another.
Exactly. Sometimes it can feel like there’s a hierarchy of styles or ways of saying things and in my world, there really isn’t. Any kind of hierarchy is inherently wrong anyway because you’re essentially elevating one culture above another because so much of poetry and spoken word is rooted in our own personal cultures, whatever that means.
Even within poetry itself, bringing it back to this idea of slam, it’s how do you judge a poetry slam? It’s so subjective. The idea of judging one poem against another is ludicrous in some ways. There can’t ever be an objective hierarchy of these things.
For sure. I judged the Roundhouse slam a couple of times and it’s always so… I love it, but I’m also so overwhelmed by it. It’s so difficult, as you said, just to condense everyone’s work. What parameters do you choose to go from? It’s almost like you have to just arbitrarily choose a set of parameters.
And stick with those.
And getting rid of this idea of what a poetry slam should be, or this idea that slam poetry exists, which it doesn’t, because you can perform any poem at a poetry slam. Poetry slam is a movement, not a genre. I think the Roundhouse does that really well as well, rewarding work that’s quality work, rather than work that feels like it’s trying to fit a certain thing or mould itself into what it feels it should be in a slam setting.
For sure. I guess slam’s really just about being able to hone your voice, whatever that is and just being able to get it out clearly to a group of people. I’ve just condensed it; I’ve just done it for you. I’ll copyright it!
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