Performance poet Joe Hakim travelled to Trinidad and Tobago to work with Caribbean poets. We asked what he learned.
What is performance poetry like in Trinidad and Tobago?
The slam format (a competitive performance poetry style) provides the backbone of the spoken word scene in Trinidad, especially among young people. By its very nature, the slam format encourages competition and rivalry. But when I visited, I found no trace of bitterness or one-upmanship.
Instead, I found a literary scene that instils an almost athletic discipline among its participants. Even the way in which events and slams are advertised brought to mind something akin to a boxing promotion. Poets are announced as fighters to the crowds, who turn up to be thrilled, shocked and entertained.
What advice do you have for people who'd like to try performance poetry themselves?
One of the big barriers to spoken word is the shock of hearing your voice aloud for the first time. There’s a jarring disconnect between how we hear our voice in our head, and how we hear it when it comes out of our mouth. One of the things I’d encourage you to do is to read things out loud as part of the writing process.
Very often I see people write beautiful, intricate poems on the page, and struggle to read them out loud. Using your voice and ear as part of the editing process will help you find out if there are any words or lines that trip you up. If there are, can you alter it to make it easier to read?
Don’t worry about metre, rhyme, or style to begin with. Just focus on the basics: What is important to you? What do you want to say? You can start layering on the more formal aspects of page poetry once you’ve engaged your imagination and gained more confidence.
What was interesting about the Caribbean poets you worked with?
Alongside Deborah Stevenson, I helped run workshops with a group of young spoken word artists based in the capital, Port of Spain, called 2 Cents Movement. They met once a week to share poems and talk about writing, hang out and support each other. They also taught each other essential life skills: budgeting money, keeping track of personal finances and even providing driving lessons.
When I attended my first ‘lime’ (a kind of house party, but involving the whole neighbourhood), I was struck by how many members of the poets’ families were in attendance. This was about more than just poetry. It was a true community.
How can you create this kind of artistic community?
Look for people who have the same passion and start from there. Make connections and work on establishing a practical support network. Just spending time with other people who are passionate about poetry is a great foundation for creating a community.
Writing is often seen as a lonely, solitary pursuit, and getting up on stage in front of strangers is very intimidating. So having people you trust around you is crucial for when you decide to take your poetry to the public.
What do poets in Trinidad write about?
Young people in Trinidad were not afraid to speak about the problems that plagued their communities and societies. Issues such as gang violence, corruption, drug problems and the treatment of women were tackled with bravery and honesty. But they also made room to talk about the beauty, camaraderie and uniqueness of their country.
How does this compare to your local scene?
As a city, Hull has its fair share of problems, especially among young people. We have some of the highest rates of child poverty, household debt and teenage pregnancy in the UK, along with one of the lowest life expectancies.
I noticed that there are similarities in the issues that young poets want to write about in the UK and in the Caribbean; such as disillusionment, disenfranchisement, lack of opportunities, the government, the environment, crime and poverty.
Where I'm from, the word ‘poetry’ can carry negative connotations. Some perceive it as boring, middle-class and stuck in the past. One of the biggest challenges I face is making it clear that poetry belongs to young people just as much as it belongs to academics.
Are there any Caribbean poets that you would recommend?
The first place to start would be Linton Kwesi Johnson, who I think it’s fair to say, is the big link between Caribbean and UK poetry. He opened the door for a new style of delivery and his use of patois has had a massive influence on UK poetry and music.
Joe Hakim is a writer and performance poet from Hull, working with Warren Youth Project, the Goodwin Trust and Malet Lambert secondary school. He took part in Talking Doorsteps, a writer development project run by the Roundhouse, in collaboration with the British Council, Bocas Literature Festival and Wrecking Ball Press. It links poets from the UK and the Caribbean as part of Hull: UK City of Culture 2017.
You can watch Joe performing alongside poets from Hull and Trinidad at the BBC poetry festival, Contains Strong Language, from 30 September to 1 October 2017.