'You don’t need expensive kit. Just a mind and a mouth, a pen and some paper': Laura Taylor
Back in 2010 Laura Taylor joined the Write Out Loud website, and soon afterwards took the stage for the first time, at a Write Out Loud open mic night in Bolton. In the years that have followed she has become an established performance poet, as well as an accomplished reviewer for this site. Now she has a first poetry collection, Kaleidoscope, published by Flapjack Press, with a launch night in Liverpool on 9 June. In an interview with Greg Freeman, she talks about the importance of anger in poetry; her advice about performing on stage, including “don’t be tempted to have a few drinks”; her belief that creative expression is one of the best things you can do for emotional and mental well-being; how more strong female voices need to be heard; and how she never expected all this to happen, “no, not in a million years”.
Congratulations on the publication of your first collection, which comes with a foreword and ringing endorsement by the legendary punk poet Attila the Stockbroker – a man who does not shower praise around lightly - who has described it as “one of the best books of poetry I have ever read”. When you started out, was this always your ambition, to publish your poetry? Was it something you expected to happen?
Thank you very much. Yeh, I nearly fell off me chair when I read that! It’s a massive honour.
I didn’t have any ambitions at all at the start, apart from trying to write a poem or two. I remember joining Write Out Loud in September 2010 and seeing all these profiles of people with tons of publishing credits and gig dates, and feeling quite intimidated by them. My original biography said “Published nowhere. Performed nowhere.”, and for about two months I was quite proud of that fact. Inverse snobbery, I think you could call it. Then I decided to have a crack at performing, just to see if I could do it.
After a year of doing open mic at Wigan, John Togher (who still runs the Wigan WOL night) told me he thought some of my poems were good enough to be published, and I laughed in disbelief. But then I sent ‘Baptism’ off to Best of Manchester Poets, and they published it. In fact, I wrote a review of that night, my first review ever. Following that, I decided to send more poetry off to publishers and kept getting acceptances, and after I’d built up a rather large collection, both online and in print, the thought began to occur to me that maybe I could even have a whole book published. And here I am! I never expected this to happen, no, not in a million years.
Attila goes on to talk about the “compassion” in your poetry … “compassion for those that deserve it, that is”. He adds: “For those who have no compassion … she spits fire and hatred”. Anger is a very important part of your poetry performance. Do you think there should be more anger in poetry, particularly in these times?
I think there already is plenty of anger in contemporary performance poetry. There’s a lot to be angry about! We feel anger as a response to injustice in all its forms – that’s a Good Thing. The alternatives - apathetic acceptance of increasing inequality and inhumanity in the world - are not good for us, for anyone. We cannot grow as human beings if we are being continually kept in a state of submission. The anger turns inward then, and begins to attack the self.
When did you start writing poetry, and when and where did you begin performing it? How long was the in-between time?
In 2010, I went to a gig where a female poet was supporting the main music act. I was emotionally overwhelmed by her words, and left the gig thinking “I’ve got some things to say, too”. She’d mentioned Write Out Loud, so I checked it out, joined up, and wrote my first poem, ‘i-Museum’, based on a writing exercise that was on the home page. About two months later, I did my first ever open mic performance at a Write Out Loud night in Bolton organised by Jeff Dawson, and the buzz was immense! I was totally bitten by the performance bug that night.
I attended the Write Out Loud open mic night in Wigan religiously for about two years after that. About six months into performing, Jeff gave me the opportunity to do my first ever guest spot [at Bolton], so I got the chance to work out how to put a proper set together so that it flowed, and it did wonders for my growing confidence. I have a lot to thank that fella for, he’s an absolute stalwart of the performance poetry scene and such a kind and generous human being, too.
I then started being invited to do guest spots at other open mic nights too, most of them being WOL nights. I learned loads of little performance tricks, or “stage craft”, as it were, and how to deal with the sickening stage fright that accompanied every single performance!
You say at the front of the book that you believe in “the power of poetry as a means by which silent voices speak and hidden ears listen”. Do you feel that there is great potential for unearthing poetry from people who don’t yet realise that it is there, inside them, waiting to be released?
Absolutely. I had never even considered writing poetry before being inspired myself. I’d always enjoyed reading and writing essays and stories and was obsessed with words and language, but then when I did find poetry, I realised pretty quickly it was perfect for me. It’s such a cathartic art form, and I had years of hard times, stories and opinions in me that only came out in the poetry. Through going to open mics, talking to people and listening to their poetry, I discovered that many poets shared a similar history of conflict and struggle.
As poets, we speak our own truths, and in being open and laying ourselves bare emotionally, it leaves space for other people to connect. Something I am told repeatedly after gigs is “I didn’t think I liked poetry. You’ve inspired me”, which is one of the most rewarding things you can hear as a poet.
I remember a few years ago at a festival, at daft o’clock in the morning, there were about 10 strangers sat around the fire as the sun came up, and someone stood up to recite a poem, so we all began to take turns at it, doing songs, raps, and poems. It was such a beautiful moment of unity, and then the next year I bumped into one of them and she’d started writing poetry, saying it was that experience that sparked it. Isn’t that just wonderful? It’s accessible to all too. You don’t need expensive kit. Just a mind and a mouth, a pen and some paper.
What would be your advice to other poets going out on to a stage for the first time?
Practise practise practise. Practise your poem so many times that you reach a point where you are actually sick of saying it. Practise performing it slowly at first, because you WILL speed up once you’re on stage, especially at first. It’s the adrenaline. Try and get it to sound how it did in your head when you wrote it - the emotions, the rhythm, the cadence, all of that. Don’t be afraid of pauses or silence in your poems, get right inside them, and fill the space with your own energy. Practice is incredibly important - your mouth needs to know what to do when you get on that stage and behind the mic, because it’s not until you have a room full of people staring at you that you realise how terrifying it is! Also, take your paper up with you, you may well need it at first. Don’t be tempted to have a few drinks for Dutch courage either. I guarantee you it won’t make your performance better, it will only create a distance from it, and you won’t be able to inhabit it in the same way. Have the booze afterwards, when you’ve earned it.
Before you start, take a nice deep breath and fill your lungs up. And remember this – open mic nights are incredibly supportive, no one wants you to make a mistake, and no one is waiting for you to do that. They all know how scary it is. And if you do make mistakes, learn from them, don’t crucify yourself. You will learn a little something from every single performance - nothing is wasted.
Finally, a little courtesy goes a long way so find out how much time you have on stage, and don’t hog the mic – that never goes down well! And remember to let people know that your poem is finished by saying Cheers or Thank You. They’ve never heard your poem before, and only you know when it has finished. Signpost it for them. And enjoy it!
Your collection begins with a number of angry, often political poems that we have come to associate with you from watching your videos, and admiring your punchy, powerful performances. But there follows others that have a different tone. There are poems about religion, dementia, a sequence of poems about a dying parent, a hilarious one about a nativity play. One, ‘Re-Collections’, begins with the line: “I watch you from the other side of winter.” Does this collection represent a journey? Is the kind of poetry you write changing?
I wanted to start with a lot of poems that appear regularly in my sets, because most people will come across my poetry for the first time at a gig, so something familiar at the start felt right. But I’m not “just” a ranting poet, never have been, there’s always been much more to me than that. This book was the perfect opportunity to show the varied range of my writing, and of the many different ways I see the world – hence Kaleidoscope.
Does it represent a journey? I suppose so, in as much as I’ve explored certain areas of my life and I can now move on to explore others. Also, some of the poems had an obvious narrative to them, once I’d put them together, even though I’d written them at different times. I worked really hard to lay them out as they appear in the book in order to create a flow, a sort of wave movement, to weave in and out of stage and page poems without there being any obvious disruption for the reader. In all likelihood, few people will read it from front to back all the way through, but I wanted to make it flow for those who do.
The final poem in the collection, ‘Write for Revolution’, is described by you in the book as “the reason why I started writing – and why I carry on.” Can you explain that some more?
It relates to that night when I saw the female poet perform. She inspired me, and I know that I have gone on to inspire others. In fact, I recently performed this poem at a Reclaim The Night event in Liverpool, and the room was filled with young women who cheered so loudly at the line “and now there’s more of us” that I had to wait for them to quieten down before carrying on with the poem! More strong female voices need to be heard, especially at a time when feminism is increasingly a dirty word, and Men’s Rights activists are becoming more vocal.
It’s a call to arms, a shout-out to all those who may be listening to write their own lives, to reach out to others through their own experiences, to know that we are not alone; to create unity.
One quote from you says: "If there is strength in unity, then art saves lives. Bang a drum, pluck a string, sing a song, have a dance, write a verse, paint a picture and enjoy.” Do you want to expand on that quote some more?
I truly believe that creative expression is one of the best things you can do for your own mental and emotional well-being.
When you are in the midst of creating something, in the “flow”, it feels like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. The excitement, the buzz, this warm jet of creativity shooting around your mind and body, neurons firing like crazy, and then the deep satisfaction of making something that feels good and sounds great. It’s deeply fulfilling.
My partner runs songwriting workshops for a range of people with different needs, and without exception, everyone he has ever worked with has come out of their shells, increased in self-confidence, experienced real happiness and enthusiasm. It does absolute wonders for human beings. The creative process has given me personally a stability I’d never had before, a calmness, a place to put all the chaos. Now, if I go through a tumultuous experience, I can turn it into art, which helps me see in new ways and deal with it. Then if someone hears it or reads it, and they’ve been through a similar experience, they will know they’re not alone, that the things they think or feel are shared by someone else. I think that’s incredibly powerful. We all have it in us to create – you just need to find the thing that you love.
In your book you pay tribute to this website, saying that Write Out Loud gave you “a warm and welcoming place to write and develop”. Aw, that makes us feel even prouder of you. There’s a football chant - I know you don’t like football – that they sing about home-grown players, describing them as “one of our own”. Can we come and sing “Laura Taylor … she’s one of our own” at your gigs?
I’d be upset if you didn’t! Come with bells, rattles and drums – even better! Seriously though, I owe a massive debt to Write Out Loud. I would not have written the amount that I have done nor would I have had such a perfect sphere in which to hone my writing skills without it. And again, it was the Write Out Loud open mic nights that helped me learn so much about stage craft. I’ve also had the chance to attend poetry gigs and read books, and write reviews about them. My gratitude is boundless. Long live Write Out Loud!
Good luck with the book launch! That’s a mighty impressive supporting bill you have there … Louise Fazackerley, Joy France, Steph Pike …
The launch of Laura Taylor’s Kaleidoscope will take place at 81 Renshaw Street Arts Cafe in Liverpool on 9 June, starting at 7.30pm. Entry is free. Kaleidoscope is published by Flapjack Press, at £8.99 (ebook £4.99)
PHOTOGRAPH: ALAN HOUGH