We Belong Here: poetry and spoken word documentary (Full length version)

In times of turmoil, in times of
trouble, we look to our poets, we look to our comedians,
and we look to our musicians for on the ground truth,
for man on the street truth. You listen to your pop
songs or your big hits, and they’re not saying anything. Even our hip hop
artists, our rappers, who used to be the
people, the messengers, are not saying anything anymore. And so people are desperately
searching for not just answers, but questions. And that’s what spoken
word poetry gives people. If an alien was to
come down to Britain and wanted to know
how people were, they would be more likely
to understand people through poetry than
through politics. What I like most
about the spoken word is its potential
for giving voices to people who otherwise
wouldn’t be heard. It allows you to go to places
that you just can’t articulate in the everyday vocabulary. I think a lot the poets
that I admire take to poetry and use it to become, in
some way, an agent of change. Poetry is vital now, because
it encourages us to embrace complexity, uncertainty. It seems to be an
age of learning, with lots of people
sitting on their own. So I think that’s maybe
one of the reasons why it’s getting more popular. And because there are new
technologies to share it. A really good poem will be
written on a toilet wall. It will be whispered to a lover
in the middle of the night. It will be shouted at 3:00
in the morning at a party. You know, that’s what poetry is. It’s the language of the people. It’s the rumble of what
people are feeling. And so that’s why poetry,
in this really crazy time that we’re living in now,
is more relevant and more vital than ever. I used to love that film
Titanic, the last 45 minutes or so, you know,
after the sex scene, in the car as the
seawater starts to flow, the sinking ship all slopping
and swaying, the band, how they bravely keep on playing,
and that man dressing up as a girly waif to hide in
a boat and get himself safe. The human catastrophe, the
chaos, the panic, the drama. I used to love that film
Titanic, all that melodrama. But now it just looks
like the Channel 4 news. People grabbing for life
jackets with no coat no shoes. Now I’m just reminded
of the plight of refugees, all those humans
drowning in the open seas. People hungry and cold
in overcrowded boats, crying for help with
salt-burned throats. There’s a Syrian Leo, and
there’s Kate the Kurd. I said I used to like Titanic,
but now I think it’s absurd. My love will go on. It’s a terrible song. I said I used to like the
film Titanic, not Celine Dion. It’s one of my newest poems. I recently went to
Calais to go and help in the refugee kitchens. So it’s a little bit
from that, but also I literally was watching
the film Titanic, and last scene, the
last 45 minutes, really did just
sort of just stir up what I had just seen in Calais. Something really important
about spoken word culture is we don’t just sit in our
bedrooms writing poetry. We’re out on the streets
working directly with people. And that’s how we can get
their stories and tell them. That’s how we– have
an important role to play within society. We are conduits between
different people. We are messengers. Well, the First
World War would not have been revealed
for the horrific war that it was had it
not been for the poets who could describe both
the physical space, the physical actions, and
also the personal turmoil that was happening within the
soldiers at the time. That’s quite powerful stuff. “No Man’s Land” is a poem
about a guy, an ordinary man, who is a refugee from
a war torn country. And in this case, it’s Iraq. And the poem is written where
I describe parts of this man’s body with his experience,
the camps that he’s lived in, the bombing, the war,
that kind of stuff. So it’s a way of
us trying to focus in on the humanity, that
most of us are just people. Our governments fight,
and we don’t even understand the conversations
they’re having with each other, just what’s reported to us. But at the bottom of the
pile is always humanity. It’s always the person. I’ve worked a lot with refugees
from different countries. And their stories are
incredibly inspiring. They’re harrowing, and
they’re heartbreaking. But what marks them all
is this great human spirit of tenacity and resilience. His face was a foreign country,
and his tongue a loaded gun. His laugh was an air raid
siren, and his mouth a deep cave dug in Iraqi earth, a shallow
grave on the edge of town. His beard was the
barbed wire fence that surrounded the camp, and
his skin a handwritten map sewn into his shirt. A deserted field at midnight,
passport torn in two. His eyes were soft
buried land mines, and his voice radio static
caught between stations. His ribs were the gripped
bars of a Guantanamo Bay cage, and his lips the
careful line of Customs, the border between territories. And he walked like a school
child in the rubble of a home, and he spoke like a low
flying drone through Aleppo. Homes sweet Homes. Welcome to England. As-Salaam-Alaikum. But immigration central
was a love letter written in another language. And when he smiled,
when he smiled, his teeth were the
New York skyline. There is something
about the young poet who bursts into the
scene and just has things they have to say. It has to be said, and
it has to be said now. Now, when you do that
across a whole generation, just so many exciting
people start to stand up. For Hollie McNish, she had a
poem that did incredibly well on YouTube, you know. And it just went
boom, right out there. You know, this is from
the girl who probably wrote in her bedroom, just as
I wrote in my bedroom as a boy. I decided to read
a poem that I wrote called “Banana Baby,” which
is one of the first poems that I wrote when
I was pregnant. This is one which I think,
for me, sums up quite a lot of the society I’m
in now, when you just get so much advice that
it’s a bit overwhelming. There’s just the
pressure to be– to have a life that is
like an advert, I guess. Even to the sort of
music I hear on the radio all seems to be sort of teenage
love songs about some sort of perfect idea of romance. I think it’s getting worse in
terms of the sort of poster and advertising culture. You say little boys
are meant to be like– meant to be superheroes. Little girls are meant to
be kind of dolls or Barbies or pretty. We just need to get
to the hills at night, look out of the
sky for a minute, and get away from that kind
of world for a while, I think. I guess poems that I’ve
written about breastfeeding, and I’ve never written
anything in order to put it out and make
people listen to it and having anyone say,
like a midwife saying that they’ve been sneaking
their iPhones into the hospital wards to show mums or
dads who might be feeling nervous about having
a baby or feeling nervous about breastfeeding
if they want to. Having them say that
they’ve actually used a poem in a practical
way is pretty nice. Your baby should be as
big as a banana by now. Your sickness may calm down now. Your stomach may be sore now. You should feel more tired now. You should put on
a pound a week now. You may be more forgetful now. You should think about
your finance now. You should consider
birth class now. You should book
your next scan now. You should start
pelvic exercises now. You should clench
between each wee now. You must clench
between each wee now. You should get the maternity
leave form now, and fill it in and hand it to your boss now. You have to tell your boss now. You should start thinking
about names for the baby now. You should decide
whether or not you’re going to use disposable or
cotton or semi-disposable or eco-company nappies now. Try to keep the baby happy now. Play the baby
classical music now. Classical music will
make you baby brainy now. No Mr. Whippy ice cream now. You might have
trouble weeing now. It might be hard to reach around
to pack your birth bag now. You should buy
sanitary pads now. You should buy
breast leak pads now. You should buy big pants now,
I mean really, really, really, really, really, really,
really, really big pants now. You shouldn’t sleep on your
back now or your right hand side now, and sleep may
be uncomfortable now. And you may wake
in the night now, and your rib cages may ache now,
and your left arm and shoulder blade and leg my
hurt a little now, and you may think about buying
a sculpted pregnant woman cushion now, it said,
but don’t do too much. Remember to relax. Stress can be very
harmful for your baby. I chose the subject of the
poem, I mean, in many ways it sounds so cliche,
but it chose me. It’s about the impact, both
psychologically and materially, of austerity cuts to children’s
social care services, which have a devastating
impact on the most vulnerable of people. People are always
shocked when they hear some of the lines in that poem. But that is the reality. That is the reality for so many
children and families today, and it’s only getting worse. Come on, happy people. Are you going to make my day? As a young poet, I
sheltered in the library. You know, when you’ve
got no money for heating, you can hang out in the library
and just eat books, just read and read and read. And it was the one
place that had heating, but also really
cheap photocopying. And by closing down
those is the start of that kind of breaking
down of people’s voices. If you think about who dominates
the media, what kind of people, and what kind of
narratives take up space, spoken word is a place where
we can readjust that balance. I think if you are
given a voice, if you’re given a microphone, literally
metaphorically, it’s a privilege to be heard. So in that sense,
it’s really sort of like tearing up the rule
book about what poetry is and who it’s for. And I think it’s a real
vehicle for words, experiences, that need to be told
and need to expressed. And you can do it in
whichever way you see fit. And it can be quite
radical, I think, in some way for people to get
up and have a platform, almost like Speaker’s
Corner, but more arty. I took some kids on
a summer camp once. And in the front of the
minibus, One Direction’s “You Don’t Know You’re
Beautiful” came on the radio. This little boy, who was
about 8, was singing along, like, “Baby, you light up
my world like nobody else.” And I was like, wow,
you know all the words. And he said, yeah,
I sing it to my mum, because she’s sad all the time. So this is for that boy and
all the other children of Kids Company, a charity closed
down by 1,000 toxic words, and its need rendered
invisible by newspapers that preferred to print in white. It’s for Jay, his
feet sore from wearing shoes that were too small. For Kiera, one pair
of socks, and no, she didn’t have a spare. For Rianan, her mouth sticky
with Nutella’d squares of toast for breakfast,
because yes, I’m full, but what if there’s no dinner? For Jordan, who they found
sleeping under a car age 10. And for Ali, who, when
it came to say goodbye, looked me in the eye with
eyes clotted with tears and said, please, please
don’t make me go home. Meanwhile, we’re
ruled by magicians with scissors for hands. Economic illusionists doing
coin tricks in the dole queue. Now you see it, now you don’t. Conjurers with cut
glass accents cutting counseling for kids
who cut to breathe, marks like Braille on their
body speaking volumes. Cutting beds for teenagers
with lodges in their heads. Cutting EMA, cutting
JSA, cutting us short from the back and on all sides. Money can’t buy you happiness,
say the ringmasters of the ring fencing pretense. Please. This is the idiom of those
rich in denial or not in debt, who don’t know what it’s
like to see a parent smash a piggy bank for pennies
when the wolf is at the door and know that it will blow your
house down when it bounds in, uninvited, sniffling around
for something to flog, to buy you another two weeks
on a future that is already in arrears. And no, it did not
bring a bottle. It didn’t bring a gift. It came to tell you
that your time is up. You’re maxed out, spent. But we don’t have to take
their sleight of hand. We can call their bluff. When we take a Churchillian
approach to children. Fight them on the beaches and
watch their small bodies pile up like sick,
sodden sand castles. When the meek will not inherit
the earth, because they are not seen, and they are not heard. And when money makes
the world go square so it’s easier to hide cash
in its corners, perhaps the most radical, the most
powerful thing we can say is, I’ll take care of you. The poem I chose to perform
today is called “Echo.” And it looks at how sound can
be subverted and speculated when questioned, especially as
someone who wears hearing aids and has had a different,
difficult relationship with sound and
communicating with people throughout most of my life. I just working in deaf
education, where I came across how high illiteracy
is in deaf education, how many deaf schools are being
closed throughout the UK, how there aren’t that many
creative practitioners going into deaf education. And so now I work as a poet
in residence in a school, in a deaf school
in North London. And I’m seeing
firsthand how difficult it can be to find a
language or find a way to articulate your needs. I do hope that, as a
poet and as a performer, I can inspire a deaf or
hard of hearing or anyone, really, who has ever felt
at odds with culture, the mainstream culture,
to have a voice, to know that there is a value
in being able to articulate who you are and what
you need and why you ought to be listened to. My ear amps whistle like
they are singing to echo. Goddess of noise, wailing for
her return as a raveled knot of tongues, of blaring
birds, of consonant crumbs of sound swamped in my
misty hearing aid juice. Gaudi believed in holy sounds, and built a cathedral
to contain it, pulling here in men
from their faded knees, like deafness was
a kind of atheism. Who would turn down God? Even though I have not heard
the golden decibel of angels, I have been living in a
noiseless palace of a doorbell is pulsating light. And I am able to answer. I think I write poems to explore
the world and ask questions. I think that poems are
more like questions than they are answers. So it’s as much an
act of kind of trying to find out what I
think about a subject, rather than express what I
already know about something. I think we’re too
often drawn today towards a kind of journalistic
simplification of issues. And often poetry,
because it uses language in a way that makes it kind
of wobble and bend and skew things, it’s able to entertain
multiple perspectives, plurality and contradiction. And that’s part of what
poetry does and how it works. “An Avoidance” is
a poem about not wanting to engage
with somebody who is going through a
tough time in order to sort of protect yourself. We probably feel more
connected than we’ve ever been. And of course, it’s
almost like a cliche that, despite that, we’re no
less closer to one another. I would just say that I
think that there is something about the risk of
emotion, and you don’t get to be in the
world with other people without risking something
of yourself in doing that. And that’s part of the bargain. And I think empathetic
exchange is just probably the most important
thing that we can offer, really, while we’re here. And it can be difficult,
but that’s just the deal. I could go around all evening
dropping slices of lime into other people’s drinks,
because it’s easy to give away fractions of happiness. But bad news ticks in
the kettle as it rests, and someone’s dressed as death
in the Halloween party photo. And someone’s dressed as death
in the birthday party photo. Class photo, front row, by
the font, at the christening, I should have called. I should have called
right away, welcomed your sadness, taken it, pulled
up a white plastic patio chair and said, I know you don’t
want to be here either. Instead, I let a week pass. It was so easy. I’m very proud of poets
when they speak out, speaking about things which
they want to see changed, but also speaking
about the intimacy of their own experiences
and the uniqueness of their own experiences
as well, which gives the world of
poetry a gift, really. Women’s rights and
women’s situation economically and
politically in this country are certainly things that I
feel really passionately about. And so, outside of
the sex industry, I’m also really interested
in the justice system. This particular poem, “Sanctions
Should Be Kept at the UN” is about the effective
cuts particularly on women, and how we’ve seen a really huge
rise in the numbers of women doing sex work since the
cuts have been introduced. Appointment creeps
to the carpet’s edge. Eyelashes like bristles. Wool is weighed
with ballpoint ink. Elbows like sink corner. Jobcentre queue grows
horns without her. Mind like night
time nappy soaked. She knows she has to go. Feet slow like unforced rhubarb. Front door folds into lagoons. Ears tapped like
caffeine tendons. Baby screams and nutmeg washed. Lips fissured like
last night’s Chinese. Bloody phone alarm
finally stops. Dead. If you can’t stand in
line, if you can’t sign, if you can’t be polite enough,
organized enough to just turn up, it is up to you. You’ve failed to– She calls the man. She shags the man. She has money. She buys food. She buys food. She buys food. I think poetry has the
power on an individual level to just make somebody
feel empowered. And on a wider level,
I think it can really help to articulate the feeling
of a big group of people in a way that is more immediate
and more emotionally resonant, whether it’s poets,
really well-known poets like Lemn Sissay, who
will have a poem on a lift at the Southbank Centre,
and kids will be reading it as it goes up and down. Or on a wall somewhere
or performance poets who are doing lots
of YouTube videos. The poem that I’ve chosen
is called “Belong,” and it’s about the
nature of belonging. It’s about– it’s
about how you may feel like you don’t fit in
with an idea of who you should be in a particular place. But the fact is, is that your
difference, your uniqueness, will power you towards
a sense of belonging. So to embrace that,
really, I think. I was brought up in Manchester. I was brought up in
Lancashire, in the villages. And then I moved from
the villages to the city, and it was a kind of
migration, you know. I think that we migrate from
our childhood into our teens. We migrate from the
womb into the open air. And I think that
migration is the heart of who we are, that education
is about the migration of ideas. It is part of nature,
part of who we are as human beings in our fullest. And if we watch nature
programs on television, we see that migration
is part of the pattern and the DNA of the world. To be anti-migration
is to be anti-nature. So this sense of
belonging in the poem is tied to the sense of what
it feels like to be British. Our nation now, but it
was the same in the 60s, is going through change. But how we react to
that change tells me everything about who we are. Hold me, while the spirits of
the past and rivers of blood run through me. All this past feeds this present
and brings the truth into me. His story, your search,
his journey, ours. Something rings true
inside and strong. I stand atop Piccadilly Tower
and sing, I belong here. I belong. I the Mogadishan who
knows troubled waters. I the Belfast man who
knows troubled cities. I the Ethiopian who
knows troubled lands. I the Serbian who crosses
troubled seas, who walked through darkened valleys
under the shadows of death and bled, and who lay
amongst the freshly killed and in fear of tears. Play dead. Those who have cried
cities, sobbed roads. In the name of
here and where they came from stand atop the
bridge water hall, and sing, I belong here. I belong. I bring my past. I bring my future. I bring my rights. And I bring my song. I stand atop the hacienda– it means house– and
sing, I belong here. I belong. Poets are like the temperature
gauge of a people, I believe. And that’s why those
poems, you know, were written at the Arab Spring. And that’s why poems
become national anthems. And that’s why poems
become Christmas carols. And that’s why poems
are read at funerals, because they’re a bridge between
the physical and the spiritual. Every range of
emotion you’ll get in one evening of spoken word,
from politics to heartbreak. Everything. That communal aspect of spoken
word or performance poetry, whatever you want to call
it, I think it’s lovely. It’s kind of how it all
began, is storytelling. Poetry has always
been a kind of gateway to discussion and
to inspiration. Yeah, it’s the
good stuff, poetry. I don’t know– I don’t know why it isn’t
on television every night. [MUSIC PLAYING]

9 Replies to “We Belong Here: poetry and spoken word documentary (Full length version)

  1. so heartfelt. ive sent a song to my son dibz n daughter sammy, ive now got to send one of these beautiful songs n poems to my other children. thank u so much for. this site where I can express how I feel towards them n my soul mate, and lover nick. thanks x

  2. I like the poem about Titanic. The film really does seem absurd when contrasted with the daily reality of people around the world. It doesn't seem like shimmery melodrama when you remember that it's very much real.

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