Tim King wouldn’t describe himself as the Father of the ‘Poetry Plus’ House in the south west, but I would. And you’d be hard pushed to find anybody that disagreed. Bard of Exeter, multiple slam champion and much loved host of Exeter’s most popular poetry/spoken word night, Taking the Mic, at Exeter Phoenix, he has been supporting up-and-coming talent while managing his own successful career as a performance poet, in his trademark red plaid shirt since, well, forever. He was the eagerly anticipated headliner at April’s Poetry in the Pub, but wiht lockdown putting paid to our plans, I caught up with him, digitally:
Hi Tim, thanks for agreeing to answer some questions.
It’s my pleasure – thank you for asking!
I have to start by asking how you are finding lockdown? Is it affecting your creativity?
I’m missing seeing people but I have plenty to keep me busy. I have a heightened sense of a need for human contact which may feed into my work in the near future – I have the desire to do something which takes the words out of poetry and communicates through the more universal music of breath and voice alone. Meanwhile, I’m running my monthly open mic online, which feels a little odd because it’s such a different (and very much poorer) environment. I’m concerned that folk might get the idea that Zoom meetings convey the full flavour of Spoken Word. I’m also feeling a little guilty that I’m having a comparatively easy time. That said, I’ve had a lot of paying work cancelled, so I can’t feel too guilty! I’m finding it hard to settle into a creative frame of mind. Fortunately I have lots of projects on the go for which the main creative input is already in place, so I’m plodding through those. I don’t expect to run out of things to keep me occupied for many months.The bardship is something of a mixed blessing during lock-down as I’d planned to leverage my year-long tenure to further my performance career. I find having to do things digitally quite challenging. For me, the visceral connection of live performance is definitely what it’s all about.
How would you describe what you do?
I’m a poet, writer, performer, host and educator, with a focus on encouraging others to embrace the freedoms of Spoken Word. My work has different strands, so, for example, I see hosting events as quite separate to performing or writing.
As a host my role is to make everyone as comfortable and relaxed as possible, whereas my job as a writer has far more to do with pushing boundaries (my own and the audience’s) and not being afraid to make people uncomfortable.
As a performer, my role is twofold: to engage the audience (because if they’re not paying attention, all my effort is wasted) and to serve the work. This can be tricky if the work is edgy but I’m also hosting the event. Over the years I’ve come to regard my performances at events I’m hosting as “sacrificial” in nature – not exactly throwaway, but subservient to the necessarily genial role of host. A few of my pieces are total
no-go areas when I’m hosting, which is partly why I was so looking forward to getting out and about and doing some more feature sets this year.
As an educator, I seek to reveal the simple truth that pretty much anyone can write and perform poetry; so long as they allow themselves to say what they really want to say and to ignore those parts of themselves that insist things should be done in a particular manner (often one which they haven’t mastered yet and possibly never will).
What unites all of these strands is a desire to connect, enable and (potentially) heal. I should add that none of this is remotely selfless. In common with the rest of humanity, I am, to an extent, disconnected, disabled and operationally sub-optimal.
Do you write in genres other than poetry?
I write in other situations. I’m not sure poetry (or, for that matter, arguing with trolls on Quora, which I also do a fair amount of) is necessarily a genre. I’m currently in the midst of writing a pseudo-textbook about the science of climate change. It’s specifically aimed at people who don’t like science, primarily as a kind of immunisation against climate change denialism. I think it’s important to understand what is happening to the planet, how we know it’s happening and where it could lead. A lot of vested interests are working against that.
It’s fun trying to crystallise that understanding in ways that resonate with non-academic and non-mathematical mindsets. There are lots of simple experiments to underlie key principles and concretisations of big numbers involved. It’s also a challenge because I won’t dumb it down and refuse to shy away from the fundamental processes that underlie the change we’re living through. So I’m attempting to consider lots of hard science in an approachable way; the vaguely spiritual First Law of Thermodynamics, Quantum Mechanics, Chaos Theory, cosmology, the strange behaviour of water, etcetera.
Do you find there are themes that you return to in your work? Do you have a favourite word or words?
I like to use words in combination, so probably the answer should be no. That said, I was delighted to discover the word transpicuous a few years back and I sometimes enjoy inventing words – clervidity is one of mine. I also like “got” and “nice” because they’re simple and direct and I feel sorry for them. Essentially words are intricately elaborated grunts. It seems a bit weird to fetishise them.
I grew up on a blue-collar council estate just North of London in the 60s and 70s. The culture was fairly toxic but the people were, by and large, innocent. Experience colours everything. Recurrent themes in my work include; absurd formal constraints, child sexual abuse, all forms of prejudice and social justice. I suspect the formal constraints often serve as a metaphor for the other themes. I also use rhyme a fair amount – partly because I enjoy it but also because it has an innate musicality; soothing and relaxing the listener and creating fertile ground for more challenging messages to take root. The original lyric to Rock-a-bye-Baby exemplifies my approach… or, more correctly, one of my approaches.
One of the key rules I’ve made for myself is that anything I make public has to have initially delighted and surprised me in some way. So I continually try to step out of my comfort zone to keep things fresh – invent new constraints or experiment with forms I’ve not worked with before. Once it becomes too familiar it’s time to move on. Of course, my delight may not transfer to anybody else but unless the work moves me in some way it seems foolish to expect others to be touched by it.
Even so, I still perform lots of older material. The act of recreation in performance is always new.
Do you think there’s a difference between poetry and spoken word? Does it matter?
I’d say spoken word is a subset of poetry. It’s different from other forms because it’s primarily intended for “the moment”. This means it needs to be readily accessible in one hit; there’s no possibility of leafing back through the text to find our bearings. Density and subtlety may give way to repetition and insistent rhythm and rhyme. There’s something hypnotic and almost shamanistic about spoken word. The physical presence of the speaker is at least as important as what is being said. That transcendent embodiment of the work is unique to the performing arts.
It matters to the extent that giving full expression to what it means to be a living, breathing human being, matters. That’s not to denigrate other forms of expression. I guess it matters in the same way that a certain frequency of sound or colour of the spectrum matters. We’re richer for it, but had it never been there we’d probably have found other ways to fill the gap. Of course, it has always been there, so it matters in the sense that it connects us to our roots, way back into prehistoric times.
I think that I came to writing, finally, because I realized there was a power in it.
This is a fairly abstract question, but what do you think ‘Poetry’ is?
The meticulous curation of words.
Are there elements that can help to make a ‘good’ poem?
An arresting first line. A strong conclusion. A mind-altering journey in between. Editing. A lack of waffle. Maybe a waffle iron. Something that puts a picture into someone else’s head – or permanently erases one that has been there for a long time. Discipline. Structure. Freedom. The element of surprise. An unassailable truth.
Has anybody inspired you in your writing along the way?
Lots of people from all sorts of places. Initially I was very drawn to the lyrics of singer/songwriters during the 1960s: John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Ray Davies. Later Bowie, Marc Bolan, Kate Bush and Aimee Mann. I always loved Spike Milligan, Philip Larkin (with reservations), Ivor Cutler, John Betjeman and that Shakespeare chap. John Hegley, John Cooper-Clarke, Liv Torc, Matt Harvey. The list is virtually endless. One of the first things that really inspired me to write was hearing a very clever but utterly appalling racist verse as a child. I won’t repeat it, but I was struck by its power and ability to lodge in my brain. I wanted to create something equally powerful to rebut it. I still do.
Have you had to overcome any barriers in order to write?
Only myself. Everyone who writes has to get over themselves and learn to see their situation as simultaneously both unique and ordinary. They also have to give themselves permission to write without judgement. It’s an ongoing process. It’s also important to feel it’s okay not to write sometimes. Writer’s block thrives on the notion that it’s imperative to write something. It really isn’t. Let it go.
You’ve performed in all sorts of arenas and encouraged others to perform, do you enjoy it? What do you think makes a good performance?
I love performing! I think a good performance comes from a number of things; composure, clarity, self-awareness, lack of self-consciousness, pace and rhythm, fluidity, connection with the material, caring more about the material than the possibility of appearing foolish, awareness of and responsiveness to the audience, energy. And fortitude!
Is there a piece of advice that somebody has given you that has been particularly helpful or do you have your own that you pass on?
It’s not so much advice as encouragement that I pass on, but I do often tell people that they’re already brilliant at communicating, that they’ve been doing it effectively since they were born and there’s absolutely no reason to doubt their skill with language. I then usually set them an impossible task which they succeed in brilliantly!
My great poetry friend, James Turner, says, “don’t take any notice of other people’s advice!”
Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Kate Bush (it’s my dream and yes, it’s a very small party).
Fair enough! Can you tell us a joke?
Q. Why is a moth fluttering around a candle like a five bar gate?
A. Because if it keeps on it singes its wings.
Ha, ha, ha! And a secret?
I’ve spent an evening at Sting’s secret Tuscan villa.
Ysella Sims is a poet and writer. She has had work published in Brittle Star, The Blue Nib and The Guardian and has just moved to an awkward, falling-down house outside Exeter where she co-hosts Poetic Licence:Poetry in the Pub.