images.ashxPerformance poet, rapper, playwright – Kate Tempest is a lot of literary things. 

Though she rouses backroom bars and festival stages with her spoken word, pens plays and releases albums with her band Sound of Rum, it’s probably best to keep it simple. She’s a writer.

‘I never wanted to be a performance poet, I never wanted to be a rapper or a novelist or a playwright,’ she confesses from her hotel room in Sydney. ‘I wanted to write. I just wanted to make work – better work tomorrow than I made yesterday.’

So far she’s lived up to that ideal. Tempest’s body of work has steadily improved since she started rapping in London streets a decade ago, culminating in last month’s triumph in the prestigious Ted Hughes Poetry Award.

‘People can’t dismiss me as quickly as they did before,’ she says in her raspy South London accent. ‘“Oh she’s one of those performance poets, it’s all angst and dramatics” and “Oh she’s got a rap voice” – they can’t dismiss it – Brand New Ancients won a poetry prize, which is a big deal.’

It is a big deal. Established in 2009, the Ted Hughes Award honours a living UK poet who has produced the most innovative work during the year. Voted on by members of the Poetry Society and Poetry Book Society, the £5000 prize comes directly from the money Carol Ann Duffy, the British Poet Laureate, receives from the Queen.

That’s a pretty significant seal of approval and the judges lauded her work, Brand New Ancients. The hour long spoken word performance, backed by a live orchestra, makes holy the ordinary lives of two London families, framing them in a mythological struggle.

With lines like ‘The gods are at the doctors, they just need a little something for the stress/the gods are in the toilets having unprotected sex’, her works propose an everyday divinity. By exalting dole bludgers and council workers alike, she reminds her audience of the humanity inherent to everyone.

The judges of the award stated she ‘has created here an ambitious, unforgettable mythology and made us look at the world afresh. Kate’s work is full of promise for the future of poetry.’

You rarely hear that kind of kudos heaped on someone that leaves school at 16, but it demonstrates how differently people learn and how the gifted discover tutelage everywhere.

For Tempest, her love of literature entwined itself with her immersion into hip-hop culture, something as conspicuous in her work as a rapper’s love of jewels. While auto-didactically devouring Blake, Yeats and Joyce, she pursued another curriculum in South London streets, her weekly tutorials at open mic nights at hip-hop store Deal Real’s, her favourite professor the Wu Tang Clan’s GZA.

‘It was a strange time, I don’t know what motivated me to do the things that I did but I was very determined,’ she remembers, laughing. ‘I used to go up to strangers and say, “Do you spit bars? Do you rap?” Not even! I just went up to people who I thought looked like they might and starting rapping. I’d like to say there was a higher calling, but I think I was just obsessed.’

It’s hard to imagine Tempest, a pale, curly haired white girl unleashing her lyrical styling on unsuspecting pedestrians, especially when she reveals she had ‘really low self-esteem’.

‘I liked to be a bit invisible, not be the centre of attention or anything, but when I saw a microphone or a stage, I wanted to be on it,’ she explains.  ‘I’d go up and people would be like “What the fuck is happening? What’re you doing here?” but then the room would change and I really liked that feeling.’

Fortunately for Tempest, she’s an exceptional lyricist, and her works struck a chord in audiences. Now when she goes on stage and performs, ‘everyone settles into a much more human space’. If you need evidence of that human connection, browse the comments below her YouTube clips.

‘Gives me goosebumps and tears every time. So powerful’ says Eva Dalmaijer, while user Rachel Clarke suggests that ‘She is more eloquent than half the population.’ Gimik Beats offers, ‘This girl is a genius. Her words make me proud to be from this generation again.’

Tempest is Generation, Y – the apparently demonic demographic of delinquents, routinely portrayed in the media as akin to a mob of London rioters. But she pens their portrait with far more clarity than CCTV stills can capture, presenting a generation as reverent as they are reviled.

In Teen’s Speech she lends her lyrical ability to the subject of youth:

Cause its depicted as so glamorous, now we’re amorous for scandalous accounts of teenage parents, young addictions, dysfunctions or depictions of the violence rampant on our country’s streets, we’ve objectified the youth so we don’t hear them when we speak.

On stage she’s as electrifying as her namesake and larger than her stature, yet inevitably, the potency of Tempest’s delivery is lost on the page; its metre misplaced, its tempo trampled.

This is something that she’s considering as she prepares an e-book of poems to be published by Picador next year. ‘It’s fascinating, I’ve been working with Don Patterson, who is an incredible poet, and he’s helping me think about the page, see the possibilities of a line break. He said to me, “You can’t perform a semi-colon”.’

Contrary to performance poetry, where ‘you learn the conventions in your mouth and ear’, writing for the page is ‘a bit more serious’. The differences between performing and the page was apparent to Tempest when she self-published Everything Speaks in its Own Way, a printed collection of her spoken word accompanied by a CD and live DVD.

‘Poems that began their life as raps were written down, you can read them and hang out with them, but if I took each point that I was getting at and rewrote them for the page, they’d probably be more successful on the page.’

Not that she’s inexperienced with different forms of writing. She’s previously written a play called Wasted, which The Guardian gave 4 stars, and she’s just written a novel – in a week by the English seaside.

‘I feel like all the writing I’d been doing in journals and notebooks, on the back of receipts, everything up until that point had all been for this week to write this novel,’ she says. ‘The story ties in all the work that I’ve ever done, which is all about South London.’

While following so many writing pursuits might cause literary schizophrenia in some, Tempest believes that it’s like ‘exercising a muscle doing lots of different forms’, which in turns makes the ‘writing thicker’.

Those muscles are bulging, and they’ve taken Tempest to the stage of 500-seat theatres, Yale University classrooms to host workshops and writers festivals around the world, including this year’s Sydney Writers Festival. As she graduates from the grimy backroom bars, wins awards and takes her work worldwide, we wonder how literary fame is affecting her.

‘I don’t really think about it – all that stuff is dangerous cause it’s not real,’ she says. ‘The world is the world and there’s a lot going on with it. There’s so much to learn and feel… I hope I’m on a life journey with my work.’

That journey looks set to explore new places after the completion of her novel. ‘I had to get that out of my system because it’s [about] home and there’s a lot of love and pain, this novel closes that South London period – I can write about the rest of the world.’

So while her future looks set to continue brightening, we wondered how she felt about the future of poetry. After all, the judges of the Ted Hughes Award believe her work holds promise for its future.

‘What’s really exciting is that poetry can save people’s lives, forever people have been finding real peace in poetry. I think that poetry’s future will look like poetry’s past, it will just carry on and be this very beautiful part of humanity, which can help us deal with our humanity and in the best cases help us exceed our humanity,’ she answers.

‘There are kids now who want to be poets, they find out about performance poetry stuff and they’re doing it, they’re writing poems and out performing them, it’s so amazing and that’s promising for the future of poetry.’

To find out more about Kate Tempest, head to her website or the Bloomsbury site.

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