When I was around 15 or 16, I heard a track on Radio 2. It was unlike anything I’d encountered before.There was no singing, yet it wasn’t recognisably rap music. Rather, someone was speaking words over an acoustic funk groove, telling us that The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. At this point, I knew nothing about Gil Scott-Heron and I didn’t understand the majority of his references. Nonetheless, in a little over three minutes, it had shown me something that I didn’t know could be done with words, a relentless stream of passion. When I was at university, I bought the album featuring the track. This was a good 10 years or so before I started to write poetry. But together with the first two albums by The Streets, my mind was stretched in a different direction. Fast forward to the present day, and I’m more selective about what I enjoy and more critical of what I hear. However, these eye-opening moments still happen every so often. Last week, I went to an event in Birmingham held by Out-Spoken Press. I’d initially heard about this through Harry Josephine Giles, who rotated the book while reading from it. I bought it afterwards, and I could see why. The words curled, or were set vertically, or were occasionally run together in a massive heap, whereas it would never have occurred to me to do anything other than start a new line. Birmingham is a more multicultural place than where I’m from, and racism is something that Anthony Anaxagorou tackles head-on, just as Scott-Heron did in the 1970s. Meanwhile, Ollie O’Neill spoke frankly about her experience of Britain’s mental healthcare system, a common theme among poets. Unfortunately, neither of their books are published until next year, so I’ll have to wait. However far my writing career goes, I don’t want to turn into one of these idiots who think they know it all and who stop learning or who taking constructive criticism on board. I want these moments to keep happening to me, the ones that hit me like Gil Scott-Heron did when I was a teenager.
There’s a group of ageing Hollywood actors who appear to have given up learning their craft. They might have been a hot ticket in town 30 years ago, but now they turn up in forgettable films, probably thinking only of the paycheck.
For as long as I write and perform spoken word, I never want to slip into this mentality. I always want to be able to look at other poets – and folks in other creative fields – and take something from their work that hadn’t occurred to me.
To chart my progress so far, I need to go back to the Millennium, years before I began writing. This was when I first heard the Gil Scott Heron track The Revolution Will Not Be Televised on the radio.
I’d never heard anything like it, this relentless and repetitive stream of consciousness with cultural and political references I only half understood. It opened my eyes to what can be done with words. I eventually bought the whole album on vinyl, and it’s of an equally high standard.
Another early influence was Original Pirate Material, the debut album by The Streets, and its follow-up A Grand Don’t Come for Free. I was at university at this time and whenever I listen to these, I’m transported back there.
Looking back, I can now spot weak points in the lyrics, but I particularly admire the concept album structure of the latter. There are two other major releases by The Streets that followed these, but I’ve never liked them as much as the first two.
These days, I continue to be influenced by those I’ve seen and heard: the humour of John Cooper Clarke, the forthrightness of Andrea Gibson, the politics of Alan Bissett.
I recently attended two performances by my friend Gemma Connell, who’s a dancer. But as well as movements, she made prolonged eye contact and even brief physical contact with members of the audience. And last week, I once again saw Luke Wright, who gave an energetic performance of What I Learned from Johnny Bevan. I’m now asking myself how can I make an audience feel the same way as I did, but using my own words.
Of course, there comes a point where I can have too much creative input and I think I’ve reached that stage now. So I’m going to let it settle, then start writing my own original pirate material.
If there’s one thing that keeps me awake at night, it’s subconscious plagiarism. It was reported this week that Ed Sheeran is being sued by two songwriters as he allegedly copied their work, and it’s always in the back of my mind that however original I think I am, there’s a chance I’ve accidentally remembered words from elsewhere.
At its most extreme, it can leave a person’s reputation damaged. In 2015, poet Sheree Mack was accused by some of ‘wholesale plagiarism’ of other poets’ work, although she denied it was deliberate.
But if you like another poet’s work, there are legitimate ways to reference them.
Writing After, then naming the poet
It’s a convention in poetry that you can credit someone else using this format. Let’s say I wanted to credit a certain political poet from the 1980s, I might write:
Nigel at B&Q
After Attila the Stockbroker
Nigel wants to go to B&Q,
but there’s Isis fighters all round the bathroom department.
Nigel doesn’t like Isis fighters.
Bear in mind this is not a licence to copy that poet word for word; you should be responding to their work, updating it, making your own interpretation, &c.
Using a title
In the majority of cases, it’s all right to use a title, particularly if the word can be found in a dictionary. A quick look at Wikipedia offers a whole list of instances of the title Life.
However, be wary if the title is very distinctive, as it can seem as though you’re capitalising on the other person’s success. If you used the title Evidently Chickentown but your work was completely different, a lot of John Cooper Clarke fans would be unhappy.
Imitating a structure
Unless a structure is so closely associated with one particular poet, it’s fair game to emulate a structure as long as you’re saying your own thing. When I wrote Purple, I was going through a Luke Wright phase, so I borrowed the structure of Bloody Hell, It’s Barbara for the last section:
Excerpt from Purple
You’re always dressed in gingham checks
and Oakley specs, and round your neck
those headphones: Oh, I do love Beck.
Large as life, it’s you.
Here, the words are totally different from Wright’s, but would fit a similar metrical pattern.
General themes and ideas
Many people are familiar with the Allen Ginsberg poem Howl and the Gil Scott Heron track The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. The two works touch upon the same themes: disaffected youth, race relations, rebellion, &c. Both also make heavy use of repetition.
It is possible that Scott Heron was influenced by Ginsberg, as his work was written 15 years later, but despite the described similarities, there is no way that one could be accused of copying the other.
It must have been about fifteen or so years ago that I was listening to a portable radio – perhaps tuned to Radio 2 – and the DJ played an incredible track. It was simply a wall of words shouted by an incredulous, angry voice. I caught the name of the artist: one Gil Scott-Heron with his poem The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.
I use the word poem very deliberately, as that’s how he wrote it. It contains many of the elements of performance poetry, being light on metaphor but heavy on wordplay. Today, it would probably be classed as rap because it also embodies many of the hallmarks of a modern rap track, with repetitive backing music and rapid spoken words.
Even if you don’t remember the racial tensions of the 1970s, he conveys the spirit of the time in just over three minutes. I also have the rest of the eponymous album on vinyl. If you seek it out, do listen for Whitey On The Moon as well.
I was just as surprised listening to Radio 1 in 2002 as some ska-like sounds started to play. The trumpets of Let’s Push Things Forward made me a fan of The Streets for their first two albums. I recommend avoiding the last two, as Mike Skinner appeared to have run out of ideas by then.
His first CD Original Pirate Material (OPM) was hailed as ‘Shakespeare for clubbers’ as he spoke about urban life in the UK, painting an uneasy sense of civil unrest bubbling under the surface. For this, the BBC also made the comparison to Never Mind the Bollocks, an unfair comparison because Skinner is far more intelligent than that.
For a start, each track on OPM quotes a lyric from another track, while his second album A Grand Don’t Come For Free is a proper concept album, each track adding a little more to the story arc. Between the machine-gunning internal rhymes, Skinner also surprises with the beautiful ballads It’s Too Late and Dry Your Eyes.
Even when you move past the radio-friendly Skip to The Good Bit and Put Your Two’s Up there isn’t a duff track among them. I Love You More Than You Think is about unrequited love, while Me Around You explores the awkwardness of acting normally around an ex-girlfriend. It’s hard for lads to talk about things like that, yet they acknowledge this difficulty while expressing themselves in such a fluent way.
The point I’m trying to make is that not all rap should be dismissed as rubbish spouted by overpaid bigheads. If you know where to look, there is some good quality writing out there that we can all learn from. At the very least, it can help bring on the right mood or give just a small suggestion to expand upon. I openly admit that poetry is my weak point, so I mainly listen in awe of how these artists construct their words and phrasing.
Of course, inspiration can come from the strangest of sources. I have a short story that came from watching an RSPB advert, and a poem that was helped along by Corona’s dance track Try Me Out.
And that’s a wrap.