Kate Tempest: the poetry after the storm

Tempest was a misfit teen until she found hip hop and a love for words. As an artist, she’s the real deal

Kate Tempest: the first person under 40 to win the Ted Hughes Award for innovation in poetry

Kate Tempest: the first person under 40 to win the Ted Hughes Award for innovation in poetry

 

Impoverished urban background? Check. Misspent youth? Check. Salvation through love of music? Check. Such box-ticking comes across as the traditional story of how art can save your world, but in Kate Tempest’s case, there’s a twist: this 27-year-old, southeast Londoner channels her experiences (some not at all pretty) as instruments of energy and insight.

Think Mike Skinner of The Streets channelling the lines of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, mixing and matching metaphors and sliding similes throughout topics that touch on consumerism, sex and the class system via a delivery that is, to understate it, vigorously expressed.

Last year, Tempest (whose real surname is Calvert) became the first person under 40 to win the Ted Hughes Award for innovation in poetry. She won for her theatrical spoken- story Brand New Ancients, which mixes classical mythology with contemporary socio-realist themes.

 

A great debut record

A couple of months ago, she released her widely acclaimed solo debut album Everybody Down, a concept work about friends falling in and out of love. There is an indisputable sense that she is the real deal, a person wholly adept at filtering out the fluff and getting to the heart and soul of the issue at hand.

Words, she says, are everything to her; she cannot recall one pivotal moment she could choose as the inspiration for her love of them.

“I know it might sound a bit luvvie, but I feel words have been with me forever. I’ve always been connected with reading, writing, stories and poetry. I just remember enjoying reading in a particular way and falling in love with lyrics at a very young age.

“My dad listened to a lot of Bob Dylan, and I would look at the way he would listen to Dylan’s words. When I got to the age of 14, I knew that words were something I wanted to have with me for the rest of my life, and dedicate my life to. At the time that seemed such an unrealistic goal.”

Tempest’s teenage years were, for the most part, lived under an invisibility cloak, she says. A misfit teen with an unquenchable thirst for the solitude of books and the excitement of music, the arrival into her world of hip-hop completely changed her outlook on life.

By her own admission, her early-mid teens were wayward, but just how wayward?

“It’s hard to talk about your teenage years without certain events being sensationalised or taken out of context,” she begins cautiously, presumably conscious of a rogue headline.

“Let’s put it this way: I was hit by the gravity of a few events. As a teenager, you’re finding out things about yourself and life, and it’s a strange time. I didn’t really have much time for school or education or authority of any sort.

“That’s pretty standard stuff for a teenager, I know, but the difference was that, while I was watching lots of bad things happening around me through those years, I realised I wanted more for myself. I wanted to be the kind of person who was dedicated to a craft of some kind.

“So, yes, we got up to mischief. And yes, a lot of things happened, but those years and experiences formed the way I feel about things and write. It was also a beautiful time, because it forced me to engage with my creativity in a particular way. Is that answer evasive enough for you?”

Indeed, and so eloquently delivered. Does she regret any of the mischief she got up to? Or were the experiences all leading up to an informed, insightful world view?

“Definitely the latter. You have to get a lot wrong before you realise you’d rather get things right, and so you look back and everything seems to fall into a bizarre chain of events. That’s life, isn’t it? To answer your first question, I try not to cultivate regrets. Accentuate the positive, you know?”

 

The school years

As for her school years, Tempest says that she was never into poetry back then. It’s slightly different for school-going teenagers now, she reckons, because some teachers use YouTube clips of poets – performance or otherwise – to engage and connect pupils with the form.

“For so many kids, poetry – even if they’re the most wonderful and beautiful [poems] in the world – is just dead words on a page.”

She isn’t bothered about not connecting with poetry at school. What’s the big hurry?

“Poetry is, or can be, quite complicated – and I don’t mean that it’s difficult to grasp in a highbrow way. I mean the feelings, emotions and themes touched upon in poetry. Feelings and emotions will find you when you need them to find you. We turn to poetry in times of love and grief and many other things. If you’re 14 and you’re sitting an exam, those themes can be quite difficult to get your head around.”

We wonder where she would be if words hadn’t come along. Tempest wonders too. Perhaps it’s too ridiculous a notion to contemplate for the woman who has said she wants to talk to the people who don’t want to listen.

“I can’t imagine what my life would be like without words. I think that, if things hadn’t worked out the way it has, I’d still be writing but no one would be reading it or listening to it. Doesn’t matter – I’d still be doing it.”

Kate Tempest performs at Set Theatre, Kilkenny, on August 9, as part of Kilkenny Arts Festival. kilkennyarts.ie. Her album, Everybody Down, is on Ninja Tune. Her novelisation of Everybody Down will be published by Bloomsbury next year

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