Festival preview: Kate Tempest
As the Mercury nominee heads to the Edinburgh book festival, fellow spoken word artist Luke Wright tells us why she's so impressive
This article is from 2015.
Luke Wright was impressed when he first saw Kate Tempest perform. As the years have passed audiences, critics and judges have joined him in being blown away by the London poet’s skills. Here, he pays tribute to her diverse talents
In autumn 2006, I did a gig at the OneTaste all dayer at The Bedford in Balham. The venue was rammed, with the audience pushing between rooms to take in a variety of singer-songwriters and poets (we didn’t call them ‘spoken-word artists’ back then). I joined the throng in search of new talent to programme for Latitude’s burgeoning poetry arena.
In a little upstairs room a teenage girl was gripping a microphone, clutching at her stomach, blonde curls hanging down in front of her face as she spat her words with venomous passion. In between poems, she looked at us dazed and a little nervous like she was coming up for air. It was almost too much. In fact it was too much: I couldn’t make out half the words through the ferocity of her flow and she wasn’t able to fully take the audience into her trance-like performance. But there was no doubt we were witnessing the raw ingredients of something very, very special indeed.
Afterwards, I joined the little crowd of well-wishers and gave MC Excentral Tempest my card (I know, right, get me: what a big shot) and told her to get in touch about Latitude. She never did. Of course not: she didn’t need to chase gigs, even back then. She came anyway, as part of a collective called A Poem In Between People and did a ten-minute ‘New Voice’ slot. That was 2007. By 2011, she was headlining the whole bill, playing to 1500 people crammed into every last corner of our modest tent. Thankfully, by then she’d dropped the ‘Excentral’ bit.
There are many strings to Kate’s bow. There’s the Mercury Prize-nominated album, Everybody Down (she was robbed mate!), a layered rap fable populated with complex, believable Londoners. There’s the Ted Hughes Award-winning ‘Brand New Ancients’, an epic, free-verse poem that works as well off the page as it does as part of a funk band-scored live show. There’s her two hugely popular plays, Wasted and Hopelessly Devoted, produced with top new-writing company Paines Plough. And then there’s the poetry collection, Hold Your Own, which explores the Tiresias myth through a series of (mostly) personal poems. It’s this that most interests me about her work.
I was lucky enough to spend a week with Kate in 2009 on an Arvon creative writing course I was teaching with Francesca Beard. By that time, we had gigged together a fair bit so when I was told she was going to be one of my students, I felt a bit embarrassed; sure, I was older, but did I have to teach this prodigious talent? I needn’t have worried; Kate was humble and eager to do any of the exercises I set. I did some work on sonnets, setting the group the task of writing a quatrain in ten minutes. When we read our results out, Kate had a whole Shakespearean sonnet and she nailed the couplet too!
I’ve always enjoyed Kate’s writing when she tames it for the page, and Hold Your Own is no disappointment. That’s why she was the first person Becky Fincham and I approached when we came to programme our second Babble On strand of spoken-word events for the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Kate will be doing two events: a performance and an in-conversation hour with her editor Don Paterson. You should come and see what all the fuss is about.
Kate Tempest with Don Paterson, 18 Aug, 8.15pm, £10 (£8); Kate Tempest, 19 Aug, 8.15pm, £10 (£8); both events at Charlotte Square Gardens, 0845 373 5888;
Luke Wright: What I Learned from Johnny Bevan, Summerhall, 0131 560 1581, 8–30 Aug (not 18), 4.55pm, £12 (£10). Preview 7 Aug, £6;
Luke Wright: Stay-at-Home Dandy, Underbelly, Cowgate, 0844 545 8252, 8–30 Aug (not 18), 6.20pm, £10–£11 (£9–£10). Previews 6 & 7 Aug, £6.