This One's for the Poets: In Conversation with Harry Baker
By Aqdas Fatima
Image courtesy of list.co.uk
Harry Baker is a world-renowned mathematician-turned-slam-poet, and more importantly, the poetry slam champion in Kent. His work ranges from heartfelt poetry, to music, to an obscure comedy-jazz performance duo. He was kind enough to take out some time to discuss his views on the ever-evolving phenomenon of spoken-word, comedy, aliens, and more with InQuire's Aqdas Fatima.
Aqdas Fatima: How do you exactly define spoken word and what do you think is the reason behind it becoming an increasingly popular form of poetic expression?
Harry Baker: When I first attended a spoken word session, I loved how varied it could be as a genre; it can be funny, it can be serious, and it can be heart breaking. It’s just people on a stage sharing their words and there’s a feeling that these days we’re less connected to each other-whether that’s technology or politics or whatever it is-but I think there’s something about performance that people feel connected to. For me, spoken word has always been about connecting with people, whether that’s by making them laugh or giving them goose bumps. Spoken word is about sharing your experience whether serious or funny. I think there’s a certain expectation from slam poetry or spoken word-it’s always very angsty, angry and political. But one of the things I love about Speakeasy is that we have an open mic session which can be about politics, but it can also be people sharing very personal things. I think there’s a range there, there is a chance to be political but also to be whimsical if you want, or to be poignant, or surreal and absurd. For me, that’s where the beauty lies, when you can have someone who by their very nature is sharing something personal.
AF: Considering you studied maths at university, do you think outlets such as this allow for creative freedom that goes beyond what is traditional, making it more accessible to people with all sorts of interests, or is that coincidental?
HB: For me, writing and performing started as a fun thing on the side. I loved being able to go out to open mic nights and not to have had studied it for 5 years to be able to get on a stage. For me, poetry slams especially, have been a way of opening up to anyone-and if you’re happy to get up and perform then people will be happy to listen to you. We also have a huge range of voices, in terms of age, background and experience, and I think, at least for me, when I started to get to perform alongside some of my heroes so quickly, it was a very inspiring thing. Similarly, if you’ve never thought about performing before and you go along and see people doing it for the first time, it’s a very encouraging thing to be a part of-I used to love that. So, even though I was studying maths, I had this secret poetry life on the side. Having the background in maths feels like it’s something different; I didn’t want to just become a poet writing poems about being a poet.
AF: From personal experience or otherwise, is there any specific advice you think aspiring slam poets should receive?
HB: I think for me, the crucial thing was that when I started, I just loved it-any chance to share my words felt like such a privilege. It didn’t matter whether there were many people that listened or that I won a slam competition, it wasn’t like it needed to go well for it to be worth it. If you can enjoy the journey of it, then anything else that comes about is a bonus, and I have always tried to hold on to that. That’s why I love doing Speakeasy-because I get to see people at different points in their journey. The headliners we get are professionals who have been doing it for years, and then we have people who are performing for the first time on stage, and they are on the same stage being welcomed by the same audience.
AF: Moving to the comedy-jazz-rap duo, how would you best explain this act and what was the inspiration behind it?
HB: So, Chris and I started off performing in the spoken word section, and the overwhelming response we got was that people were surprised at how funny it was-and that’s just because we have been best friends for twenty years. Even when we were doing serious pieces, we would be mucking about on stage in between, so it was a very jovial atmosphere. Off the back of that, a comedy agency came to our show and asked if we would think about putting it in the comedy section of the programme. For me, I have always enjoyed taking my words and my work through a process where people wouldn’t always expect to hear what I say. Whilst I love spoken word and poetry, there are still a lot of people who don’t know what to expect from it. I love doing the same thing in a comedy show, because people come in expecting to laugh, and then suddenly it feels like a powerful twist when you can also have the really poignant moments in amongst it. It also works the other way around; a lot of people come to poetry nights expecting to be moved, and then are surprised when they laugh. The show at the Gulbenkian still comes from the same place of us being really good friends and writing songs together, but having had a few years of experience in the comedy scene as well as in the poetry scene, it feels like it’s the funniest show we’ve done in terms of the narrative and the structure.
AF: What do you think people will be able to take away from something like this, or rather, what would you want them to?
HB: So, the title for this year’s show is “This One’s for the Aliens”. We’ve always tried to write uplifting songs, and it felt like at the moment, a lot of shows we were seeing were quite cynical and angry. We wanted to try and find things in the world that are worth celebrating. Not to dismiss all the hardship that goes on, but amongst that we were trying to find something joyful. So, the way we framed it is that if we were trying to attract alien life to earth-because who knows how soon that would be possible-what would they see when they looked down on us. If they just see people fighting, they might not want to come down at all. And so, if we could give an alternative, like through an intergalactic PI, how would we do that. The show starts off very playfully with us doing a Eurovision song to try and bring people together, and then it becomes a bit more serious, talking about things like what it means to be treated as an alien. Mostly it’s just trying to have that joyfulness and celebratory tone. We want people to leave the show feeling hopeful and feeling happy, as well as having a good laugh!
Catch Harry Baker hosting his monthly spoken word night at the Gulbenkian. The next one is happening on 5 of December 2019. His show with his best friend Chris also comes to the stage on 30 of November 2019. Hurry to grab your tickets!
This article is part of our one-off edition of IQ Magazine, out from November the 29th 2019. Pick up the magazine on campus in our InQuire distribution bins in Keynes, Co-op, the Templeman library and other locations on campus.