[Verb]swish: Inspiring Writers, Pithy Statements & The J Word

With an art form as over-subscribed as Spoken Word, amidst all the have-a-go’s and blaggers the listener can become disenchanted and hard to impress. That’s where [Verb]swish – Richard Smartt Jnr to his mum – comes in.  His distinctive delivery, erudition and seemingly effortless wordplay are a welcome reminder that exceptional performance poetry is still alive and kicking. SoulCulture caught up with one of London’s brightest poetic stars.

SoulCulture: Which writers would you say have had the greatest impact on your work?
narnia[Verb]swish: I’d say CS Lewis was one of my (literary) staples. His approach to writing, his scholarship. My first Lewis books were the Narnia ones when I was about 10 or 11. Around that time I was acting in plays at the National Theatre. I started to get curious about this whole idea of having a stage to create a whole new world that would go away when the curtain comes down. CS Lewis created a whole new world in a cupboard (The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe)! At 11 years old that’s a big deal. Lewis is very honest as well. There’s one book in particular called ‘The Four Loves’ – the four different kinds of love (according to the categorisations in Ancient Greece – God’s Love, Familial Love, Love between Friends and Sexuality). None of them are the romanticised Hollywood view of love. Lewis was from the UK as well and you start to realise there’s this massive tradition of UK writers. I suppose because I’ve been influenced so much by American pop culture I [initially] looked to that as my frame of reference.

gil scott-heron vultureIn terms of other writers who have influenced me… Gil Scott-Heron; his approach to writing, not so much content but in form. He has written books; they are not widely cited because a lot of people only think about ‘The Revolution’. It’s interesting… I came to Spoken Word really not liking it very much because I thought it was a bit of a bandwagon… the whole ‘revolution’ thing. For me getting involved in Poetry and Hip Hop, it was a question of, “What would it look like if the artist didn’t focus so much on what we know they can do; what would it be like if they tried to create a world for me to live in for an hour?” And there are artists who have done that… Mos Def, Talib Kweli… That’s who I grew up with. As writers they all influenced me.

I would say my favourite writer would be Robert Frost. On my Facebook there is a line I’ve taken from ‘The Road Not Taken’…which is a poem about decision and individualism. It’s really fantastic. I like it when things are done crisply. I started becoming interested in rhyme via Hip Hop and lately I’m even more interested in how people like Frost have used different kinds of rhyme and different kinds of meter and form. That’s something that’s grown; I haven’t always cared. You’ll hear this, I suppose, in my art. I like to take a bunch of stuff throw it together in the blender and see what comes out in a collage style.

SoulCulture: What about the Books that have shaped you and your craft?
There’s a book called ‘How To Read A Book’ by Mortimer Adler. The premise is there are so many great books out there but not enough time. What’s the best way to appreciate the ones that need to be read? I read far more practical books than I would read fiction. That’s been a great book because it focuses on the purpose of reading, how to get it read and get something from it. I’d also say, in terms of stories, if it translates well to film I tend to like it. So watching something like The Count Of Monte Cristo, I want to know who Alexander Dumas is and why is this such a great and interesting read?

SoulCulture: What was the genesis of you becoming a writer?
When I was about ten I wrote a short story that had more pages than I had years. It was probably really bad. I think it was a dramatisation of a fairy tale so the arc of narrative was already there for me. Then when I was about 11, the poem ‘If’ [by Rudyard Kipling] came along. It totally blew my mind. We had to learn this piece and perform it and you could win a prize. I think in some ways everything I’ve liked since then has been an extension of that. Assured encouragement that was…just wise. You couldn’t refute it and say, that man’s talking rubbish. That became a standard for what good communication ought to be. Performing at the National Theatre also helped me see what was possible.

mis-education-of-the-negro-carter-g-woodsonFast forward a few years of conformism…I started seeking empowerment as you do at University. There’s a book called ‘The Miseducation of The Negro People’ by Carter D Woodson that I read in 2003. It’s just a re-analysis of African-American history and the idea of conditioning. I was (eventually) able to appreciate it regarding conditioning in general. But being African Caribbean Society president for a couple of years, I was more interested at the time in (the effect it had on) black people. That sparked off a whole search for meaning.

Whilst I was at university I was finding my degree, Computer Science, quite mechanistic. I struggled with it. At the same time this poetry interest came in. A lot of physical things will happen that will foreshadow some spiritual awakening. I started thinking beyond the religion you’ve just been handed to by your parents. I started reading the bible, asking some questions about why it is I’m here. There was also a bunch of people around that helped me to ask some really interesting questions about what it is to be free.

SoulCulture: Let’s talk methodology – what’s your creative process?
In 2002 Lauryn Hill said, “The real you is more interesting than the fake somebody else” and I just thought that was great… I like pithy statements. If it’s a nice crisp turn of phrase I’ll write it down. Someone bought me this notebook, for example. I haven’t been able to bring myself to properly write in it. One almost feels unworthy of writing something down unless it’s going to be succinct. I often don’t write a full piece unless I have a really strongly hunch about it. Or it keeps coming up thematically. It’s like a chase, a turn of phrase will appear here and then it will appear there… I like wordplay; if it’s interesting, if it’s entertaining then it’ll find its way into a piece. But often I don’t know exactly what it is I’m trying to produce so it’s trying to work the canvass.

SoulCulture: What was the inspiration behind ‘The J Word’ [one of Verbs more celebrated pieces, available to listen to on MySpace]?
That was written off the back of someone inviting me to Kindred Spirit (a well known London showcase hosted by Michelle Escoffrey). They were doing a Gospel special with a bunch of guys, Eska, Four Kornerz… I remember thinking, “This is going to be great. I know what I want to say but I don’t have anything that says it.” With ‘The J Word’ I wanted to write something that was different. I really wanted to communicate why there has got to be a reason that this figure, Jesus Christ – the greatest spoken word artist that ever lived- this great character has not been done justice (in media representations). I don’t think it was anything that would have come about if I hadn’t been invited to Kindred Spirit. it’s not a piece I tend to do very much anymore. I’ve recorded it…it’s available for people to listen to. It does have to be listened to quite carefully. [Click to view [Verb]swish performing ‘The J Word’ for poetry organisationApples & Snakes in 2007]

I like this idea of taking time to make some great art. Looking at the career of someone like the artist Cezanne; The New Yorker did an article recently and they said he was an ‘experimental innovator’. He took his time [to develop and be recognized] compared to someone like Picasso who at 20 years old produced masterpieces. I’m not making myself out to be any of those guys, they’re geniuses… but there’s something to be said about doing the best art you can do and trusting in time anything that needs to happen, will.

[Verb]swish hosts a bi-monthly live music and Spoken Word showcase called ‘Onwords and Upwords’ at The Horse Bar, 124 Westminster Bridge, London SE1.  [Verb]swish’s book ‘Selected Swishes’ (£4.99) is available now.

–Interview by Tola Ositelu, Photography by Steve Rutherford

[Verb]swish online: Official website | Twitter | MySpace | Facebook

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