During the Edinburgh Fringe I worked with BroadwayBaby.com in writing feature articles from some of the premier Spoken Word talent in the UK. The edited version of the conversation can be found here, but there is so much that we got into.
Dan Simpson (@DanSimpsonPoet) is an accomplished poet, thinker, and just a real stand-up guy. He is a former Canterbury Laureate and his first collection, ‘Applied Mathematics’ was published by Burning Eye Books. Since then he has had work commissioned by Southbank Centre, Free Word Centre, and Corinium Museum, as well as performing at Glastonbury Festival, Roundhouse Camden, and at the BBC Fringe Slam. He is also one half of the Varjack & Simpson partnership, along with Paula Varjack.
I was struck by the breadth of disciplines that Dan employed in his 2016 show ‘Artificial Ineloquence’. Using presentations, voice over, comedy and poetry, he was able to engage the audience in a unique and interesting way. I sat down with Dan to talk about his love of technology, but our conversation quickly transformed into a deeper reflection on the discipline of Spoken Word, and his work on the ‘Stand-Up and Slam’ event series, which pitted poets and comedians in verse to verse combat.
This is a great conversation that I hope you enjoy. You can listen along to it here.
Freddie Alexander: So let’s start with a hot take of Artificial Ineloquence. What inspired you to put that together?
Dan Simpson: I’m a bit of a tech nerd. That’s an understatement, I’m definitely a tech nerd. I love reading up on tech journalism. Wired is great, and arstechnica.com. I’ve been reading more and more about computer creativity. It feels like a very modern thing, but actually ever since computers have been more commercially available people have hacked them, re-programmed them, tried to make them be creative.
I got interested in this idea of ‘could a computer write poetry?’ And with AI getting better and better, which I touched on in the show, that computers can do more ambiguous, complex stuff, rather than just logical games like chess or Go. They can prepare legal cases or scan medical documents and figure things out about patients. Using big data they can find trends that human can’t find because we can’t compute that quickly. I got interested in computer creativity and found… we’ve been making computers make music and poetry for about 50 years. It’s amazing.
The first computer and art festival was in the 60s. John Cage used computers to make music. They tried to come up with computer poetry. What was scary about it was how original and brilliant is. Computer’s don’t know what clichés are. So they can write things that are so left field, and so bizarre, that are beautiful and incredible sometimes. My favourite thing was a computer called RAKTER that wrote a massive long document that… talked about the love of lettuce and snails, or between the love of electron and proton. Its brilliant. I got a bit obsessed with that stuff.
FA: I guess this is because computers wouldn’t have influences in the same way that… it operates differently.
DS: The influence is what you feed into it. Some of these programs are… the programmer who designed it ad a particular goal for it. Twitter bots are a good example of this.
FA: Like @horse_ebooks?
DS: @horse_ebooks is good. I like @pentametatron, which tweets iambic pentameters, which comes up with a beautiful twitter sonnet every few hours. There is @poem_exe which comes up with beautiful haiku, incredible haiku. So I follow these as well. The idea of algorithms making art. It is also interesting to find out about the humans behind them as well. That kind of kicks off the show.
The world changed with smartphones, and when the internet became super available. I think it is going to change again when AI becomes more commonplace, not just in work but in our everyday lives. I don’t want to say revolution, but a coming step change in society, which is much deeper than the show actually is.
That also made me think about how we interact today. We are constantly in front of our screens. That is not and original point at all. But it seems to me that for poets and comedians there is a trend to be negative about all that. To say “hey guys, haven’t you noticed how we are all talking on Whatsapp all the time but never in person” and I think that’s bullshit. It’s demonstrably bullshit as well. Live concert attendance is up, live gallery attendance is up, friggin’ Fringe attendance is up. The idea that screens have taken away human connectivity is rubbish. Poets and to a degree comedians paint technology in that way. I talk about that a little in the show, and I wanted to say that the use of emoji and selfie is wonderful and glorious, and we should celebrate it a little bit. I try to stay neutral on my judgement of technology, because you don’t need another poet telling you that Facebook is destroying…
“The world changed with smartphones. I think it is going to change again when AI becomes commonplace”
DS: It’s a bit overdone.
FA: I would agree with that.
I don’t know if this is a theme that you consciously brought up, but over the course of the show it is almost as if you are exploring the ideas of commerce and technology, with economy in the broadest sense of how people pay for art. Is this something that you’ve been thinking about?
DS: Invevitably, yeah. I’ve been self employed as a poet for three years as a poet now, so every day is thinking about commerce and art. I can happily say that I run my practice as a business as well, because unless you are moneyed, or come from a background in which you don’t need to worry about money, which I certainly don’t come from, you do have to return to the practicalities of paying rent. I have a fiancé that I’m marrying next year, and she won’t be happy if I… so yes, there are expectations that I put on myself. Thinking about money is not a bad thing. I’ve been working with Paula Varjack a lot, and she’s been bringing up these questions quite overtly. I think there seems to be a trend of people publishing their accounts – Bryony Kimmings did it a few years ago. People being very honest about how much they are charging for things, while they were not doing that before. I feel that is very important.
It’s funny, I was counting up the money from my show today. This sounds like bragging, but it isn’t. I have piles of £10 notes from the show, because I haven’t banked them yet. Individually, a £10 feels like a lot, it means something. But having a stack of them feels less valuable. It just felt like a pile of paper. It didn’t feel like money. It really threw me cognitively. It was a bunch of screwed up notes that I had put in a toiletry bag, and I emptied it onto the bed, and it felt so meaningless.
FA: Did you feel like a poetry drug hustler?
DS: Yeah. I’m fascinated by money. This isn’t in the show at all, but money is trust. We believe in it. I lent someone a fiver today, and it was all ripped up so the bar wouldn’t accept it for a drink. I was thinking that the only reason they would accept a non-ripped £5 note is because they believe that is worth a pint. But a ripped one is still the same thing. It is about belief.
In terms of the show, I find reading about Silicon Valley very interesting. They are super-capitalists, essentially. They believe money is the result of making a good product, but weirdly Silicon Valley comes from a hippy counter-culture. Steve Jobs was a billionaire hippy. There is a utopian part of trying to improve the world with tech, and write computer programs that can solve things. But then it becomes so money obsessed that… some people are interested in the idea of Universal Basic Income, which is the opposite of capitalism for many people. This comes from the idea that there is so much wasted talent in the world. So many people that are never going to find out what they are good at, what they are passionate about, because they have to just subsist, and that means doing any job. How will you have the energy or cognitive capacity to find what you are good at. Despite this uber capitalist side of tech, there is still the idea of freeing the world through money.
FA: I’ll segue very quickly. I’ve been having a lot of conversations recently about arts and business. Some of these concepts are around this idea of ‘arts entrepreneurship.’ Which again, similar to Silicon Valley in wanting to change the world, but has also become hyper capitalist, in that the free market will determine what is good. I find that interesting, and I want to see how the artistic community is defined by that. The PBH Free Fringe is a very interested example of this, in that it is very counter-cultural, but at the same time money is what makes a good show (and there is no upper limit to how much money you can make).
But let’s segue out of that. In Andrew Blair and Ross McCleary’s show ‘Panda to the Audience,’ they asked “what constitutes a Spoken Word show?” What are your thoughts on this, as you use a lot of multi-media elements…
DS: And jokes as well. I think that is a tricky one. I think that… one, there is an expectation of audience. If you bill yourself as a comedy show there is an expectation that people will be mostly laughing throughout. For a Free Fringe audience, giving them an accurate impression of what you are about to do. For me it becomes more interesting to look at spoken word and theatre. There are a lot of spoken word monologues, where if they were put in the theatre, they would just be a theatrical monologue. I find it interesting that spoken word is being used as a form of true storytelling, rhythmic rhyming, personal storytelling, whereas a theatre person would just see that as theatre. I guess I call my show spoken word because there is very clearly poetry in it. That is the heart of the show. Ultimately all category distinctions blur, not even at the edges but near the middle.
I think intention of artist and expectation of audience are the most important thing in terms of how you book your show. We are in Edinburgh, and we need to think about what reviewers are expecting. I remember four years ago when spoken word became a category of its own. Reviewers would come out of poetry shows and say that they are “not a funny standup,” or “not a good actor.” But they are not a comedian or an actor, they are a poet. I also don’t think it is just poetry, it can be traditional storytelling. What do you think?
“Ultimately all category distinctions blur, not even at the edges but near the middle.”
FA: I think you can be interested in different parts of spoken word. I think you can be interested in poetry, where the format is very much a ‘non-music song night’. I’m interested in terms of its New Writing capacity. I almost think spoken word is an environment where you can springboard new writing in a streamlined way outside of theatres. Within that you have people who like to work within the poetry tradition, the dramatic tradition, the storytelling tradition, but also the Ted Talk tradition. I think what constitutes a spoken word show is a theme around new writing, and concepts. I enjoy very high concept pieces. But what I love about spoken word is that is a very pure sense of creative engagement. The person who wrote the piece is reading it to an audience. There are very few mediums in which that happens.
DS: Although, what happens when Kate Tempest writes a play. It is very spoken word-y, but she is not in it? Does that become theatre.
FA: I would say possibly.
DS: Or does it matter?
FA: And then there is the interesting point within that, in which you read something that is a pastiche poem. I saw someone read an adaptation of Gangsters Paradise about their grandmother.
DS: Amazing. Grandma’s Paradise. That’s wonderful.
FA: Is that spoken word though?
We can talk about that…
DS: What I’ve found interesting in doing Stand Up and Slam is having poetry opposite comedy. We do bill it as poetry though, rather than spoken word. This is because we want to distinguish the poets from the comedians. We book very funny poets. What is interesting is that in pitching it as a battle is not to create any antagonism, but to create space between the comedian and the poet. The comedian will deliver what is clearly stand-up. A battle creates a gap, in which a poet might come up and not do a stand up style, it might be quite serious, but it still works because we’ve set them up as opposing. If we just presented a poet and a comedian I think the poet would not get a good response. Because they’ve had a great time with the stand-up, but now… okay. It slightly flicks a switch in the brain to reset for the poet. It is so context specific. I feel sorry for people who came up when there wasn’t a spoken word section and got billed as bad stand-up, when they never were.
FA: You’ve seen that develop in this year’s fringe, with the Banshee Labyrinth and Pilgrim. Perhaps venue will be something that ties together spoken word.
FA: To tie into the experience of doing the Edinburgh Fringe. How have you found that? Performing in different venues, and such.
DS: I’ve enjoyed it. There’s up to about 60 shows that I’ve performed in, and a lot of them have been comedy nights. It’s been really nice to be the poet on a comedy bill. But that expectation thing definitely comes into play. I address that, in saying I’m a poet and I don’t feel comfortable here, and then lead into… bringing the audience with you. The Banshee is perfect for spoken word, and the Banqueting Hall is a great venue. I think people know it is a spoken word space now. The Mash House, Just the Tonic, are very clear comedy venues. It has worked really nicely. We are getting more of a comedy crowd than we were when we were at Cowgatehead. For me that is the point of the show. I want to show that massive comedy audience how good poetry can be when it is live, engaging, and exciting. It is doing its job. There is definitely a different.. I need to step up the funnies.
“I want to show the massive comedy audience how good poetry can be.”
FA: You talked a little bit about reviewers bringing the wrong criteria. What kind of criteria would you like reviewers to bring to a spoken word show?
DS: I think… I like them to bring as critical an eye for the performance, structure, stagecraft. All the things a critic does for a standup or theatre piece they should do for Spoken Word. It sometimes feels… it is really tricky. There has been a thing going around about a lack of spoken word critics, and the critics usually being performers themselves. Whereas in theatre and comedy there are critics and they do not perform. They know their stuff though. There is not that tradition in contemporary spoken word. Sometimes you get quite gushing reviews about the ‘honesty’ of a show, or how ‘personal’ it was, when it was a fairly standard spoken word show – because it is so new for them. They’ve never seen anything like that. If you are a comedy critic there is a barrier between you and a truth telling / storytelling spoken word artist.
I think sometimes the novelty makes us seem better, but I believe we should be held to the same standards. I think we should be held to the same critical bar as comedians and theatre people, even if that is impossible right now, when there is a lack of independent spoken word critics. I think they should look at all the things you look at in theatre and spoken word, the quality of the writing, whether it was well staged, if moments have been thought about, the journey and the energy, all of those things. I think it has grown that way. We are seeing more spoken word artists take on those theatrical conventions. We see this in standup as well. Comedians are just like theatre people, they have people come in, see their show, take notes, give feedback, and that’s what we should be doing as well. You see a bad poet and you think that’s what poetry is, but you don’t do that with comedy or music.
FA: Thank you so much.