An Interview with Hannah Chutzpah


How did you first get into spoken word and performance poetry?

I studied creative writing at uni but I only really discovered performance poetry on mixed comedy bills when I came bacķ to London. Two of the first I saw were Tim Clare and Sophia Blackwell. I wanted to be both of them. When I discovered slams and poetry nights I knew I wanted in.

Spoken word seems to be quite political, or provide quite incisive social commentary. Why do you think this is? Related, do you find it a particularly good medium (as opposed to others) for you to express your own political, feminist views?

The thing about poetry is people talk about what they care about, and it’s really honed – you’ve only got 3 minutes or so, so you want to say something worthwhile. A lot of what’s important about intersectional feminism & other good leftie movements is listening to other people’s experiences, hearing about things you might not have experienced yourself in your own bubble – so the two do make pretty good bedfellows in some ways. Also I think to some extent poetry has always attracted arty people who are quite left-leaning.

Do you think social media and social networking have been invaluable in the rise in popularity of spoken word? More than in other art forms?

It’s always a huge boost for the scene when a poet goes viral, but I think also social media brings the poetry out to people who would probably like what the scene has to offer, but currently think poetry is a dirty word. Being able to share it easily erodes that barrier a bit.

Do you think spoken word should be featuring more on the arts scene, such as at festivals? Even at Edinburgh there still aren’t that many spoken word artists on the programme. Or do you think this is still happening gradually and it will catch up?

Fastest-growing section of the Fringe, baby! We’re getting there. I think the scene and the audience are both growing, but I don’t know that the audience for poetry will ever be as big as the audience for, say, musicals. And that’s OK. I’d like everyone to know that spoken word is an option, and hugely diverse. What most people think of when they hear the word ‘poetry’ is embarrassing teenage writing or gift-card rhymes, and I want them to know that that versus what’s actually out there is like school music lessons versus the Rolling Stones. If they’ve checked out the scene and it doesn’t speak to them: fair enough.

Many spoken word artists seem to comment that it’s taken over their life in an unexpected way. How would you characterise your relationship to spoken word? 

Ha! I just love it. I’ve always been a writer, but that’s not necessarily a very sociable thing to be. Performance poetry is the writing, the instant feedback, and some great socialising all in one. If you get good enough there are free weekends away to gigs, and you make new friends as well. It’s a really lovely and open scene and the audience/performer dynamic is great when it’s so close.

Personally, I always liked the idea of being a performer, but I couldn’t see how I’d get there – I wasn’t that great at acting, too lazy to learn an instrument really well, sucked at improv comedy, blah blah blah – then I found out I could be a performer doing something I’ve always done, & meet loads of new people. It’s been great and I just feel so lucky to’ve found it. Can’t recommend it highly enough.

Any favourite spoken word artists we should be keeping an eye on? Queer or otherwise.

Anna Kahn, Matt Cummins, Rik the Most, Lewis Buxton, Dan Simpson, Fay Roberts, Steph Dogfoot… In terms of poets who run events: Apples and Snakes are just brilliant, Varjack & Simpson run some really fun, funny, comedy and poetry mashups, and Forget What You Heard (about spoken word) is one of the loveliest, most huggable nights about. Shout out to Boomerang in Hammersmith, too.

Oh, and Andrea Gibson (American queer poet, who I love to bits) is touring the UK in May.

What do you think about events such as Queer’Say? Is there a need for them? 

I think the diversity of events reflects some the diversity of the scene. The more people tell their own stories and their own truths and talk about the world as they see it – the more we reclaim narratives and space for ourselves and people like us. The cultural narratives that surround us are very one-track. Broadening out from that is, I think, good. Even if you don’t see yourself reflected there, you see a wider range of experience than TV executives tend to commission, and you learn from it.

Do you think spoken word, as an art form, is more inclusive of minorities? Have you ever experienced any kind of prejudice?

A few years back I quite often had nights where, from what had gone down on the stage already, I didn’t feel that the audience would be at all receptive to a quite personal poem I was thinking of doing, but the scene is getting more accepting, bigger and more diverse by the day.

I don’t know if it’s just where I’ve gravitated to and made friends, but I’ve found many parts of the poetry scene are very welcoming – almost as many queer artists as straight, pretty ethnically diverse… I can only speak of my own experience, but I think it’s doing pretty well. There is a bit of a background debate about creating Safe Space policies, but I don’t think anywhere’s come to a conclusion. Quite a few nights now have a ‘Don’t Be a Dick’ rule as a starting point though.

How do you approach the performance element of your poetry, given that this is such an integral part of spoken word?

I already know how I want it to sound, so in some ways it’s easier to just say it, rather than trying to make something on the page come across how I want it to.

Confidence as a performer is something I’ve grown over the years – and runs at the Edinburgh Fringe have definitely honed it. Edinburgh Fringe is basically boot camp for the performing arts. I got a ton better when I evolved into ‘performing’ rather than just ‘reciting’, but being confident enough to leave pauses and act stuff out only came after my first Edinburgh Fringe run. I’ve found I talk with my hands a lot – and it’s better to embrace it and half dance in front of the mic about rather than worry about what my hands are doing.

Some lines you don’t realise are that good, or funny, or sad, or whatever ‘til you perform it and hear that audience feedback, so it’s always evolving.

How do you approach your written poetry? How different is it, for you, from spoken word?

At this point I think I consider myself a performance poet first and foremost, but there’s the odd one or two which work better on the page. I think I approach them much the same, and then see how they work when I throw them at the wall.

You can find out more about Hannah on her website, or by following her on Twitter. Hannah is performing at the first Queer’Say event of 2015, which is being held at the Tate Modern on Sunday 19th April at 7pm. You can find out more and book tickets here


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