An Interview with Harry Baker, Spoken Word Poet

It’s not often that you’ll be walking down Tyndall Avenue or Woodland Road or loitering outside the ASS Library and bump into the youngest ever World Poetry Champion, but if you keep your eyes open you might spot the tall, slender figure of Harry Baker coming towards you. Currently in his last year at the University of Bristol, Harry juggles studying Maths and German with gigs all over the country and festival spots at the Edinburgh Fringe and Bestival with the likes of renowned wordsmith Scroobius Pip. I caught up with him to chat about the unique allure of the Bristol spoken word scene, his love of Kendrick Lamar and what lies ahead after graduation.

So, how did you get introduced to the world of spoken word?

I went up to the Edinburgh Fringe festival on a family holiday where we’d booked to see shows in the evening and used to fill our time during the day by going to free events and one day I went to a poetry open mic. I’d always been interested in words and at school I liked writing lyrics and rapping them over music, but I didn’t know what spoken word poetry was. I think I was lucky because a lot of people that I’ve spoken to have had negative experiences with spoken word events but the first spoken word events I went to were of a very high quality and I saw what was possible and that inspired me in a big way.

You used to rap at school and at the moment artists like Kate Tempest and George the Poet have crossed-over from spoken word into the music scene. Do you see much division between the two art forms or are they contingent modes of expression for you?

I think it mainly comes down to being a good writer. There are differences, for instance, I rapped at school but I was never going to get beyond school competitions because rap is also about sounding distinctive. When I started poetry I liked it because of the freedom it gave to let the words speak for themselves and it’s only through poetry that I’m now thinking of coming back to music. I realised the importance of “flow” as well as content. I think if you’re good enough you can do both and that’s why people like Kate Tempest, George the Poet and Scroobius Pip can transcend genres.

Did you ever feel a desire to write poetry as well as perform it, or is that something that has come later?

It has come later because I got into poetry through being inspired by performers so everything I initially wrote was with performance in mind. It was only in December when I got my first collection published that I was thinking about how my poems worked on the page and how they would be laid out. Until then I’d never needed to punctuate them and I wasn’t sure whether they would be able to stand alone. It was after people told me at performances that they wanted to read my work and take it in at their own pace that I started to enjoy breathing new life into the pieces.

How did your book, The Sunshine Kid, come about? Did a publisher approach you or was it something that you had in mind yourself?

A publisher called Burning Eye have put an emphasis on performance poets and around three years ago they put together an anthology of spoken word, Rhyming Thunder, and I had a couple of pieces in there. After that was released the publishers let me know that they’d support me if I ever wanted to put something out on my own and so I decided to go ahead with my collection. It was brilliant because they gave me so much creative freedom; my brother designed the whole book and we were pretty much allowed to do what we wanted. I was very careful about putting my poems on the page and I didn’t just want it to be in a generic font, I wanted it to feel like experiencing my poems live.

Since spoken word is a live medium, do you adapt your pieces based on audience response after they have been performed?

By the time I’m performing a piece onstage it’s already been through a long process of having been written and continually refined in my head. The mistake I made when I first started performing was that if a poem I had performed at a slam hadn’t done well, I would assume that meant the poem itself wasn’t any good, when in fact there was still room for development. It takes many performances of a piece for me to realise where to leave the spaces and which parts work at different paces. So, it does change slightly through performance but most of the work is done before it even gets to the stage.

Do you set aside time to write on a daily basis or do you only work when inspiration hits, whenever that may be?

A lot of my writing occurs in between different events. I have to take a lot of trains to get to gigs and I love that chance to sit still but also look out of the window and be inspired. If I sit in my room at my desk with the aim that I’m going to write something, I usually fall asleep [laughs]. I don’t really use headphones either so I’m always going through stuff in my head when I’m on the move.

Any recommendations for spoken word artists that we should be looking/listening out for?

Well, this is Bristol so I want to shout out Danny Pandolfi and Tim Ledwitch. Danny runs the Bristol University Poetry Society and I find his work really refreshing since he’s very involved in music also. I tried to join the society in first year and there wasn’t a space for performance poetry, it was very much a creative writing club, which didn’t really work for me, but Danny changed that. He’s also working on a mixtape and puts on loads of exciting events. I didn’t know much about Tim either until I came to Bristol, and so it’s exciting that the three of us live so close to each other and can collaborate. Vanessa Kisuule is also a big part of the Bristol scene and it’s great to go and see her perform, especially since she started at the University the year before I did.

What else inspires you outside of the spoken word scene?

It’s strange because I’ve only just started setting the time aside to read fiction again and a large part of that is down to my girlfriend who reads a lot and recommends me books, so I’ve really been enjoying that. I also listen to a lot of hip-hop because that’s the genre where the most emphasis is on the lyrics and I really love Kendrick Lamar. He’s got more content than your normal cliché of guns, bitches and bling and he sounds great.

What are your tips for any aspiring spoken word poets?

Just try it out and tap into the spoken word community. You’re not going to be amazing the first time you perform, which can be frustrating, and it can be terrifying to perform something that you’ve only ever written down in your notepad, but it’s addictive. Once you’ve performed for the first time you’re either put off and then you’ll know it’s not for you but most people I’ve spoken to want to do better and keep trying again. It was seeing other people perform that inspired me and if you go to open mic nights you’ll see people who aren’t very good and it makes you realise that spoken word is accessible - you won’t get booed off the stage if you say something wrong. Provided you go to a well-run event, people will be supportive and they’ll give you constructive criticism. As long as you’re not going on for twenty minutes, offensively badly [laughs].

So, you’re finishing university this year, what are your plans for the future?

I’m going to write poems forever. I’m finally saying that with a sense of authority and I’m really excited about it. Throughout first and second year I was away most weekends doing gigs and in third year I was in Germany. I thought that would be the year where I focused on my studies and didn’t do much poetry but I ended up doing more gigs there than I had ever done before. I really think it has the best, most welcoming spoken word scene in the world. I also started trying to write pieces in German which was really fun and exciting since not many people are delving into that niche yet. At some point I’d love to go back to Germany but at the moment I need to knuckle down a bit since I’m in my final term. I’m looking forward to being able to focus completely on my poetry and I feel like I’m young and naïve enough to give it a shot - if I didn’t I’d regret it. I’ll also hopefully have a maths degree to fall back on so I’m not averse to doing some teaching if I have to.

Lastly, for those that have never seen you perform, describe your poetry in three words.

Honest, intricate, entertaining.

[This piece was originally published in Helicon Magazine on 11/03/15]