Why do I often think of Bob Dylan when I think of Kate Tempest? Aside from the precocious energy and her age, there's the twisting of language:
Probably he thought he was invincible, he weren't
which recalls Dylan's bending of words
I don't wanna be hers, I wanna be yers
('I Wanna Be Your Lover')
Dylan came from a folk background, gradually - systematically - falling under the influence of writers such as Rimbaud, Ginsberg and Brecht. Like him, Tempest mixes high- and low-brow (her latest play Brand New Ancients stems from the premise that we are all Gods worthy of worship should we just live up to that responsibility), if not different idioms. Inspired by hip hop (she fronts the excellent Sound of Rum, whose debut includes versions of several of her poems) she writes 'people seem surprised coz I'm a rapper whose rhymes reference the literary' and her language-play thrives on combining the informed and the vernacular:
If you think Blake ain't the illest shit, well I beg to talk different.
Everything Speaks in Its Own Way, her first book of poetry, is already ruffling feathers. A comment on the Guardian message boards (her book was one of ten up for the Guardian reader-nominated first book award) takes her to task for not paying attention to line breaks. Tempest's lines are typically long, but it would be counter-intuitive of her to have revisited her poems and artificially broken them into a form they did not originally possess. It would also risk drawing attention to some of her more outlandish rhymes in a showy fashion. As Dylan famously dropped his 'g's, Tempest punctuates her writing with 'coz's, and having cut her teeth on the spoken word circuit she is expert at undercutting any appearance of arrogance or elevatedness. In person, onstage, she is nothing if not winning.
Tempest is blessed with the ability to communicate complex ideas on first listen, and the book is accompanied by a CD and DVD of her in action. Like reading Dylan's lyrics, it is easy to read the poems at her speed. However, to read the text with the scrutiny its complexity deserves, you take in such contradictions as this, from 'Icarus':
he smouldered in these myths, so that we who never flew before can learn from what he did
a lesson merely heard is never a lesson learned
Her attitude has it both ways:
So give me space.
No, wait, come here. Crowd me.
is how she ends the opening poem, 'Give,' demonstrating a grasp of both line-break and punctuation. At her book-launch, she said she had come to realise that being foolish sometimes does not make you a fool. Apparent inconsistency is all part of the learning process.
Often she demonstrates her ability for concision after long exposition, 'to cut a long short':
and in one gaze exchanged we made love for an age even though
at that stage, we weren't allowed -
we both had others to be thinking about.
Tempest has worked at Stratford on Avon, and her poem inspired by The Tempest 'What We Came After' is interesting in its criticism of Prospero: 'So go on then, conjure a storm on the head of your enemy - you will find yourself victim of negative energy.' If there is a major difference between her and Dylan, it lies in her positivity, her belief in everyone's potential. (She has something to say about the hip hop 'industry' equating hip hop with 'trash talk and negativity.')
If Dylan once said 'really, all my songs end with 'good luck!'' then Tempest demonstrates a belief in the power of community. She set up Deptford-based book company Zingaro books, and hones her craft at Battersea Arts Centre. 'You can find me hanging about in New Cross,' she writes in the poem 'Renegade.' At her launch at the Old Vic on 24th August, she chose to showcase spoken word artists who inspired her: polar bear, David J Pugilist, Hollie McNish and John Berkavitch, as well as her friends Kwake Bass and Raven Bush from Speakers Corner Quartet who provided aural backdrop and warm up. Speakers talked about pride in their bodies, demonstrated belief in family and community, practised self mockery and expressed belief in the self and everyone's individual voice - yet not in any academic dry treatising way. Rather they demonstrated it in their work. There was a positive inspirational atmosphere. There's a gospel fervour to her performances, and at one point during her launch she stopped a poem mid-flow as she wasn't 'feeling it.' When she re-started, the delivery was far more commited, rising to a heightened pitch. She has found a way to perform to the best of her ability in public, while being present to the moment. Often, she'll smile wryly as she gauges the effect of a line on an audience.
|The Old Vic, site of Tempest's launch of Everything Speaks In Its Own Way|
Another link to the spoken word arena is that most of her poems are written in the first person. 'Sometimes by someone saying this is how I feel, you can realise that you feel that way too.' She also employs the first person plural, not just in a title like 'What We Came After,' but more personally:
I'm the junkie selling travelcards that used to be a mate of ours
She is speaking for us, but among us.
What do we learn of her philosophy? Everything is as it should be. You can see beauty in the scaffolding. We are all born full of knowledge.
In his autobiography Chronicles, Bob Dylan wrote that one day another kid would come along and speak truth looking things straight in the eye, as he had done. And we would know them by the fact they were completely different from anybody else.
Well, to go by Kate Tempest's example, she will be an inspirational figure, a workaholic (Brand New Ancients started a run at the BAC this week) and risk-taker, a woman aware that failing isn't the end of the world. Which other spoken word artist is filling the Old Vic and receiving a standing ovation? Happily, her friends, family and influences seem to offer strong enough support for her to continue to take risks.