Last Thursday, (17 September) Apples and Snakes organised “Forked”, a performance poetry event at Plymouth Barbican's B-Bar. Local poetess Mama Tokus hosted and the event featured some of the countries leading young talent. Illustrator and poet Spike Zephaniah Stephenson, Bristol based Avant garde surrealist Ben Crowden, Poet, Activist and Feminist, Megan Beech and headliner the inimitable Jemima Foxtrot.
Jemima and Megan were both recent contributors to the BBC i-player's “Women who Spit” series of short films and Jemima had just returned from her first solo show at Edinburgh. I caught up with Jemima after the show to discuss her poetry and to ask about her unique style of performance.
1. How important is location to your poetry ? I mean by that not only where you are from and how that shapes you unique voice, but also when performing. Does it matter to you where you are, once you step out in front of an audience?
I’m from a very beautiful part of the country, Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire, the landscape of that area as well as the people there have formed a big part of my identity as a person and as a writer. I live in London now and that’s my home and home is a very important concept in my poetry whether that’s Yorkshire, London or the feeling of home you get when you’re travelling – where your bed is after a long, long day. I’ve been performing all over the country recently which I really enjoy – I particularly like it when I visit a place I’ve never been before and share my work with the people there. I love discovering new places and the feel of them, so yes, it does matter to me where I am in that I love performing in new places best of all I’d say..
2. It is often difficult to see the line between song and poem, singing and performance poetry in your shows. How important is music for you ? Does it help when writing or do you use it only as an inspiration and then write in silence?
I write in silence, occasionally playing the odd song I’m incorporating into a poem just to check the melody or the lyrics. I find that listening to music as I write distracts me from the music of the poetry I’m writing. Rhythm and sound are really important elements in my poetry and they need to be created in their own space. Music, in my opinion, is the most important aspect of poetry, what separates it from prose, and that’s why my work is stuffed full of it!
3. Tell me about the poets, artists and singers that you love and why they mean something to you
I love female singers who sing with a rawness and emotion that hits you right in the gut, people like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Nina Simone, Erykah Badu and so many more amazing, soulful, at once visceral and complicated, singers. The lyrics of Joanna Newsom, Bob Dylan & Joni Mitchell are rich and surprising and never cease to amaze me. I have a particular connection with singers like Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, passed down from my Dad who is a wonderful composer and artist himself.
4. You have acted in the past does that help you when performing and is it something you can see yourself revisiting at some point ?
I took my first solo show to Edinburgh this year, it’s a poetry play called Melody that I worked on with my friend Lucy Allan who co-wrote and directed it with me. I would consider performing that day after day after day, acting. Having acting skills is pretty vital in performance poetry I’d say, you have to be very present in the moment and the more you ‘act’ therefore, the more the audience follow you, stay with you and enter the world you’re trying to create with the poem. I will hopefully always act and perform – the reason I left acting before was because I didn’t like not having a creative role in making the work, as long as I can be involved in writing and developing what I perform in, I will always act in some way I reckon.
5. Your poetry is very cinematic and experiential in which the audiences are taken on a journey. Are the stories you tell a way of helping people to connect when performing as well as a way of documenting and re-living those experiences?
The stories I tell attempt to encapsulate an ambivalence that most people feel about a certain subject, whether that be the minefield of female sexuality or the bitter-sweet confusion of growing up or, well the ambivalence which riddles everything I suppose. The best way to express these things, I think, is through concrete images, the detail of the everyday which is so incredibly rich with meaning and which is something we all share.
6. Have you been to Plymouth or the westcountry before?
I used to come to Devon and Cornwall all the time when I was a child in the summer and Easter holidays with my parents. I love it there, I love the sea particularly. It has a vastness similar to the moors of Yorkshire and I miss that living in London (which is very vast but where everything is so crammed in!) My happy childhood memories almost all involve a west-country beach or campsite or mackerel fishing trip. So yes, very, very nice to be back.
7. What does the future hold for Jemima Foxtrot?
I’ve just quit my admin job to do poetry full time. This is a very exciting but also terrifying time! I will be publishing my first book of poetry next year and will hopefully be taking my show Melody on tour next spring too. In the meantime, I’m really looking forward to dedicating more time to writing poetry! I feel amazingly lucky that I’m in a position now that this will be my job! I will be developing my workshop facilitation skills too, I love working with children and young people particularly so I’m really looking forward to doing more work in schools and youth clubs to get young people engaged with creative writing and performance. Hopefully I’ll be back to Plymouth soon too! I loved the Barbican and the B bar!