Five Things I Learnt From Kate Tempest

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On Thursday night I had the opportunity to spend some time getting to know poet/rapper/playwright/novelist Kate Tempest before interviewing her at the Belfast Book Festival. I have to confess that as a person who listens almost exclusively to Radio 4 and Bob Dylan, doesn’t really read newspapers and only turns the television on twice a week for Holby and Casualty, I’m a little out of touch with the cultural zeitgeist. I’d never heard of Kate Tempest before I was asked to interview her and when I did start reading, watching and listening to her work, my immediate response was, “what on earth was Keith thinking when he asked me to interview this girl. At 36 I am much to elderly to appreciate this kind of thing.” I have to admit I wasn’t looking forward to Thursday night. I thought Kate and I would have nothing in common and I’d be sat there awkwardly feeling ancient and trying to work out the correct verb to apply to hip hop, (doing, performing, practising, hip hopping?)

I wanted to write this blog today because sometime it’s important to say you’re wrong about people and perceptions and even entire art forms. I didn’t feel ancient or awkward or outside the moment on Thursday evening. As Kate talked and “performed”and engaged with the audience I 100% understood why people want to be, not only in her presence but also in the presence of her words and why we need to give her a place at the mic alongside the more traditional novelists, poets and playwrights. Mostly, however, I learnt the importance of not pre-judging an experience, of leaving your perceptions at the door and being open to whatever the evening wants to teach you. I learnt about my own capacity for snobbery and that sometimes, it’s really refreshing to be wrong.

I could say a lot more about Kate Tempest’s writing but I’d rather talk about her humanity. I’m a lucky girl and have had the opportunity to sit down and chat with some really special people over the last three decades. You know when you’ve had one of these encounters, not because the person is necessarily important or particularly famous, but because you leave the room a little bit changed by the experience. It’s been a difficult enough few weeks and I am thankful for Thursday night’s encounter and the way it’s stayed with me all through the rest of the week. I feel a little less inclined to sit down in the street and wallow and a little more bent towards picking myself up and getting on with the business of writing stories. I think I have Ms Tempest in part to thank for this. Here are a few things I learnt from hanging out with her.

  1. Passion isn’t something you should apologise for- it was so refreshing to listen to someone who is enthusiastic about what they believe in and willing to put strong words behind their enthusiasm. Sometimes you get so weary fighting for things you believe in you let your words become muted. More strong words spoken without apology are needed in Belfast these days.
  2. It’s ok to fail – the most refreshing thing Kate said all night was that she’s still learning as a writer. She also mentioned that Don Dellilo took almost ten books before he hit the sweet spot and achieved recognition with “White Noise” These days the whole arts industry is so weighted towards income generation that there’s very little room for artists to fail and grow with each new project. Failing is a vital part of the journey towards developing as an artist and it’s both freeing and refreshing to hear an established artist say that they are willing to fail and learn through the process of developing their¬†artistic practice.
  3. Be present- I interview a lot of writers and I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone so very in the moment. It’s wonderful to watch an artist who is able to put the audience at ease -even while they’re under the spotlight- and then allow the evening and its conversation to go wherever it needs to go. I got a real sense from being around Kate that she understands she’s there to serve not to be served and this means introducing your writing to the audience in a way which allows it to take precedence over your role as a writer. You’re not there to stamp your personal brand on an audience. You’re there to make space for your words to do what they need to do. That’s actually quite a liberating thought.
  4. Be kind – I’ve not got a lot to say about this one, except humility is absolutely essential and I’m always made aware of this when I writers who are quicker to listen than they are to speak. It’s wonderful to watch an established artist take time to really listen to what audience members and fans want to say. It shows respect. It shows humility. It shows a well-developed awareness that stories begin and end with people and if you can’t listen, you’ll never be able to write stories with any kind of honesty or empathy.
  5. Don’t be cynical – There is an earnestness to Kate Tempest which is almost overwhelming. She’s not trying to play tricks with her words. She’s not trying to be clever or witty, (though she is extremely witty). She’s just saying it like it is. The Kate I met in the Green Room was exactly the same Kate who got up on stage and talked to and with 150 people. I think this was probably the main thing I came away with on Thursday. It’s not only ok, it’s absolutely essential that we continue to wrestle with cynicism in our work. I’m not talking about developing stories and poems which are saccharine or reluctant to tell life as it is. I mean, we need to constantly wrestle against the weariness that says, ‘there’s no point in writing this,’ and ‘nothing’s ever going to change.’ At this stage in my artistic life I’d rather be labelled as over-earnest or over-passionate than cynical. I think we could all do with a shot of Kate Tempest’s enthusiasm.
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