The poet Tshaka Campbell and a joke about integrity

Tshaka Campbell
Tshaka Campbell

“I’m big into integrity,” said the poet Tshaka Campbell. “I’m not going to write about something like an abortion from a woman’s perspective because there is no way I could know what that is like.

“I don’t like poets who write a break-up poem and you say, ‘have you ever broken up with someone?’ and they say, ‘no!'”

Tshaka shrugged, and smiled, as if to say, “how ridiculous is that – to even think to do something like that?” And many of the crowd at Bang Said The Gun, a popular spoken word night in south London, laughed with him.

I didn’t laugh. I didn’t laugh because I was too busy wondering exactly how dangerous a joke like that is. He was effectively saying, in a flippant, light-hearted way, that if you haven’t directly experienced it, don’t write about it.

Which set me thinking: would he have told Hubert Selby Jnr to not write the rape scene in Last Exit to Brooklyn because he was not rape victim nor rapist? Would he have told Patricia Highsmith not to write The Talented Mr Ripley because she had no direct experience of murder? Would he have stopped Shakespeare from writing anything but the occasional poem about his early years in Stratford-upon-Avon?

I suspect not, because he would see that these were serious writers and would do what he could to encourage them. So I do not believe that he meant this joke to be taken as a general truth.

However, even if we look at the specific example he sets – that of the poet writing a break-up poem without having experienced a break-up – we can see that even this is wrong. For example, we know that Morrissey was famously celibate and had no boyfriends or girlfriends during his songwriting heyday in the 1980s.

That didn’t stop him writing one of the greatest love songs of all time, There is a Light That Never Goes Out. He was able to write this song, not because of a love that he had directly experienced, but because of his unique sensitivity to the human condition.

To give Tshaka the benefit of the doubt, he might have meant that if a writer writes about a difficult subject – a break-up; an abortion – and does not fully think through the subject, then poor quality writing is almost certainly the result. But that could equally be the case whether someone has experienced something or not – anyone who has been to a few open mic nights knows that.

Tshaka Campbell has been writing poetry for 20 years. The crowd was full of people there to see him, the headline act. Many were no doubt writers or aspiring writers, likely to be influenced by this charismatic performer and therefore take his ill-judged joke seriously.

I would be really sad if an aspiring writer came away from that night and decided to steer clear from daring, imaginative work, and write only from their own experience, because they believed it more artistically credible to do so.

The present glut of poets, and Campbell is not one of them, who seem to only write in the first person, suggests that the ‘only write from your own experience’ philosophy has its adherents. What I would like to see is more poets bravely experimenting with different styles and techniques – developing characters, writing from unusual perspectives, using satire and irony – before hitting upon a style which suits them.

As the songwriter Conor O’Brien, from the band Villagers, said in a recent interview:

“It was Dylan who made me realise that you could just lose your mind a little bit, and sometimes when you’re adventurous and you have that spirit in you something quite fundamental comes out.”

Which seems like a much better piece of advice for a writer than telling them what is off limits.

So perhaps Tshaka Campbell should impose a small limitation upon himself: stick to performing his often brilliant poetry, and leave the jokes to the comedians.

Ben Brooks is a great new writer and everyone should read his book, Grow Up

The HMV dog is listening to St James' Infirmary by Louis Armstrong. The HMV dog is trying to be ironic, in the hope that it will make death easier. The HMV dog is deluded.
The HMV dog is listening to St James’ Infirmary by Louis Armstrong. The HMV dog is trying to be ironic, in the hope that it will make death easier. The HMV dog is deluded.

I was shopping in HMV in Hastings on Thursday looking for some pre-death bargains. Trouble was, even with the last rites having been read, the bargains were still not that good. It was only 25% off some stickered items, which shows they are continuing their unrealistic pricing policy to the very last. But I wanted to buy something, for the souvenir carrier bag if nothing else, so I picked up two books for a tenner.

I’m glad I did so because my last purchase from HMV might well be one of my best. In fact, I’d be prepared to say that this purchase was second only to buying the GZA’s Liquid Swords back in the 90s. Because one of those two books was Grow Up by Ben Brooks.

I was attracted by the pleasingly mordant front cover, and the quote on the inside sleeve from comedian / poet Tim Key who says Grow Up is “sickeningly good. So confident, so stylish. An unacceptably witty and confident debut.”

That was good enough for me. And if that’s not good enough to persuade you to pick up this book as soon as possible, I hope the rest of this blog will be. Because for the rest of this blog I will mostly quote little bits of the book and tell you to read Grow Up by Ben Brooks.

Grow Up, would you believe, is about growing up. There isn’t what you’d call a plot, just a series of incidents involving the main character and narrator, Jasper Wolf, who is a teenager who likes taking drugs and having sex and does not like revising for exams. He also does not like his step-dad, who he thinks did a few murders and is going to kill his mum.

Here follows some quotations from the book. You will notice Ben Brooks is really good at writing.

The comedown from mephedrone is my least favourite type of skiing.

Jasper on his counsellor: Sugar is pouring out of her lips. Sugar is only good when it is in tea. It is not good when it is coming out of the mouths of overpaid women in suits who think that they are emotionally shampooing me.

The shipping forecast is an extremely comfortable duvet.

Jonah’s mum has watched the news every day since her husband died in Afghanistan. She is just looking for someone to swear at. She swears indiscriminately. I have witnessed it often. She swears at Trevor McDonald, Hannah Montana and Gok Wan. She calls them all cunts.

The first Harry Potter film is playing on the television. A flock of bright boats are shifting over black water. I have seen this film more times than I have had sex. That is a statistic I need to reverse. I will begin by not watching it again.

Read Grow Up by Ben Brooks. It’s on Canongate Press. You can probably get it in a dying HMV branch, or if you care little for the fate of the High Street you can get it on Amazon. I’m ambivalent about where you source your copy. The main thing is you read it.

Noel Fielding thinks this book is great, as does Tim Key. But it's totally up to you if you want to waste your life reading something that isn't as good instead.
Noel Fielding thinks this book is great, as does Tim Key. But it’s totally up to you if you want to waste your life reading something that isn’t as good instead.