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.

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6 thoughts on “The poet Tshaka Campbell and a joke about integrity

  1. This takes me back nearly twenty years when (sorry about this) To the days when I was the Mayor of Havering. Gaynor and I went to give out the prizes on prize giving night for the Rainham Poetry Society in Rainham Library. We sat through an hour or so of what was to be expected. One sad character read out a gut wrenching, tear jerking poem about his dead mother. It was one of those heartfelt cries that made you both cringe and cry. I think he won a prize. Later during the Tesco Canapés and the Liebfraumilch Gaynor approached him both sympathetically and tactfully and asked how long ago his dear old mum had died. “Oh no” he said as chipper as a Canary “she’s as fit as a fiddle I made it all up, I’m a poet”

  2. Brilliant article Richard – I love Tshaka but when you’re on stage sometimes you say things that aren’t as thought through as your actual poems… I’ve definitely said lots of BS in-between poems. WHat I love about this though is that an influential wordsmith like Tshaka who is around many impressionable young / start out poets can be challenged… Interview him, I’m sure he’ll be up for that.

  3. Thanks, Ray. I appreciate you giving your thoughts on it. And, yes, we’ve all said some stuff we don’t quite mean on stage, but it didn’t seem quite off-the-cuff as a remark. It got me thinking about where he was coming from on this matter which is important for all creative writers. That’s a really good suggestion about getting in touch with Tshaka. That’d be a good way of exploring this issue further and seeing what he really thinks.

  4. First I thank you for contacting me and allowing me the opportunity to interact with this blog. It’s strange that in the 3 minutes leading to my birthday, I am here responding to this blog but I guess that’s part of the point you were making in that the impact words and the things people say have on one another. I was actually at a movie and saw the blog right before I went into the show and it was on my mind throughout the film…. and it was a good film. During the film I wrote in my head what I thought my response to this would be a few times, each time with level of disappointment, anger, etc weaving its way into the retort. “If this was about what I “said” why did he plaster a pic of me at the top of the blog as if I was on trial or part of a line up in the post office who had committed a grand offence. Needless to say I do realize that that was mostly my ego above anything else… what I have ended up with is something like the following:

    Unfortunately, your paraphrasing did not capture entirely what I said. I said that I am big in preserving the integrity of my work, I for instance, couldn’t write a poem about having an abortion from a women’s perspective; I can write about how it impacts me or describe it from my perspective but I’ve never had an abortion and can never write it from the woman’s perceptive.
    I adamantly and whole-heartedly stand firm on this believe. However; even without getting all of the statement and it relevance, if we examine only what you did pull from it; how can you argue the context. You wrote that I said:
    “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.
    Where is the argument; how could I write a poem in the “I” from a woman’s perspective, I am neither a woman nor will I ever experience an abortion. That statement is factually correct, so any attempt at doing so will diminish the integrity of that piece of work. Now going back to what I actually said, I can of course write about what I perceive it to be or how it’s affects me , others and or the environment etc. I can even describe it in the most prophetic way. This I feel has the integrity I speak of, but me writing of it in first person takes away from its truth. Maybe the disconnect, is in the use of the word integrity but for me in this example, there is no need to be academic about it; it’s as simple as the difference between autobiography and biography. One is an interpretation and a recollection/recount; the other is from the horse’s mouth.
    At no point during that brief interlude did I mention or insinuate that anyone couldn’t or shouldn’t write about any topic they choose. I simply stated that in my opinion a piece of work looses a bit of it’s “valor’ if presented as fact and isn’t. Hence the following statement about the person who has never broken up with anyone and then writes the break up piece. Regardless of how beautiful and thought provoking it is, It will remain a facsimile of the fact to the author that hadn’t experienced it. It can only be their perception whether it be fashioned via witnessing for the outside or collating data points it is still their interpretation of the experience. The issue is not so much the action of writing it as it is the responsibility he had to me, the audience member. When I find out later that what was said was not true; which is fine to do by the way; I just simply accept and absorb that poem differently. You mention the works of others who have not experienced and have still written. Once again, I never said it shouldn’t’ be done but in your example of Patricia Highsmith; her work was a novel and a novel in most all definitions is a fictional piece of work, so the reader and or person engaging with it knows as soon as they pick it up what they are getting; a story and fictional piece of work. Poetry audiences do not have that luxury and this in my eyes, leaves a poet with a huge responsibility. Again, I am not saying people can not write creatively and stretch the margins; character pieces are just that; Patricia Smith has made a career of them and these are powerful, life altering works of art. But they are character pieces and audience gets that right away. Writing a rape scene is drastically different in this context than getting up in front of an audience and reciting a poem about you’re having been raped and it actually hadn’t happened. We can go on for days about what that creates with an audience and their relationship with that art form not to mention what that says about the individual. I get hat these are harsh examples of course, but the same can be applied to poets with stage names for instance. Again, I am not saying that this is a bad thing…what I am saying however is that when someone gets up on stage and announces that they are someone or something else, there automatically creates a separation between them as the individual and the audience. There is a level of integrity lost within that interaction from the onset of the experience. There’s no right or wrong being implied here…it just is
    Lastly, I think you are right in being “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.” That would be devastating and not my intent at all..hell I write poems from the perspective of being a sidewalk being trodden on , but I do believe that writers should start with examining the actual, the real, first. Conquer the tangible of themselves and their own experiences before moving into other realms so feverously. I think it important to understand the lens that you see the world in before changing the prescription. Similarly, we should be careful of how we position things we presume to hear to larger audiences…Case in point Raymond mentioned that he has said a few BS things in between poems etc…which suggest that what I did was the same ; however the full picture was not represented and so his response was based on one side of the conversation. He may very well still feel it was a BS thing to say ; which is, as he said, the beautiful thing about this, that we can all interact and converse with each other…so to that end I say again .. I appreciate the opportunity; it is just this man’s relationship to how and why he writes and is not for everyone,
    Life is a muscle that you train and try to get fit everyday – but it is a muscle nonetheless that fails at times, a process; and so everyday I learn, I regret, I fail. I press forward, take few steps back and then press on some more
    Thanks again
    Tshaka –aspiring human

    • Tshaka, myself, and everyone who reads this blog will appreciate the time you have taken to give such a full response. It shows this is a debate worth having – particularly with someone like yourself who has been writing and performing for a long time. It also shows that this quite quick bit of audience interaction was underpinned by a lot of thinking which was open to interpretation. But that’s the good thing about performing and criticising and debating.

      With the stage name and integrity I probably look – again, away from poetry – but to David Bowie, who found it very difficult as a younger man to write personal songs. It was only when he invented characters for him to live within that he was able to show who he was and connect on a deeper level with his audience.

      Finally, I know that this blog might be some people’s first knowledge of you, which I was concerned about, Hopefully, those people will check out your website http://www.naturalkink.com and experience your poems and find out about your work from there. Richard

  5. “I think it important to understand the lens that you see the world in before changing the prescription” – Great response Tshaka. I was also thinking of Patricia Smith’s persona pieces and you’re right, the approach is different – There will always be approaches that differ from our approach and achieve greatness – Art wouldn’t be what it is if there was one way to quality… I was also thinking of Remembering Jessica by Anthony Anaxagorou – I think he does a rape victim tastefully ie empathically. Anyway, you’re a don Tshaka, this was an interesting discussion.

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