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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Brockwell Park: the bleak version

“O what a beautiful morning,” said Gary From Leeds

A couple of Saturdays ago, I was stood in the middle of Brockwell Park for an appointment with Gary From Leeds and photographer Susannah Ireland. It had been mild all week and not bad earlier that morning, but now the weather, in respect for a Yorkshireman in a municipal park facility, had pulled out the freezing cold and driving rain.

Gary was there, enjoying the bleak weather, in tune, as it was, with his general outlook on life. Susannah was there, a woman used to being sent out to all manner of grim and unpromising destinations for her day job as news photographer for the Times. So it was just me amongst us who wondered whether doing a photo shoot in these conditions was a good idea.

I wanted to suggest a postponement, when Gary pulled out a 35-metre length of yellow rope from his bag. “I thought we’d tie ourselves up in this,” he said with an enthusiasm he usually only shows when talking about David Batty.

Susannah, who as a brilliant photographer has a taste for the diabolical and downright weird, then wrapped the rope around Gary and I, saying, “If you want it to look good, it’ll have to be tight.”

When the two of us looked like characters Samuel Beckett might have created if he was being particularly unkind, Susannah began snapping. For the next hour, with the weather worsening, she trooped us about the park until we are both the very definition of dishevelled.

We were there because Gary and I are planning a spoken word show at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and needed some publicity shots. It is called ‘The Long and the Short of it’ and will essentially be a poetical journey covering key topics such as food, fonts, ring-roads and death. It will have facts, lists and statistics and perhaps the odd limerick.

And if this photo shoot is anything to go by, it will be a bit of a struggle to create, but the end result should be pretty good.

Never knowingly unpretentious: my approach to posing.
“I’ll play Napoleon and you play Talleyrand.”