Kate Tempest – the first person under 40 to win the Ted Hughes award for innovation in poetry – explains how hip-hop, rap and raves led her to write an hour-long spoken story set to music
On paper, Kate Tempest sounds like the product of a worthy grant or a knowing Portlandia sketch. A 26-year-old white woman from an impoverished London borough, doing urban performance poetry with a whiff of social commentary. It all seems a bit naff.
But anyone who has seen her on stage knows she is one of the brightest British talents around. Her spoken-word performances have the metre and craft of traditional poetry, the kinetic agitation of hip-hop and the intimacy of a whispered heart-to-heart.
At a time when pop music is largely muted on social issues, Tempest deals bravely with poverty, class and consumerism. She does so in a way that not only avoids the pitfalls of sounding trite, but manages to be beautiful too, drawing on ancient mythology and sermonic cadence to tell stories of the everyday. Like Mike Skinner, when he sat on the top floor of a tower block and promised to "use war and past injury as my metaphor and simile", or Allen Ginsberg yelling at his legendary Six Gallery reading of Howl, Tempest understands that the power of language is as much in the telling as the script.
Last month she became the first person under 40 to win the Ted Hughes award for innovation in poetry. She won for her piece Brand New Ancients, an hour-long "spoken story" with orchestral backing, in which Tempest imagines a world where we are all gods. The ceremony was held at the lavish Savile Club and presented by the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy.
A week later at London's Southbank Centre, Tempest recalls her surprise at winning. "When they were reading out descriptions of the other work that had been nominated I was just convinced there was no way," she says. "And then, when they were like, 'Kate's the one that's done best,' I just burst out laughing, I just couldn't believe it."
She is about to perform at Hayward Gallery's Light Show exhibition, for which eight poets have been commissioned to write a response to a specific installation. Sitting in the bar beforehand, Kate is dressed in Adidas tracksuit and trainers, every word she says doused in her south London lilt.
"Since I was a child, listening to albums and reading books, they would be expressing things in these works that spoke directly to me; things I couldn't talk to my friends about or weren't spoken about in my neighbourhood, but these kind of eternal, human things." For someone so commanding on stage, she speaks slowly and with long hesitation. But it's not shyness, she is just doing what she does best: choosing her words. "I don't really care whether it's a rap that I'm hearing from a guy on a street corner or if it's William Blake or a trumpet solo. There is something wonderful about the artistic temperament and people that make real honest work – it's heartwrenching."
Tempest grew up in Brockley ("what I've always loved about south-east London is that it's a bit shit and it's never going to be anything other than a bit shit"). She was obsessed with books and reading, and always had a desire to perform. When she discovered hip-hop, it ignited her passion for language and rhythm. She would spend hours in her local record shop as a teenager, listening to Wu-Tang Clan, Roots Manuva and local grime artists.
"Then I started going out to hip-hop clubs. With rappers, you've got nothing, just your bars [lyrics]. And you want to show your bars are the biggest. I went mad for two years, I could not be shut up. At raves, somebody would be on stage and I would be like, 'Nah, this guy needs to see me rap,' and I'd try and wrestle the microphone. Especially with the way I looked, I was invisible. But what I could do once I had the microphone … it was a really infectious feeling of changing people's minds and suddenly being part of something, suddenly being respected."
Now she also dabbles in playwriting and rap, and is in the band Sound of Rum. On the day she won the Ted Hughes award, she arrived straight from Holloway women's prison where inmates had been watching her perform. "I finished one poem and they just started hollering. I realised that these phrases, which were never supposed to be about incarceration, were exactly about that. They were just landing in this particular way because of where I was and who I was talking to."
Not all the responses to her work have been positive. The poet Nathan A Thompson wrote in the Independent last month that most performed poems "are not strong enough to be published in even minor poetry journals". Tempest says: "One university lecturer played a video of me performing What We Came After, ironically a poem about reclaiming language from the academies. Then he read the poem out himself and said, 'See it's not a poem, because when I read it, it doesn't sound like that. So she's not a poet and 100 years from now no one will know who she is.'"
That's pretty dark. "I know, right!" she says, half-laughing. "People think if you're a performance poet you can get away with being a shit poet because you're a good performer. But there's nothing more wonderful than being told a story by somebody and being able to tell that they're genuine."
Something about Tempest's manner, even in conversation, gives you the sense of immediate intimacy. She says she puts everything into her poetry, but is she also the sort of person other people want to tell their secrets to?
"Yes. All the time. And total strangers. When you're just on stage … you're saying this stuff about what you've been through or where you're going or how you feel. So many people come over and say, 'I've been through this too.' People just want to talk. It's weird, when I've just come off stage and you're trying to have a really serious heart-to-heart with a stranger but someone else is waiting to have another heart-to-heart. Sometimes I wake up the next day after a gig and think: 'What the fuck did I tell all those people?'"
We head to Tempest's performance. Her poem is inspired by Leo Villareal's Cylinder II, and, without showing disrespect to the art, she questions the whole notion of looking at light in a darkened room when so much is going on outside. "In here, I'd stared at the lights until my eyes hurt, And it felt like shopping or watching adverts. Out there, with the sky and the space I could see. The colours and shapes and they burned bright for me."
When she has finished the whole atmosphere of the exhibition has changed. Whatever conclusion the crowd might have drawn, what's striking is that Tempest's poem couldn't be ignored: the conviction and drama of her performance forced a reaction and coloured the rest of the evening.
Performance poetry is a form shaped by John Cooper Clarke, Gil Scott-Heron and Linton Kwesi Johnson, but not yet canonised as one of the major arts. Perhaps the most exciting thing about Tempest is how unclear her future is. Unlike Skinner or Ginsberg, she is playing not just with thoughts and verse, but the conventions of performance itself.