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Kate Tempest: 'I like to play where the stakes are high'


The poet on her Ted Hughes award – and performing inside Holloway prison

Kate Tempest has spent most of the afternoon sitting near the bar at London's Southbank Centre, nursing a glass of water and scribbling ideas and phrases into a notebook. She's currently writing a novel, a rap album, a musical set in a women's prison: "Lots of very different, very scary worlds," she says, laughing, "but I think it's important to push yourself."

Her speech gathers momentum when she warms to a theme, and she warms to plenty. "Why not write a novel if you've got an idea and feel you can do it? And why not make an album if you're that way inclined and you've got a great idea?" The momentum stops abruptly and she laughs. "But saying that, I feel petrified about this musical."

Tempest is best known for her mesmerising, rap-inspired performance poetry; in March her south London-set epic Brand New Ancients, which reimagines the classical gods as two modern families, won the Ted Hughes award for new work, making the 26-year-old the first person under 40 to receive it. When she started writing in her mid-teens, she would push herself to perform anywhere. At grime and hip-hop nights she'd demand the mic from the MC, then she'd rap on the night bus home.

She still loves the rawness and immediacy of delivering her poetry in unusual settings. "What's exciting is playing somewhere where the stakes are higher. Poetry and theatre audiences can be so sympathetic, which is great. But in rap, if you fuck up they'll let you know about it."

Tempest recently performed to female inmates in Holloway prison, an experience that inspired her musical. "I wanted to connect with these women. And I felt this familiar fire that I used to feel when I was rapping – this eagerness and this sense of the importance of telling and being heard."

The Ted Hughes prize brought its own buzz. After finding out she'd been shortlisted, she allowed herself one triumphalist tweet: "And people love to say 'performance' poets aren't proper. Yes Mate."

"Terrible use of language, isn't it?" she half laughs, half cringes. "Ted Hughes will be rolling in his grave. But it's a huge thing, not just for me but for people who are passionate about literature and writing but have come to it from a different place. This is the literary establishment, and I thought I'd never be accepted by it. But if you're a poet, part of you always aches to be accepted by it, and suddenly it's opening its arms."

Kate Tempest performs Brand New Ancients at the Traverse in Edinburgh from 20 to 25 Aug. From next month she tours the show as part of BAC's Collaborative Touring Network

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