Speech, stammering and slam poetry

To celebrate the launch of SLAMbassadors 2016, spoken word artist Kareem Parkins-Brown talks about speech, stammering and his journey into slam poetry

Kareem performing at the SLAMbassadors sessions
Kareem performing at the SLAMbassadors sessions

I hated my stammer, hated it like an audible birthmark, but at the same time I am grateful for it because it forced imagery into the way I spoke as a kid. I stammered since I was four, since it caused me to scavenge the easiest sounds at the time to avoid embarrassment, often leading to weird words being put together. I remember at around 6 years old saying my brain wants to throw up instead of I’ve got a headache or my leg’s got TV static rather than pins and needles. I guess that’s where it started. Imagery was important to me from the start, subconsciously, because it helped me to really articulate the way I felt. I also loved it because I felt good imagery helped to make poetry a real spectator’s sport – I didn’t want people thinking poetry was boring.

In Brown PinkGrey, I just wanted to make a collage really. I was at university at the time, with a lot going on. I was also bored with what my university poetry syllabus was supplying me with. I had just written for a show called Howl 2.0, centred around Alan Ginsberg’s poem. I really liked that the poem felt like a collage of a time, and I think that’s what my poems have increasingly become – a collage of what’s going on. The headlines of Kareem.

‘Nan Nan says the tongue is pink when we’re born/because it’s uncooked, but if it’s still pink when we’re grey/it is because we didn’t speak with enough fire.’ When I read that line now I remember my Grandma was the midwife who delivered me, and was the first person to hold me. It also refers to her story of a fire blazing up the dry grass towards her home in Jamaica, while she stood at the gate yelling at it to move. It did.

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I am what I read, David Berman has been the brightest influence on me recently. He made me want to use humour. In his poem, ‘The Charm of 5:30‘, he seems to combine imagery and humour accurately as choosing which number to stop on when changing the volume.

Sometimes the humour in my pieces is deliberate, but I think humour and imagery both come from the same place of looking at things afresh – defamiliarising them. If I want to deliberately use something funny for the emotional structure of the poem and I can’t think of something, personal experience is an endlessly renewable resource. I’ve always had those friends and family members that will laugh at you when you fall over, so I learned to laugh at myself before anyone else could.

Freewriting is my favourite tool. It works for me because it’s about relinquishing control, which is hard for me. But it leads to happy accidents. It’s an exercise that can be remixed to fit the writer. Having a picture, a line, a sound as a starting point or a constant referral point, for example. I’ll put a film on mute and have that as a constant referral point. With a sense tuned out I can engage it with fresh eyes because I can focus on what I see. I think to come up with good images – images that are an accurate portrayal of an emotion or idea and beautiful – I just have to be present in the flow of work. The dream of inspiration finding me whenever I wish is long dead.

In terms of writers whose imagery inspires me, I would say Patricia Smith, Terrance Hayes (darkest influence on me), Danez Smith. I adore them all, however Patricia Smith especially knows how to embody the voice of her poem’s subject which breeds gorgeous imagery. They’re people that, as Ross Sutherland described, make me go “I didn’t know you were even allowed to do that” which is what, if anything, I’m usually aiming for. (If you get to go to a Ross Sutherland workshop, go to it. Trust me).  

You can find me on Soundcloud and on Twitter @Kareempbrown

Do you want to start your journey into spoken word? Or impress the rest with your performance prowess? Find out more about entering SLAMbassadors, The Poetry Society’s spoken word competition for 12-18 year olds.

Read about how hip hop artist Scroobius Pip also found that his stutter helped his creativity.

Published June, 2016

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