Spoken word is "for everyone with a voice": Fay Roberts

Image credit: Fay Roberts

Fay Roberts, a performance artist, writer and logophile living in Cambridge, is raising the profile of underrepresented voices, and making art accessible to all.

Locally Roberts hosts the monthly open poetry slam Hammer & Tongue at the Cambridge Junction, as well as running Allographic, a platform for publishing and performance. I ask where they grew from. Hammer & Tongue is a series of events throughout the country and each month Cambridge is sent the headliner. Allographic was born out of the fact that the same kind of headliner kept appearing, Roberts explains. “You’re all great, I kept thinking, but you’re all white cisgendered men, and there’s only so many stories you can tell between you.”

Where were all the female artists, the queer artists and the artists of colour? It was out of this search for “other” voices that Allographic was born. “For the audience to see these other voices— that’s amazing. Representation matters so much, and unfortunately those people who are disproportionately represented don’t quite get the importance of seeing themselves reflected in art."

“Allographic is like an umbrella organisation for the various other things that we do locally,” Roberts tells me. The performance platform has a festival stage at Strawberry Fair every year, a tent dedicated to spoken word where you can dedicate your whole day to poetry. Roberts looks at me. “You easily can fill a whole day with poetry”.

As well as running local events, Roberts is one of the Artistic Directors for the Free Fringe at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and has also judged the BBC slam for a couple of years. I meet her in a local cafe booming Christmas songs above our heads, only just able to hear her quiet, poetic voice. I tell her I went to Hammer and Tongue last year and thought she did a great job of breaking the ice for the performers. “Well, gently melting it”, she corrects me, smiling. She is friendly, approachable and willing to talk about her success. It's largely from being cheeky, she tells me. “If you want to be a performance poet you have to look outside your geographical area, and outside your comfort zone. Go and see different types of poetry as well.”

Roberts has published 'The Speaking Strings', an album of solo and collaborative music and poetry, and a poetry pamphlet titled 'Spring'. She explains that her roots are in performance, and that for the most part she writes her own poetry for what it would sound like and how it would feel to say it: “I was a musician before I was a poet. So yeah it tends to be more about the rhythm of it.”

I'm intrigued by the musical accompaniment to her poems. I ask whether she writes her poetry to the music, or whether the music shapes her poetry. For the poems in 'The Speaking Strings', she tells me, the original idea was that Anaïs Bokanovsky, the harpist, was going to accompany poems that I’d already written. “But quite quickly she was doing warm ups and showing me the clever things she could do and I found myself writing stuff. I’ve done that before in collaboration with artists.”

“We built up a few things. Some of them were her improvising to my writing, and some of them were me writing to her music.” Roberts likes to create a dialogue between words and music; pieces with two perspectives. She explains, ‘I’m a singer and musician as well as a poet so it’s quite easy to have those conversations.”

Roberts's poetry is a mix of beautiful and haunting words. Her poem 'Logophilia' imagines finding the place where the images grow, and emerging bruised and cracked. Haunted by difficult rhythms, words are the ‘groans of her bones’. Talking to Roberts, I suspect that some of her poetry emerges from a painful place. She nods. “There are poems I’ve written only for me. Stephen fry in 'The Ode Less Travelled' talks about writing poetry, but he doesn’t share his own poetry because he wants it to be cathartic. I started that way. I still have stuff that I write to purge emotions”. Roberts often avoids performing these particular poems, however. “If you want to write to perform as shared art, for me, you generalise in a way that makes it more accessible to everyone.”

Spoken poetry has its roots in democratizing poetry. This is what drew Roberts to slam in the first place. “You’ll see slams where they have a panel of experts," she admits, "but that’s quite different to what slam originally was. Originally it was the audience saying how they felt about it.” What Roberts loves is when after a performance people run away with an image different to the one she had in her head. That’s when she feels like it’s worked; when her poetry has "spoken" to all.

Her plans for the future include resurrecting The Selkie, her first solo show featuring storytelling that has “a tick”. “I work with with an amazing visual artist who made some beautiful illustrations for it,” she tells me, “and I’ve got enough recording of it to go with a CD.” Roberts is also in the process of developing a fairly new festival ‘In Other Words’, which aims to bolster the reputation of less established voices. “That’s one of the things I get excited about— this art form is for everyone with a voice. If you don’t think you have a voice it’s about finding it.”

The next Hammer & Tongue is on the 5th January 2018. For more details go to http://www.hammerandtongue.com/cambridge/. To find out more about Fay Roberts's poetry go to http://www.fayroberts.co.uk/

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