One Saturday the BBC dedicates its Prime Time to an hour-long poetry recital. A skinny girl with striking features walks onstage. She is slightly reminiscent of Janis Joplin, a combination of someone from another era.
As she begins, you wonder how it was that an international channel decided to use its highest viewership time to promote poetry. But as her words start reaching deep into us, we start to see her taking over the stage. When she finishes, the entire audience is both mesmerized and intimidated.
Kate Tempest writes out loud. When she’s asked to read excerpts of her prose, she recites it like a rhapsody. She paces the rhythm to a screeching moment, makes gestures, closes her eyes a bit, uses her hand as a metronome, and almost starts to sing. She tells stories of gods and heroes not unlike a song from the time of Homer.
You were driving, I my legs were across your lap
I rolled your cigarettes while you rubbed your hand over my ankles,
And picked my foot up by the sole
To kiss in between my toes with your tongue
And I giggled as if I was a beautiful girl.
And as you sucked my toes and drove the car,
I dared myself to focus on the side of your face.
“Remebering the Way You Kissed Me Once”, Hold Your Own, 2014.
Hold Your Own is an epic poem, a genre that seemed doomed to be an anachronism. It tells the tale of the Greek myth of Tiresias. This character lives as both a male to then be transformed into female. Eventually Zeus and Hera require of Tiresias’ help to mediate a dispute, only to be then cursed with blindness and compensated as long-living prophet.
Kate Tempest uses the literary voice of Tiresias and sings through it to experience being both male and female. It’s through this detachment of having to be either or that she’s able to lyrically cross the epic format in order to tell a memoir of bullying, masculine appearance with a sensitive soul, and her homosexuality.
The voice traces her life’s events, leading her to become a modern Tiresias walking through London with the gift of clairvoyance that foretells the evils of social media, gentrification, postmodernism, relativism, as well as job insecurity and existentialism in the twenty-first century.
Kate Tempest howls verses that are born of the politics of the body, yet reach into the universal norms of contemporary society. Human empathy remains as the only refuge in the global battlefield. Kate Tempest has previously used this humanism that is both philological and philanthropic in her work based on classic literature: Brand New Ancients.
With origins in the underground circles of spoken word and improvisation, Kate Tempest poetics have fed from Sophocles, William Blake, James Joyce, Federico Garcia Lorca, Yeats, and even T.S. Elliot, to mature into a creation that updates literary heritage and brings it into the present.
This helped her conquer the 2014 Ted Hughes Poetry Award, making her the youngest winner of the prize. She also got the privilege of giving master classes at University College of London. Tiresias’ double and ambiguous gender also becomes a metaphor to the crossover literary genre that Tempest uses.
We could call her a poet, rapper, playwright, and novelist separately or conjunctionally. Words are the raw materials she then shapes to her will. Her songs have a rich conceptuality that match elevated literature. Her poetry has a musicality that seemed forgotten in the genre.
Her novel titled The Bricks that Built the Houses not only appears similar to a long prose poem that mixes theatrical scenes with lively dialogue; it’s also a parallel book-length version of her album. The step taken by Kate Tempest in Hip-hop is equal to the one Bob Dylan took when incorporating poetry into Pop music.
Europe is lost, America lost, London is lost,
Still we are clamouring victory.
All that is meaningless rules,
And we have learned nothing from history.
People are dead in their lifetimes,
Dazed in the shined of the streets.
But look how the traffic keeps moving.
The system’s too slick to stop working.
Business is good. And there’s bands every night in the pubs,
And there’s two for one drinks in the clubs.
“Europe is Lost”, 2015
This article was originally published in Clarín Magazine of New Literature.
Translated by María Suárez