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Sophia Blackwell

A Self-Portrait

Photo of Sophia Blackwell

‘Something’s got to give, and it’s the dress code.’
First line of my first Slam poem, performed at the Brickworks, December 2003

There we were, thirty twenty-somethings on a manicured ancient lawn, pretending we weren’t checking out each other’s gowns. I looked around, wondering if my black bat number looked suitably impressive and didn’t just dwarf me, ruin my carefully chosen outfit and look second-hand. It did. I tried to enjoy the privilege of standing in this secret, condensed Oxford – all creamy stone, winding stairs and lozenges of light. This was the building I’d been looking at the evening my best friend Ella and I got our Finals results. As we’d dipped our fingers in our bottles of Stella, written our names on the sandstone step of the Divinity School and watched them slowly fade, I had tried to imagine a life inside these walls.

Strange that All Souls College should be so soulless. What it offered was every Oxford Scholar’s dream-room, board and living expenses paid for ten years, if you passed the entrance exams and were selected to be that year’s Fellow. The place had been a running joke throughout my undergraduate life – I was the Girl Most Likely for three consecutive Yearbooks – one of which I edited, but what the hell. All Souls promised a life of academic prestige and financial security; had I been sure I wanted that, it would have been a dream. But I was bored, sweaty, and feeling out of my depth for the first time since Freshers’ Week. I was one of the few jobless candidates – I had my coveted double First, but I was waitressing for an agency that specialised in under-the-table pay and shameless exploitation of non-English speakers. It didn’t go far towards building me a post-college life, but then neither did spending a week knocking out hopeful offerings on medieval quatrains and wondering what to do when faced with a pie full of cherry stones and a rimless plate.

A year later I’d see the Canadian Slam poet Buddy Wakefield stir the Zodiac into a communal, pulpit UH-huh! when he asked, ‘Have you ever thought about living for a living?’ In my batgown, tweeds and safe-bet waitress shoes, all I could think about was how much I wished I’d worn my purple satin heels – they would have killed me, especially on those cobbles, but they’d have reminded me of how much I just wanted to live and kick all obstacles away with my pointy purple toes. But I wasn’t brave enough. At that point, I had so little that I had to cling to it. All Souls wasn’t what I wanted, but it felt like the last card in my hand.

I’m not complaining. I’d spent three happy years doing Oxford things – getting sloshed on cheap, heavy wine at Formal Halls, doing the Walk of Shame up the High in search of the nearest chocolate crossaint vendor, downing coffee and chain-smoking in front of my computer screen at 3am every week, rustling in ballgowns, toking on windowsills, punting, puking, making lifetime friends and losing them temporarily in pissed-up philosophical debates. I didn’t even have to cope with not excelling academically, which would have crushed my eighteen-year-old Girl Most Likely self-esteem before you could say ‘Mods’. I loved the work. When I’d stretched out on my oh-so-single bed, cracked open the first book on my course – Gerard Manley Hopkins – I’d fallen on the line, ‘Thou mastering me/God!’ and I was lost. But not to God – to words.

‘Now I’m catching the flak from these activists when they raggin’ actin’ like I’m the first rapper to smack a bitch or say “faggot”. Shit –
Just look at me like I’m your closest pal, poster-child, your motherfuckin’ spokesman now…’

Eminem, ‘White America’

I admit it gave me a kick to knock out this skipping-rhyme filth under the disapproving noses of the blokes in breeches on the walls, but I suspected – perhaps wrongly, to give the examiners their due – that actually answering the paper’s claim to coolness was tantamount to gobbing those cherry stones at the awful artwork. My fellow would-be Fellows had laughed – well, snorted tastefully – when we’d opened the papers and read question one, ‘Is Eminem the new Elvis?’ but it was the only time that week I got to draw on a store of knowledge deeper than York Notes. I love poetry, whatever form it takes, and despite my two X chromosomes, nervy English intellectualism and gayness, I’d managed to have Eminem in my life without really thinking about the ramifications. Having already managed that with God, a big-eared smart-arse with a fine line in rhymes wasn’t too hard to accommodate.

‘The thing is,’ one girl informed me earnestly when I admitted to taking the Eminem option, ‘they won’t know whether you’re right or not.’ After attending the post-exam reception pissed from an afternoon in the Turf wearing a Mexican bandit moustache my flatmates had bought me (which I just about remembered to take off), drinking bad English champagne in an overly fancy dress with a calligraphic nametag stuck to my right breast, then staggering into the evening and almost falling under a bus, I was pretty much convinced that I wasn’t right, whether or not Marshall Mathers was involved.

I blew off the waitressing agency, got a temp job carting piles of medical records, danced and drank and became slowly accustomed to paying the rent. When I got the too-thin cream envelope with its red wax crest, I wasn’t upset, but I knew I’d miss the poetry. Coming home from ceiling-high stacks of dusty files, I subjected myself to daily doses of highbrow literature and forced myself to write clever, heartless verses to keep my hand in, in the unlikely event that something inspired me. I didn’t enjoy it, but I needed poetry in my life and I couldn’t see any other way to have it.

‘When I say poetry you say RO-OCKS…Poetry!’
‘RO-OCKS!’
‘Poetry!’
‘RO-OCKS!’
Soul Evans, ‘The Personal is the Political’

The basement bar was crammed to capacity with people igniting like church candles as a hundred voices bawled their first call-response. Soul Evans, a tiny wound-tight dynamo, held the crowd as expertly as the mic. This was religion. It was sex. It was sensational, simplistic, and spiritual. It was Slam. Competitive performance poetry – a bizarre concept that actually worked, with the poets taking three minutes on the mic and judges from the audience holding up scorecards to a screaming counterpoint of abuse and applause. Why? Who knows, who cares, but I wanted this so badly I felt something open up in me. It was like being thirsty when I’d never tasted water and I couldn’t bear it or get enough of it or stay in the bar for much longer. When I staggered into the night my mouth was open wide like I wanted to eat the air, lyrics forming hollow pockets in my mouth and nestling under my tongue, ready to become poems. My ex-girlfriend and I sat in Oxford Thai drinking sweet and sour soup while the Slam continued to bubble and rage across the street. I said, ‘I’m going to do that.’ She didn’t laugh and I had to go through with it. I’ll always be grateful to her for that.

‘I’m proud to be a homo – though I tend to slam the scene.
Sometimes I wish I was a bloke. Then I could be a queen.’
‘Proud’, first performed on a barge on the Thames, October 2004

I could say my sexuality’s incidental to my poetry, but it isn’t. It’s incidental to my life. The more I become a part of this world, the more I worry about how honest I can be. I don’t look at myself in the mirror every morning and think ‘Yep…still gay,’ but it still impacts on every single day – sometimes I enjoy sending covert text-messages and playing pronoun pool, sometimes when the girls at work talk endlessly about Him I want to talk endlessly about Her, or I want to tell that guy on the bus exactly why I can’t go out for a drink with him. It means that sometimes I keep quiet when I should speak out and sometimes I climb onto my soapbox and preach to the converted – and until I see the reaction from my audience, whoever they are, I never quite know which is right.

When my friends were tearing boy-band posters out of Just Seventeen, I was making suspect collages with the mini-skirted models, but that doesn’t mean that homosexuality was really what I’d wanted for myself. Being a lesbian went against my ideals of womanhood, the Roman Catholic religion I was raised in, and how I’d imagined my future. It was far from ideal, but as I had lovely friends, an indestructible sense of myself and parents who should probably be canonised, I’ve had it easier than most.

I wrote my first Slam poem out of frustration with the way the world sees me, but the big gay tart in me knew that outing myself would get me the crowd’s attention. Holding it, though, was a different matter. Of everyone I’ve ever come out to, I’d say about ten per cent of them believed me straight away. I was curious about what a basement full of strangers would do.

‘I think about it all the time, but sex – no,
My soul it’s not, my soul has got
No dress code.
I feel like me, not cock or cunt
No braced bloke’s back or lipsticked front
And no hard facts to bear the brunt
Of how or why I’m here.’
‘No Dress Code’, December 2003

They laughed. Not only that, they cheered, they gave me the night’s highest scores and they said I rocked the mic. I had literally never been so afraid – the fear of getting on stage was like a physical pain pressing on me, but the minute I opened my mouth it vanished. This was different to everything I’d ever had – as I spoke I was exploring, seeing clear-eyed and less afraid. It felt like growing up’s supposed to feel.

That night I got my first gig – £30 to perform at a night in Leamington – and was invited to become part of the Oxford Slam crew. I went home and tried to explain it, make it into a story, but it broke into fragments even as I tried to pull it together. I wasn’t sure what had just happened, but before I fell asleep, I thought – my life is going to change. I know it.

‘But even dressed in their righteous best
Any poet’s got to fake it,
that they’re not waiting for that shout
not praying someone won’t cry out
That in fact they’re bollock naked…’
‘Outro’, first performed at Slak Bar, Cheltenham, November 2004

As my friend A. F. Harrold wrote in a BBC article, the first rung on the performance poetry ladder is impressively broad and unbelievably blinkered. My new Poet status was such a boost to my self-confidence that I felt like I could take on the world. I couldn’t – I burned the candle at both ends and a few ones it didn’t have, did a few crap gigs – though I’ve never done one, no matter how bad, where I didn’t learn anything – got fired from one of my temping McJobs and tried to get back with my first love. If anyone’s thinking about doing that, all I can say is, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If it never worked, don’t try.

‘I can’t keep plotting tests for you,
I need to grab your mask
And jettison the rest of you,
I’m past caring what’s best for you,
I just want you to be suicidal too –
Is that too much to ask?’
‘Pull it In’, first performed at the Hammer and Tongue Finals, April 2004

I was still the Girl Most Likely – how could I fail? But while I was bruised by my mistakes, they taught me that human beings sacrifice a hell of a lot for the sake of convenience, and that failure was not as dramatic, or painful, as I’d expected. I spent a blissful month lazing around in the sun writing fundraising proposals in the company of poets, activists and other vegetarians, performing lazily around Oxford, dancing by bonfires and frolicking in hot-tubs – unemployment scared me, but I realised there were worse things and temping was probably one of them. When I stuck with things that I knew weren’t working, I’m not sure whether I was lazy, scared, or just desperate to be vindicated, but none of that is worth basing a life around.

Feelings are a mystery to me. I’ll never understand the tiny shifts that make hopeless longings recede and life more bearable. I love that feeling of realising some old hurt has gone, like waking up when you’ve broken a fever. The human capacity for change and endurance amazes me, as does the speed with which we write people off. When I strut on to the stage and start laying down the law about what I wear, who I shag and what I believe in, I’m making it too easy for people to box me in even while I rant about resisting definition.

I still cling to the things I know about myself – and shout them loudly – but I no longer do it because I’m worried I’ll disappear if I don’t, or that there’s an abyss yawning under me which I’m constantly trying to bridge. These days, the world holds me up and I want only what one of my favourite writers, Raymond Carver, asked from life: ‘To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.’ Sometimes I just want to walk up to strangers and put my arms around them. I’m not sure if this is worth acting on. Particularly in Oxford.

As for the first love, it wasn’t. Letting go was hard, but even if it hadn’t been a blessing in disguise, it would have been worth it. Once I stopped guarding old hurts, a new part of my life opened up in front of me like a whole wide night, and I was finally ready.

‘In the raw heat of hunger I let my hands burn,
To the sheets I first stained I can’t help but return.
...For time that’s unmeasured, the world still untamed,
For the part of my heart that’s never ashamed,
In the hope that I’ll stop saying no.’
‘Buying Tomatoes’, first performed at WOMAD, Berkshire, July 2004

I’d never made the first move in my life, but I turned round from the bottle I was opening and threw myself at her like a guided missile. Afterwards, she told me how she used to look at me in the few lectures we both attended. She’d been across the world and come back – we couldn’t believe our luck. In the half-light of Sunday evening she trailed strings of cowrie shells over my belly, their lips tight-shut, their white surfaces glowing like tiny moons. I looked down and thought of sand dunes, the sea lapping the limits of the earth.

These days we take it one day at a time – what else can we do? One night I kept waking up, restless, jangling, sodden with sadness. Half-asleep, she scooped me into her arms and said, ‘This feels so right,’ and it was, and we slept. I’ve always been a ferocious guard of my personal space, blaming only-childhood for all my anti-social sins. Now I’m starting to wonder if life’s too short for that. New feelings are waking up in me and I’m exhilarated and frightened – I don’t know what I’ll do with them if this doesn’t work out. Write poems, probably.

‘I’m Miss America and the missiles women threw,
the ringmaster, the circus, and the audience too,
I can take you up and shake you
And still make you feel just fine,
I can break and I can shape you,
One day at a time.’
‘Love in Rehab’, first performed at Glastonbury, June 2004

Without Slam I would never have known how it felt to be on a team (I’m atrocious at sport) particularly not with an ex-Air Force officer, an activist DJ and a fabulous single mum actress who dresses like Tank Girl. I would not have been able to stage my own night at the Zodiac with a lesbian vampire cabaret artist, a hardcore young London MC, a Caribbean poet-storyteller and a whole host of women who told their stories, opened their hearts and, in the case of two women, got their boobs out. I would not have bombed along country lanes in a big blue van belting out ‘Birdhouse in Your Soul’, while cramming the driver’s face with Bakewell slices, recited a three-part meditation on tomatoes on the One World stage at WOMAD, got stoned and eaten kebabs with Jean Binta Breeze, or promoted a magazine at Christ Church dressed up as Anais Nin (or so I liked to imagine).

I would not have made the connections that allowed me to practice ‘Radical Feminist Self-Defence’, in Graham Greene’s old summer house or bang bells in a political samba band or fake orgasms in the Vagina Monologues (I played a lesbian dominatrix sex-worker. Clearly those twenty-three years of method acting paid off).

I would not have got to say, ‘Hello Glastonbury!’ – even if I did only say it to about thirty other poets in a small stripy tent – and then, relieved and drained, gone down to the Pyramid stage in time to hear Groove Armada performing ‘At The River’, as the rain finally let up and the sun shone through the clouds, embraced by a crowd of thousands, friends at my sides, spliff in my hand, painfully sweet trumpet solo spiralling into the new blue sky. It made me feel how Philip Larkin must have felt when he wrote about Sidney Bechet’s clarinet: ‘On me your voice falls as they say love should,/Like an enormous Yes.’

I would be a different person if I hadn’t picked up a mic in a basement eighteen months ago. I’d have learned most of the things I know now, but I might not, even for three minutes, have lived for a living.

‘To screaming as you dive, when you choose to lose the ledges.
To running like you’re five and the playground’s lost its edges.
To all the things that make you hold yourself in a hug and roll on the rug
and bellow like a baby in a church
To make the ground lurch and the sky shake.
To that, and cake.’
‘Things I’m Not Afraid Of’, first performed at the Rising Sun Cafe, Reading, January 2005

I don’t want to forget why I write – because I enjoy it and part of me is still a little girl making books out of sugar paper. Sometimes the stress and stage-fright of Slam overwhelm its triumphs and I worry too much about writing – how it’ll be received, which editors will reject it, what number some stranger in the audience is going to be holding up. I’m grateful when I finish a poem, as though it’s an article or essay. I have to remember that’s not what it’s all about, and that in this business, poems don’t ever really end.

‘If I speak
With the tongues of angels and men, then that’s all very well,
But without love my voice is weak, and I clank and creak like a rusted bell.
I can speak about joy and sorrow, I can speak about life and death,
But if I speak without love, if I live without love, then my words are a waste of breath.’
‘Angels and Men’, in progress, April 2005

I never felt the urge to write a portrait because I’m like a poetic Frida Kahlo, portraying endless differently costumed versions of myself. I also always felt that a finished self-portrait presupposed some journey ended, and it’s just too hard, particularly for a closet hack like me, to resist giving my life some novelistic roundness, tying up the threads so they make something nice and self-explanatory. But if my life is anything, it’s a Slam poem – organic, moulded, imitative, a mass of fragments from other people’s words and visions, tailored to some expectations and sticking two fingers up at others. Maybe if people don’t laugh I’ll change the tone, and if they start applauding before I’m done I hope I’ll have the sense to cut that last verse. I’m happy to stand up against the clock, not always coherent, appropriate or enlightening, but reaching out to people and sometimes catching them. But this is not a story. This is not the end.

April 2005

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You can see a video of Sophia and her Hammer and Tongue contemporaries performing at http://www.guppyart.com/hammer. For information about Sophia’s upcoming gigs, email sophpoet@aol.com.

Hammer and Tongue presently takes place on the first Tuesday of every month, but Hammer and Tongue’s regular contenders – known informally as the ‘Fluid Group’, do lots of special events in Oxford and throughout the UK. To find out more about Hammer and Tongue, check out the blogspot at http://hammerandtongue.blogspot.com and the website at http://www.hammerandtongue.co.uk. Information about Hammer and Tongue’s co-founders can be found at http://www.stevelarkin.com and http://jimsnail.blogspot.com/. For details about Hammer and Tongue events, e-mail poetry@hammerandtongue.org.

Information about the Slam poets mentioned in this portrait can be found at http://www.livepoets.com/buddywakefield.htm, http://www.soulevans.com, and http://uk.geocities.com/afharrold75/. Other must-see Slam poets who often visit the UK include Taylor Mali (http://www.taylormali.com), Dawn Saylor (http://www.livepoets.com/Poet.aspx?id=72) and Mahogany Browne (http://www.mobrowne.com). And if you want to see what a lesbian cabaret vampire looks like, you can find her at http://www.rosielugosi.co.uk.