INTERVIEW BY ANDY KOVACIC
Art by Issy Milner
Lover of words, chocolate (and rap battles), Harry Baker is the poet that makes us smile. He might be likened to a travelling bard of the 21st-century. He is a performative poet, an expressive reader, and he shares his words in unique and interactive ways. At live recitals, Harry sandwiches his poetry readings with slices of his own comedic skits. The inventive combination of poetry and comedy in his shows makes for flavourful and entertaining performances for those lucky enough to attend his gigs. Most recently, Harry completed a national tour around the United Kingdom to celebrate the publication of his poetry collection titled Unashamed (2022).
Just like his personality, Harry's poetry is charged with energy and emotion. He often writes from a place of vulnerability and curiosity. His poetry is a flowing river of words that inspire wonderment, meditation, change and dialogue. Transformation and discovery, twin flames, are universal themes that can be read in almost all of Harry's writings; his performative scripture seems bound by these two powerful tenets.
It’s not by picking and choosing these smaller parts of ourselves - it’s about celebrating the fullness of who we are.
For new readers, Harry Baker is an award-winning wordsmith. He was crowned as the youngest Poetry World Slam Champion in 2012. Since then, he has performed for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, BBC Radio, TEDx and many others. He has published two poetry collections: Unashamed (2022) and The Sunshine Kid (2014). And his most recent collaboration has been with Ukraine for a project titled NOT LITTLE THÏNGS. This forthcoming book will publish an epic poem written by Harry from the stories of the Ukrainian people in their times of great resistance and solidarity in current and ongoing war. Harry shares more about this special project and what it means to him in our conversation to come.
In this interview, we discuss ideas surrounding transformation and discovery in terms of Harry's own personal and professional growth as a full-time poet, writer, and artist.
Read on for the Oxford Review of Books x Harry Baker exclusive interview:
HARRY, WHAT IS YOUR READING RECOMMENDATION FOR THIS WEEK?
What is your earliest memory of poetry?
My earliest memory of poetry is reading Don't Put Mustard in the Custard as a child and loving the rhymes. My earliest memory of writing a poem is, I think, when I was eleven or twelve. My school had a poetry competition where the theme was 'a vision for the future' but one of prizes was a box full of chocolate. So my vision of the future was that you could win some chocolate and I wrote a poem all about chocolate and I got a box of chocolate at the end of it and I thought poetry is cool because it gets you free chocolate and I've never looked back since, however, there hasn't been as much chocolate as I'd hoped.
What attracts you to spoken word?
When I started writing, I loved listening to music lyrics and especially rap music so I would write stuff that felt very rhythmic that I would do over music that my friends were playing and then I went to a poetry open mic night and realised that I wasn't very good at rapping! But also, there was a freedom that came from just the words being spoken and the ability to convey the emotion that you wanted to and switch up the pace and make people laugh and make people think and give people goosebumps so it was that emphasis on the live element and the connection with people in the room and I think when I can perform my poems on stage I feel like I can be 100% myself and lean into my sense of humour and my personal beliefs and my nerdy technical love of language and everything in between and so I think spoken word was the medium or the genre that I first felt truly able to do that - it felt like a very expansive experience.
Do you remember your first performance?
My first performance...if we're not counting submitting the chocolate poem? (laughs) My first performance was at my school's 'Battle of the Bands' competition. Friends would do covers of their favourite songs but me and my friend Luke rewrote the lyrics to Jay Z's "99 Problems" to change it to be "I've got 99 Problems but Maths ain't 1" complete with an 81-digit π solo and I loved it! It was so much fun: it was like a High School Musical moment, everyone got behind us. I remember going to a poetry open mic night and thinking maybe I could do this without any music and call it a poem so I did and it was much more low key - there was no music, no friend loop there for back up and very little applause at the end. But that sense of sharing something and getting a reaction for it; initially it was just about entertaining my friends but then it became a way of processing the world and trying to share more personal vulnerable stuff too.
How do you approach writing a new poem?
With a mix of terror and excitement (laughs). I think, overtime, I've gotten much more refined at the writing process: once I've got an idea it comes more naturally in terms of shaping the language and putting it together. I think that initial moment of trying to figure out what it is you want to say and how it is you want to say it can feel a bit like staring into an abyss. And once there is that initial spark, whether that is a turn of phrase or story I've come across, it then feels like you're floating on air - it feels like everything is possible; there'll be this massive, sprawling mind map that comes out of it forming these words in this order that's never been done before. Trying to express something in the most perfect way you can is a genuinely thrilling thing to be able to do and then it's a moment of editing it down and trying to get it just right; trying to say everything you want to say in the most elegant way that you can and then it's a sense of sharing it and seeing if it works or not. But that initial process, once that spark comes, is one of my favourite bits.
How does art inspire your writing?
I'm incredibly inspired by other artists, in particular performance - whether it's music or theatre or spoken word: the way that people express themselves. And I'm especially excited when that almost spills over from their work into their personalities or the way they live their life. I think these days the art and the artist feel more intertwined than ever. So, for example, (laughs) at the time of recording I was lucky enough to see Lizzo at the weekend and it was just...I think I cried about six times. Not only do I love her music but I think as a lyricist she's one of the funniest and most interesting people that I can think of in that genre. The way she holds herself, the way she carries the stage, felt more exciting to me than the art in the galleries in Paris when I was there so I think that the live element of it is what excites me about art but especially I think when someone can express something that feels like it comes from within and they can convey that in a way that an audience or a reader can then get something from it (whether or not it was the thing that was initially intended): that conveying of the human spirit.
What's it like on the road as an independently touring poet?
I love touring. I really missed it when we were in lockdown. I missed the sense of being in amongst other people and I think doing it at home via laptop's not quite the same and part of that is, you know, I feel fortunate enough that on this last tour I did forty shows and I didn't stay in a single hotel room, you know, I managed to blag it either with friends or friends of friends a couple of strangers (laughs) who would come to the gig anyway but I think it was that, that search for human connection and I think because in my work I try to be open and honest and share the joys of life but also some of the hardships, people feel like they know you already. I think if you can give out that sense of openness and spirit of generosity...for this last year I made tickets free for all of my shows if people needed it to be and people responded well to that and said, "Well okay, if we can help keep costs down for you, you can sleep on our sofa." So, that sense of touring is when it feels like it goes beyond the show itself.
I think just an excuse to see people around the country, to see wonderful places, to have some delicious food (laughs) before the gigs, but yeah I think it's that, that being in a room and sharing this thing that I've worked on for the last few years and to feel like it is met by people there that is the whole reason why I do what I do so I love it.
I think in terms of being independent...it's hard to describe what I do, it's hard to explain what I do and so trying to do it via a big touring agency they just didn't get it and it felt like they would help but they got in the way and they would never have understood giving tickets away for free or doing school visits on the way. I think doing it myself it feels like there's a lot of agency there and so I can make it work for me and do it so it's mostly gigs on Wednesdays and Thursdays (laughs) so I can be home for the weekend.
Do you have any pre/post-gig rituals?
In terms of rituals before a gig, I find it quite difficult to eat so I'll sort of just be a bit ill. I drink lots of water, need to go for a week, drink some more water...sort of question why I still feel like this when I've been doing it for so long. I've got a pre-show playlist. My latest tour was called Unashamed and so it was just a series of songs that I felt encapsulated that - so quite a lot of feel-good bangers and that helped get me in the mood.
Post-show...I will pack up my merch in my trusty wheelie case, my posters and my books, and I will have a single beer (laughs) because I didn't want to drink it before the show and I'll just decompress and I'll probably fall asleep on a train. So it's pretty rock n' roll stuff.
Where did the idea of a standup comedy/poetry recital come from?
I started performing through poetry slams where you have three-minutes to do your poem. There's not really time for introduction or context or anything, you have to just let it speak for itself and you have to make an impact, however that is, through your poem - people hear it and by the end of it they want to give you a high score. And then I went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for the first time and I loved it, it's still one of my favourite places in world, and actually that was a sense of how do I fill an hour with my poems? And you know a lot of them are three-minutes long because of these slams but how do I link them together? And it was through doing that, you know I think the first time I went up I did eight shows - doing the same show eight days in a row - working out the storytelling in between and realising, actually, rather than me like doing these really polished poems that I've worked ages on and then being a fumbling mess in between what if I tried to pay as much care and attention into the way that I'm framing it? And actually the storytelling becomes a much apart of it.
I realised that, you know, there's points where the introduction of a poem is as long as the poem itself and is essentially a five-minute standup routine. If you can put people at ease and give them a sense of where you're coming from then they're more ready to receive the poem then if it's just being blasted out of nowhere. Some poems need less context and that's fun to do as well but the craft of putting together an hour show made me realise it could be something bigger than: here's a poem, here's a poem, here's a poem.
Through being up there I got to meet lots of other stand ups who I love. I respect what they do because they don't have any poems between to fall back on. I think that art of storytelling and the broader arc of slotting poems together felt really exciting to me and that's what I love about touring too.
Talk us through your project NOT LITTLE THÏNGS
NOT LITTLE THÏNGS is a project that has been in the works for almost a year I guess since the war in Ukraine started, a creative out there reached out and said look we need all the help we can get, you're good with words can you write us something? And we had a back and forth about what that might look like but it ended up being him putting together a google document of individual stories of resistance and of the Ukrainian spirit, just surprising everyone except the Ukrainians as they’ve always had this sense of stoicism and almost dark humour.
Things like a woman took out a drone by throwing a jar of tomatoes at it or there was a guy who made sure he evacuated all of the kangaroos from the zoo and just had a truck full of them or a guy who carried a landmine out of the roads so someone could pass while it was activated and he’s smoking a cigarette as he does it - all of these incredible individual moments that just had me in bits reading them and so it was a real privilege for me to just try and slot them together in one cohesive piece and it just got longer and longer as war went on because more of these stories kept coming out.
We were working on the best way to share it and actually they wanted to wait until the one year anniversary to announce it and so what we’ve done. This epic stories of stories is being printed by a Ukrainian publisher and released as a book to raise funds for the Ukrainian people but also they’re going to make a video about it. What I love is that on each page of the book is a QR code where you can find out more about these individual stories, kind of like a Genius.com equivalent. I loved it and I’m so excited to see it. If you get a chance check out their website or their instagram page (notlittlethings.in.ua) because they’ve just made it look stunning and its a genuine honour to be apart of this project.
Your newest book is called Unashamed. What do you explore in this collection?
My latest collection is about the idea of filling to rather than fitting in. About trying to be the best version of yourself and how, for me, that looked like leaning into your quirks rather than trying to hone them down to be this more accessible version of who you think people want you to be. A large thread in the book is looking at the maths and poetry together. For a long time, I thought they had to be separate but actually I exist in the middle of that Venn diagram and when you add in my love of German and my love of puns and all of these different things actually it’s not by picking and choosing these smaller parts of ourselves - it’s about celebrating the fullness of who we are. The poem at the end of it called ‘Unashamed’ embodies that and that’s what I wanted my latest tour to be about as well. I’ve loved the way the people have responded to it and I think it came for me from this sense of lockdown and having the whole world shrink and I was shrinking with it and realising I was able to rebuild myself in part because I felt like I had a support network that enabled me to do that and friends I could be vulnerable with; friends who believed in me when I wasn’t in a place where I could believe in myself. It’s very personal in that sense but I think a lot of the themes feel more universal in terms of working out where you fit in amongst the world. And in amongst it there’s also some cracking standalone pieces about falafel and my knees and swimming so…something for everyone!
Choose one poem from this collection, and share what it means to you
Okay, having just mentioned it, I will share the poem ‘Unashamed’ because I think that sums me up the best right now I hope. Thank you so much for listening.
It's not your job
to make sure others
feel more comfortable
You need not dull your glow
in the hope they might see
You need not
water down your core
to be more palatable
May you be the you that you need you to be.
Click the player to listen to the full poem or, alternatively, support Harry by reading it in the published collection: Unashamed (2022).
HARRY BAKER is a spoken word artist, poet, and writer from the United Kingdom. He has published two poetry collections called Unashamed (2022) and The Sunshine Kid (2014)