Poetry provides optimism – in conversation with rising talent Dean Atta on the power of spoken word

Examining how poetry can be searingly political, especially in the wake of Brexit.


Before I pick up my mobile for my next scheduled interview, I have a quick scan of Twitter to make sure there’s no more breaking news. It’s a reflex response for journalists these days. Thankfully, my timeline is crammed with memes, gifs and videos of ‘Brenda from Bristol’ complaining she’s had enough of politics. Brenda captures the mood of the public, who are sick to death of talking politics. Yet, at the other end of the phone isn’t just one of the best poets of our generation in the UK – he’s also a staunch voice of hope while everyone else seems lost.

Dean Atta is a name most people outside of the poetry world probably don’t know – but they should. Poetry seems to think that to be a master of the trade then one must have to struggle, and if that’s true then Atta has earned that title. Atta has a platform, but he’s taken time to emerge, particularly when being a poet often costs more than it pays due to the cost of travelling to gigs. Atta could just be the stand out voice of this generation, however. He writes and speaks of identity, understanding the intersections of life. His identity as a gay man of colour is woven throughout every work he produces. Atta’s style ranges from playful lyricism to raw, punching lines – such as “silence is not golden/silence is truth stolen”.

His words often tackle concepts that feel inherently political, but if they feel that way then that is because of the inequalities that have been established in society. Atta’s works are political, not because of his fierce commitment to social justice, but because still society sees equality as fringe politics.

Poetry has often been used as an outlet to dismantle society with a verbal sledgehammer and Atta notes that since Brexit, it’s become an even more popular form of speaking out.

“There’s all sorts of people using poetry to have a voice on political issues,” Atta states, with enthusiasm.

“A lot of white working class people are being really outspoken in their poetry and kind of claiming that working class identity and what it means to them. It’s not a sense of ‘we are the Brexit voters, we are the right wing’ and people want to make that clear. People want to know who is voting or who is causing the divide in communities. It’s important those people stand up and say ‘it’s not me and I don’t think like that’. It’s great to see from poetry.”

Speaking out through poetry is offering people an opportunity to reclaim their identities. Those who voted Remain usually want the rest of the country to know they did so. The Twitter bios referencing Remain and 48% are endless. They want their voices to be heard, especially as Parliament has shut its doors.

“All voices should be heard or given the chance to be heard. A lot of people don’t see where their voices are being heard in mainstream politics,” Atta rues.

“People can look at how we got to where we are right now. People can talk about very private matters and make them public, open and accessible. They can talk about conversations they’ve had in their family or something that happened in their childhood. These things shed a light, maybe a small bit of light on different things – but that always helps.”

“These things shed a light, maybe a small bit of light on different things – but that always helps”

Atta trails off into a laugh and immediately admits that he regrets using the metaphor of light and dark as he feels it’s too binary. Atta wants to capture the complexity of why people are turning to spoken word. Underneath the careful nuance though, beating away, there is a hope behind his words that poetry really can change the world.

“Poetry provides optimism. Poetry provides solace. Poetry provides a way to envision the future differently.

“It’s something more and more people are turning to and I think good for them. I’m seeing more and more people making videos, performing at events and having something to say. You’re shocked when you hear someone at an open mic and they say that was their first ever reading or performance; they’ve clearly been needing to say this for a long, long time.”

The power of poetry in the digital age has been clear. Button Poetry has been phenomenal with its success, seizing on the unique opportunities that the internet has provided. Many of their videos get over one hundred thousand hits, and Neil Hilborn’s poem OCD has attracted over twelve million views.

“You never know how many people can see that and who that might reach and how that might affect their thinking,” Atta acknowledges.

The potential for engagement has certainly caught the eyes of those in business. Poetry has now become a popular form of advertising. Nationwide drew praise when they used a two minute poem by Holly McNish. Spoken word performances are even being incorporated into sports shows. George the Poet surprised everyone when he appeared on Sky’s F1 coverage. He explored the championship battle ahead of the Monaco Grand Prix in both the 2012 and 2013 seasons.

Yet, the potential to use poems as a method for sales does have implications on the works themselves.

“I think it’s really interesting when you monetise an art form or something that could be a social tool,” Atta comments. “It means sometimes it’s not coming out in its purest. It’s not coming out in the way the writer might intend…it has to be packaged in a way that might sell.”

Atta admits that this is something he’s found difficult at times but his unwavering commitment to his work has, in the long run, been beneficial. Publishers are keen to stand behind his strong voice. His steadfast belief in the need to explore his own identity and social justice has helped to define him as a poet.

Atta is keen that more poets should be able to have the chance to showcase their work, even if he has sounded ambivalent about poems being used as a form of advertising. The opportunities through the digital realm are something he speaks passionately on. Snobbery, in part, had helped make the literary world inaccessible. The new ease of being able to upload a poem has smashed down barriers that the publishing industry had long tried to uphold.

“There is a shift; you can write something, perform it and upload it. Anyone can be a poet. Quality of writing is a different matter, but anyone can write and anyone can share their writing – and that should be the case. It’s down to the audience to decide how much time they want to give to that, but everyone has the right to put their stuff out there.”

“Anyone can be a poet”

Now, perhaps more than any time in recent history, people have opinions they want to deliver into the public sphere. They want to make their identities and beliefs clear. The people who have traditionally built the poetic platform up, brick by brick, have been those most marginalised. They are finally getting a chance to be able to share their work on a wider scale. Frustratingly, they are still rarely reimbursed for their efforts due to the nature of sharing content via platforms, such as YouTube. Instagram posts too have also become a surprising hub of poetry. Yet, throughout all these platforms, what’s emerged has been artists with a steely determination demanding recognition of their identities.

“I feel like spoken poetry in particular is a more accessible art form than perhaps written poetry because it gives you a sense of the person that’s saying it…. so you kind of have that authority to speak on an issue that affects you.”

Whenever marginalised people are able to speak there’s always someone ready to talk over them. It has been a danger in the spoken word scene. People are so quick to trip over themselves to appear to be a good ally, they end up falling on marginalised people.

“There are many poets that also speak about things that aren’t directly related to their lives…” Atta concedes.

Atta emphasises that if this is done respectfully and with sensitivity then it can avoid causing harm. People should be highlighting different manifestations of oppression, but without perpetuating the problems that exist in the first place. If the subject matter is not treated with care then Atta doubts that the poet will be able to get away with it.

Spoken word audiences are not silent consumers. They’re often active participants in the poems themselves. A flexible performer will bend content based upon the audience’s reaction. The audience interaction is often somewhere between that of the cinema and that of a comedy night, but no matter what, performers are judged and held to account. Allies treading outside of their own territory quickly get spotted.

“Spoken word audiences and other poets will be quite honest with someone who is speaking out of turn – if they are an ally speaking on behalf of other people. A lot of the time you can tell from the reaction this isn’t their subject to tackle and sometimes it’s best left to the people who are affected by it.”

Atta however, does not particularly dwell on the frustration of allies speaking over people. Throughout the conversation, he is much more focused upon his love of poetry and the power it has. Writers often need a fierce sense of optimism; it’s a bruising industry where few can make any sort of money, but Atta combines this hint of idealism with a keen understanding of the industry.

Ultimately, he believes in poets more than publishers. People standing on a stage in a dusty pub can change hearts and minds, but the publishing industry feels much more sterile and exclusive. The industry is resistant to change. There’s a tragic irony to the fact that those responsible for overseeing creativity often hold the most stagnant ideas about how to deliver it, and they refuse to loosen their grasp to allow exploration. In 2016, World Book Night failed to include a single writer of colour, despite the fact the event is focused upon giving away huge volumes of books. When asked whether the publishing industry should be doing more, Atta’s response is immediate.

“Definitely,” he says firmly, “I’m not exactly sure what they [publishers] need to be doing but I do think that’s their job to think about. Sometimes the people that are excluded are given the task of figuring how they could be included, not the people who have the power to think ‘how can we include more people?’”

Last February, a group of British writers came together to launch the Jhalak Prize for the best book by a writer of colour. It was created as a response to the lack of progress in the publishing industry and it is demonstrative of just how insidious racism is within the publishing industry. Writers of colour should not be forced to establish their own prizes to get recognition for their work.

This burden of responsibility on marginalised writers, is an issue Atta worries puts people off from even trying to break through into the industry. It’s tough enough being a poet without also being expected to act as the unpaid and unofficial diversity officer for a publishing house. It’s suggestive of a significant amount of passiveness from those running the industry. They expect marginalised writers to force their way through to them, but are they really putting in the effort to support diverse writers?

“They are in their unique echo chamber of things that are published in journals, and people that went to certain universities and beyond that space it takes very exceptional people to break through.

“In the mainstream, it’s usually the people of colour and the queer people that are exceptional but they’re struggling. White people are often the majority and quite mediocre, but you don’t get mediocre queer people getting platforms or mediocre people of colour that get platforms. I just think it you’re not a straight white man you need to be extra exceptional and have caused some sort of viral stir before the mainstream notices you.”

“White people are often the majority and quite mediocre, but you don’t get mediocre queer people getting platforms or mediocre people of colour that get platforms”

Marginalised people have the bar set far higher than white cisgender heterosexual people. There’s a hypocrisy to the establishment that they’ve not yet realised; marginalised people and those who support social justice are so often told they occupy an “echo chamber” and yet, as Atta points out, the scope of their industry contacts is limited. Atta lays the accountability at the top of the publishing industry saying, “mainstream publishing just needs to try harder”. However, he hands out praise evenly to the independent publishers (such as Out-Spoken Press and Burning Eye) who are, at least, trying.

“Independent publishers are more likely to take a loss on a book that they really believe in because they just think that work needs to be out there and given the opportunity to succeed or fail. Some people don’t even get that opportunity.

“There’s a potential individual out there that could read those words on the page and it could make their life better, it may save their lives. I think that is underestimated – how creative writing, poetry, fiction, all of it, can actually save people’s lives.”

Atta knows this from first-hand experience. A reader told him how she had followed Atta’s works and it had inspired her to seek support for her mental health. Atta speaks with a sincere gratitude that he has a platform to be able to affect people in such a way.

“You never know which writer is going to affect which people so we need to get them out there and give them the chance to succeed or fail. Not everything you put out from a person of colour or queer person is going to be sensational or make a huge impact, but it deserves a chance to be out there in the first place.”

Artists, writers and poets are often spoken of in dismissive tones. They’re portrayed as dilatants, but it misses the point. They’re often the ones who work very long hours in low paying jobs just to be able to fund a chance at getting their work recognised. The way that Atta speaks echoes someone who is committed to serving the public. Poetry is selfless by the way it can connect people and inspire them, and that’s clearly what helps drive Atta.

Atta doesn’t shy away from content. He’s looking to explore identity and challenge society, but also to serve the audience who might just benefit from hearing his experiences, whether by learning about different elements of oppression or by being able to connect with other people who experience the same struggles. His work is defiant, and inherently political. As I hang up the phone, my timeline is still focused upon decrying the overload of politics. Brenda might be done talking about politics but young people across the country are stepping up to the open mic, ready to be heard after years of politicians and society trying to silence them. Remember Atta’s words: Silence is not golden/silence is truth stolen.

You can find out more about Dean Atta via his website.

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