An Interview with Nathan A ThompsonFebruary 4th, 2013 by Poejazzi
On Saturday, when we got wind of Yet Another Brazen Poorly Researched Attack By a Mainstream Media Outlet on Slam Poetry and Slam Poetry Nights, this time coming from the always balanced and not-at-all link-baiting Independent newspaper, we didn’t think a whole lot of it. We’ve been on the yearly roller-coaster of faint praise and damning slap-downs so often we could barely muster any genuine response beyond the odd snarky tweet. Seriously, it’s an accepted cliché, right up there with death, taxes, poetryisnotacareerchoice, we’reallwritingaboutwanderingcloudsanddaffodils and noonereadsorlistenstopoetry. Oh look, someone has a hate-boner for slam poetry, whoop-dee-doo: dip us in double cream and shoot us to the moon.
And then, Bridget Minamore, one of our blog network writers, made a startling discovery: Nathan A Thompson, the author of the piece, wrote another article in The Guardian, four months earlier, singing the praises of slam poetry, a subject he teaches in schools. He also has a website.
If there’s anything that gets poets out of bed, it’s barefaced hypocrisy; just like that, in the second month of 2013, Poetry In The UK got its third villain (besides Michael Gove and Christian Ward).
Counter-articles from poets besieged the internet with the force of a blood-thirsty metaphor, the sharpest pieces coming from Raymond Antrobus, Niall O’Sullivan, Dave Bryant and another Poejazzi blog network writer, our very own Chimene Suleyman (we wrote one as well, just in case you were interested). Hands were wrung, links were posted, questions asked: Why would someone, as close to literally as possible, shit on his own doorstep? Had he quit poetry? Was this the kiss-off of a bitter ex-slammer? Was this the Tequila shots speaking, Tequila shots who’re good friends with the Arts section of the Indy? Did he get paid? How much? Was this a spectacular stitch up by some bored Independent editor?
Only one person could answer any of this.
We found Nathan’s email and sent a message, asking for his side of the story. We promised we would print his answers and no funny-cut-and-paste-to-make-him-look-worse. We also sent him a Facebook message, because we are determined like that.
At 1.30 am Nathan got back to us on Facebook chat, and we talked.
Below is the interview. There have been slight edits for narrative clarity
Poejazzi: How are you?
Nathan Thompson: OK, I guess.
Poejazzi: So tell us how the article came about?
Nathan Thompson: So my point was to argue against slam poetry replacing normal poetry in our culture as opposed to just hating on slam.
Poejazzi: Go on.
Nathan Thompson: That’s it.
Poejazzi:Who approached who for the article?
Nathan Thompson: I sent a pitch to the arts editor at the Independent who said he would pay me for an article about it.
Poejazzi: Specifically about slam poetry versus traditional poetry?
Nathan Thompson: Yes, except he wanted me to write it as a polemic.
Poejazzi: Did he know about your profession when he asked?
Nathan Thompson: I don’t think he cared. He wanted to make sure that I had experience of performing as a slam poet though.
Poejazzi: Okay. Whoa… The opening paragraph. Who wrote that?
Nathan Thompson: Me.
Poejazzi: That’s a serious charge to make, ‘Poetry is dying. Actually, it’s pretty dead already for all intents and purposes and the rise of performance poetry slams is doing nothing to help matters. I know, I used to be a performance poet.’ Explain your thinking behind this paragraph.
Nathan Thompson: The fact that I have asked hundreds of kids aged 7-14 to name a poet and not one has named me anything beyond Shakespeare
Poejazzi: Is that the only reason?
Nathan Thompson: it’s the most obvious one
Poejazzi: It’s a pretty big generalization to make about an art-form, if you don’t mind me saying
Nathan Thompson: Yes it is
Poejazzi: Could you share any of the other reasons?
Nathan Thompson: Well when you consider that 100 years ago school children would not only be able to name many poets but recite a lot of them by heart and when you look at the situation now you can clearly see a decline. Slam poetry is popular and rightly so but the danger is that it is replacing traditional poetry. That is what I was arguing against. Much of that side of things was edited out of the final piece. Original word count was 692 words and what they printed was 454.
Poejazzi: Okay. Do you truly feel that slam poetry itself alone is to blame for this decline?
Nathan Thompson: No, good slam poetry is great, the decline, as I say in the article is a lack of time. Poetry takes time, we don’t have time.
Poejazzi: You also mention poetry slam nights.
Nathan Thompson: yes.
Poejazzi: You weren’t very nice to them at all
Nathan Thompson: No I wasn’t. You want to know why, right?
Poejazzi: Yes, please.
Nathan Thompson: It’s difficult to justify in retrospect… it was wrong of me to attack slam nights so viciously. There are foibles and things wrong with slam nights but not to the extent I made out.
Pojazzi: I imagine you know a lot of promoters of slam nights?
Nathan Thompson: Not really, I haven’t done a slam for a good year. Not in the UK anyway.
Poejazzi: Did you consider that, given your limited knowledge of slam nights in the UK at present, it might not have been wise to denigrate them?
Nathan Thompson: as I said in the piece, “the slam nights I have been to.”
Poejazzi: Okay, fair enough. Reading your original piece now (reads original piece).
Nathan Thompson: Brb.
Poejazzi: Are you back?
Nathan Thompson: Yeh.
Poejazzi: Awesome. You wrote an article in the Guardian in 2012.
Nathan Thompson: Yup.
Poejazzi: It’s fair to say your enthusiasm for the state of poetry was a bit higher in that article.
Nathan Thompson: It looks inconsistent right?
Poejazzi: Yes, it does.
Nathan Thompson: Have you ever held two contradictory opinions about the same thing. Was there ever say, a lover who you adored and despised at the same time?
Poejazzi: So you’re saying, even when you wrote that article in Oct, you had the same level of misgivings?
Nathan Thompson: No.
Poejazzi: So you loved poetry/slam poetry at the time you wrote the Guardian article?
Nathan Thompson: The Indy article, I think, had a valid point about the way traditional poetry has fallen out of favor… but I made a mistake. A rather large mistake. I decided that it would look big and clever to quite rudely attack a scene that I actually quite like.
Poejazzi: You work in schools?
Nathan Thompson: I work in schools occasionally.
Poejazzi: Teaching slam poetry.
Nathan Thompson: Sometimes, but I teach all kinds of poetry.
Poejazzi: Okay. Did you not consider an attack on slam poetry- a skill you impart to young people and make a living off- might come off hypocritical?
Nathan Thompson: The article was an attack on attitudes I have come across in the slam scene where traditional poetry is seen as “the establishment” and slam is the “underground” ie. more authentic and more valuable. Which I believe is a wrong attitude. This is was what I was attacking. This, correct me if I’m wrong, comes across more in the original article
Poejazzi: Nathan… Having read your original article
Nathan Thompson ?
Poejazzi: I can say what strikes me as the clearest message, is a prejudice against slam poetry would I be correct in saying this?
Nathan Thompson: Well, the article did attack slam poetry, if it didn’t, I wouldn’t be here. As for your question about inconsistency; it was and is inconsistent with my views on slam. I do actually like it
Poejazzi: My question is, why did you attack slam poetry, when you teach slam poetry to children across Europe?
Nathan Thompson: I made a mistake, the editor asked me for a polemic, hence the “attacking” tone and rude remarks and said he would pay me 100 quid for it. So I wrote it. Feel free to make a “30 pieces of silver” joke
Poejazzi: That’s fair enough. What’s the fallout been like on your end?
Nathan Thompson: Let’s just say I haven’t had to eat humble pie like this for a long time, and I probably wont get the 100 quid either cos they put it on the blog, not the print issue. But if I do get paid, I will gladly donate it to a spoken word charity/night.
Nathan Thompson: I know
Poejazzi: Do you feel like you can continue teaching slam poetry after this?
Nathan Thompson: I personally don’t have a problem with teaching slam because I know that it is a good tool to help kids get inspired about writing, whether other people have a problem (ie. teachers and students)… I can’t say.
Poejazzi: Final question: as you are probably aware, arts funding is being slashed more than ever. Educational work for poets is becoming more difficult to come by. The supporters for these cuts maintain that the arts are not necessary and art forms like poetry are unimportant. How do you feel your article, as a poet and educator, has affected this debate?
Nathan Thompson: The article was not meant to attack slam poetry but to encourage ALL POETRY to be taught in schools. Please take a look at my DELETED final paragraph:
“I had to teach myself, starting at the age of 26, how to read poetry and my previous years as a slam poet did little to prepare me. Let’s start by loosening the national curriculum up a bit and allow teachers to teach poetry as art, not as a puzzle to be solved. Let’s inspire our youth with a love for the power of the written and spoken word and, sure, let’s get the slam poets in poets in too, after all, they can write and animate a line like nobody’s business.”
I have apologised to the poets where my comments went overboard and became rude, but my point is that slam should be one of many types taught in schools, not the only one. There was a point I was trying to make and it got lost. I think the worst part is the idea I hurt people’s feelings which I regret.