For the fourth issue of The Smoke, we managed to steal Megan Beech, second year English student at KCL, from the depths of the library and looming essay deadlines. Megan is a performance poet, and her first collection of poems, When I Grow Up I Want to be Mary Beard, is coming out in December. Described by Joelle Taylor (SLAMbassador UK Artistic Director) as an “artist, poetic activist and musician”, we chatted to Megan about her inspirations, feminism and the importance of role models.
How did it all begin?
I have written poetry from a really early age, but it was more page-based. I was quite a shy and introverted child – not that it’s that different now – but I would never stand up in front of my peers and say, “I am going to say my poem now.” Then when I was 11, I won a competition called the Threshold Prize which was judged by Philip Pullman; then I thought, “okay, maybe this is something to pursue.” So I got into actual performance poetry at about the age of 16, and started going to open mic nights in Bristol, which was the closest city to where I lived. It was an hour and a half from my actual house, but I found the scene there and built upon that.
What was your first performance like?
It was an open mic, a slam. And I won the slam and a bottle of wine, which I was too young to drink! I drank it afterwards, obviously…
I sense that there is a real community, which must be pretty reassuring when you are first starting out.
Yes, definitely. In the world of performance poetry, there are 2 degrees of separation between anyone that you meet, so there are a lot of people that are out there to help you. They will introduce you to someone else who will introduce you to someone else. I feel like it is a grassroots movement, where everyone helps each other out and there isn’t too much ego.
You’ve performed at various festivals like Latitude (2013), Glastonbury (2011 & 2013) and Larmer Tree (2012) – what is it like performing at them?
Great. Latitude was amazing – they have a whole poetry arena. Being on the same stage just a few hours before Carol Ann Duffy and casually seeing her backstage was incredible.
You’ve clearly had lots of wonderful experiences, but what would you say has been your greatest achievement so far?
I suppose winning the Poetry Society’s national youth slam, SLAMbassadors, was a big deal for me: it gave me such a platform. It’s incredible to work with an organisation like the Poetry Society and have a continued relationship with all the people that I’ve met through it. We did a gig at the 100 Club, which was amazing. Just to be on the same stage that Mick Jagger had been on; it hopefully preempts what’s to come!
And the Poetry Society is supporting your upcoming book?
Yeah! I’ve got a book coming out with Burning Eye Books called When I Grow Up I Want to be Mary Beard. The Poetry Society have been integral in getting me to the position where I could even get a book deal, so I am very grateful for that. Mary Beard has also been very supportive and very much liked the piece.
How long has the book been cooking for?
A while. I signed the actual book deal in January this year. Since then it has been about getting stuff up to scratch, editing and deleting and rewriting. It’s been a really interesting process. Normally it’s like I am writing on air, but because of the book I have had to write down poems that have never been written down before. It’s been a lot of fun seeing how they look on the page and working out how to punctuate them.
Yes. I am interested in seeing how your performance poetry transfers to the page. As a performance poet you are projecting words, so by the poems being published in written form they will take on a new dimension.
Yeah, I am interested to see how people respond to reading it. But the whole ethos of Burning Eye Books is to take performance poets and put them on the page – for them, there is no difference. As a performance poet, it is a bit intimidating to give your work over to someone else and say “read it in your head how you like.” I am used to putting the stresses and internal rhymes in a certain rhythm so that people respond to it. But I think it will be nice to see how people interpret it differently. I hope it translates well to the page. But I don’t think you can beat the experience of a live performance though; your performance changes when you’re live, because when there’s someone responding to what you’re saying you become more energetic and enthusiastic.
Yes, completely. But I do think your videos online of your poems work really for those who can’t see you live.
Yes, they’re good for widening your audience. Social media and the use of YouTube have been really helpful. Mary Beard retweeted my poem and it got 1000 views in 2 days, which for me is a lot.
In terms of the themes of your poetry, you seem to be interested in gender equality and feminism.
I think feminism is the key one. I don’t think you can call your book that and have it not be [about feminism]! I am really interested in the idea of role models for young women today: it really distresses me to think that, as some surveys show, 80% of children want to be famous for doing nothing. So at the book launch we are getting people to hold up signs that say, “when I grow up I want to be…” and then fill in their own answers. I really hope to promote aspirations and encourage diversity of aspiration.
Yes. In your poem “99 Problems” you talk of how less than 25% of MPs are women and how women are often still dismissed as the “insignificant other” – it’s so good that you’re challenging that.
Thanks. Through SLAMbassadors, I have worked with such a range of people – hip hop MCs, page poets, rappers – and the things they are saying are so progressive, pertinent and meaningful. A lot of people look at hip-hop as Jay-Z saying women are bitches, but I am not down with that. It definitely isn’t just hip-hop, and to be fair the sexualisation of women in music in general is just disgusting. But for me, my piece is not only using that form to say something nice about women, but it also seeks to promote the work of the other people that I work with who are doing stuff that is not anti-feminist.
On that note, who would you say most influences you?
I think from a poetry level, definitely Joelle Taylor, the co-ordinator of SLAMbassadors. On a feminism side, someone like Laura Bates doing the Everyday Sexism Project – she has also been really supportive of the book and has written a blurb that is going on the front, which is nice.
It might seem a bit silly asking this question, because you are achieving so much, but where next?
I feel that with the book coming out, it is an opportunity to write and write new stuff. And the old stuff can be promoted through the book, but laid to rest at the same time. A lot of spoken word artists go on to do spoken word shows, but I don’t really think I’m there yet. So maybe I will take a couple of years to work on the actual writing itself. Oh and graduate, try and get a degree, that sort of thing. Then again, I do actually want to be Mary Beard; I want to be an academic. I am hoping to do an MA and PhD, so if the Arts & Humanities Research Council are reading… if you could help me out that would be amazing!
Her book launch is on 11 December at 7pm in the Virginia Woolf Building at King’s College. More information about the event can be found on her Facebook page.
/ Interviewed by Elizabeth Metcalfe / KCL / Books Editor