Roaring the Gospel: Kate Tempest at Manchester Literature Festival

From the Ted Hughes award to a Mercury nod, Kate Tempest's star is in ascendance, but the young poet, rapper and playwright remembers what got her into this in the first place – the thrill of performance

Feature by Lauren Strain | 30 Sep 2014

“I'm learning so much from the things that terrify me,” says Kate Tempest, taking a call in the middle of a rammed few weeks. (She's a new book of poems published this month, tours of both that and her debut album, Everybody Down, coming up, and a Mercury Prize nomination in the bag for the latter). She's referring to going out on stage with new works, to new – and newly expectant – crowds, but knows, by now, to “trust” the feeling. She's right to: over the years, it's led her to scoop the Ted Hughes Award, write two plays for Paines Plough, and get in the studio to consummate a decade's-worth of rapping at open mics and poetry slams. The Mercury nod is only the latest accolade for the 28-year-old from Brockley.

We're here to focus on that new anthology, though. Divided into chapters traversing Childhood, Womanhood and Manhood, and explicitly, then loosely, imagining the (eventually blind) prophet Tiresias as he navigates a 21st-century landscape, Hold Your Own is, in her words, “a massive departure”. Sure, there are lines of comparison to be drawn with the work that brought her her big break (and the Hughes Award), 2013's Brand New Ancients; celebrating the 'every day gods' of our streets and bookies and run-down bars, that book finds echoes in Hold Your Own's transposition of Greek myth to the present-day.

But where Brand New Ancients was one controlled exercise, an epic poem that went on to be presented live as a theatrical work, Hold Your Own is a collection of discrete, sometimes startlingly intimate moments by turns tender, funny, and angry. “Some of these poems are gonna be quite challenging to speak publicly,” she says. “Some of this stuff is quite raw and personal.” It is also the result of her first time working with an editor – the Scottish poet Don Paterson, poetry editor at Picador books and twice winner of the TS Eliot Prize. “It's been a really exciting, collaborative relationship,” she enthuses, adding with a winning chuckle: “and I've been working out what it feels like to show your work to somebody and for them to underline a word and be like, 'that's no good,' or, 'what do you mean by that?', or, like, 'the title poem's crap.'”

Of Tiresias, she says she doesn't know why she's attracted to these fabled characters – he's simply stuck with her since adolescence, when in the tragedies she read he would be “carted on at the end to tell everybody this desperate truth that they didn't wanna hear. I was always a bit haunted by him.” In Hold Your Own, she seems to use Tiresias' literal, physical transformations as he changes body and gender as allegory: to how we all, as we get older and are shaped by others who impact upon our lives, become different people. “That's what's in my brain at the minute,” Tempest concedes; “how as we grow up, we carry all the people that we've been with us, but we have to be who we've become.

"Every single time you speak these words, they mean something different" – Kate Tempest

“Also the idea of how we engage with people in quite simplistic terms – you think somebody is all one thing, [or we] make these kind of snap judgments based on how they appear to us in that moment. But people are made up of every day of their history and all of their loves and losses and sadness and joys. And the fact that I live in a city full of people” – her chat is at its punchiest when talking about London – “and in order to be able to survive without going mad you have to kind of limit yourself to how much of a person that you see, but I'm really excited by the idea of people being all the things that they are.”

Tempest's own history surely informs many of the pieces in Childhood, a series of wincingly real vignettes in which you can almost taste the tang of lived experience. But though she had “a very difficult time at school,” she emphasises that she “also had a really great time outside of school, working myself out outside of that institution. And if I hadn't had such a difficult time at school maybe I never would've found hip-hop, and I never would've found the mates that got me into rapping.” Indeed, among the warmest moments in the collection are those that celebrate this particular, catalytic thrill – of the instant when words are not just lived, but delivered. For her, that feeling is everything – “This all started, and will continue to be, about performance,” she insists.

“Every time you're in a room full of people, the meaning changes. Every single time you speak these words, they mean something different, because you're speaking to different people, you've had a different day, the air is different, y'know – it sounds a little bit pretentious but it's true.”

There's a sense, too, that this is what will keep her grounded as all around her begins to pick up pace. “I feel intimidated by the poetry world," she confesses, "and I feel intimidated by the other poets on the list at Picador! And I think it's maybe interesting for people to realise that making work, even if you're doing quite well, is one of the weirdest processes. ’Cause you make the work, and that's one thing, and you put your heart and soul into doing it – and then suddenly it comes out and you realise it's about to exist in the third person. And as much as it shouldn't be about somebody else's perception of your work, for me it's all about the audience, it is.

“My work only lives a minute after its completion because it meant something to somebody," she urges. "It is about an audience, it is about the readers... it's for them. If they want it.”

Hold Your Own is published by Picador, 9 Oct. Kate Tempest presents the new collection at Contact, 18 Oct, 8pm, as part of Manchester Literature Festival

She also performs with her band at The Deaf Institute, 9 Nov, and Gorilla, 12 Feb 2015