• Amy Toledano

In Conversation with Poet BilliePN

Billie – thanks so much for speaking to Within Her Words. How are you feeling?

Thank you so much for having me! How am I feeling? So much deeper than how am I! I’m surviving as best I can during these crazy times. I’m doing my best to feel hopeful! Excited to chat to you about my favourite subject – me.

How did you get involved in poetry and spoken word?

I’ve always loved writing in all its forms, be it stories, diaries, whatever. Realistically mostly oversharing on social media. I started writing poetry just for myself when I was around 19. At the time, I was really inspired by the poetry I was seeing online on places like Tumblr - poetry by people who sounded like me. From there, it was just poem after poem in my notes app, and only really as a way to get things off my chest and to process how I was feeling. That kind of thing. What I realised is that no one is going to invite you to become a poet or a writer. There’s no club you become a member of. You just need to start! It took me years to get up on a stage and perform. I started out as an audience member at open mic nights I’d found online around 18 months ago, and finally I plucked up the courage to book a spot at That’s What She* Said in Shoreditch. It was the best first gig I could have hoped for - really warm and welcoming, lots of laughs! My only regret is I didn’t go for it sooner. From there, it’s been a mad whirlwind of amazing opportunities I’ve been given. I’m honestly so chuffed (and mildly baffled) about it.

Your poetry so often returns to themes such as womxn’s empowerment and body positivity. Do you consider feminism to be a driving force behind your art?

I really do, yeah. I think in 2020 you’re proper weird if you don’t consider yourself a feminist, and yet there are people out there who are still afraid of saying they are! I’m so inspired by so many powerful womxn, from my incredible family and friends, to the other amazing creatives I’ve met on this journey and the prominent figures out there doing the hard work. It’s these womxn who push me to keep going, lift me up, and help me put pen to paper. I fucking love being a womxn, I could talk about us all day. I think we’re great.

In my experience, there are so many times where I’ve told a story about something that’s happened to me, and the men in the room are just unable to comprehend that experience. They have no point of reference for the harassment we get when we’re out, the feeling of carrying keys between your fingers on your walk home, the weight of expectation on you to be this carer and nurturer. So I speak up. I try not to shy away from the ugliness of it, and I find great power in that.

I know there’s so far to go in terms of womxn’s rights. That’s why we can’t take our foot off the gas. We need to push our art further, amplify unheard voices and acknowledge intersectionality to really make change. My experience as a white-passing mixed heritage womxn is completely different to that of womxn of colour and it’s SO important for us to listen and learn and change. That’s what I’ve been trying to do throughout the recent Black Lives Matter protests. We’re living through a movement right now and that’s what I think feminism should look like. Growth.

Your poetry often deals with difficult issues but in a really entertaining and funny way. How do you find the performance aspect of your work and have you found your performances have evolved as you’ve grown in spoken word?

Well firstly thanks! Every time someone says I’m funny I have a tiny little brain orgasm so I appreciate it. I think the performance element of spoken word poetry is huge for me. I come from this theatre-y background which I think has massively influenced the way I perform. I try to make everything believable. I want people to come on the journey with me and I think creating that believable presence on stage is a big part of that. I am also a massive show off so I find it comes naturally to be a bit of a tit for a laugh.

In terms of evolving - my performance style has remained the same but what has changed is my confidence. I feel brave enough to make big bold choices when I’m on stage now, and knowing the material and feeling comfortable in your poetry-skin is a huge part of that.

You’re an active performer in the spoken word scene across London. What do you think of London’s spoken word scene and where do you hope to see it go in future?

I honestly feel insanely lucky to be a part of the London poetry scene. It’s so joyful and diverse and supportive. There are so many amazing poets out there who I admire greatly, and I think the scene really pushes me to be better. I see someone amazing at a night and I think, damn I wish I wrote that – the most creatively frustrating and yet encouraging feeling ever. People are free to express themselves exactly as they want to. I just hope that after this awful time the scene is able to get back on its feet again. The lack of funding in the arts up until now has been abysmal. The amazing small independent venues that so many of our nights are hosted at will struggle massively without a surge of support very soon. I’d love to see more professional opportunities for more of us, nights paying feature artists as a standard, more people having access to publishing, but for now I just hope we get to go back to doing what we love!

What advice would you give to people who might want to get involved in poetry and spoken word whether it is as a fan or a performer?

As a fan, I would recommend treating the spoken word scene as this giant buffet table. Like crab sticks? Great, here are crab sticks. More of a samosa gal? No worries, we have those too. There is so much to choose from here, nights which amplify voices that appeal to you, nights that are laid back and informal, nights that are competitive and fast paced. Try it all out. See what tickles your fancy, and remember everyone is genuinely happy to see you there. There are so many nights I recommend: Rise Up, BYOB, Mind Over Matter, That’s What She* Said, Rebel Soapbox and Chocolate Poetry Club to name only a handful! And of course, go listen to Word Spoken Podcast to get a feel for the scene and all the insider info on what’s going on!

As a performer, just bloody go for it! Which is such obvious advice but that was my main blocker in my mind when I was starting out. I felt like this huge imposter, like someone was going to figure out sooner or later that I wasn’t part of whatever secret spoken word guild everyone else was in! There is no one else who sounds like you, who has experienced life as you. That’s magical, and you have a voice and a story to tell. Yeah, just go for it man. Don’t let anything get in your way.

How have you seen poetry and spoken word in London evolve amid the COVID-19 pandemic? What do you think the scene might have learnt from its time in lockdown?

The move to online poetry nights was almost instantaneous! Right off the bat a lot of the nights we go to regularly were like right how do we move this online and keep this energy? It was really comforting. I, and I think a lot of people, were really trying and carry on as normal. It’s opened up doors to places we’d never have found had it not been for lockdown. There’s been so much collaboration with artists from around the world which has been awesome to see.

I can’t speak for everyone but for me it’s just given me such a huge appreciation for what we have here in London. The electricity of being in a room full of creative people bouncing their ideas off each other and inspiring each other is like nothing else! Feel like pure shit just want live poetry back x (Insert crying snapchat kid).

Am I right in thinking you might be hosting your own night after lockdown?

There might have been some talks with two of my lovely poetry pals, Henry (@Wordspokenpodcast) and Aiz (@Aizzzofficial) about setting up a night under the Word Spoken umbrella which we’re pretty excited about. It’s all TBC with everything going on right now, but I think people will be super keen to get back out there and experience live spoken word as soon as it’s safe to do so. And it’d be amazing to be at the forefront of that, making sure that there’s a place for people to go! Keep your eyes peeled and fingers crossed for us!

Any other plans for future projects whether it’s virtual/in lockdown, or once we’re all allowed out again?

I’ve been taking this forced break as a bit of down time. There have been some really fun bits and bobs I’ve been asked to do in lockdown that I’ve really enjoyed but mostly I’ve been keeping my head down. I’ve been reading other people’s work and reflecting a lot which I always find really helps my lil brain when it feels tired and overwhelmed. Even though I’ve been quiet lately I’m starting the process of poking my head above the parapet to see what’s going on out there. I’m hoping to record some content over the coming weeks but it’s also important not to put loads of pressure on yourself. I never want to sound insincere or not like me. I’m taking each day as it comes and really leaning into the fact that we don’t have a lot of control over external events! As soon as we’re allowed back out safely, you will 100000% catch me arsing around onstage at the earliest possible opportunity, and I cannot fucking wait! And hopefully working with video producers to get some quality video content out there. So if COVID could just fuck off now that would be great!

Thank you so much for talking to me and I look forward to seeing you back on stage soon!

Thank you, Within Her Words! What a lovely natter. I can’t wait to see everyone back performing!

Leah x

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