Poetry isn't the preserve of the classroom – all across London, young poets are reinvigorating and reinventing the format for 21th century consumption.
Sophie Leseberg Smith – aka The Nasty Poet – is one of the young wordsmiths shaking up the capital's poetry scene. She's released an audiobook, curates the Lyricism Show on Foundation FM, and has worked with brands such as Schuh and New Balance.
We're a long way from Chaucer…
How did you get into poetry?
I started performing about four years ago. A friend of mine, James Massiah used to run this open-mic night in Peckham at the Bussey Building called The A & The E. I got about on stage and got a real kick out of it. I did quite a cheeky poem about boys. I got such a rush – I think it comes from being a massive attention seeker! I got a real thrill out of it. A lot of stuff that I write is so much better spoken.
I started writing a lot more – I find writing a really good way of letting stuff go. Also, I write quite quickly as the way I write is so sensory, it's very easy for me to get it down in a poetic way. I started performing more, and then started getting booked more – I was putting out more content, get more commissioned work, and it went from there.
Did you have any background in poetry?
Not at all! I didn't know how to write poetry, I didn't know about any poets. I don't really remember knowing much at school about poetry apart from the rhyming children's stuff. I don't have any formal education in poetry. In some ways I wish I had, because a lot of the poets around me who are able to put out physical books, rather than audio books, have a really, really good training in how to write.
But I think it's also served me quite well; because I was so naive about the art of poetry, I think that naivety led me to push a little bit harder with myself. I don't think I'd be where I am now without that nativity. If you think you know what you're doing all the time, you think you have a right way of writing, you probably become a little bit complacent.
Now is the perfect time for poets to come forward
How do you feel when you look back on your early writing?
There's some of it that I think is a bit cringe, but some of it I think, 'jeez, that was really good! That was exactly how I felt' – and I remember how I felt. Poetry is the oldest art form. I've started reading a bit more poetry now to develop better writing skills. I do look back on it and I think, 'do you know what, Soph, you weren't half bad!'
It's fair to say you're as much a performer as 'traditional' poet?
Definitely. I associate it with spoken word, but I don't think what I do is spoken word either. I call it poetry because I think it deserves to be called poetry. Even my audio book has been produced by a grime producer. Music is the foundation for the way that I write – or speak.
When you're doing spoken poetry, it has to sound good, and that's where music comes into it – because even though there might not be music there, the rhythm that you choose to speak in, the way you break up your words, use pauses, comes from a musical mentality.
I listened to a lot of garage and grime and UK rap. I worked in music for three years, and it's definitely informed the way I perform, and write. It's nice because now I have musicians and rappers recognising my version of lyricism as just as important as theirs.
When did you feel you'd made it as a poet?
I still can't believe it! I'm doing a lot of work at the moment, a lot of commission work. People ask how I fit it all in, but it doesn't really feel like I'm fitting anything in – I just do it.
Will modern technology change how we consume poetry?
Definitely. It's the perfect time for poets to come forward. Without tech, without things like Instagram, SoundCloud, I don't think I'd have been able do the work I wanted to do, and reach the audience I want to. If you make a cool 40-second video with your poetry on it, you're going to get someone's attention far quicker than putting out a link for a book. If you like poetry, you'll buy poetry books. If you're just anyone, you can stumble across what I do a lot faster than if I just put it in a book.
Why The Nasty Poet?
I was asked to perform at this exhibition called Nasty Women. I decided to wrote some new poems and talk about the definition of 'nasty' – and it just kinda work. It's about subverting what the term 'nasty' means as a way of cussing women, basically.
The Nasty Women USA came from the Donald Trump insult to Hilary Clinton. They started the group after that.
I have audio books but how nice would it be to have something physical?
How do you write – what's the process?
Writing comes quite natural to me, I'm very fast at doing it. I never force it, unless I have commission work – which is quite good at getting me back into the swing if I haven't written for a while. What I'm learning to do now is to go back and edit – before it was just 'done', now get it out there. Now I'm honing it for an audience, rather than writing just for me. You have to develop your skill if you want to improve.
Do you mine your personal life for poetry?
I think the way I write is very personal, but it's also very accessible. I would never for speak for someone else, but it's accessible in the things that I talk about – people can relative to having a crappy relationship or finding it tough to get out of bed.
Writing a book would require a different type of poetry, right?
Yeah, definitely. My dad said to me the other day, "Sophie, you should try and do something that will live after you, without you having to do anything – like a book, a song." Thanks Dad for that helpful advice! But he’s right: I have audio books but how nice would it be to have something physical? I want my writing to be up to the standard of what I would expect the written word to be.
Do you draw from other poets?
Two of my favourite poets – Belinda Zhawi and Caleb Femi. I've spoken to them both about lyricism and our processes are very, very different. Our poetry's different – very different! It's interesting to look at the way they put out their way. Caleb is fantastic at direction: his best work comes out in video format, and has got to a really high cinematic level. Belinda is incredible – I always call her a 'poet's poet.' Her writing is beautiful, listening to it and reading it. She’s put out the most amazing book this year.
Or I'll look at James, who'll have conversations about philosophy in order to bring his poems to life, and then he'll have a conversation that is centred around his work. That's what artists do.
Everyone can be a poet – and the amazing thing about poetry is that it comes in so many different guises. How would I define it? Poetry is the purest form of expression, it's the oldest art form.
Social media is a very good way of making poetry more accessible to young people
A lot of people view poetry as inaccessible...
Social media is a very good way of making poetry more accessible to young people. There are more established institutions that are getting wider recognition: the Barbican young poets, or the Young Poet Laureate. There's still more to be done, but we're definitely moving in the right direction in terms of opening it up.
How did the Schuh campaign come about?
They found me through Instagram, asked me to write a poem for an upcoming campaign. It was nice because I'd been selected, I wasn't pitching. My poem was slightly off brief but they loved it, which was good! I'm not very good at having 'no' said to my work: I try not to take it personally but it's really hard.
And you have the show on radio station Foundation FM?
Yeah, it's called the Lyricism Show: I get a huge collection of poets, rappers, songwriters. We talk a lot of rubbish! But also the creative process, writing, what lyricism means to us. It's very relaxed, we're trying to make lyricism accessible to everybody.
Plan for the next five years?
I want to have written a poetry book. I want to keep progressing, keep feeling like I'm learning. I want to be London's best female poet!
For more info, see The Nasty Poet