This week we throw the spotlight on a poet who I have been incredibly fortunate to share a stage and BBC TV screen with, the unique soundweaver, powerful poet, Jemima Foxtrot.
She mixes powerful, sonic heavy poetry about modern life with snippets of her favourite artists’ songs – as well as her own – in a belting singing voice that will knock you for six. She’s been shortlisted for the Arts Foundation Spoken Word Fellowship 2015, she’s performed at the Barbican in the company of Beck and Simon Armitage, she’s written a critically acclaimed poetry play, she’s featured in the BBC Arts series ‘Women Who Spit’ (alongside yours truly) and she’s currently touring the UK.
I caught up with Jemima Foxtrot and asked her about music, Melody and what makes a performer.
When did you first start performing as a spoken word artist? Had you done other kinds of performing before that?
The first time I performed a spoken word poem was in my first year at the University of Manchester at the New Student Writing Society Open Mic Night. That was nigh on eight years ago. I did bits and bobs throughout uni but then stopped for a while. It really picked up again a couple of years ago. And yes, I used to do quite a lot of acting and was fronting bands between the ages of 14 and 18 (which I loved!) Performing is a big thrill for me and I now love that I get to be in control of and write all my own material.
What was your poetry ‘big break’?
I have Luke Wright to thank a lot for putting me up for certain opportunities. The big one was when I was shortlisted for the 2015 Spoken Word Arts Foundation Award. Luke nominated me for it and I was completely amazed that I was shortlisted, I never thought that would happen at all. The other people on the list (Hollie McNish, Ross Sutherland, Sabrina Mahfouz and Rob Auton) were really established, and rightly so – they’re all amazing! I felt pretty out of my depth. But yeah, that was a big one as I don’t think many people had heard of me before then!
You too were featured in the BBC TV series ‘Women Who Spit’ in 2015. The series, which was the highest viewed Arts content made by the BBC in 2015, featured five young female poets talking about social issues that matter most to young women.
Here are all the ‘Women Who Spit’ at a BBC party, these are the faces we made after just having met Michael Palin.
Making the film for my poem ranks among one of the best experiences of my life.What was the experience like for you?
It was incredible! I love being given commissions, subjects to write on. It really sorts me out and gives me focus. I was given the subject of body image and got going straight away. I’m a bit of a daydreamer and have fantasised before about like, I don’t know, having a music video. Kate Mirashi’s vision for the piece was so inspired and complicated and wonderful and I just felt so lucky to be able to write and star in my own short film.
How did you find out you got the gig?
I got a voicemail from Kate from the BBC basically just asking me to call her back. I did it, immediately of course. I think I was in my pyjamas drinking tea and it was pissing down outside.
What was it like filming it?
I had great fun filming it although I was reminded how tedious filming can be. I used to do a bit of TV work when I was an actor for a bit and there’s always lots of takes because some things just aren’t quite right. It’s a very different experience from performing live! It was also a bit weird because it was entirely filmed in my house. It was strange seeing bits of my room moved around to be in or out of shot.
What has the response been like?
The responses I’ve had about it have been amazing. I think issues of body image are all too common so people can really relate to it. I’ve had emails from strangers which have actually made me cry, just sort of letting me know that they’ve felt like that too and that they took a lot of comfort from it. One woman wrote that she couldn’t wait to show it to her daughters when they’re old enough.
You can view Jemima’s iPlayer film here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02q67pw
And if you like poetry films by sassy, interesting women watch all 5 of the Women Who Spit series here:http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02q2wb3/episodes/player
Your show ‘Melody’ centres around the premise of using both song and poetry to tell its tale. How did that style develop? What is the show about?
As I said earlier, I have been both lead singer and actor in the past. I started writing and performing poetry and I missed the singing. I’m always singing to myself and I think that snippets of song woven in and out of poetry can be really powerful. It just became more and more of my style. Melody is a full-length poetry play: it explores the relationship between music and memory all told through a journey home from work. It’s a bit of a rollercoaster, emotionally, and is fairly autobiographical. I’m pretty over some of the sadder moments of my life that feature in the show now. I think that’s a result of doing it over and over again.
You took the show to Edinburgh and got called ‘spine-tingling’ by the Scotsman!!! What was it like being in Edinburgh for the festival? How was the response to the show?
Edinburgh was amazing! Melody was the first show I’d ever taken up there and we did it for the full run. I was lucky in that I had my amazing co-writer, director and friend Lucy Allan up there with me for a good half of it so it didn’t get too lonely. I was trying (and mainly failing) to do a part time job ‘from home’ during the festival (never again!) It was up and down, sometimes we had a full house and once I performed it to just one person – although that was quite a lovely and intimate experience in the end, the one woman who came that day loved it.
Any Edinburgh horror stories?
Waking up every day and flyering was 21 individual, daily horror stories. I hated the flyering. Hated it.
You did a gig with Beck! Explain yourself- how did that come about?
Oh yeah, that was pretty amazing! And the only thing that consoled me for not getting in to Glastonbury last year (same weekend). Well, it boils down to a couple of people having some staggering faith in me, and believing I could meet the challenge of writing a poem and performing it in the Barbican main hall. I felt incredibly lucky, like I was in another world. It was an honour to be on stage alongside incredible big-name poets like Simon Armitage, Don Paterson and Sam Riviere too.
Any advice to young people interested in getting into spoken word performing?
Take every opportunity you get. Work breeds work. Get loads of people to see you and what you do, you’re never sure where it will lead. Read more, be strict with yourself on that. Listen to music. Walk and say yes to parties. Remember to surprise your audience – keep them on their toes!
Glastonbury Quick fires:
Camping or campervan?
Camping, although if I could drive and if I had a campervan it’d probably be campervan. Carry more booze in that way eh?
Shangri-La or Healing Fields?
Both?! Healing Fields can heal me after my night at Shangri-La.
She-wee or not she-wee?
She-weeeeee! Of course.
Adele or Ahhhh-don’t?
Meh. I’m not that bothered to be honest. Big respect to her though, the woman can sing.
What are you most looking forward to at this year’s festival?
My favourite thing about festivals in general is staggering around, smiling with people and discovering surprises. I’m going to stay free!