Last time I saw Kate Tempest was in a small pub (tent) at the very top of a hill at Glastonbury. The sound wasn’t great and the crowd was tiny but for me it was definitely the highlight of the whole festival. She played material from her debut album Everybody Down, her band tripping over one another on the teensy stage. At the end of her set (during which she’d been standing on the bar and furiously rapping at the enraptured gathering of hardcore fans who’d braved the trek up the heart-attack-inducing hill and unwitting interlopers who’d searched out a quiet corner and been bamboozled by the whirlwind that is Kate Tempest), the crowd started yelling ‘do a poem!’. So she did do a poem, throwing down her mic and reciting it from among the audience who listened in perfect silence – impressive considering the rowdiness which had preceded.
It’s not often that rap/hip hop blurs so obviously with more traditional poetry – and it’s an exciting combination. The launch of her new collection of poems, Hold Your Own (published by Picador and edited by Don Paterson) took place on the 10th October in the Queen Elizabeth Hall at London’s Southbank Centre. Here, again, the lines between poetry and music were blurred, her voice lurching into something more than speaking but not quite singing. It wasn’t just poems on a page, it wasn’t just spoken word, it wasn’t quite music or rap; it was all of these combined with a piece of theatre – a one woman performance of a whole drama which unfolded in front of your eyes. She was telling a tale (that of Tiresias, the muse and subject of Hold Your Own), not just with her voice but with her body, and her heart-wrenchingly expressive face.
Hold Your Own opens with the story of a modern Tiresias, following him through his life from boyhood through womanhood, and right up to old age. The rest of the collection is split up into four sections, ‘Childhood’, ‘Womanhood’, ‘Manhood’ and ‘Blind Profit’. These sections contain some shorter poems about Tiresias, which are interspersed with poems that are more autobiographical, and all are fiercely honest. Some are funny – such as the anecdotes told in India and Snakes in the grass. Some are paeans to doing what she loves – The cypher is about the thrill of using words, rapping, ‘talk[ing] like the boys’. Some are angry, powerful and deeply moving. Among these are the poignant Ballad of a hero and Progress – a diatribe against capitalism and modern living. Some are about the inevitable self-doubt that comes with being a writer (for example The old dogs who fought so well).
Success and fame are things which Tempest doesn’t quite seem to have got her head round yet, repeatedly giving thanks to the almost thousand strong audience just for being there, and instructing them to stop applauding her at various points – “Oi stop clapping, that was rubbish, I don’t deserve it!”. Indeed, when she first came onto the stage, having been introduced by Don Paterson, it did seem rather big, and she rather small. Awkward and baby-faced, she apologised mid-poem if she tripped up on a line, and apologised profusely when she knocked over her glass of water with the wire from her mic. But once she’d got into the swing of things she was a wonder to behold, swearing and rhyming and weaving worlds in her lilting, South-London-accented voice, and truly holding her own on the otherwise empty stage.
It’s not the first time that she has taken inspiration from Greek myth in her work. Brand New Ancients was her epic spoken word performance in collaboration with Battersea Arts Centre which told ‘everyday odysseys’ with the backing of an orchestra, and earned her the Ted Hughes poetry prize in 2013. She’s constantly churning out new material in multiple formats, and to great acclaim – Everybody Down is a favourite to win 2014’s Mercury Prize and she’s written several plays, having already brought out an album with her band Sound of Rum. So it seems as though Kate Tempest is going to have to get used to fame, because, as she promised us at the launch of Hold Your Own (her third published collection of poetry), she’s ‘only just getting started’.