An interview by Iona Lee for Bella Caledonia.
Today we bring you an interview with Courtney Stoddart: poet and spoken word performer extraordinaire. After her astounding reading at the Black Lives Matter rally in Edinburgh, our Arts and Music Editor Iona Lee spoke to Courtney about her inspirations, her work concerning the death of Sheku Bayoh, the emotional labour involved in activism and art, and her future aspirations.
Courtney Stoddart is a Scottish-Caribbean poet and performer. She intertwines elements of political, social and historical discussion into rhythm and rhyme, covering topics such as racism, colonialism, womanhood and growing up in Scotland. Having only started performing in April 2019, Courtney has had a meteoric rise, performing on both national and international stages within the last year.
What is it that initially got you into performing spoken word poetry, and what attracted you to it as a medium?
I started writing poetry about seven years ago. Initially it was in reaction to stress and trauma, and I very much used it as a cathartic release. I had no intention of ever performing my work when I began writing. The more I began to share my work with friends, the more people started to encourage me to perform it. However, this wasn’t something that I ever felt comfortable with, despite loving drama as a child. I was also, paradoxically, chronically shy, so I never perceived myself as being somebody who could take centre stage in that regard.
In March of last year a friend asked me to perform at her gig and I felt I would be blocking my own growth and development if I didn’t go for it. From there I started getting requests for gigs and I took part in the BBC Words First talent scheme, allowing me to gain some more insight into writing and performance.
Is it important to you that your poetry be read out loud?
I do consider myself to be a poet and performer, as the energy I bring to the words obviously ignites it in a different way that just reading it. Despite this, I certainly aspire to have my work translate well on the page as well as on the stage. My poetry is rebellious and activist in essence, so as long as the message is being received, I am less concerned about its most of transmission.
Where do you find inspiration for your writing?
When I first started writing, my work was primarily trauma focused. My experience as a mixed-race woman growing up in Scotland meant that I was often subject to both over and covert manifestations of racism. Because of this, I have been intent on raising awareness around issues of neo-colonialism, white supremacy and other issues we face as a collective.
My inspiration comes from my own experiences, as well as from things I research into. When I was a child, the only poetry I was exposed to was Robert Burns in primary school. I didn’t enjoy poetry as I saw it as something which wasn’t accessible to me. Although I did grow up around old school rap and hip hop music, which is in itself poetry. At my primary we had to learn a Scottish poem every year for Burns Day, and perform it in front of the class. I hated it so much. In primary I would beg my mum to let me stay off school so I didn’t have to participate. So now, I want to make my work as accessible as possible, in order to attempt to dismantle the image of old white colonial men being the main stays in terms of what we consider to be worthy of remembrance and study when it comes to poetry.
You recently wrote a dissertation entitled ‘Black Folk Devils – Why Black Lives Don’t Matter’ about the death of Sheku Bayoh, and how the police and press come together to spread disinformation after the death of a person of colour in police custody. What do you feel are some of the benefits and disadvantages of academic writing, as opposed to spoken word, and vice versa, when it comes to talking about such important issues?
I think that academia has a much needed place within society, however, I also feel that it can be elitist and inaccessible. And, in many ways, I feel the same about poetry. In my own academic and poetic practice, I seek to dissolve and de-mystify elitist inclinations, as many have done before me, in order to create wider representation and provoke critical understanding of the systems and structures which shape the world we inhabit.
Saying that, at times I think poetry can cut through many of the difficulties faced with promoting academic work to a wider audience as emotive writing is sometimes discouraged within that medium. With poetry however, I feel emotion can be conveyed with greater ease and more creativity.
In your dissertation, you mention the emotional labour of conducting such research. I have often found that spoken word as an art form puts a value on ‘laying oneself bare’ on the stage, and tackling upsetting issues. Do you find this process ultimately cathartic, or is it more of a duty?
I find it to be both cathartic and a duty. I grew up with a black mother, I witnessed her experience racial abuse in horrific ways and I saw how that affected her mental health. I can also see how my own experiences of racism have affected me in more ways that I have words to describe. So from a personal perspective, much of what I do is in honour of my mother and in honour of my mixed-race brothers, because I feel so deeply how we have all been affected as a family through racial trauma.
As a mixed-race woman, I have a great deal more privilege than my mother, so I see it as my duty to speak on issues which affect those radicalised as ‘black’. My privilege affords me more space to be able to do so as I represent a palatable image of ‘blackness’. On a broader level, the pain of my family is reflected across the world in many different forms. Injustices are not new to humanity, and so in that regard I am but a speck of dust within the spectrum. Despite this, I want to be able to use whatever platforms I can to speak on these issues and it is my intention to create action and sustainable change with the words that I write.
You recently read at the Black Lives Matter rally in Edinburgh to much acclaim. Indeed, spoken word poets are often invited to protests and rallies these days. Do you think that there is something about the zeitgeist that allows spoken word poetry to work in the political context, or is it something innate in the art form?
I think there has long been associations with political protest and spoken word. All you need to perform spoken word is literally thoughts and a voice. Theoretically, you don’t even need a pen or paper. To me there is something revolutionary in that, to stand alone without a prop and merely use your words. I often think of how spoken word has its roots in oral traditions, how oral history was (and is) used by many cultures to disseminate information. But just like anything, spoken word has the capacity to be corporatised and commercialised.
You talk, both in your dissertation and in your poem ‘O Flower of Scotland’, about Scottish Exceptionalism. We white Scots are very good at pointing the finger at America and England, but not so good at taking responsibility for our own colonial and racist past (and present). What issues do you feel we should be talking more about?
I think that the Black Lives Matter movement has been excellent in terms of raising awareness of how our world is built on the foundations of the Transatlantic slave trade, and how many still privilege from the imprint it has left on economic, political and social systems. I think racism is a disease, and it must first be acknowledged before it can be cured.
However, white supremacy is but one of the issues we face as a global collective. I am hugely concerned about the way the response to Covid-19 has allowed the UK government to tighten the strings of it’s own brand of surveillance capitalism. There are so many distractions which prevent us from seeing how our rights are being taken away from us at an ever-increasing rate. The incestuous relationship between power and the elite in this country is deeply disturbing.
The UK has a way of implicating itself into foreign countries endeavours in a manner which is mystified. The UK’s arms exportations being a primary example of that. The people in charge of this country are for the few and not the many and I think we must be mindful of how the manufacturing of consent can be weaponised against us.
Last year, you appeared in ‘Lament for Sheku Bayoh’, a work-in-progress theatre piece written by Hannah Lavery. To what extent do you think that ‘the Arts’ and artists in general have a responsibility to engage with topics that suffer from a lack of media attention?
I think the debate of ‘responsibility’ can be seen as complex. In my perspective, if you are genuinely ignorant you can’t really be at ‘fault’, however if you are aware of certain issues and fail to engage with them, then that raises the question for me of how much do you care about humanity. Throughout history and up to present day, there will always be people who will put their wants before the good of the collective. As we live in a progressively more narcissistic world, with the advent of social media shaping human behaviour to perceive narcissism as ‘natural’ and valued, it’s no surprise to me that many artists are entirely self-absorbed. Artists who are considered ‘elite’ in terms of wealth and ‘status’, are usually the main purveyors of materialism and self-idolatry. There are corporate interests and values which have been internalised by the people and so very often we see the reflection of corporate interest mirrored by artists across all mediums.
What are some of your ambitions for your own writing and your future career?
For me, above all else, I want to see tangible and palpable change. I no longer want to feel restricted under governmental rule. The inequity in not only this country, but across the globe, makes me desire to aid in the struggle against manifestations of power which infringe on human rights.
I will always be an activist before I am anything else, so I will continue to critique unjust systems and the people who uphold them.
And, finally, who are some of your favourite writers at the moment?
One of my favourite writers currently is Akala, though he transcends creative disciplines and cannot be classed only as a poet. I admire his intellectual capacity, and his ability to demonstrate that through his work. Britain has long been uncomfortable with the idea of a young black intelligentsia who are critical of the state. To me, he embodies that with grace and fortitude, speaking truth to power in articulate and innovative ways.
Another artist I admire is Lowkey, who again transcends creative boundaries in his work, I respect his unflinching political voice, and how, despite being subject to state-sanctioned violence for the content of his work, he continues to push the frontiers of what it means to be an artist in a repressive state.
I adore Hannah Lavery’s work. As we are both mixed-race Scottish women, her work touches me in ways I have yet to be able to articulate fully. She illuminates racism within the Scottish context in deeply moving ways.
I also have the deepest respect for Precious Nnebedum and Lisette Ma Nesa, two black female artists who are dedicated to achieving the fight for equal rights for black people globally. I find them both to be inspirational in their lyricism and content. Other black female artists whose work I appreciate includes Jasmin Manns, Porsha O and Mahogany Browne, again for the same reasons that their work political and incendiary.