Grime Poet Debris Stevenson On Dizzee Rascal, Dyslexia and Finding Her Voice
Critically acclaimed, grime-infused show Poet in da Corner is coming to the Midlands this Spring.
Starring poet, playwright and performer Debris Stevenson (nominated for an Emerging Talent of the Year Award at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards) alongside grime MC Jammz, Poet in da Corner tells the partly autobiographical story of a young girl who discovers her voice when she is given Dizzee Rascal’s seminal debut album and is opened up to the heady, pulsating, liberating world of grime.
Debris speaks eloquently about the isolation of growing up Mormon, how her dyslexia turned her into a poet and why grime demands the same respect as ‘high art’.
Can you tell us a bit more about the inspiration behind Poet in da Corner?
For me grime came at a time when I was struggling with a lot of things. Being a teenager isn’t easy for anyone but especially when you’re growing up Mormon; there aren’t many Mormons in this country, so it was quite an isolating experience. At school I was struggling with reading (which I found out at 21 was due to severe dyslexia), I was struggling with being on my own and struggling with being bullied. Then suddenly grime gave me the permission to feel rage. The imagery and the language was being sourced from East London where I lived. Specifically, Dizzee Rascal. He was a teenager when he wrote Boy in da Corner and was very much trying to understand the conflict around him just as I was. By the time I was twenty-five grime was having a renaissance, but the media was often crudely reducing it’s narrative, as it often does with any form of Black music, as one and the same with violence. I was teaching at university and realised that I was teaching what is considered ‘great art’ whilst grime, which is really the reason I’m a writer, is as technically skilled and happened with less resources and less celebration than the writing I was teaching. But grime was not present in any of these institutions and I felt really frustrated by that. So, it came from that place of feeling like things were really unjust and the need to return to my origins.
What are the most challenging and exciting aspects of performing a work which is partly autobiographical?
‘What’s your story?’ is such a difficult question. Most days you’ll be experiencing things alongside other people, which is why history is up for debate. I was navigating other people’s stories and in the show I address what that means, what are the prejudices, what stories do I have the right to tell, from what lens am I telling that story, as much as it might feel like mine – is it? I spoke to my brothers about what they felt comfortable with and they’ve been very generous. My parents haven’t come to see the show and I’ve had a lot of conversations with myself about that. They have had a very different background to me; they didn’t surpass GCSEs, they’re not in the art world, they don’t digest art in the same way that I do and the show isn’t church standard so, being Mormon, it contains things they would not want to see. I came to the conclusion that it’s not a show they would go to see anyway, but I also feel like I have a responsibility to start enabling them to learn about what I do and how it works so hopefully one day they will understand what it means.
Aside from Dizzee Rascal, which other artists inspire your work?
D Double E, Kano and Wiley in terms of old school grime. There are some amazing younger grime artists I am obsessed with like Mez and Snowy from Nottingham. Poetry wise I feel like I’m part of a really close-knit community; people who have mentored me my whole life like Kayo Chingonyi, Jacob Sam Le Rose, Charlie Dark, then Inua Ellams and Kate Tempest who I was lucky enough to grow up alongside in the poetry scene. I’m also inspired by a lot of American poets like Patricia Smith, Danez Smith, Terrence Hayes – people that fed into Hip Hop poetics. It’s a really tight community with whom I’ve shared a beautiful experience and I’ve felt really loved and supported.
What advice would you give to budding performers who are also dyslexic?
I think the world makes it tempting to build a narrative that it’s your weakness, but where there is disruption there is an opportunity. When it comes to learning difficulties, I believe it’s society that disables you, and the education system is quite narrow in the way that it presents information. Having dyslexia makes going from A to B difficult. But in that disruption lies an opportunity to think, ‘how do I get from A to B?’ And I think that’s led to me being the strange/innovative artist I am; I don’t work in conventional ways because I’ve never been able to. I am a poet because of my dyslexia. I think asking a lot of stupid questions is a superpower of mine. My reading speed is slightly below average but my ability to communicate out loud is in the top 0.002%, so that gap in ability creates a lot of frustration. Part of my dyslexia is not understanding words if I don’t understand their context, meaning or intention, which for me is why poetry makes sense, because never do words have more context or meaning or power than in a poem. Also, they’re short! They’re like bath bombs: they’re these tightly wrapped orbs of colour and scent and when they hit water they explode into a galaxy of colour and smell.
What can audiences expect from coming to see the show?
Fun! My agent said to me recently, ‘Debris, everything you make is fun’. And I was like, ‘yeah, man!’ I feel like people don’t talk enough about things being fun, and it’s a massive barrier. There’s this weird thing I found in British academia whereby if something is clever it has to be dull. You listen to lecturers where it’s almost like you have to be skilled in listening to someone that has no sense of how to effectively communicate out loud. If grime is ‘home’ for you, I want it to feel like: ‘welcome back’. And if it’s not? Welcome! Have a cup of tea, sit down, have a Red Stripe, whatever! We’re trying to make it feel like we’re not trying to explain something to people who already get it but also that we’re not excluding people who have no idea what this thing is, so I’d really like to think it’s something that is a nice balance of comfort and discomfort, which is what any good artistic experience should be.