Stephen Morrison-Burke performed in front of tens of thousand of people outside parliament for the People’s Assembly Against Austerity and had tea with the Queen, but not on the same day, and he might not have been offered tea at the Palace, I don't know. His storied life includes a period as Birmingham's (youngest ever) poet laureate, and a successful boxing career. He's currently wowing the country with his languid drawing of working class life on those TV commercials for Nationwide. Live, his delivery, oh the delivery of his words, is so deftly weighted with such beautiful timbre, so complex and so simple to hear all at once. The message, the message keeps seeping in, insidiously, later.
Anyway, Stephen is a man on a mission, so we are truly grateful to him for his heartfelt and thoughtful answers and the time he put into deciphering our sometimes typically random, rambling questions...
OUTSIDELEFT: Let's talk about right now, right at this moment and you in my living room last night, on our TV, and the Nationwide BS commercial. How did that come about? What is that all about?
STEPHEN MORISSON-BURKE: Nationwide got in touch with me and six other poets and asked if we’d be interested to make the advert. I was hesitant at first, curious as to what it would entail, but when I read the brief and saw it was about Birmingham’s working-class history I felt at home. I then got chosen to go forward and make the ad and the result is what you saw on your TV last night.
OL: There's always gonna be a debate maybe about mixing art and commerce... that ancient concept of Artists selling out, I suppose. (I was once accused of selling out for taking a job where I had to wear a name badge.) I've never really thought of it like that. I've never been totally anti-corporations. That's where the working class jobs are that support a lot of families. Those jobs support other jobs and generate a lot of the taxes that keep the wheels on in our world. I suppose artistically though, an artist could be, I mean when your profile zooms up like that, you could be associated with a product or a building society eternally. So they might take more from you than vice versa. Like Aled Jones. Sure he's a star but I can only think of him with Hughie Green on Opportunity Knocks. He won too often. How did you weigh up opportunity vs... potential career suicide with the Nationwide Thing?
STEPHEN: The idea of ‘selling out’ is nonsense to me. Only the individual themselves can say whether they’ve ‘sold out’; whether the work they do aligns with their own principles or not. I don’t need anyone to tell me what art should be used for. I see its necessity when I’m stood in front of a school of inner-city kids who have little hope and very few positive role models to look up to, all of whom believe me now – unfortunate as it is that we lionise just about anybody who pops up on TV - when I say they can achieve whatever it is they want to in life. People need hope and inspiration down here, at the bottom of the social hierarchy, not to be instructed on what to use their God given abilities for.
As regards opportunity vs potential career suicide, yes, if I carry doing Nationwide adverts and not much else then I will no doubt be defined by them. But there is a lot of work, hopefully great work, that I intend to do before my time is done.
OL: I liked the commercial. ln some ways, if you haven't answered this already, it puts poetry in the living room of people that don't necessarily/possibly think about poetry?
STEPHEN: The amount of people that have gotten in touch to say they weren’t fans of poetry prior to seeing the ad but are now is incredible. I couldn’t ever have envisaged the overwhelming feedback I’ve received, which of course is great news for all involved in poetry, not just me.
OL: Anyway... And Coffee Shops in the 1770s... Is that poetic license?! It's lovely. It's a little Peaky Blinders, could you be taking over from Benjamin Zephaniah as their poet in residence next season? Where did you shoot that, can you say?
STEPHEN: Ha, yeah, maybe… Benjamin’s the man! I’m yet to meet him, but I have great respect for the work he’s done and continues to do.
We shot the video in one day across several locations, including the Black Country Museum. I learnt so much about what takes place behind the camera that day. It was a very educational experience.
OL: I liked the commercial and i know how hard everyone works in the creative industries just to get something like that together, to get that right, the amount of talent expended. My favourite commercial strapline was from about 10 years ago, famously, VW, Drivers Wanted. I always imagine the creative executives at the end of that, lying prostrate on the boardroom table, perspiration pouring from their temples, so redolent of Ali in that memorable scene from When We Were Kings, exhausted on those concrete slabs in Zaire, as he gave everything in training to face and beat the supposedly lethal George Foreman. I mean, Drivers Wanted impeccably eloquent? Which means we can talk about boxing. You were a successful boxer can you talk about that? How did that begin for you? Where you influenced by famous boxers? Do boxers have a natural flair? Natural gifts? Or can it be trained? What does that feel like when punches connect? The impact?
STEPHEN: During my ten years of competitive boxing I won the Midlands Championship and reached the semi-finals of the National Championships. Boxing straightened me out. I was an angry kid; quiet, but temperamental. Every inch of discipline I now use for my writing I developed and honed during my years in boxing. Muhammad Ali was my hero. He was a boxer, a poet, and we were both born on 17th January. Boxing taught me all about humanity and the exchanges of energy between people in conflict with one another, all of which has enabled me to now write about the various facets of human nature with great confidence.
OL: Stephen, poetry at last! Are you from the West Midlands? I didn't live here for a long time and I never thought I'd be back here. You've said, (something like) someone from your background... You never considered being a writer, that that was even a plausible thing... What made that begin to change?
STEPHEN: Yes, I was born and raised in Birmingham. I wouldn’t say I changed, I’d say I began to find out who I was, at my core. I’m a fighter and a writer by nature, and for me, given the incredible discipline and strength of mind both activities demand, the two aren’t as dissimilar as many would like to believe. After a tough fight in the ring I’d be battered and bruised. Those same war wounds exist after a long, hard day of tapping away at a keyboard, it’s just that no one can see them.
OL: How did you begin to get involved with the wider things you do, working with young people in custody and so on, lots of, I don't know, working class people don't have the connections or would even know where to begin to do those things...
STEPHEN: One thing has led to another. I make a conscious effort to be honest with people and true to myself. I believe once you commit to that, and maintain great faith and uncompromising discipline, sooner or later the doors will fly open in twos and threes.
OL: And being laureate of birmingham, how did that come about?
STEPHEN: I first performed poetry a year and a half before entering the Birmingham Poet Laureate competition. I was the youngest person to win it in its twenty-year history. At the time I considered myself radical left-wing and wanted to make significant changes to the system in this country. A couple of months before entering the competition, someone - I can’t remember who - said to me, “Stephen, if you really want to change the system it’s better to work from within it.” That swayed me to apply for the laureateship, swayed me to accept the invitation to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen a year later, and swayed me to agree to write and perform a commissioned poem for Prince William’s visit to the Library of Birmingham. Afterwards, we sat down and he asked me about the 2011 Birmingham riots. I told him the gap between the rich and poor was too vast and how these same issues will regurgitate if something isn’t done. I wouldn’t have been granted the opportunity to say that to the future king of England if I hadn’t been named Birmingham Poet Laureate, if I hadn’t worked from within the system.
OL: You have a scholarship now at Birkbeck College too? Can you talk about that?
STEPHEN: I won the Kit de Waal Scholarship in 2016, a national competition open to individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds to study at Birkbeck University, all expenses paid for. I’ve learnt so much since starting there. My writing has improved substantially, and I’ve met some fantastic people in the process. I travelled from Birmingham to London once a week for two years to do the course and now only have my dissertation to hand in. Wish me luck.
OL: What is your writing process? Do you walk around with notebooks ever to hand? Take memo's on your phone? I read once that the Tamworth musician Julian Cope used to get ideas as he moved around town on bike rides and would dive into a phone box and call home and sing into his answering machine. Before cell phones I suppose although, I don't know. Or maybe that's why he doesn't make so many records any more.
STEPHEN: I walk in circles, talk and argue with myself, dance around to my favourite music between bouts of writing, lie down on the floor with my arms crossed cursing anything to do with the written word. I basically live life how I would expect a prisoner locked up in solitary confinement for ten years to live it. I lose all sanity so that the words I write can read like they’re written by a person who has mastered the art of living. It’s a trade-off: the gods have their way with me in exchange for a half decent sentence.
OL: As a writer, are you going to work exclusively with poetry? Short stories and a novel length piece, do you think your stories can be woven out, is that of interest to you in the future?
STEPHEN: I write anything and everything. At the same time, I have great respect for the different forms. I began writing a novel I’ve been working on with the mindset that all my success in poetry would have no bearing on my prose. That’s not entirely true, of course - my rhythm comes through regardless of what form I’m writing in – but I told myself that to ensure I studied the art of writing novels with the same scrupulous fervour the Pope takes to the Bible.
The Boxer and the Honeybee
Einstein said if each bee dies,
then man has four years alive,
those honeybees they slave and strive,
and dance to keep their verse alive,
and glide with such simplicity,
in front of crowds for all to see,
when all is done but who are we
to mock the humble honeybee.
but fools they swat and curse and jeer,
and smile when death is ever near,
they ride the wave vicariously
don't see the war beneath the sea,
don't feel the pain to taste the sweet,
nor understand the alchemy,
this world has yet a world to weep,
for our dear friend the honeybee.
please know the value
of a flower,
and choose it over
speed and power
oh I agree a marvellous sight,
to float just like a butterfly,
and sting just like a bee in fights,
but bees they sting and sacrifice,
and what a way to trade a life,
and what a way to lay the night,
for who will care to stand and see,
the fall of our dear honeybee.
OL: You touched on this in another interview, when people go to read poetry, they can easily pick up first on the monotony of their school days, and be put off - loved that insight! What do you do to combat that? Your poetry is involving, involved and exciting.
STEPHEN: I experiment with all facets of my performance – intonation, speed, volume, gesticulations. The brain quickly adapts to rhythm, and if that rhythm isn’t broken up, messed around, and played with, monotony sets in, regardless of how great your performance/oration is. I seek to continually shift the gears in the listeners brain, which, I find, coupled with eye contact, is enough for even the most easily distracted of school children to listen to a three-minute poem, or at the very least pretend they’re listening.
Stephen Morisson-Burke, live...
OL: This has gone on a bit, let's end. Let's end with Poets, Artists, Musicians you like, influences?
STEPHEN: Poet: Buddy Wakefield. Music: I write to classical, dance to anything but. Writers: Steinbeck, Dostoevsky, Bukowski, and Baldwin. Leaders: Martin Luther King. Everyday inspirations: Honest and kind people - it’s rarer than it sounds.
OL: What's next?