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Tag Archives: Spoken word

Mark Lewisohn knows the Fab Four better than they knew themselves. The experts tapes of their tense final meetings shed new light on Abbey Road and inspired a new stage show

The Beatles werent a group much given to squabbling, says Mark Lewisohn, who probably knows more about them than they knew about themselves. But then he plays me the tape of a meeting held 50 years ago this month on 8 September 1969 containing a disagreement that sheds new light on their breakup.

Theyve wrapped up the recording of Abbey Road, which would turn out to be their last studio album, and are awaiting its release in two weeks time. Ringo Starr is in hospital, undergoing tests for an intestinal complaint. In his absence, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison convene at Apples HQ in Savile Row. John has brought a portable tape recorder. He puts it on the table, switches it on and says: Ringo you cant be here, but this is so you can hear what were discussing.

Challenging conventional wisdom Fab Four writer-historian Mark Lewisohn

What they talk about is the plan to make another album and perhaps a single for release in time for Christmas, a commercial strategy going back to the earliest days of Beatlemania. Its a revelation, Lewisohn says. The books have always told us that they knew Abbey Road was their last album and they wanted to go out on an artistic high. But no theyre discussing the next album. And you think that John is the one who wanted to break them up but, when you hear this, he isnt. Doesnt that rewrite pretty much everything we thought we knew?

Lewisohn turns the tape back on, and we hear John suggesting that each of them should bring in songs as candidates for the single. He also proposes a new formula for assembling their next album: four songs apiece from Paul, George and himself, and two from Ringo If he wants them. John refers to the Lennon-and-McCartney myth, clearly indicating that the authorship of their songs, hitherto presented to the public as a sacrosanct partnership, should at last be individually credited.

Then Paul sounding, shall we say, relaxed responds to the news that George now has equal standing as a composer with John and himself by muttering something mildly provocative. I thought until this album that Georges songs werent that good, he says, which is a pretty double-edged compliment since the earlier compositions hes implicitly disparaging include Taxman and While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Theres a nettled rejoinder from George: Thats a matter of taste. All down the line, people have liked my songs.

The Beatles Abbey Road album Photograph: Pictorial Press/Alamy

John reacts by telling Paul that nobody else in the group dug his Maxwells Silver Hammer, a song theyve just recorded for Abbey Road, and that it might be a good idea if he gave songs of that kind which, John suggests, he probably didnt even dig himself to outside artists in whom he had an interest, such as Mary Hopkin, the Welsh folk singer. I recorded it, a drowsy Paul says, because I liked it.

A mapping of the tensions that would lead to the dissolution of the most famous and influential pop group in history is part of Hornsey Road, a teasingly titled stage show in which Lewisohn uses tape, film, photographs, new audio mixes of the music and his own matchless fund of anecdotes and memorabilia to tell the story of Abbey Road, that final burst of collective invention.

The album is now so mythologised that the humdrum zebra crossing featured on its celebrated cover picture is now officially listed as site of special historic interest; a webcam is trained on it 24 hours a day, observing the comings and goings of fans from every corner of the world, infuriating passing motorists as these visitors pause to take selfies, often in groups of four, some going barefoot in imitation of Pauls enigmatic gesture that August morning in 1969.

George Harrison and John Lennon recording Let It Be. Photograph: Daily Sketch/Rex/Shutterstock

Its a story of the people, the art, the people around them, the lives they were leading, and the break-up, Lewisohn says. The show comes midway through his writing of The Beatles: All These Years, a magnum opus aiming to tell the whole story in its definitive version. The first volume, Tune In, was published six years ago, its mammoth 390,000-word narrative ending just before their first hit. (All the heft of the Old Testament, the Observers Kitty Empire wrote, with greater forensic rigour.)

Constant demands to know when Turn On (covering 1963-66) and Drop Out (1967-69) might appear are met with a sigh: Im 61, and Ive got 14 or 15 years left on these books. Ill be in my mid-70s when I finish. Time is of the essence, he adds, perhaps thinking of the late John Richardsons uncompleted multi-volume Picasso biography. This two-hour show is a way of buying the time for him to dive back into the project.

For 30 years, Lewisohn has been the man to call when you needed to know what any of the Fab Four was doing on almost any day of their lives, and with whom they were doing it. His books include a history of their sessions at what were then known as the EMI Recording Studios in Abbey Road, and he worked on the vast Anthology project in the 90s.

The idea for a stage show was inspired by an invitation from a university in New Jersey to be the keynote speaker at a three-day symposium on the Beatles White Album, then celebrating its golden jubilee. His presentation, called Double Lives, juxtaposed the making of the album and the lives they were leading as individuals outside the studio. It took several weeks to put together, and I thought, This is mad I should be doing this more than once to get more people to see it.

Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney in the studio. Photograph: PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy

The next anniversary to present itself was that of Abbey Road, which took place during a crowded year in which Paul married Linda Eastman, John and Yoko went off on their bed-ins for peace, Georges marriage to Pattie Boyd was breaking up, and they were all involved in side projects. John had released Give Peace a Chance as the Plastic Ono Band and George had been spending time in Woodstock with Bob Dylan.

John also took Yoko and their two children, Kyoko and Julian, on a sentimental road trip to childhood haunts in Liverpool, Wales and the north of Scotland, ending when he drove their Austin Maxi into a ditch while trying to avoid another car. Brian Epstein, their manager, had died the previous year and the idealism that had fuelled the founding of their Apple company Its like a top, John said. We set it going and hope for the best was starting to fray badly. Other business concerns such as their song-publishing copyrights, which had been sold without their knowledge led to a war between Allen Klein, the hard-boiled New York record industry veteran invited by John to sort it out, and John Eastman, Lindas father, a top lawyer brought in by Paul to safeguard his interests.

Lewisohn has the minutes of another business meeting, this time at Olympic Studios, where the decision to ratify Kleins appointment was approved by three votes to one (Paul), the first time the Beatles had not spoken with unanimity. It was the crack in the Liberty Bell, Paul said. It never came back together after that one. Ringo and George just said, whatever John does, were going with. I was actually trying, in my mind, to save our future.

And yet Lewisohn challenges the conventional wisdom that 1969 was the year in which they were at each others throats, storming out of the recording sessions filmed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg for the verit-style movie Let It Be, and barely on speaking terms. During the making of Abbey Road, says Lewisohn, they were in an almost entirely positive frame of mind. They had this uncanny ability to leave their problems at the studio door not entirely, but almost.

In fact, Abbey Road was not the only recording location for the album: earlier sessions were held at Olympic in Barnes and Trident in Soho. And Lewisohns creation is called Hornsey Road because that, in other circumstances, is what the album might have been titled, had EMI not abandoned its plans to turn a converted cinema in that rather grittier part of north London into its venue for pop recording.

The show, Lewisohn believes, is the first time an album has been treated to this format. People will be able to listen with more layers and levels of understanding, he says. When you go to an art gallery, you hope that someone, an expert, will tell you what was happening when the artist painted a particular picture. With these songs, Im going to show the stories behind them and the people who made them, and what they were going through at the time. Certainly, no one who sees this show will ever hear Abbey Road in the same way again.

Hornsey Road is at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, on 18 September and touring until 4 December.

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Fusing writing, music, art and technology, a new generation is taking poetry beyond the bookstore

If youre not an Instagrammer you may never have heard of Rupi Kaur. In fact, if youre not a young female Instagrammer, then your chances are probably even slimmer.

And yet, with almost 750,000 Instagram followers and more than half a million copies of her debut poetry collection, Milk and Honey, sold worldwide, Kaur is one of the biggest names on the literary scene right now.

Dubbed the queen of an emerging trend of Instapoets, this 24-year-old Indian-Canadian writer is leading the charge in an exciting new movement of young writers reclaiming poetry for the digital age.

Fierce as they are fleeting, Kaurs poems are the kind that can be read on a morning commute, a coffee break. Poems that can be screenshot and shared, re-blogged and repurposed.

With her posts gaining upwards of 50,000 likes a pop, it might be tempting to read their impact in simply viral terms transient and trivial, clickable and forgettable. But this would be to underestimate their impact on an emerging online readership.

In her spare, sweeping lines, Kaur boldly takes on issues of femininity, sexual assault, body image and racial discrimination. You/ have been/ taught your legs/ are a pit stop for men, she begins one of the opening poems in Milk and Honey. Dont tell me my women/ arent as beautiful/ as the ones in/ your country she concludes another.

A photo posted by rupi kaur (@rupikaur_) on

Her first taste of internet celebrity came when a photo of the young poet proudly sporting a period stain went viral. Kaur does not shy away from elements of the female experience that are deemed unspeakable. And, from the attention she is gaining both online and off, it seems this is just the kind of honest and empowering voice young women are looking for.

In the aftermath of the US election, Wendy Copes takedown of mansplaining, Differences of Opinion, was shared far and wide proving yet again that poetry resonates in troubled times. And across the world a new generation of feminist poets are going viral and changing the ways we view the impact of poetry in the new age.

In the UK, the young Somali-British poet Warsan Shire has shot to fame after featuring in Beyoncs internet-breaking Lemonade. Tackling issues of race, immigration, culture and relationships, Shires poetry has commanded attention from a diverse audience, from her 50,000 Tumblr and Twitter followers to elite literary gatekeepers, who named Shire Londons first-ever young poet laureate.

Over in Londons south-east, the poet, rapper and performer Kate Tempest is unleashing rapid-fire lyrical attacks on consumerism, inequality and injustice. From award-winning poetry collections, sellout hip-hop shows and YouTube spoken-word videos, to an opening slot at this years Sydney writers festival, which itself commanded global attention, Tempest is as prolific as she is shapeshifting breaking down the boundaries of what poetry is and can be in the current social order.

In the US, a new league of feminist slam poets such as Savannah Brown, Brenna Twohy, Lily Myers and Imani Cezanne are also taking on the system with their powerful spoken-word performances lyrical tirades on everything from sexism and beauty standards to resting bitch face.

This years inaugural Feminist writers festival in Melbourne highlighted growing demand for a diverse new set of feminist voices, with a lineup featuring the Afro-Caribbean-Australian slam poet and writer Maxine Beneba Clarke, the Cypriot-Australian poet and performer Koraly Dimitriadis and the young Indigenous poet and activist Nayuka Gorrie. And in New Zealand, poetrys latest it girl, Hera Lindsay Bird, is amassing a semi-cult online following for her smart, sassy and explicit takes on everything from female sexuality to Friends.

With their playful and fluid approaches to the poetic form fusing writing, music, art and technology these are poets youre just as likely to discover on your daily social media scroll as scouring the isles of a bookshop. They have looked around at a fractured world at the issues facing women, queer communities, people of colour or socioeconomic disadvantage and found new ways to project these concerns through poetry, into the spaces in which they will be noticed and shared.

In an online age overwhelmed with up-to-the-minute news, opinions, memes and videos, these young writers have returned to one of our most ancient literary forms as a way to cut through the noise and get their voices heard. If this is the direction poetry is moving in an increasingly technological era, the future is looking bright for a new canon of female poets.

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Tokens no more: Amaal Said is empowering female creatives through her photography

Amaal Said is a Danish-born Somali poet and photographer, living just outside London. She is 20 and a politics student at SOAS, University of London. Like many people her age, she spends a lot of time in her bedroom, listening to pop music and browsing YouTube. While she does all that, though, she is quietly revolutionising the way Muslim women and women of colour are portrayed in our culture. Her photography, and the Instagram account where she features it, has started garnering her international attention. Her poetry is also getting her places she has been a Barbican Young Poet, in 2015 won the Wasafiri New Writing Prize for poetry, and is an active presence in the London spoken word scene.

Saids photographs are sensual, sensitive, almost mystical. They are tranquil and vibrant at once, playing with clothes, nature and cityscapes. But their power goes well beyond the aesthetics Said uses her images to carve a space in culture for the community of artists, poets and creative women she portrays.

We sat down with Said and three of the women she has photographed: Rachel Long, a poet, facilitator and founder of the Octavia Poetry collective; Rena Minegishi, a poet and student of a masters degree in electronic music; and Sunayana Bhargava, a poet and astrophysics student. Here is their edited conversation about tokenism, being sexualised, the male and white gazes, how the internet has given them a community and self-image.

Amaal Said. Photograph: Amaal Said

Carving a space for their voices

Rachel Long
I set up Octavia because, whenever we met at other poetry events, the conversations that we had didnt really give us that space to talk, and we just had so much to say. And also we needed a space that was just for us, so it was outside of academic institutions, which were very white, very middle class, very male. Its really important to know that just because youre making spaces, it doesnt mean you want segregation. Essentially, youre making spaces so that you dont need those spaces any more.

Amaal Said
I was writing about difficult things that Id been told to keep hidden because the women in my family werent proud of it or they expected people to not understand. But I felt like I didnt have a choice, because staying silent would mean internalising a lot of shame about my own body. I didnt think it was fair to keep it all in, and so writing was an act to sort through and share those really heavy feelings. The incredible thing was being heard and being told that I wasnt alone.

Rena Minegishi
I used to write about really big, abstract things, probably because I was born in Tokyo and grew up in Beijing, and I always felt like that was my biographical tagline. I think finding communities of like-minded writers and women let me shed those preconceived notions about how my poetry should be. Now Im a lot more focused on documenting the intimate relationships in my life, like writing love poems, because I dont have to feel cliched if Im just going to read them in a room full of women. Im not as tokenised in a room full of women.

Sunayana Bhargava. Photograph: Amaal Said

Being typecast as the woman of colour

Amaal Said
Being very visible in terms of being Muslim, wearing a hijab and getting on a stage, and then being expected to say a sort of thing or have a sort of voice and to write the poem about the news, right? To write the poem about war Thats not very fair on me, because Im just a girl and Im just going through my own stuff.

Especially being introduced: oh, look, we have Amaal Said, her work is very tragic or her work is very devastating, and Im like: devastating for who? Because, for me, its just something else that Im working through, its not something that cripples me.

Rachel Long
[There is] this expectation that [] you [] should write this kind of one-voice-for-all-black-voices and it should be female. You should be talking about your rough upbringing, your working-class background, stuff like that, which I didnt necessarily want to do.

Sunayana Bhargava
Im so much more than just an Indian woman. Im [a woman] from a fairly difficult upbringing who also happens to do other kinds of things. Im really interested in surrealism, for example. Im really interested in piecing together surreal aspects of life. Thats come through in my poetry now, where I can write about far more difficult, hard-hitting things and not feel guilty for eviscerating myself on paper and writing all of these horrible things that people are like, wow, how unfeminine, how unwomanly. Because I choose the metric of womanhood for myself and nobody else can tell me what is or isnt supposed to be feminine.

A lot of men are poets before they even walk into the room, and they never feel like theyre going to be typecast in any way, shape or form. The sad thing is the way that people have tokenised people of colour or women; theyve expected them to bring certain narratives and systematically only included them if theyre going to bring those narratives to the table. So you end up in a double bind here because youre like: well, Im equally as human as my male counterpart, but Im only allowed airtime if Im speaking about the ways that Im not like them, and the ways that I earn my grief and my pain.

Rachel Long. Photograph: Amaal Said

Rejecting the male gaze

Sunayana Bhargava
I find that, a lot of the time, if a man were to come up to me and say something about how I lived through a domestic abuse situation or how I managed to grow up in a violent household, they would always commend me on managing to retain some level of femininity, some level of vulnerability and softness, as if Im still palatable because I can still manage to present myself in a really feminine way. Whereas women are better at being critical and putting you on the path to what your authentic voice is.

Rena Minegishi
A male artist can approach you under the guise of hey, were both creatives, its an artistic collaboration but its not! They just want to photograph you in a way they feel is attractive. Just thinking about the ego that comes with being a male photographer Its them thinking: Renas not a person, shes a muse. Renas not a partner, shes just a beautiful girl in my room, shes just a subject on the other side of the lens. Why are we not seeing close-up penis shots more often? Not that I want to [laughs]. Why are we so commodified? If you have to use a conventionally attractive naked woman to make your photo worthwhile, maybe youre just not a great photographer. If you cant make an exciting photo without sexualising a woman, maybe you need to practise.

Rena Minegishi. Photograph: Amaal Said

Advice for female artists

Rachel Long
Your voice is valid and necessary thats a mantra you have to keep repeating. Because that belief gets chipped away. Read, read, read so much. Because youll never be good if you dont read, youll never be able to write well. Also, if you are the weirdo kid and you are on your own, youre isolated, thats really hard but make a community any way you can, even if its a community of two. Use the internet, just so youve got someone to bounce ideas off when you need it. That can add a lot to your confidence somebody who likes your work, but whom you love and trust enough that they can critique your work as well. Because youre not going to get any better without realising that you do need critique.

Sunayana Bhargava
No matter what youre saying, people are going to tell you that theres no need for you to say it. Theres no need for you to paint; theres no need for you to photograph; theres no need for you to write music, because in some way, shape or form, youre not going to be changing anything. Thats all a big bargain game to make sure you never overstep your mark, never go out of yourself, never breach your remit as a woman working as a creative. So persevere to make sure you never let anybody tell you that you dont have a place in art.

Rena Minegishi
Read more women. You will find a resonance so deep and so real once you read women poets, because they know exactly what youve been through, theyve been talked down by male poets, theyve been erased from textbooks.

Sunayana Bhargava. Photograph: Amaal Said for the Guardian

Owning the title artist

Amaal Said
I feel like Ive been fighting for the term artist for a very long time. People Ive grown up around have always tried to take away the artist label from me: youre just a daughter, youre a politics student, etc. You cant be more than one thing, but men can. For me, it literally took the publishing of the first book
Warsan Shire released, Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth, to be able to break down to my mother that this is what I wanted to do. I remember getting it and waving it in her face, like, Look! Shes actually Somali and shes doing this! And Im not doing some kind of made-up thing! Representation matters so much.

Rena Minegishi
I dont for a second delude myself into thinking that Im single-handedly responsible for a huge change in the creative world. But if I can begin to move an individual, if me doing that in public inspires a fellow creative who might feel discouraged, thats whats important to me.

Amaal Said. Photograph: Amaal Said

The power of online communities

Amaal Said
I live such a solitary life. Knowing that what Ive said and what Ive experienced from my little part of the world can touch you from across the sea is why the internet and YouTube are so incredibly important. As a young Somali girl, and as a young black girl growing up in a place where there were no community services or youth groups and the nearest cinema was 30 minutes on a bus, having a space on the internet opening yourself up to a community, sharing your work with maybe a couple of people at first, and just growing the confidence is what it took for me to be able to say: I can do this and Im not a fraud.

Sunayana Bhargava
I think the whole metric of how we measure change is very masculine. Its done in a very aggressive, often violent way, that you need to break borders, upheave a whole structure in order to make a difference. But thats not true at all a lot of people unionise through the smallest things that operate over the largest distances. So, for a lot of us starting out in poetry, it was really validating to start in a digital sphere, before upgrading to what were more personal, intimate venues where youd actually perform your work. I was reading about Beyonc discovering Warsan Shire through YouTube, through exactly the same medium any other woman of colour would be able to access another woman of colour whos reading poetry.

Rachel Long. Photograph: Amaal Said

Representations and self-image

Rachel Long
Amaals not only doing something with women of colour in photographs saying I am here, we exist but also, crucially, her pictures are soft. Theyre super feminine. Often times, black women are portrayed like the mummy figure: big and huge; its never soft. The black woman on TV is loud and brashy, she wears earrings and red hair and is really in your face. And so, through flowers and her photography, Amaal does the opposite. Even though you know thats not the way every black woman is, to see that [softness] in a photograph is stunning.

Sunayana Bhargava
I had never felt comfortable in front of a camera, because I thought it was only going to magnify my flaws rather than finding something that I could like, but something about being in the hands of a woman that you really love and respect changed it from what would be such an interrogative experience. The idea that you could be with a woman and she could see beauty in you is an intensely vulnerable thing and something that requires a lot of trust. To be able to let Amaal take a photo of me and know that Im going to see it and Im actually going feel beautiful, is something that I think lots of women would feel is a massive thing, because theyre constantly looking at distorted representations of themselves. To see a picture of yourself and be like hey, this is me, I just am, I think that is beautiful.

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