If you know me or anything about me, the chances are that you will know I am a huge literature enthusiast. Other than fiction novels, my favourite form of literature is spoken word poetry and one of my favourite – if not my favourite – spoken word artists goes by the name of Polarbear. His real name is Steven Camden.
Steven is one of the most acclaimed spoken-word artists in the UK and, as Polarbear, he has performed around the UK and internationally. As well as being a spoken word poet, he writes plays, teaches storytelling schools, was a lead artist for Ministry of Stories and The Roundhouse poetry collective and has just released his debut novel Tape.
Recently, I had the absolute honor of interviewing Steven. It went a little like this:
Let’s talk poetry. You are one of Britain’s most well-thought of spoken word poets, working under the alias of Polarbear. You work is astounding and my personal favourite is ‘Jessica’, do you have your own favourite piece of your own?
Thank you very much for saying so.
I’d say the with the shorter spoken word pieces, whichever one I’ve written most recently is probably my favourite. I wrote a piece that I called ‘The Scene’ which I enjoy speaking out loud as I feel like it communicates more than one thing in itself which is exciting.
In terms of all my performance stories I’d say that my favourite to perform is definitely a longer piece called ‘Mouth Open Story Jump Out’.
What other spoken word poets have influenced or inspired you over the years?
I don’t feel like I took influence from spoken word poets as I was completely unaware of the form until I was told that I was doing it. I’ve met a lot of talented artists since I started, but I’d still say my biggest inspirations come from other forms like film and music as well as real people I know and where I’m from.
I do have a favourite spoken word artist though and his name is Zia Ahmed.
What is one fact that barely any people know about you?
I can speak the dialogue from Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie word for word perfectly.
What motivates you to continue writing?
I’ve only just started. My life revolves around stories in various forms and getting to write them down and have them published has become something that I feel stupidly privileged and excited about. I reckon I’ve got enough ideas to keep me going for a while yet.
Many people have issues at school that sometimes prevent them from pursuing their dreams, how did you cope with school?
I came to a secondary school on my own after attending a great primary school with influential teachers who were hugely into the arts and making lessons as creative as possible. Straight away it became clear that secondary school was very different.
I learned quickly how to keep my head down and just get on with things that seemed completely grey and uninspiring. We had no real art or drama departments and music lessons were a complete joke where kids would just play spin the bottle whilst Mr Shakespeare (I’m not even joking) would read biographies on dead composers.
English lessons were also really functional. Everything was geared to preparation for what we would ‘need’ to know and we only really studied extracts of texts in anthologies rather than full works. I remember the first thing we got to read was Lord of The Flies and I loved it, but by that point I’d already picked up on the fact that seeming like you were into anything at school brought the kind of attention from other kids that nobody wants.
I was already heavily into music and lyrics and films outside of school, but books were like holidays that came once in a while and always felt like they weren’t part of my real life.
Basically I just did what I had to do and very little more. Looking back at it now it makes me a little sad and angry that I didn’t meet a single member of staff between the ages of 11 and 16 who seemed excited by their subject or gave a a taste for anything beyond what happened in lessons.
I had a fast enough mouth to get out of bullying situations, or at least deflect attention from myself if I ever got it, but if I was to sum up secondary school for me I’d say it was like a job that takes just about enough attention to keep you awake, but never enough for you to think it might be worth doing overtime.
A lot of doors close on the journey on becoming a writer, how did you manage to push them open?
Timing is everything. So much of what has happened so far on my path of writing has felt like it’s been down to a combination of luck and readiness that I honestly don’t feel like I’ve pushed anything. All I’ve ever done is make work that I’m proud of and been fortunate enough to get the chance to share it and support to make more and things have grown.
I have no master plan or strategy because for me the journey is the cream. If I can keep making things that I’m proud of and mean that people in positions to afford me more opportunities do so, then I’m good, and that’s all the motivation I need.
What books could you just not put down?
I like lots of books that feel like they grip you by the collar and pull you along page after page. Pimp by Iceberg Slim or George Pelecanos’ novels about the Washington DC underground, but my favourite books are less ones that I ‘cant put down’ and more ones that I have to put down for a bit, or take a second to think about what has happened. Book stat feel like they are setting their own pace and rhythm based not just on keeping me ‘hooked’ (I’m using inverted commas a lot for some reason. This is not something I do regularly and I’d like that stated on the record). I feel that stories that relentlessly drive you towards something feel like films that I enjoy but have no intention of watching again and given a choice I prefer the feeling of living with something that feels like I’m lucky to witness rather than being made for me. Does that make any sense?
I guess what I mean is I often become very aware of the devices used in the books that you might deem ‘unputdownable’ and my brain kind of glazes over because I’m aware that the author is aware that they’re trying to grip me rather than just making a story real and letting me decide if I like the pace or not.
If it wasn’t so late and I was less tired, I’d probably read over this answer and delete it.
As a teenager, what books did you enjoy?
As I said, between 11-16, books were things that I stumbled upon or got given rather than sought out. I’m not sure whether it was due to school squashing the fun out of reading (although that’s kind of a cop out as I could’ve read more in my own time) or whether music and film just felt like my go to mediums. I read Diary of a Teenage Health Freak because my cousin read it and told me it was good. We used to read it together when he stopped over. I read my nan’s Stephen King novels when I’d go stay with her. Misery was my favourite. I went on a trip to Butlins with a friend and his family when i was thirteen and found a copy of a book called ‘Come on Ossie’ by Hunter Davies in the bedside drawer. I read it in one night and then read it every night I was there. It felt like I’d found a story that was written just for me, about somebody I identified with and also wasn’t trying to shock or impress me as I read. It felt real, with a little bit of magic sprinkled in and it was the first time I had the thought that writing a book would be cool.
I started to read more when I went to college for my A levels, mostly because I started going out with a girl who read loads and she reminded me how much I enjoyed it and basically got me back on a regular diet of written stories. I loved obvious ones like The Catcher in The Rye, A Clockwork Orange, One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest and Animal Farm, but then one day when I was eighteen I went into a book shop in town and started browsing the shelves. I pulled out a book based on the colours on the cover. It was called Last Things by an author called Jenny Offill. I read the beginning in the bookshop, then sat on the floor and read the whole thing there and it felt like something had been switched on inside me. I wanted to write a book that felt like this book. A book that feels like it’s about lots of different things, about the sadness in life but also the hope, about parenthood and childhood and how similar they are about a way of looking at things that made sense to me. I still love it to this day and it is the main inspiration for me trying to write a novel. I worked on a story for the next four to five years, which ended up becoming my first full length spoken word monologue ‘If I Cover My Nose You Can’t See Me” which I toured in 2008 ten years later.
Let’s talk about your new book, TAPE. Tell us about the title and premise of your novel.
Tape started after I found a recording of my younger self on a cassette when we moved flat. I listened to myself speak and it struck me that some of the things I said were at the root of principles I live my life by and that made me happy. I started thinking about the idea that we don’t even really know what things we do or say have the most impact on other people and how that impact is largely out of our control. Then I started thinking about whether being that age nowadays was any different to back then. The characters and Ryan and Ameliah started to grow and I wondered what about if not only the past affected the present, but also the present affected the past which then became the present (space time continuum, Back to The Future vortex alert). I wanted to explore the idea of what happens when important people leave us and what we do with the space they leave behind. I also wanted to say that I believe that it’s the tiny things, that we’re often not completely sure are real to anyone else, that give us the strength and the will to make changes for the better.
And it’s got a TAPE in it.
As a fan of your poetry, I was surprised to hear you had a book out. Has writing a novel always been something you wanted to do?
Yep. Spoken word was a fortunate accident that has allowed me to get to a point where words and stories are my life and my livelihood, but writing a novel, particularly a novel that a thirteen year old me might find in a drawer at Butlins and get inspired by, was always a dream.
Have you any further plans for writing more novels in the future?
I’m writing another one as we speak. Harper Collins have allowed me to write another YA novel and I’m so excited about the story. If Tape was written for myself aged thirteen, this new one is written for myself aged sixteen and I can’t wait until it’s finished and comes out next year.
When did you discover your talent in writing?
Do you discover it yourself?
I remember loving making up stories and writing them avidly in primary school. I won a story competition in year five that was I guess the first time I felt like something I’d written was good in the eyes of other people, but my parents were always very encouraging in my young writing so I guess just the feeling that I loved doing it and enjoyed sharing it would be the start of me thinking I might have a muscle that was ready to be built.
I always wrote letter for girlfriends. Rhymes and poems that I hoped would convey what I felt and make them think I was a talented romantic. That stepped up a notch when I got to university and met the girl of my dreams. She seemed to like my letters and still has them in a box so maybe that was important too.
Keeping to the theme of the blog, what topic do you suppose you are most opinionated about?
I’ve probably got an opinion on most things if anyone asks, but if I had to say one topic that I feel passionate about and have ideas and opinions on it would be education and learning and what and how we’re teaching children and young people at the minute and going into the future. It’s probably best I don;t get started on this here as I’ll take up too much web space with my thoughts. Lets just say a lot of the system we have in place is, in my opinion, slightly out of touch.
Have you any other projects/products you would like to make the readers aware of?
And my story company page is www.bearheart.org.uk
Thank you Steven, have you any parting words?
Thanks for asking the questions and letting me answer. Anybody who has more questions or anything to say can reach me through the contact page on the BearheART site.