I first heard about Shaun Clarke and the Urban Word Collective in June 2017 while browsing Bristol 24/7, so often the best place to find out what’s going on around the city. It was an intriguing interview, which explained how Shaun had gathered dozens of urban poets together into a collective with the aim of getting their voices heard, both at a local and national level.
I approached Shaun at the time via Facebook and we exchanged a few messages, quickly finding common ground in the way that we saw how poetry could be used within society to communicate and bridge divisions between communities.
Since then, we’ve chatted about how I could get involved with the project, both in terms of practical support and contributing my own work. So as well as supporting with the production and editorial side of Lyrically Justified Vol 3, I said I’d help to do what I could to promote the collective’s work via social media and my blog.
I started writing this article with the idea of creating a profile about Shaun, his work and the collective as a whole, but I quickly realised that by far the best way of doing that was to get it in Shaun’s own words.
Ben Banyard (BB): How did Urban Word Collective come about?
Shaun Clarke (SC): UWC came about through identifying the need for an organised team (with a common interest in diverse poetic performers and writers) that could support the delivery of Lyrically Justified books and showcase opportunities.
BB: How soon after you formed UWC did the idea for a print anthology (Lyrically Justified) take shape?
SC: The ideas came simultaneously. The idea for the book slightly predated UWC as it occurred to me that the book was potentially a platform that required different skills and some commitment to objectives and aims.
BB: Tell me a bit more about Lyrically Justified Vol 2.
It’s the 2nd anthology of Poets, Artivists and New Age Griots, just published by Arkbound. It reflects various UK perspectives on a range of issues, including the celebrative elements such as Miles Chambers’s ‘Carnival Poem’, fitting for the moment.
BB: If you could have one wish granted for UWC and/or LJ, what would it be?
SC: I would need an interest free loan to employ key individuals to devote time and energy. It’s problematic when we (UWC members) are torn due to paying the rent, and so cannot always focus. We shouldn’t feel like we’re struggling to keep up as much when the idea clearly exemplifies potential.
BB: UWC/LJ has some pretty high profile supporters (Bristol’s Mayor Marvin Rees, current City Poet Miles Chambers, acclaimed local writer Edson Burton and the renowned Manchester-based poet Lemn Sissay, to name just a few); was it easy to convince them to get on board?
SC: Urban Words – whether rap, underground song and meaningful/protest sounds have been inherent to my personal culture – the street wisdom and empirical perspectives. This is who I am, and I naturally engage with people and forces/entities that compliment who I am. I get the feeling people are responding to vibrations over divisive status. Besides if we don’t try how do we ever have a chance at succeeding? Also people are good at different things and connecting people to help causes that probably help others avoid the barriers I’ve struggled with makes sense to me.
BB: In terms of local and national media engagement – how have they reacted? Are you meeting resistance?
SC: Again I find that if you have the capacity, it appears you can achieve anything, but it’s finding that capacity that makes all the difference. I sometimes tell people that if I was a black version of a Dragon [from the BBC entrepreneur show, Dragon’s Den], I believe I could make a significant impact. Dragons have all the resources to try stuff – it’s that simple. Otherwise the response has been fair and we have multiple partners such as Diverse Artists Network (DAN), Ujima Radio, DMAC UK, Bristol 24/7 and others.
BB: What are your personal highlights of the project so far?
SC: Meeting so many like-minded yet unique individuals, and general achievement, launch events and the product.
BB: Tell me about your personal journey? You grew up in Leeds?
SC: It maybe suffice to say that I left Leeds and went abroad in an attempt to escape what I felt was a losing game, with a divided community setting. Yes, good things happen in Leeds, but very few and when you’re a professional youth worker getting disproportionately stopped by the police (on your way to work at times) with no way to challenge the predicament except via poetry, song and rap, it’s tough.
BB: What made you start writing?
SC: As a teenager I started writing hardcore rap to get stuff out of my system, then we realised that we couldn’t rely on fighting the status quo with words – it wasn’t going to get a lot of love. Later I discovered a way of writing about the same stuff which wasn’t so confrontational, and commanded more respect. I was inspired by acts like Silent Eclipse and similar UK acts, and now I appreciate the Akalas of this world.
BB: What contemporary poets inspire you?
SC: Not only poets inspire me. My taste is eclectic – Benjamin Zephaniah, Khadijah Ibrahim, Lemn Sissay, and people around me like Miles Chambers, Rebecca Tantony and Lawrence Hoo. Traditional is not my thing, perceived by many as exclusive, unless it includes acts like the Last Poets, Tupac and Gil Scott Heron.
BB: Do you prefer page, performance or a mixture?
SC: I don’t prefer any – It’s about practicality for me – I prefer to read on a journey, like to hear an authentic showcase too when the chance comes my way. I hear live stuff then want the opportunity to read and absorb after the event.
BB: Of all the cities, is Bristol the best place in the UK to get something like this off the ground?
SC: Maybe… As I can’t say for sure this would be working anywhere else.
BB: Dare I ask where you stand on the whole Rebecca Watts/PN Review controversy?
SC: It’s right on cue (in terms of what we’re doing). Poetry has different forms and times change (as Bob Dylan sang) and evolve. Traditionalists can constructively criticise which is fine but shouldn’t assume they are right about the future standards of poetry. The truth remains that people relate to whatever they relate to regardless of rules. It’s more about impact and emotion. I disagree that if a poet specialises in mindfulness that they can never be a poet. Every artist has a source of inspiration which is potentially valid and can be channelled poetically. This is 2018, where we’ve never been, a time not ever seen.
BB: Do think so-called “white privilege” can form a barrier to your success?
SC: That depends on whether it’s active conscious bias or not. I do think some may genuinely feel threatened by those with backgrounds other than white British. But when we come together and stand side by side, I believe we can overcome such barriers. Sadly affirmative action remains a necessary evil and controversial, yet has its flaws.
BB: So what’s the future for Lyrically Justified?
SC: More of the same, well supported events, and establishing recognition of the book as a valid source of stimulating debate and challenging stubborn and detrimental narratives, promoting happiness, the idea that a good percentage of the contributors could impress readers. And a way of giving exposure to diverse poetry.
To order a copy or find out more about Lyrically Justified Vol 2, head to the website: https://www.lyricallyjustified.co.uk/