“It’s not the same when you’ve not got that feedback from people.” World Poetry Slam Champion and mathematician Harry Baker muses on the lonely nature of doing online gigs. “At the time we were trying to get through, but only looking back on it do I realise how much my world shrunk. And I kind of shrunk with it.” It’s only now, being back in those spaces with a room full of people joining in or laughing, that he’s realised how much of who he is is built on live performance.
After his previous solo tour was extended three times due to popular demand, and an unobliging global pandemic, Baker is bounding back onto stages with his brand-new show, Unashamed. Fresh from a sell-out run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, this second national jaunt mixes comedy, theatre and poetry in a blistering barrage of clever wordplay.
We shouldn’t assume that Baker lay dormant during the lockdown months. Seemingly, poetry is one of the forms that has adapted really well to social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram, where pithy, impactful content is king. “When I started, YouTube was kicking off. If you couldn’t come to a gig, you could see some online. Now there’s teenagers, if they think poetry is interesting, who can go into some kind of wormhole of seeing other performers and being inspired.” He says there’s a growing trend of people creating poems which fit within a small square image file, which is so immediate and accessible. There remains a perception of poetry being limited to whatever you studied at school. He speaks to many people who’ve been put off by what they think poetry has to be. “But, if you can find something which is ‘where you’re at’, whether it’s a performance or something you see when you’re scrolling through, there is an opportunity to get what you want from it.”
His heartfelt brand of humour was seen by millions across the world, morphing from sincere couplets about missing the most basic forms of human connection, to reviewing toilet seats, writing falafel-based diss tracks for Chris Evans and filming an anthemic music video about his love of the German language’s sturdy intricacies. “Trying to articulate my experience was something other people found really helpful. The most popular thing I did in the last two years was a poem about missing hugging. Because that wasn’t something we never expected needing to go without.” It was a period of huge reflection for him. Not only was he prevented from performing onstage, but like many of us he really suffered from the effects of prolonged isolation. “I had one or two friends who were relieved, because they don’t like hugging. But for me, to be comfortable around people, whether or not you’re even in that physical space, to have that taken away – where you see someone, and your instinct is to think you must stay back – is such a psychological shift from what we’re used to.”
One of his more eccentric pandemic projects was an exuberant slice of Euro-pop. Recorded with James Kiely, So Viele Leute was inspired by a year studying amongst our Deutsche cousins. “The slam poetry scene is really big, so I was able to travel around doing various gigs as the novelty act. One of the things I love, as both a mathematician and a poet, is there’s a lot of compound words. It’s very logical, but there’s still an element of creativity and playfulness.” There’s a certain idea of Germany being quite serious and ordered, but many of the poets he met there were so funny and able to lean into the presumptions and play on them. “I thought it would be funny to make an effusive song about loving Germany. Up until that point, I’d just been trying to articulate this massive thing we were going through.”
Despite maths relying on conformity and logic, and poetry offering boundless space for creativity through wordplay, there’s still a certain crossover between his two great loves. For a start, both often rely on establishing patterns. “I was in denial for a long time. But it’s all about things slotting into place and trying to make sense of something. When I can get a really satisfying rhyme or turn of phrase that says exactly what I’m trying to say, that feels the same as figuring out a maths problem.” There’s a certain methodology in both practices, while providing space to be playful. Even when you’re unpicking a complicated piece of arithmetic, there’s an element of experimentation.
Alongside this current tour, there’s a new book about to be released. Also called Unashamed, it gives him a chance to explore more reflective material which people can digest at their own pace. Printed by Burning Eye, it features work from these shows and Baker’s previous outing, I Am 10,000, which (finally) culminated in a run at London’s Soho Theatre in March. He says the publisher (who are now celebrating their 10th anniversary) were specifically set up to promote performance poets, as opposed to the form’s more literary side. “They know performers will take books to gigs and sell them afterwards, so it’s not necessarily about having books in every shop in the country. My hope is that the broader industry will catch up, because there is lots of amazing work out there.”
“Beyond print, the live environment enables things like musical numbers and greater scope for storytelling, which might not work so well on the page. The show itself feels like the ‘end goal’. But working on a book causes you to think about layout and how people might experience it in their own way.” When performing, he’s able to guide people in terms of pace and tone. But when someone is reading his prose, it sits beyond his control. Whether they’re meticulously examining it or having a glance in the toilet, all the power sits with the reader.
As we talk, Baker is quick to add emphasis with hand gestures when discussing things which excite him. I muse that the online content must have been difficult to produce for someone who is naturally an energetic stage presence. “It was only when I got one of those standing desk things, that I realised that physically standing up makes a defence as a performer.” At shows, you won’t see him referring to notes, instead learning poems so his hands are free and he can make eye contact.
“I think I got more comfortable with holding a silence. If it’s quiet for too long, I used to feel like it was awkward and have to fill it with a joke. But it’s been something we’ve all had to deal with.” Those months in isolation didn’t feel like a formative experience at the time, but eventually revealed how different energy could be in a room. The willingness to hold a stillness during more serious moments, as well as offering all the familiar fun and lightness, undeniably enables a richer overall performance.
Growing up, it was music which turned him on to the lyricist side of things. There was a lot of hip-hop and rap stuff. Artists like Scroobius Pip, who were doing spoken word to music, were particularly inspiring. “Through that, I started discovering all these performance poets – like John Cooper-Clarke and John Hegley. There’s a Birmingham poet called Polarbear who is just incredible, so seeing what was done live and could be possible just made me want to get more involved.” From here, he simply started playing around with language, realising what kind of message it could send and how it could reflect the world he saw.
When he was studying maths, a lot of people on his course were going into computing or accounting. “…very certain careers,” he pauses for a moment of consideration. “Part of me being a poet was leaning into the uncertainty. And acknowledging that I was doing it so I could share my work with people and try to connect.” He realised his favourite thing to do was sharing his words with people on a stage.
Becoming the youngest ever World Poetry Slam Champion in 2012, Baker has spent the last decade performing all over the world. He’s sold-out the Dubai Opera House alongside Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy, become a festival favourite at places like Glastonbury, Latitude and Bestival, and been seen by over 5 million people and translated into over 20 different languages. “I love the variety of it. I get to go into schools and do workshops, and I get asked to write all kinds of things.” This versatility has seen him hit the heights of Britain’s rap battle scene, become a regular contributor to Radio 2’s Pause For Thought, feature on The Russell Howard Hour as part of comedy-rap-jazz duo Harry and Chris, and star on BAFTA-winning Sky TV show Life And Rhymes alongside Benjamin Zephaniah.
As the show’s title, Unashamed partly refers to coming out of lockdown into a world where he’s free to be light, heartfelt, vulnerable and funny. But it’s also about finding space to embrace who you are. “Obviously, it’s going to be different for different people, but for a long time I felt like I had to be either a mathematician or a poet. You have to fit with these ideas that society has. But if you can blur those boundaries, that starts to get really interesting.” The show allows him to be more vulnerable. He says if we all embrace that openness, it could create better connections between us all.
“Along with trying to make people smile or make people laugh, I want to be able to say: ‘You know what? I really struggled in the last two years, and I’m grateful to be here.’ For someone else to hear you say that may be a helpful thing.” The show has developed into something which can enable both of these things, balancing heavier issues with the joy of words, because poetry is capable of accommodating a wide range of views. And can be more exciting for it.
Although ever-evolving and growing in scope, the heart of Baker’s work is all about connecting with people on some level, and perhaps making them reconsider their attitudes to poetry. And he’s learned to trust his instincts more. Initially Baker thought the best way to reach people was finding commonalities. “But I realised a lot of my favourite performers had massively different life experiences to me. More and more I’ve learned to be as honest as I can about what I’m going through. If you’re being true to yourself, the intention behind it can be even more relatable.”
Harry Baker comes to Eggtooth Nest in Hastings on Thurs 17 Nov and Brighton’s Komedia on Thurs 19 Jan. His new book, Unashamed, is available now, via Burning Eye.
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