Popping the Speech Bubble – Part 1

I sent an email today to Mark Grist – a performance poet who headlined a spoken word event in our town this week.  Now you may or may not have heard of Mark Grist – and I admit that I hadn’t until very recently – but an awful lot of people have, largely due to a video of him battle-rapping which has gone viral around the world.
The spoken word evening, hosted by the University, is a relatively new event put together by my friend and fellow Creative Writing MA-er Lauren.  The first evening saw about twenty of us huddled in a corner of a brightly lit, over-large and incredibly cold night club in the Students’ Union.  For event number 2 we’d moved downstairs to a smaller, darker and, thankfully, much warmer bar area, with an audience easily double of that previously.  And by event number 3, the room was packed to overflowing with people, chairs were very difficult to come by and the showcased talent – professional and otherwise – was phenomenal.  Which is great, as well as incredibly inspiring. 
On that first night I bribed my sixteen year old daughter to come with me.  Not because I’m scared of sitting by myself, you understand, but because she’d shown resistance to my assertion that poetry done properly is funky.  She’s studied poetry at school, she assured me, and it’s crap.  She loved that first performance so much, however, that she invited five schoolmates along to the second, and loved the second so much that she scoured the internet afterwards for clips of performance poets, excitedly emailing across a link to a video she titled ‘chav versus poet’.  “Watch this, it’s wicked”, her message instructed, and smiling at her enthusiasm, I stuck with it through the overly-long intro ads, despite having very little interest.  But then the ‘performer’ kicked in and shouted an invitation for the audience to ‘make some fucking noise!’ and I clicked off, overcome by my dislike of the hostility and the bad language, of rapping culture itself.
Which left me, then, without any understanding of my daughter’s excitement at learning that the poet at this week’s event was to be Mark Grist – “Mark Grist, Mum, the guy in that video!” – and a complete misconception over what his performance would be like.  Across the dim bar my old eyes made out that Mark wasn’t wearing the regulation baseball cap, though he did have a hoodie.  The student crowd were certainly excited enough by his rapping reputation for several of them to parody a ‘bad-manz’ style in the open-mic session, causing Luke, another creative writing student, to ask if he was the only one feeling uneasy over teenagers hearing such foul language.  I told him not to worry, they’re serial watchers of Skins.
So the expectation in the room for Mark’s session built to a fever pitch and I braced myself, ready to endure a performance I would in no way enjoy. 

And then Mark came on, looking fresh faced and not dissimilar to a nephew of mine, and he was polite, witty and erudite, his poetry intelligent and well written.  He performed a poem which indicated his respect for women, he performed a poem infused with passion and personal integrity and another which, constructed entirely from words that include the letter ‘e’, hinted at his recent literary studies.  From beginning to end he had the audience in the palm of his gesturing hand, listening intently, laughing in strategic places, at several points, even, so quiet you could’ve heard a pin drop.  He was, in fact, nothing like the angry, aggressive rapper I’d been expecting.  Which was, as it turned out, the whole point of the battle, if only I’d watched the clip long enough to find out.  Pitched against a 17-year-old ‘champion’, Mark Grist was the ‘teacher/poet’ who won out against the authority-hating, rapping ‘chav’.  And in slapping him down, it seems, he’s won the admiration of the world.

You can watch Mark Grist’s rap battle against Blizzard here, though some may find the language in it offensive.   The battle begins around 1 min 50 seconds in.