Feature: Speaking in Tongues

Speaking in Tongues 2 University is the ultimate melting pot. The rich and the poor, the nerds and the cool kids, the northerners and the southerners are forced together. Squashed into what are essentially prison cell blocks as Freshers and forcibly coerced into befriending people they’ve never meet before and probably have nothing in common with anyway. But the result is so frequently a very disappointing one. We go on the same nights out, dance to the same songs, and join the same societies. The fresher experience is sadly a very much defined one. Rarely do people do anything that is truly unique with the opportunities they have been given, and the infinite potential of youth is squandered. But some students have chosen to do something a little bit different.

Zara Daswani, a third year history student, and a host of her friends, have instead chosen to make a change, and to do something that little bit different with their university lives: “Speaking in Tongues is a non-profit organisation which aims to bring the vast amount of creative people in York together, whether they are students or locals, to have a bit of fun with their own work. My aim was to create a performing platform where all felt welcome and involved, for those who already write or even to encourage those who don’t to come together under one roof.” She was inspired by her experience of growing up in London: “I got into ‘spoken word’ after going to a charity-led initiative which took children ages 14-18 from big inner city schools to study Chaucer for six weeks and adapt the pieces they were allocated into a form they could relate to and understand – spoken word and hip hop.” She was pleased with the outcome, “The final result was incredible and inspire me to find some sort of outlet for writers in York.”

This spurned her on to replicate this success story in York: “I researched around a bit and saw that there were a few informal open mic nights for locals and poetry society events for students, but no real unifying thing that brought all these people together.” Her experiences in York as someone who was involved in alternative music nights also played a part in the decision to launch the night. “Since being a student at York I’ve been involved with a lot of the new and up and coming music events which are trying to help York become more diverse in its gigs and nights, allowing more to feel welcome and a part of its musical scene.” Boasting a selection of the finest poets, musicians and spoken word performers all under one roof, hosted in the relatively unknown venue of Orillo Studios, the event seeks to combine creative people together under one roof to create inspirational performances. The final result we have today has come about organically as a result of the wealth of interesting and talented performances in York: “I was working in an office over the summer and after going to this Chaucer/Hip Hop I thought ‘we need this in York!’, so after a heavily caffeine fuelled day of organising, I got in touch with a few friends who I knew were itching to have a different sort of poetry night on. We brainstormed ideas and set the ball rolling with getting our name out there and organising our first event. “I got in touch with Orillo studios, a wonderful space run by ex-York St John students who were incredibly helpful in allowing me use their space. From there I just utilized the networks I had made in the past two years and put in motion having a Hip Hop DJ for our first night, as I thought the spoken word suited hip hop perfectly. We contacted students and locals and put together our first gig which went down as a huge success and seemed to bring a lot of writers and poets out of the woodwork which is great. I’m in my final year of university now, but this is something I really want to see grow so off the back of our last one. I organized our second event, this time profiling some York based musicians, playing jazz and allowing others to come up and jam as well. I really think this will be a recurring event, branching out to art exhibitions, other music nights and all sorts of fun and creative events for all to enjoy, focusing on promoting new talent, regardless of age.”

TONGUES4 In her opinion, “This is the key to making this city realise its creative potential.” She feels there is a void inherent in the York scene, that there were too many generic club nights and not enough of the individuality that is present in other scenes around the country. “It seems that York has fallen behind many other major cities in the North; Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield to name a few. It seems to be the lack of individualism which is rife in places like London and nights such as Milli Vanilli and Breakz are trying to fill the void many generic and mainstream nights seem to leave. There is so much already existing in York and having relationships with these people meant that putting together Speaking in Tongues was relatively easy. I think the degree of creativity in York is huge but there is a lack of collaboration and bringing people together.” She is keen to dispel the myths and clichés of poetry as a reserve of the wealthy and educated elite, and instead to present it as something communal that everyone can enjoy and learn from.

A form for the people: “I think that poetry is often aligned with people who have time and wealth to sit and reflect on philosophy or their lives and is only suited to those who read Milton or Shakespeare. Poetry is accessible to everyone and can be found in many mediums. Tongues5 But new movements are changing this public perception: “I think the rise of ‘beat’ poetry is good as it’s allowing people to access writing on many different levels but I do thinks it’s important to not keep this kind of stuff in the realms of ‘higher culture’.” She admires the ability of modern hip hop and spoken word to move away from this and inspire the youth in positive manner outside the confines of gangsta rap culture. “It helps us move away from this elitism and understand that anybody can write and be inspired by different people in various pockets of music and writing. The work of George the Poet or John Agard, who run poetry workshops for kids in schools, particularly underprivileged ones, opens children’s eyes to music and poetry that isn’t moving in ‘gangsta rap’ circles, but into using it as an expression that is actually meaningful and purposeful to their lives. Hip hop is something she believes is helping to break down the elitism that surrounds poetry in the 21st Century. “Rappers such as Akala show that the written word is powerful and it can be used by anybody. It’s good to realize one’s responsibility once becoming prolific. I think it would be naïve to always associate poetry with classical writers – poetry is timeless and shouldn’t just be categorized to people sitting by a fireplace contemplating Mark Twain with a glass of brandy. The influx of spoken word artists in the media shows this I suppose – it’s one form of expression that may or may not suit you, but is open and encompassing.

I think that the stigma attached to poetry can leave a lot of people thinking it isn’t for them or that they don’t have the ability to write. What we try to encourage at Speaking in Tongues is to also bring people who have never performed before to an intimate and supportive space where you can outlet your creativity and feel welcomed regardless of who you are.”

TONGUES3 Poetry, in her opinion, is something with an unparalleled and timeless ability to move that lasts throughout the ages, with a real potential to change things: “I wouldn’t go far as to say ‘poetry can change the world’ but understanding poetry opens up a historical and social understanding of society and knowledge is power.”

With so many highs it is difficult for her to pinpoint the things that have made her the most proud, but there is definitely a strong sense of achievement there: “I think for me personally, the standard of writers we’ve had is what has been truly wonderful to see. I couldn’t pick one moment that has stuck with me as, all in all, both events have been great and a real pleasure to be a part of, but I think seeing those who have never performed before, be it a friend or complete stranger, get up there and speak with such honesty and vulnerability is incredibly inspirational and priceless.

Before each event I’ve had poets come up to me and say ‘I can’t do this, it’s too personal’ and have sat with them and helped them to overcome their nerves and to realize that people aren’t there to judge your insecurities and fears, but applaud you for having the strength to perform. “Seeing those people get up and perform with power and conviction is beautiful”, she adds. The founders are not particularly concerned with leaving a legacy behind, instead they are fixated with issues more permanent than that’; “I don’t want this kind of thing to stop once I leave – if anything it should encourage those who are dissatisfied with the crap we are pushed into caring about in Freshers to start up their own thing and if they’re bored, do something about it! I think York is a great place to get things going; people are willing all over to help out.”

It’s easy to be cynical, particularly as a student journalist. But Speaking in Tongues seems to be the real thing; people getting together and simply doing what they love. I like that. I like that a lot. People getting involved and doing their own thing outside of the confines of the average student experience, and then inspiring those around them. They seem confident in the event they are producing, and so am I. “I think my message was clear so maybe that’s why it has been so successful thus far. If you really want to do something that will cultivate talent and inspire people to get involved and don’t wait for somebody else to start things up for you then a place like York is the place to be. Once you get out of the student bubble it’s not hard to find people pursuing their own thing, what we need though is more collective work and bridging the gap between the passionate people on campus and in the city. Speaking in Tongues will be the first of many things we want to do, not the end result.”

Will McCurdy
Will McCurdy is currently Managing Director of York Vision. He has previously served as Music Editor, Stage editor and Deputy Comment.