Charlotte Higgins’ Grand Slam
Charlotte Higgins is only 20-years old but she’s already renowned in poetry circles. The young slam poet knows just how to induce the spine-tingling shivers with her emotive, energetic performances that immerse you completely. Fresh from performing at the Royal Albert Hall, Charlotte speaks about how meeting Seamus Heaney is just one of her great accomplishments.
How did your passion for poetry develop?
I decided that I wanted to be a writer aged about six, after we had to write a story about our walk to the nearest village in primary school – so it would be fair to say that I’ve been interested in reading, writing and literature from a young age (I’m currently studying English at University). I become much more seriously involved with writing poetry when I was around sixteen. I went to a Villiers Park creative writing course in Foxton, near Cambridge, where one of our tutors was the performance poet Luke Wright. It was my first introduction to performance poetry, and I found it massively interesting and inspiring, and thought it was something I would love to get more involved with. I entered the Poetry Society’s Foyle Young Poet of the Year competition and was one of the commended winners in 2010, then won SLAMbassadors (the Poetry Society’s performance poetry competition) in 2012 – through winning those competitions, I was lucky enough to be given amazing opportunities to perform poetry widely, and to meet and work with lots of incredibly talented and inspiring poets. Since then I’ve become more and more involved with poetry – I absolutely love it, both to write and perform and to read and study.
What is the most challenging part of your work?
Writing to commission can be difficult. It’s something that I’ve ended up doing quite a lot, and while I always feel honoured to be asked, it can be difficult to write on demand, and to produce what the person who commissioned the piece would like. I’ve hopefully become a lot better at this with practice, and found that researching beforehand, then brainstorming images and ideas I would like to work into the poem, works well as a method. Actually, some of the poems I’ve been commissioned to write (in particular, a poem I wrote for a conference in Cambridge in honour of Sir Bob Edwards, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who pioneered IVF) have become some of my favourites because of what they mean to the people who commissioned them.
Do you find writing and performing to be two different experiences and do you enjoy one over the other?
I enjoy writing and performing equally, since for me they aren’t entirely separate – through performance poetry I’ve done quite a lot of writing in workshops (as part of the professional development aspect of SLAMbassadors, and through Burn After Reading, the collective I’m a member of in London). Writing in that way is very closely linked to performance, although I also write a lot on my own and find that just as enjoyable.
Slam poetry seems to involve so much energy that has to be consistently maintained – how do you ensure that you are always ‘in the moment’ and connected to what you are saying?
Very good question. Actually, I’ve never really thought very much about the energy that performance poetry takes – I enjoy doing it so much that it feels like fun rather than something that takes too much energy. What does sometimes require focus is doing a longer feature set – but because the audience is different each time, so is each set, and I always try to introduce some new poems into each set to keep it interesting (for me as well as the audience!)
You’ve taken part in and won an array of competitions and slams. What do you consider to be your greatest achievement as a poet to date?
There are several things that stand out – winning SLAMbassadors was very significant for me because it got me involved with performance poetry, and I feel very lucky to have been involved with Shake The Dust, a UK-wide youth slam run by Apples and Snakes in the summer of 2012, for which I was one of the national judges. In terms of performances, performing at National Poetry Live last October, alongside poets like Christopher Reid, Roger McGough and John Cooper Clarke, was incredible. On a personal level, I was one of fifty local poets selected to work as buddies for the international poets at Poetry Parnassus Festival last summer, and I was assigned to work with Jo Shapcott and Seamus Heaney. Meeting Heaney, who was and is such an inspiration to me, was one of the most special things I’ve ever done (we met in his hotel and had a chat about poetry, Cambridge, choirs (I sing in one), and J.H. Prynne. He bought me a cup of coffee and had an accent very like my grandfather’s. He was as kind, charismatic and intelligent as everyone said he’d be – a lovely man).
Of the poetry you’ve written and performed, do you have a particular favourite?
Tricky question! I like different poems for different reasons – ‘Fabulous’ is one of my favourites to perform (it’s about a drag queen and it’s a lot of fun on stage!), and there are some poems I always appreciate the opportunity to perform because of the messages behind them (like ‘The Ballad of Trayvon Martin’ and ’28th August 1963′ (which is based on Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech)). My favourite overall at the moment is ‘Ariel’, which is a twisted version of ‘The Little Mermaid’, because I love the language and it’s great fun to perform.
You recently performed at the Proms! What was that experience like?
It was very, very exciting! I’d never been to the Royal Albert Hall and it’s an incredible venue. I was fairly nervous beforehand, but the performance went really well – the audience were lovely, and the band I was playing with, Blue-Eyed Hawk, were brilliant. The performance was broadcast on Radio 3 a few days later, which was also really exciting.
Where do you hope to be in the future and how will you get there?
I’m not entirely sure on this one – I don’t have a very certain plan, as the main focus at the moment is to finish my degree and keep working on poetry. Whatever I end up doing, I can’t imagine that I’ll ever stop writing!
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