A Capella Poetry


Joelle Taylor meets Zena Edwards, Poetry Café poet in residence from February to April



It is somehow appropriate that an interview with Zena Edwards should involve only her voice. Although we've met before, her busy schedule will only allow for a telephone interview. Earmarked as one of the fastest rising constellations in the UK performance poetry scene, Edwards is revered not only for the easy power of her words but also for her opulent delivery, for the complex manipulation of her voice. Her work is deep and sensuous, rhythmic and startling. Her poetry is not simply supported by music, but is music itself. Over the past eight years she has built up an impressive back catalogue of collaborations, creating new work alongside Pops Mohammed, Jonzi D, Jean Binta Breeze and Dana Bryant. Her work is cross-cultural and cross-guttural. She lifts raw ingredients from a sweeping range of poetry and music forms and bakes them into her distinctive Afro-Jazz, Urban-Soul style.


Edwards was relatively late to poetry. Having studied theatre management and technology, she found herself working as the lighting and sound operator for a show commissioned by Riverside Studios in 1991. The show was by Rhythm Writers, a group she soon joined and used to begin her expeditions into the live fusion of music and word. At this tentative stage in her career, the music took prominence, and when the Rhythm Writers gradually dissipated she stopped focussing on the pure word and joined an all girl a capella group, Shades. It was, ironically, her work in Shades and the focus on music that led her back to poetry. During a band tour to South Africa, she met world musician Pops Mohammed and began a long working relationship with him that would influence the creation of her own performance and writing style. They collaborated together in 1998 on the Millennium Experience project. "A lot of work was dedicated to traditional musicians, so we went to Namibia and worked with some of the bushmen, and we also worked with some women from the Corsa tribe", she says. "We toured around Europe with them and did a show, and did some spoken word as well. I hooked up with the thumb piano and other traditional instruments. But it was also Pops who first told me about looping machines, and how clever you could get with them. So I bought a looping machine, and started looping my voice, creating full tracks with my voice and percussion instruments, and reciting my poetry over that".


All of which was fairly normal in a world music scene. But it was also during this time that she re-entered the spoken word arena. Having found her feet in South Africa she returned to Britain and began hitting all the open mic spots in London, testing her work on untamed ears and comparing herself to the vibrancy of the scene in the late '90s. She writes travelling poems that either clearly or obliquely reference her journeys through Europe, and Eastern and Southern Africa. And so it is only fitting that she should also adopt elements of the rich musical heritage of those regions in order to compose another layer of the poem. It was during her Millennium Experience project that she was exposed to the ancient African instruments Mbira Dzvadzimu and Kalimba – the thumb pianos that she incorporates into her live performances. But it is her manipulation of the spoken voice that makes her stand out.


" Words are definitely vehicles for thoughts but it is the tone or the intention that is going to make the difference, and music can only help that along", she says. "You can switch off to a tone of voice, or be drawn in by one. If you fully use your tone and are blessed with a range of tonality, there are so many things you can do even if you are simply reading".

In other words, the writing does not end with the final full stop on the page, but continues until it finds its resting place in the audience's ear. There is the script that is written at the desk. A further one that is written on the stage. And another which is composed live between the performer and the watcher. These are the essential dynamics that musicians and performance poets alike understand and continually work with. The semantics of the whole creative process becomes the completed poem. It is no coincidence that Edwards' earliest work was for the theatre: there's something of Brechtian total theatre in her writing, in the exposure of thought processes and techniques.


And there are further influences. She has an eclectic and inquisitive style, fusing traditional African vibes with jazz, blues and soul music, and the lyrical patterns inspired by those forms. She writes and performs by any means necessary. Like many Afro-Caribbean poets clearing a path in UK contemporary culture she struggled against simplistic comparisons with the hip hop scene. The comparisons are certainly there if you look closely, but her work is more about transcendence than acceptance.


"Hip hop influences in terms of how it speaks to the people, the rhythm of it, the attitude behind it, its staying power as a music, how rich it is in terms of language and culture, how cross-cultural it is", she says. "I cannot help but have some of it in my work somewhere. But I cannot definitely place myself in that scene."


In a sense, accepted hip hop rhythms are too formalised for Edwards' work. A fundamental part of the rhythmic choreography is the conscious veering from that rhythm to miss a beat with deliberation and insight. A missed beat is also a beat on target. The rhythm is also about the silences in the pieces, about the sudden mood changes, and about the spaces between words. The musicality of her poetry survives even without the musicians to underscore it.


Earlier this year Zena was the resident poet at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden, and was commissioned to facilitate a series of workshops that looked with a little more depth at the relationship between poetry and music. She calls the band that back her "the perfect listening musicians". It is through their contributions that she – and those on the course – have been able to locate moods locked within pieces, and to suggest their origins, perhaps even to suggest underlying, hidden motives in the writing.


"What's been really great about the workshops is that all of the poets have expressed a sense of openness – they are hearing their work completely differently now", she explains. "What we have allowed people to do is to look at rhythms in their work and dynamics. It's not acting but it does add a bit more life to your piece, being able to see the phrases you may have in a whole paragraph or stanza. You may have three or four energy changes and it's really great for an audience to see that happening, to give them a chance to feel that just by the way you read your work. It's about poets exposing their thought processes."


Zena Edwards's debut album Healing Pool is available now via 57 Productions www.57productions.com