“It’s always one of the hardest questions to answer…” he says, looking out the window.
I know Mark Mace Smith for his slam poetry achievements, since attending a gig of his a few years ago, but the volume of photographs and paintings I see him showcase so often makes me doubt my perception of what he actually does. I know he’s a very accomplished poet, So I ask about his artistic activity.
“I do a lot of different genres. I’m best known as a poet. I paint, I take photographs, I make music using a loop station and doing beat box. I play the drum too. I try to be a full time, self-unemployed artist. My craft is predominantly poetry. I’ve taken around eighty-thousand photographs in the last eight or nine years, so I should really sell some of those at some point.” He says.
There’s something powerful about his stage presence and his delivery struck me as expertly crafted, carefully considered and fine-tuned. He explains,
“Slam is poetry competition where you get maybe ten poets in a round, you get up to three minutes to do your stuff, then you get voted, generally by the audience and ‘professionals,’ and it comes down to the highest mark. I’ve been doing it since 2003 or thereabouts. I was in a poetry café in Preston called Green Leaves And Super Juice, run by my friend Shelley. Shelley came over to Manchester to the Contact Theatre to do a slam and got second place. She came back all happy and I thought, ‘I can go over there and win that.’ And I did! I actually beat Ben Mellor who was the BBC slam champion. I just turned up, did my first slam and won it. I headed back to Preston very happy.”
It’s that kind of story that makes you want to have a go yourself. It makes you wonder whether you have such a talent. How can you know if you haven’t tried? Mark says,
“It was very new to me. I was new to poetry. It’s another outlet so I thought, ‘I’ll give that a go.’ It’s accessible to anyone on the face of it, but some people won’t take to poetry. They might be happy enough in poetry but they might not take to the competition element of it. It’s funny, it’s been going for about eight years and the older school poets are saying that slam is wrong, because it’s too competitive, whereas I’m thinking, ‘if I hadn’t done slam, I wouldn’t have got to where I am now.’”
As someone new to all of this, I’m mainly intrigued by the competition nature of it. It’s that kind of end product, the winning or falling short that would have me pacing my studio, focused to the point of obsession. Mark says,
“The competitive side of it does make you raise your game. You have to think, if it’s this kind of audience, I might do something a bit funny, or for another, something philosophical, or romantic and you have to make sure it’s right, time it correctly.”
Most young people are not aware of the existence of such outlets. Mark says,
“I do work with young offenders. I work in YOTs, youth offending teams. That’s where I get the most enjoyment with using my poetry. I feel like I’ve been given a gift and if you have a gift, you should give the gift. When you get a group of kids, and you know they’re ‘bad kids,’ and you ask them to write the worst poem ever, because it’s so easy to write the worst poem ever and there’s a kid at the back who writes an A4 sheet of stuff and it’s fucking brilliant, do you know what I mean? You go – ‘great! Encourage him to do that.’ He can see for himself that he can do that too. Then you can say, ‘You don’t need to do that. Instead of throwing a table or shouting at a teacher, just write what you want to say.’ Tighten it all up and just go, ‘there you go, that’s what I’ve got to say. Poetry has no rules. Spell it wrong, rhyme things that don’t rhyme, I don’t care!”
He laughs and says, “I work for the National Football Museum, running workshops and we call it Street Speak. So as not to scare the kids off by calling it poetry. You just slam them with some mad lines and they just… you’ve got them.”
It was through our own work that we met. How does Mark see his art and the social life that it brings with it?
“There’s a book called The Celestine Prophecy and a follow on book that’s about musing and the questions you can ask yourself. One of the questions was, ‘where did you get your last job?’ then, ‘where did you meet your last girlfriend,’ ‘where do you get your money from,’ – that sort of thing. And I thought, well…poetry. It always has been, the last ten years, I meet people through what I do and I get paid for what I do, it has that social network. Some people have an office job and they’ll have a Christmas party and all that, so yeah, as a poet, which is quite a solitary role in life or as an artist, it’s hard to meet people, especially when you’re not brilliant at being social. I know that when I go out to a poetry night, I’ll know someone, can talk to someone, I can express myself too and if I need that, it’s a good thing to do. A lot of my social networks are people who I met through art, my poetry, musicians too.”
One of the things that thrill me about the arts is the lack of censorship. What you can’t, or shouldn’t scream at somebody in the street, you can write, draw, sing about without fear of any negative comeback. You’re allowed to be all bitter or angry, or elated.
“Or twisted, or perverse,” Says Mark.
There’s the satisfaction, the little bit of self-congratulation that you’re afforded in return for your work in the arts, through these forms of expression. Mark smiles when I suggest this and says,
“One of the nicest things… I won’t say who it was, but someone asked me if I was slamming and I said, ‘I’m not sure.’ He said, ‘well let me know, because there’s no point in me slamming, if you are.”
I like to know what inspires a person to pursue their talents in the arts, whether it’s for a career or for pleasure. Mark is quick to answer,
“When I last performed, which was two days ago, I’d had a conversation with my daughter’s mother. She thinks I’m just a dosser, really because I haven’t provided much financially, despite always being there for my daughter. That was what inspired me to perform, inspired the poems I chose to perform. It was like – if I record them, then I can go, ‘Look, that’s the reaction I get from the audience, it’s art!’ When I’d finished and I’d come off stage and I’d been congratulated, I felt so much better. I didn’t care what she’d said to me anymore, I could go, ‘fuck you.’ I know that what I’m doing is to express myself. She’s never seen me perform. My mother saw me perform in Brixton for the first time about four years ago and if I may say so myself, I had the audience in my hand, doing the Runny Hunny Bunny, which is a ridiculous poem, but good fun. From that day, my mother has never said to me, ‘You need to get a proper job.’
See more of Mark’s creations at: thuddub.blogspot.co.uk