Despite the divisive pigeonholing of our current curriculum, mathematics and wordplay aren’t entirely separate bedfellows. Even the Greek polymath Pythagoras could vouch for that. He’s been accredited plenty of writing, but how often he put down his problem solving apparatus to take up the poetry pen is open to the best-guesswork of classical historians. Centuries on, we have proof his primary discipline can lead to creative writing, albeit the fiery philosophical debates of old have been replaced by poetry slams and rap battles, staged in gladiatorial contests whose competitors are applauded for combinations of insightful wit and eloquent barbs.
Step forward Harry Baker, a recent Mathematics graduate from Bristol University whose segue from number cruncher to wordsmith is among those seldom taken, but has led to fruitful poetic rewards. Rather than ditching his former self altogether, Baker instead adopts rhymes about arithmetic and stanzas on scientific theories.
Like Pythagoras, he also wears many interdisciplinary hats, now established in the lyrical fields of solo spoken word sets and the head-to-head cauldrons of Don’t Flop rap battles, having announced himself to the literary world with successive slam championship titles for London (2010), UK and European (2011) and World (2012), and subsequent debut poetry anthology in 2014, The Sunshine Kid.
We fired a handful of questions at both Harry Baker and the Pen:Chant organiser, Ben Mellor, who is a fellow poet with slam titles on his CV and Manchester’s scene close to his heart, ahead of the former’s first Manchester show in a fair while, on Thursday 14 July at Gullivers.
How does your preparation differ between solo sets and slams?[Harry Baker] I do a lot more solo sets now. I used to love the competitiveness of slamming, but now I enjoy taking my time a bit with poems, and trying to work out a narrative between poems. Preparation for a slam often consists of desperately timing it to make sure it’s under three minutes, whereas with a solo set I can definitely relax into it a bit more. [Ben Mellor] I haven’t done a slam for so long I can’t remember! There’s the timing thing of course, I’ve had to cut bits out of some poems in the past to make them fit in the three minutes, as otherwise I was just saying all of it too fast. When I do a set I can have the luxury of slowing down and doing the full versions of those poems, although sometimes the edits make it a better piece overall. If you can cut something without it affecting the meaning of the poem, it’s probably for the best. Also in a set you have the scope to engineer it a bit and have a bit of a journey or an arc through the pieces, ordering pieces according to theme, style, etc, and working out what the links are in between.
Are there any themes or topics you avoid, and any you’d like to tackle but haven’t so far?[Harry] I’ve written poems that I will never perform. Most of my stuff is fairly positive, it’s not that I haven’t written sadder pieces, but I just feel I don’t do it as well as some people and feel awkward sharing it on stage most of the time. My mum was diagnosed with breast cancer last year and it’s only now that she has been given the all-clear that I feel I might be able to write about it, but i don’t want to look at everything that happens as an opportunity for a poem, I prefer to let it come naturally. I haven’t done a lot of explicitly political stuff just because I get too frustrated, but I’m sure like many of my peers there will be at least a draft of some kind of Brexit poem, even if it never makes it to a stage. [Ben] As with comedy, I don’t think there are any subjects that are off-limits to write about, as long as they’re handled sensitively. But there are a lot of political issues and events that I’m wary of approaching, partly because I don’t feel like the world needs another white, middle-class (straight, cis-gendered, able-bodied, etc) man’s point of view! The things I’d like to tackle but haven’t are usually those things I haven’t been able to think of an original angle on, or a way of talking about that wouldn’t already be familiar to people that would hear it.
Do you prefer competing in rap battles or poetry slams? How does your style differ between the two?[Harry] For years I would have said poetry slams. That’s how I got started and I love the simplicity of just taking it in turns to share your work and trying to connect with the audience the most. The point I’m at right now, I would say rap battles, just because I feel like I’ve finally managed to be comfortable in that scenario. It’s terrifying, but that’s part of what makes it brilliant.
I have poems I can practice loads and even perform at different slams until I’m fully confident with it, but with the battles you only have that one perforce against your opponent on the day to get it right. On the whole I still prefer writing poetry and being uplifting with it than insulting a stranger, but the actual rush of the live battle is hard to beat. As I’ve got more comfortable in battling I’d like to think I’ve brought my own style. In general in the rap battles, it’s all about punchlines and getting a reaction at individual points, whereas I feel with the poems there’s more of an emphasis on the overall narrative or feel of a poem, because in a battle the overall narrative is always, “I’m better than you for XYZ reasons”.
Has writing poetry and performing live helped with your studies and revision?[Harry] It’s probably had the opposite effect! Especially in uni it just slowly took over my life and I couldn’t resist the idea of performing instead of doing homework. In terms of transferrable skills, it’s definitely helped with memory, and in general my confidence as a human being, but it’s probably for the best that it really took off towards the end of my studies or I might have struggled to keep both up to the extent that I did.
Do you have any tips for other mathematicians looking to get creative with numbers or words?[Harry] Have fun with it! I began writing because I had a love of language, and maths is a language in itself. I’ve recently been reading a book by Matt Parker, who is a ‘stand-up mathematician’, and realise that whether your passion is numbers, words, or something else, if the drive is to have fun with it then that is enough to sustain you, and anything else that begins to happen afterwards is a bonus. It’s only now that I’ve finished my maths degree that I’m starting to re-explore stuff for the fun of it, as well as having more time to dedicate to my poetry.
What does Manchester have to offer in terms of slams at the moment?[Ben] Manchester is really well served for slams at the moment, more so than at any time I can remember really. You have Kieren King’s and Ella Gainsborough’s (founders of Evidently) Word War, a monthly slam at the Three Minute Theatre now in its third year; Young Identity’s One Mic Stand which is at Contact at least once per season and also features brilliant guest poets and musicians and regular appearances from the formidable Inna Voice collective; and of course Commonword’s annual Superheroes of Slam competition which holds heats across the North West and was one of the most important slams that I won early in my career. There’s probably more that I’ve forgotten about or don’t know about, so, yeah, I think we’re doing pretty well!
What would you improve about the Manchester performance poetry and spoken word scene?[Ben] I think the scene in Manchester is really strong at the moment, and has been as long as I’ve lived here, with loads of regular open mic nights, slams and bigger one-off events. I’d like to see more national and international guest artists passing through, which was part of my ambition in setting up Pen:Chant, although I also wanted to create a night that programmed the other art forms that I love as much as spoken word, such as comedy, music, theatre, and artists that combine or fall in between those forms.
I did a slam tour in Germany a few years ago and I was amazed how popular live poetry is over there. We were playing to sold-out venues of up to 750 capacity, even in small towns. There are probably lots of complex cultural reasons for that, but I think part of it is that there is a really strong circuit of touring poets (enabled by good and cheap public transport), so really what I’d like to see is Manchester poetry organisers working with promoters in other cities to help build a touring circuit similar to ones that exist in music and comedy.
The next Pen:Chant features a live performance by Harry Baker along with comedy sketch duo Norris & Parker and singer Julie E Gordon.
It takes place on Thursday 14 July at Gullivers, and tickets are available from skiddle.com
109 Oldham Street