After Nyne’s Dominic Stevenson meets poet Megan Beech.
Are you pleased with the reception your first book has had since its release?
I was thrilled and surprised by the amount of wonderful responses to the book. I didn’t really go into the publishing process with an agenda or an expectation. I was 19 years old when Burning Eye took a chance on my ranty feminist poems and I was just so grateful to be given the opportunity to create a book and work with such a radical and revolutionary press, transforming the way in which we view spoken word artists as poets as well as performers. I’m just grateful really. I have had a couple of harsh criticisms suggesting that what I write is not really poetry, that it shouldn’t be a book and that was a little tough at first to come to terms with because I am quite a thin-skinned, melancholic individual but I realise that you can’t always please everyone or cater to everyone’s tastes. Also much of the stuff in the book was written when I was 17-18 years old, so I think there is still lots to do and even in the genesis of the book I felt like my writing developed and improved. We can only grow as artists, right?
What markers, if any, did you set yourself so that you could quantify whether your book was a success?
I didn’t really have any targets or expectations with the book coming out. I’d just turned twenty, I was fluctuating in the middle of depression (which I am often prone to) and a new burst of wellness, so it was a very weird and exciting time. It was great that Mary Beard supported the book and that Laura Bates listed it as one of the best books of 2014 in the Guardian – which was so lovely and really boosted sales and buzz around the book, but to be honest, I feel like if one young girl reads the book and goes out and feels empowered to change the world, to think about sexism, to voice her own experience- I’ve done my job. The amazing responses I’ve had from young women attest to that as a success. It is so heartening to hear from young women discovering feminism and poetry, perhaps for the very first time, and men who are challenging sexism they see in their peers, and parents wanting to give it to their daughters and sons to read. I gig a lot and I basically live on Twitter so it’s great to have that instant connection and feedback with audiences.
What role so you think independent publishers have in literature?
I genuinely believe that independent publishers are where the magic happens and Burning Eye is at the forefront of something revolutionary in terms of poetry publishing. As an 18 year old feminist performance poet I would never have dreamed of approaching big poetry presses like Bloodaxe or Penguin or Carcanet and so Burning Eye and its commitment to being ‘never knowingly mainstream’ really opened a world to me that I believed was not an option. Their commitment to young writers, to performers, to the margins, to the intersections, to the weird and wonderful and awkward and impassioned is completely admirable and radical and necessary. I feel really lucky and blessed to have worked with Clive Birnie and to have a chance taken on me with this wonderful publisher!
How did your involvement in the Women Who Spit series come about?
Funnily enough the wonderful director of the series Kate Misrahi sent me a Facebook message saying they had seen some of my videos online, loved my feminist message and were interested in meeting with me. They met with many young female poets who I greatly admire so I felt very lucky to be one of the final chosen five who got to make the films. It was probably the best experience of my life! I got to visit the Woman’s Hour studio, meet Jane Garvey (my Radio 4 idol and just a blooming lovely individual!) and the fresh and fierce Gemma Cairney from Radio 1. Not only did I get to meet those amazing women but I got to gain experience in performing for TV and filming and collaborate with some wonderful creatives to transmit a feminist message about representation that I feel incredibly passionate about. I got wonderfully positive responses from people I have always admired, like the divine Lauren Laverne, who ever since I was a feminist, odd, bookish, alternative music-loving teenager I have admired and found great comfort and confidence from her success through an illustrious and varied career in broadcasting! But again my favourite responses have been from teachers and mums and dads and young women and women’s groups who have felt inspired by the film and thought about feminism for the first time in response to it. My favourite response has been this one from Twitter: ‘showed my 9yr old girl your BBC piece. She didn’t agree there were no inspiring women. She thought you were. Vvv pleased!’ How lush is that?!
What role, given the apparent desire by some in power to scrap it, do you think the BBC has in our society going forward?
I listen to Radio 4 and 6Music pretty much all day every day and I feel passionately that the BBC is such an important public service, with such a wide variety of outstanding programming and radio which not only entertain but inform, enlighten and invigorate all of us. In working with the BBC on my poem ‘Broader Broadcasting Corporation’ in the series ‘Women Who Spit’, in which I criticised the lack of female representation on the BBC and in the media in general, I felt heartened by their receptiveness to that message and their willingness to heavily promote the feminist causes explored in the films right on the homepage of the iPlayer, on social media and in the press. The new Conservative minister for Culture, John Whittingdale has called the licence fee ‘regressive’, yet I feel that the whole Conservative agenda on culture, the arts and creative sectors is entirely regressive and dangerous. The funding cuts and the lack of government support for the arts in general fits in with a wider agenda of Tory austerity that seems to have forgotten the reasons why we are alive. It isn’t about proffering profits for big corporations and wealthy individuals, life and society should be about human beings helping each other, connecting and collaborating and offering soul-enriching experiences to each other: that’s what art offers us in my opinion (and if it means paying about 40p a day for the licence fee to protect services like the BBC then I believe that is a price worth paying).
What do you think it is that is just so threatening to some about women having equality?
There is still a cultural attitude that endorses the silencing of women. Women who are unashamedly intelligent and outspoken and vibrant and assertive are seen as somehow overstepping the mark and not knowing their place. That’s what inspired me to write the poem When I Grow Up I Want to be Mary Beard because the sexist abuse she received on Twitter about the way that she looks after an eloquent appearance on Question Time seemed to disturbingly reinforce that the career I aspire to, to be an powerful and inspiring academic woman, was somehow culturally risible and apparently deserving of violent and vile misogynistic abuse.
The amount of times I have been called ‘a screaming feminist banshee’ for addressing issues such as sexist language in music, or rape culture at university in my poems is immeasurable. I have always had an introverted, depressive, socially anxious streak in my personality but I have also always been outspoken about social injustice and gender inequality – I remember writing a speech in my English class as a 15 year old in which I critiqued the teen vampire novels ‘Twilight’ for having entirely damaging and retrograde depictions of women for young female audiences. That made me quite unpopular with lots of my female peers unsurprisingly, but I have always felt it important to speak out and voice your concerns about gender inequality- it is just natural to me.
To you, what is kindness?
I think kindness really is the quality I value most in other people and strive for most in myself. I am an atheist but I suppose if I were to have a religion it would be a George Eliot style of fellow-feeling, a religion of humanity: “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?” (Middlemarch, George Eliot). I am a very socially anxious person and I have struggled to make friends, fit in and socialise at university and thus the people I have met who I truly value, whether it be lecturers, therapists or friends are those who can see the pain and the struggle to socialise, the desire to reach out to others but the depth of fear and lack of skills to communicate and encourage me out of that behaviour. I have always appreciated and loved those who have valued me for who I am, who have drawn me out of myself and who always act with fellow-feeling: to me that is kindness
What message do you have to those who think there is already gender equality?
A choice few troll comments on Twitter to ‘Women Who Spit’ really forced me to think about this one and what my response was to those who believed that gender inequality didn’t exist. I got a lot of comments like this one that seemed to endorse and reinforce biological imperatives into the discussion of whether it was fair that men get paid more for doing the same jobs as women: ‘as long as there are biological differences that influence employers (like paid maternity leave) there will be a pay gap’.
Other comments suggested that the glass ceiling was just a ‘myth’ for some propagandist ‘feminist agenda of gender’. It just seems obvious to me that systemic gender inequality exists and is real, all you have to do is read statistics or read the Everyday Sexism twitter feed and hear the experiences of women at work. I have been massively influenced and empowered by the amazing female academics at my university King’s College London, thus I was shocked when I discovered recently that there is a 19% difference between the pay of male and female academics at my institution with women paid £46,030 on average while men are paid £56,301. I was shocked and appalled by this. There is a glass ceiling. It is not a myth and I want my generation to smash it.
Who do you recommend people read next?
As an English student and utterly veracious reader this is an almost impossible task! Loads of the other authors on Burning Eye Books are inspiring and powerful voices like Hollie McNish, Vanessa Kisuule and my mentor and punk ‘poetry mother’, Joelle Taylor and their collections are all massively moving and enjoyable. I am a Victorianist by academic trade and have just finished my undergraduate thesis on representation of daughterhood in Dickens novels so I think everyone should read Dombey and Son– proper soul-enriching prose! I LOVE George Eliot and Woolf and Plath and take great pleasure in the amazing and innovative history of women’s writing that I imbibe on a daily basis!
What is next for you?
I’m performing lots of gigs over the summer and will be at Glastonbury Festival at the end of June. I’m also hoping to finish a new collection in the next year or two, as I amass more material and develop as a writer. Other than that, I’ve just finished my undergraduate degree at King’s College London and next I’m off to Newnham College, the all women college at Cambridge (at which Mary Beard teaches!) to study for an MPhil in Modern and Contemporary Literature with a focus on nineteenth century studies, furthering my research on daughterhood in Dickens. I am excited, nervous, anxious and thrilled all at once! It will certainly be an adventure. I love London immensely, and I know it does have a slightly melancholic effect on me but I am totally addicted to it and the way it makes me feel: it is a city that has sunk into my sinews and infiltrates every fibre of my being. I will blooming miss it!