IN 2011, aged 19, the maths whizz Harry Baker set himself a problem: could he successfully combine life as a performance poet with undergraduate studies in Maths and German at the University of Bristol?
The answer was yes. He graduated from Bristol this summer with a 2:2 and is currently appearing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, after which he heads for Greenbelt, where he is something of a festival favourite. And he has just published his first poetry collection, The Sunshine Kid (Burning Eye).
The dilemma arose because, as a schoolboy, Baker was very academic, his sights set on a medical degree: "I loved science and maths," he says. "It was about finding out how the world worked. I was pushed by the school to explore it further. I applied to university to study medicine, because that’s the [accepted] way to use those talents to help other people."
Growing up in Ealing, west London, he was part of a vibrant church community. His parents, Jonny and Jenny Baker. were founders of Grace, an alternative worship initiative based at St Mary’s, Ealing. His mother currently works for the Church Urban Fund, and his father is director of mission education for CMS, where he leads a pioneer-mission programme.
Harry Baker’s own faith (and closest friendships) took root in "a really good church youth group that managed to envelop the kids from three or four churches in the area". The ethos was creative, questioning, inclusive — and non-churchy.
At school, while he was geeky enough to compete for the top scholarly honours, he didn’t conform entirely to the stereotype. He was also discovering rap, although "instead of rapping about killing people, or driving fast cars into people, I used to rap about playing with Lego, or doing a paper round, or maths."
The rhythm, the clever punning, and alliterative style were all attractive to Baker, and remain part of the DNA of his current poetic style. But he soon found that the music was overshadowing the poetry and not allowing him to develop a distinctive voice. So he began experimenting with lyrics sans music, and found a new freedom in letting the words speak for themselves.
It was live poetry, however, that inspired him: "I got into poetry initially through music but then through live performance poetry," he says, "going to events, seeing poets that I could relate to, but who were also brilliant writers, who knew how to engage an audience — who would either leave you laughing, or make your skin tingle.
"For me, that was the raw power of words, and I’d never felt that from reading a poem, especially the way that poetry is taught in schools — there’s a lot of over-analysis and a limited range; so you can’t get to see how exciting poetry can be. More recently I’ve got into reading poetry as well; so it’s come full circle."
A YEAR later, at the start of a gap year, with a place at the University of Bristol to study medicine in the bag, Baker discovered "poetry slams". These are competitive poetry nights (invented in the 1980s in the United States) where the audience vote on the performances. This was ideal for Baker’s funny, punny, whimsical style — he won his first slam in Edinburgh and, not long afterwards, became the London Slam champion.
This new-found status garnered him invitations to France for the European Cup Poetry Slam, and to the US, where the Slam’s "inventor" Marc Smith welcomed him to the movement’s birthplace, Green Mill Jazz café in Chicago.
It was a startling rise to relative fame for an 18-year-old. Poetry was now such an essential part of his life that a medical degree started to seem too all-consuming. In a poem, 22 (penned at that age), he takes stock of some of the decisions he made then:
I’ve spent most of my life
trying to fit in.
Now I’m realising
maybe I need to stand out.
That’s not a bad thing.
We’re all made different.
From a young age,
not encouraged to stay different.
With this determination to "stay different", he embarked on a degree in Maths and German. Looking back, he admits to a certain naïvety that he could carry this off. But with the energy, humour, and boundless optimism that characterise his performances, he launched himself into the experiment.
"I had a fool-proof theory that since the first year didn’t count towards the final degree, I would do as much poetry as I could and see if I could get away with it."
He did well, but at the end of the first year the stakes got higher. In June 2012, he was invited to represent England in the Poetry Slam World Cup, alongside 18 other poets from 18 countries. After three days of heats, he found himself in the final, and, at the age of 20, became the youngest ever World Poetry Slam champion.
He is sanguine about what this means, recognising the difficulty of "quantifying the unquantifiable art of poetry", but he adds, "It’s fun." He writes in The Sunshine Kid: "If you win a poetry slam you can call yourself a slam champion, and pretend you are some kind of wrestler. If you lose a poetry slam you can tell everyone how poetry is a subjective form and shouldn’t be judged."
IT HAS to be said that, on the page, Baker’s poetry doesn’t always come across as prize-winning material, but watch his two Ted talks and you begin to see what all the fuss is about. There are wit, nuance, and verbal pyrotechnics (as well as a smattering of maths and science jokery), driven by rhythm, and balanced by a stand-up’s timing. He is essentially a performer.
"Part of what I love about the poetry is that I can perform it in so many different places. I’ve done gigs in cathedrals, the back rooms of pubs, and in the middle of a field, and it’s always a different audience, whether it’s a group of [relatively quiet] Year 8 schoolchildren or a fairly rowdy festival audience. There’s always a feeling at the start, as to whether people are going to want to listen, then there’s the feeling of winning over the audience. That’s the immediacy, and the rush I get from doing live performances." He describes it as a "spiritual connection".
But his influences aren’t Simon Armitage or Carol Ann Duffy: they are more likely to be the hip-hop cadences of spoken-word artists such as Scroobius Pip (who returns the compliment by praising Baker’s "tight, clever and intricate writing").
But he distances himself from some of his other contemporaries. "Slam poetry started in America, and a lot of it is very political and can come across as quite shouty and angry, and I can never relate to it in the same way. The points where I’ll want to talk about social justice or politics — I feel it can be done with a craft to it. It isn’t just somebody ranting."
THE German element of his university course took him to Hanover for his third year, and the pressure suddenly ramped up. "I naïvely thought that because it was another country, and I didn’t know many people, I wouldn’t be performing that much, so I’d have time to spend really learning the language, also catching up with my studies."
The German poetry scene, however, turned out to be huge, and there was high demand for his bilingual performances. He fell behind with his coursework and almost wasn’t allowed to complete his final year at university.
But he was carried along by the optimism and energy which is part of what makes him successful as a poet. His poem "The Scientist and the Bumblebee" articulates this hopefulness:
The Scientist said
the bumble couldn’t fly,
She lacked the wingbeats per
minute or the necessary size
but the bumblebee
in her ignorance proved him wrong,
she knew that she could fly
because she’d flown all along.
Imagine if she’s listened to the
man, she might have stopped,
given up on the spot,
tucked her wings in and dropped
So don’t let someone tell you
what you can’t do,
because just because it’s proven
doesn’t mean it’s true.
"Hopefulness is one of the strongest elements of who I am. I’ve been lucky enough to have been brought up in a community who have given me reason to hope. What I’ve seen, what I’ve read, what I’ve come up with myself, are all intertwined in that." There is something almost pastoral underlying Baker’s wordplay, and this is where his faith seeps in.
MORE recently, he has a new preoccupation. In 2012, he travelled to Israel and Palestine with the human-rights organisation Amos Trust, and was struck by the plight of Palestinians. This year, he even ran the London Marathon, carrying a sail the height of the separation wall.
"When I was in Palestine, it was the first time I felt like I needed to write stuff down just to figure it out. Before that, poetry had always been for fun, it had always been the joy of writing and playing with words. Suddenly this was me trying to channel my thoughts."
But he doesn’t feel he’s anyone’s spokesman, least of all for the Church, whose attitude to the LGBT community, for instance, he finds baffling. His remit is to tell his own story. And now he has the opportunity and the platform to do that, unencumbered by academic obligations.
PUBLISHING his first book was a risk. People kept asking for one, but he "put it off for at least a couple of years, because I’d written the poems to be performed and I thought reading them wouldn’t get the same effect". The book is meant to be a reference point for the performances: "People who’d seen them live could then read the book at their own pace."
Putting his poems on the page has been a salutary experience, and he is not sure how it will change the way he writes. He has noticed a difference in the delivery: "With some, I’ll go slower as if they were written for the page, and with others I’ll include more performance elements, like dinosaur noises, or whatever. For me, it’s about learning to play with both. But still, I write essentially to perform."
While he feels huge satisfaction at having concluded the degree successfully, he is more than happy to drop the maths: "I now feel like a real human being. I can now commit myself to doing what I love most."
Like the bumble bee, what he loves most is what he’s best at. He is now about to take wing.
Harry Baker is appearing on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe at The Banshee Labyrinth, 29-35 Niddry Street, 20-29 August, 2.50 pm (admission free). He is also performing at the Greenbelt Festival at Boughton House, Kettering, 28-31 August. www.greenbelt.org.uk
The Sunshine Kid by Harry Baker is published by Burning Eye Books at £9.99.