Words on the Street

London is a city of stories. Stories it tells itself and those it permits to other people; stories told by those who visited, once, in distant bars and bedrooms; stories told in history books, holiday brochures, dark web chat rooms and estate agent windows; stories shaped and distorted into myth by Hollywood directors, Jack the Ripper walking tour guides, garage MCs and provincial nans who’ve never visited but worry about their grandchildren on streets they imagine to be dangerously full of fear and the future. It’s a city so demographically diverse that the task of defining it quickly becomes impossible unless you choose to ignore anything resembling a narrative hinterland and instead view London through the narrow prism of the big stories of the day – in 2017, those would be Brexit and nightlife, terror and houses, migration and football. But the thing about days is that they fly by pretty rapidly, and so to do the stories – in living memory, phenomena identified as posing an existential threat to this city have included CFC cans, joyriding, Tyler the Creator and alcopops. Really, the stories setting the news agenda in London at any given time are just strands of far grander themes that are more philosophical and moral in nature than they are political.

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Nevertheless, the temporary argots created by these narratives can be useful tools for artists to access those deeper, eternal themes – hope vs despair, love vs hate, and so on, reached via a verbal shorthand of bastard landlords, shut pubs and MPS in the sky. James Massiah is one of London’s most compelling new poetic voices. He uses the stories of the day to frame evocative metropolitan vignettes that strive to tell us more about being alive at this moment in history than property prices or share indices ever could.“The project of poems that I’m working on at the moment are vaguely set round the idea of ‘the 27 Club’,” he explains, “so drugs, celebrity, sex, youth, partying, but from quite a morbid standpoint. I want to state my intentions creatively, poetically, philosophically. It isn’t very political, it isn’t social justice-y or anything like that – ‘cos if I’m brutally honest, those aren’t the issues that have ever concerned me. It’s always been this sense that there’s some great battle going on beyond the sky, between good and evil.”

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It’s easy to see why people like the BBC and the Tate have gone to him for commentary on the conversations that drive a changing city – he’s articulate and engaging, full of turning phrases, and is native to a part of London that has undergone extensive redevelopment in his lifetime. But he sees limits to being too didactic or getting caught up in presenting work that basically sounds like someone reading a Guardian article that rhymes. (“It’s definitely set against a backdrop of London but it doesn’t moralise, really,” he says of his latest project.) His poetry is shot through with vivid imagery and human feeling that affects; “East London Love Song” finds poignancy in the nocturnal romantic drift that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever sought to synthesise love in a town far from home, while “Uptown / Frontline” tells the story of a near miss on a bus in Streatham and the sanctuary he’d seek from similar threats of violence at his uncle’s house nearby. The vast majority of the time he spent in Lambeth was during those formative years when the world starts to open up; 14, 15, 16, 17; sex, pain and territory becoming viable, Massiah gradually emerging from a childhood spent beneath the wings of a family devoted to Seventh-day Adventist Christianity into an English Lit degree and the surprisingly liberating remit of entry-level retail work.

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“Do you know, things really shifted for me when I started working at American Apparel,” he explains. “That was a whirlwind. The church I went to was a black church, the school I went to was mixed but people kind of cleaved together into their own enclaves. Working there was the first time I’d been around so many white people. And white people from a different economic situation. I never thought I’d get the job – I just needed some money ‘cos I spent my student loan on trainers – but I did and suddenly I’m meeting people from all over the world. I’m going to parties at St Martin’s, Goldsmiths, LCC and it was, ‘Let’s play this CD’ and it's the Smiths, Talking Heads… I just found it all so exciting. It wasn’t to do with race or class any more, it was about common interests.”

Massiah uses his experience of London’s different communities and scenes to paint pictures of a home city that feel rounded and real, inoculated against the threat of caricature by lived experience. As such, it feels like he’s a poet who is able to tell the stories of a slew of different characters – and in London, he has the perfect stage.

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