Gordon Hewitt was born in Scotland, lived for many years in Australia and has lived in Northern Ireland for the last 22 years. He was part of a group, Scream Blue Murmur, which toured internationally in different formations utilising different genres; poetry, spoken word, music and theatre. In 2019 he formed a spoken word groove music group, Champion Things, which now includes musicians, Vic Bronzini Fulton (Vic also engineers and produces the material) and Michael McKinney. The group will be returning to the studio soon to record their 7th album. Gordon is also part of International Page and Stage, an organisation based in Belfast, which holds ZOOM events with readings from local and international poets.
Moyra Donaldson: Hi Gordon, thanks for agreeing to talk about your creative work. Firstly, I’d like to ask you about International Page and Stage which was set up in 2021 to connect poets and spoken word artists from NI, to their international peers. As the originator of this project, could you tell us about how the idea came about and your motivation for taking it forward? What has it achieved to date?
Gordon Hewitt: The genesis of International Page and Stage came from a cancelled tour of my Champion Things project. I had organised a tour which I was thinking would be the last time I would travel to perform, and there were dates in New Zealand, Australia, Singapore and Japan, a few other places, and the Covid 19 Lockdown started on the day I was due to leave.
I decided to start work on a spoken word music project based on researching the pandemic and that became the album, “The Isle of Plagues” and I had been going to a lot of ZOOM poetry events during this period. I started thinking if I couldn’t go anywhere to promote the album, maybe we could bring writers and poets together through ZOOM.
There were a number of discussions and a committee was formed, (myself, Moyra Donaldson, Marion Clarke, Shelley Tracey, Linda McKenna, David Braziel and Raquel McKee) a name chosen (Moyra Donaldson was the person who came up with the name), and an approach was agreed. Generally we were looking to encourage good writing, good use of words, a sense of craft and beyond that a commitment to freedom of expression. We then started organising an event.
The first event was held on Sunday, June 27th in conjunction with the New Zealand Poetry Society whose chair Shane Hollands has supported the project right from the beginning. We had poets from New Zealand and Northern Ireland, basically the poets who were on the IPS Committee, at that event including the New Zealand Poet Laureate, David Eggleton.
Since then I think there have been 20 events and well over 100 poets from the US, Japan, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Scotland, England, Canada and poets from all over the island of Ireland.
Most events have between 6 and 8 poets read and everyone gets 8-9 minutes to put forward their work. I think that approach has worked well and we have built an audience through the recorded versions of the events which are available on the IPS Facebook page.
In terms of what has been achieved, I think there is certainly a sense of an International Page and Stage community, a small community, but a community nonetheless, and beyond that an audience has found their way to watching the recorded versions of events. We pay the people who read which I think is important and the organisation is wholly independent.
MD: You have been involved for a long time in producing spoken word and music shows through ‘Scream Blue Murmur’, which toured internationally. Now, with ‘Champion Things’, you put a fusion of poetry and music out via various online platforms. What attracts you to this mix of words and music and to this way of getting your work out to the public, as opposed to the more conventional forms of poetry and publication?
GH: I don’t actually consider myself a poet in the same way I don’t consider myself a musician. I am not technically knowledgeable in either sphere.
I write spoken word narratives based on research into topics I am interested in. These can vary from the history of pandemics to debates around women’s oppression to the history of colonialism.
In terms of the music, I used to pull the musical backing together with other musicians, but the music for the last few albums has been created by Vic Bronzini Fulton a very talented musician and producer from Earth Music Studios in Belfast and an exceptional bass player Michael McKinney. I usually write up the narratives, record them and leave the music up to them.
I think over the years I have developed a particular voice with regards the narratives I write and I think those narratives seem to work well with a musical underlay.
When I worked with Scream Blue Murmur, the group went from being a poetry group, to a theatre group, with mixes of poetry, spoken word, slam poetry and music, and at one point it became an 8 to 10 piece musical group producing instrumental music, but eventually I think I just gravitated towards the process I use now because it just seemed to work.
With regards putting material online, again I think it is the method which suits this type of work. I think the audience for what I do is quite small, and I don’t think there is much of an audience locally, so Spotify, Apple Music and the other streaming sites or a site like Bandcamp allows people to get relatively easy access to my work for very little outlay. That works for the audience and it suits me. It also means that I can get work out quickly and it funds itself. I am just not built for waiting around for funding applications to be processed or for publishers to find time to produce the physical copies of my material.
MD: I know that you have a keen interest in contemporary poetry and read widely. There are a lot of new, diverse voices, both on the page poets and spoken word artists. Do you see any trends in what is being published and what is being performed? Do the themes differ between the two?
GH: I don’t think I am across new voices as much as I would like to be. There was a period a few years ago, and particularly, during Covid 19, when I could see events online. I would be going to as many as a dozen events a week and from there I was buying a lot of books. I think I had a feel for certain trends then.
Now there are so many writers, poets and spoken word artists around that I don’t think anyone could ever keep abreast of everyone. I often find that names are suggested to me that I have never heard of and sometimes I wonder how I could have missed them.
With regards trends, if I notice anything in my reading, watching or interviewing poets (I edit The Monthly, Community Arts Partnership’s online arts sector magazine which has a Poetry and Spoken Word edition), over the years, I have seen a move away from more contemplative work about the world, to highly individualised orientations, writing very much about the self, in both spoken word events and the poetry books I was reading. And that material really didn’t have much in the way of craft or layering.
I have noticed lately that there are a few writers moving away from that approach, some using a research based method, using history to examine the world, others using mythological orientations to look at the difficulties humanity faces investigating issues like climate change. Now that might just be that I would tend to gravitate towards those approaches, but it is something I have noticed. I have also noticed a sense of the fusion of literary orientations with more immediate references to popular culture. Again that might just be because that kind of style interests me. I also see quite a few people writing what might be called “journalist poetry”. It is very immediate and based mainly on contemporary issues.
MD: What are you currently working on?
GH: I am working on a number of projects at the moment. I used to work as a labourer building stages in Australia and I started looking at jobs that might be considered dangerous. I have found myself researching all sorts of extremely dangerous jobs from Sewer Diving in India to Sulphur Mining in Indonesia and from there to the work of Volcanologists, Underwater Welders and High Voltage Wire engineers. I have almost finished the research on that and will be writing material from that research shortly.
I have a second album of material based on the mistreatment of children which is a follow up to the last album, “Ride of the Valkyries” and there is material waiting for me to edit which looks into the life of Sapeurs, people who are obsessed with beautiful clothes, who live in the poorer areas in The Congo, Kenya and Ghana.
I am also hoping to produce some short films which we did for the last album which is an area I would like to concentrate on in a much more committed fashion.