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Poet Asher on school, sound systems and Shelley

In Black History Month, performance poet Asher Hoyles talks to Angela Cobbinah about her first compilation... and nerves!

18 October, 2018 — By Angela Cobbinah

Asher Hoyles. Photo: Angela Cobbinah

WITH her booming voice, ready smile and sheer solid presence it is hard to associate stage jitters with performance poet Asher Hoyles.

But that is what has always accompanied her as she steps up to face her audience, from her first show in a West End café bar to Westminster Abbey and Glastonbury.

“I am usually a bag of nerves and scared out of my wits,” she laughs. “But once I start I am all right.”

Today she is in particularly ebullient form. After composing and performing poetry for more than 25 years, she is celebrating the publication of her first compilation, Rise Up The Low, Bring Down The Mighty, a title inspired as much by Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy as by Marley’s Small Axe, two of the many influences that inform her work.

The book and two accompanying CDs comprise 52 poems whose subject matter is equally diverse – anything from her mother’s shopping list to the invasion of Iraq – but always powerfully evoked.

“My poems come from real experiences, when I am usually touched by someone or something. It is my way of stamping my voice on things,” she explains in a broad Yorkshire accent rooted in her upbringing in Chapeltown, an area of Leeds where Caribbean migrants first settled.

Asher’s parents had moved there from Nevis, raising their six girls in a strict household, where getting a good education, learning to run a home and going to church regularly were considered paramount.

It was at church that she realised early on that there was something about her voice that seemed to attract attention: “From when I was a small girl I used to have to learn quotes from the Bible off by heart and recite them in church. Although I was always nervous to start with, the positive way people responded encouraged me to do it every week.”

But she struggled at school and like many children of Windrush generation parents felt she didn’t really belong in Britain. “People were always telling us to go back to our own country, even though we were born here,” she says.

Her refuge became the local clubs where top reggae sound systems like Saxon and Coxsone played: “I loved the culture of the DJs and their sounds, and the way they could turn their hand at anything, from building the speakers to creating the lyrics. It was through the sounds men that I learned that my roots were in Africa. It was so comforting to hear I belonged somewhere and I felt empowered.”

One day she and a friend asked to take the mic themselves: “Chatting lyrics on the mic was my earliest experience of poetry, though of course we never called it that. As young women, we got respect from the male MCs and that was a big thing for us.”

Her next step was to leave home altogether. “I had failed in the school system and I wanted to start afresh. My mother had always taught us to dare to dream the dream and so I headed for London.”

Resilient and resourceful, she quickly found her feet and carved a life out for herself, eventually studying for a degree in education and communication studies.

It was at university that she discovered that she was dyslexic, which explained that her difficulties in reading and writing were down to the way she processed information rather than any lack of grey matter.

“I had such a lot to say and I just wanted to get it out. When I found my voice I was shocked about how much came pouring out of me. Performance poetry gave me a safe place to say it without getting into trouble,” she adds, cracking a smile.

Her first performance was at Bunjies in Charing Cross Road, where she’d attended a poetry gig.

“I got introduced to the events manager and he suggested that I should come there and perform too. I immediately said yes but went away thinking, ‘what on earth have I let myself in for?’ I was scared stiff on the night but afterwards people came up to congratulate me and I felt very encouraged.”

Since then there has been no stopping her and the 51-year-old has performed at venues up and down the country, big and small, including Westminster Abbey at the dedication of the memorial plaque to abolitionist Olaudah Equiano in 2009.

Based in Gospel Oak, where she lives with husband Martin and daughter Rosa, Asher also runs poetry workshops, most regularly at the Clean Break Theatre Company in Kentish Town, and works as a special needs support teacher at New Vic Sixth Form College in Plaistow.

Although she has a long line of favourite poets, Benjamin Zephaniah and Jean “Binta” Breeze among them, she is attracted by anyone who sheds light on the human condition, hence her love of Shelley and Shakespeare. “They were talking about the same experiences I had,” she exclaims.

It is her own connection with the world that she wishes to impart to her audience, to enlighten and entertain, as well as to encourage them to likewise express themselves through the spoken word.

• Raise Up The Low, Bring Down The Mighty. By Asher Hoyles, Hansib, £9.99.

Black History Month events

Saturday, October 20

• Style in my DNA: Join Lorna Holder discussing her new book documenting 70 years of Caribbean influence on British fashion. 2.30-4.30pm, Swiss Cottage Library, 88 Avenue Road, NW3 3HA. For more info call Tuareg Productions on 020 7692 2711. Free but book via www.eventbrite.co.uk

Celebrate Windrush with Pegasus Opera in an evening featuring Britain’s leading black classical singers performing opera and musical theatre, ending with some audience participation, so bring your best voice. 7pm. Brixton Library, Brixton Oval, SW2 1JQ, tel 020 7926 1058 for more details. Free.

• Film Screening of Loving (2016), the moving story of the Lovings, a couple whose arrest for interracial marriage in 1960s Virginia began a legal battle that would end at the Supreme Court. 2-4pm, Highgate Library. 1 Shepherds Hill, N6 5QJ. Free but book on 020 8489 4560. Adults only.

Tuesday, October 23

Screening of documentary exploring the remarkable life of Edwardian composer Samuel Taylor Coleridge, presented by director Len Brown. Professor Chi-chi Nwanoku (Royal College of Music) will be part of a roundtable discussion chaired by Professor Matthew Jones (LSE). 6.30-8pm, Old Theatre, Old Building, London School of Economics, Houghton Street, WC2A 2AE. Free but book via www.eventbrite.co.uk

Wednesday, October 24

• For parents and teachers. Meet Kandace Chimbiri, the author of Story of the Windrush, and hear how best to utilise it in the classroom or home. 7-9pm, New Beacon Books, 76 Stroud Green Road, N4 3EN. Tickets £4.78 via www.eventbrite.co.uk

Thursday, October 25

An intimate evening with poet Linton Kwesi Johnson who uses his own unique style to express his experiences of growing up in Britain in the Windrush era. 7-9pm, New Beacon Books, 76 Stroud Green Road N4 3EN. Tickets £16.31 via www.eventbrite.co.uk Includes refreshments.

Thursday, October 25

• Film Screening of Belle (12A), Amma Asante’s award-winning film about the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of a slave who grew up in Kenwood House and helped change the laws on slavery. 6 -8pm, Wood Green Library, 187-197A High Road, Wood Green, N22 6XD. Suitable for ages 12+. Free.

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