It’s rarely an association that people make. If you were to go to a bookshop to buy some poetry, you almost certainly wouldn’t find a vinyl section. And if you were to go to a record shop, you very rarely find a poetry section. There might be a spoken word section, but you’re probably more likely to find the commentary of the 1979 FA Cup Final on vinyl than you are to find say Dylan Thomas or Linton Kwesi Johnson.
But for those of us who love both – poetry and vinyl – we know that’s a brilliant combination which should be given a lot more time and recognition. I reckon the reason that poetry is so popular on YouTube is because people are watching as well as listening, and so their entire attention is focused on it. I might be wrong here, but if you listen to poetry whilst doing other things, chances are you won’t pay enough attention to appreciate it properly. I have to hold my hand up and confess that whenever I listen to poetry podcasts, I usually get more from the interviews with poets than I do from the poems themselves – because I’m listening to it whilst doing something else and I’m not giving it my full attention.
Listening to it on vinyl is a completely different experience. It’s an activity in itself – it’s not background entertainment whilst you’re doing housework or travelling somewhere. You’ve flicked through your collection, chosen which record you want to listen to, lifted the needle, placed it, dropped it, waited for the crackle, and then sat back to listen. Chances are, it’s the evening or the weekend. Chances are, you’re drinking something indulgent (one person’s single malt is another person’s hot chocolate). And when that record is poetry, you listen to it in a different way – you listen closer, you listen deeper, and daft as this sounds, it feels a lot more like the poet is in the room reading to you.
Admittedly, there isn’t a great deal of poetry on vinyl. But in a world of content overload, that’s a good thing – you don’t have endless reading lists to work through; you get what you can. You’re more likely to give a poet a listen, purely because you can, than you are to pick up a random poetry book from a shelf. Or at least in my experience, anyway.
I started writing poetry at 17, and much to my shame, I didn’t start regularly reading poetry until my mid-20s. Which is ridiculous and goes against everything that I now teach whenever I’m doing a workshop. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t consuming poetry. I just wasn’t reading it. And to be fair, I did have a decent amount of poetry on vinyl back then – the obvious starting point for white northern working-class men being Dr John Cooper Clarke, swiftly followed by Linton Kwesi Johnson and Gil Scott-Heron. I know tonnes of people who love Kate Tempest’s poetry as a result of hearing her music. I went to see IDLES at Ally Pally in December, and they played a recording of a Dylan Thomas poem which was one of the first poetry vinyls I ever owned, which was bizarre and brilliant.
In the second episode of Roaring 20s Radio, we discussed poetry on vinyl with our guests Tim Wells and Scarlett Sabet. Tim brought in some amazing old records, including ranting poets like the late Seething Wells, and some 1970s Jamaican dub poetry on LKJ Records. Scarlett has just released her ‘Catalyst’ album on vinyl, which was produced by Jimmy Page. Polar in some ways, but neck-and-neck in a very special club, nevertheless.
This all obviously links quite nicely to my Nymphs & Thugs record label. So far, we’ve only released two albums on vinyl – Salena Godden’s ‘LIVEwire’, which was shortlisted for The Poetry Society’s prestigious Ted Hughes Award in 2017, and Luke Wright’s ‘TWENTY’ – both of which are out on 2LP gatefold vinyl. They’re a thing of beauty, and no matter what happens with N&T, I’ll always be proud to have released two of our greatest contemporary poets on vinyl.
I managed to convince Fierce Panda to allow some spoken word poetry interludes on the latest Skint & Demoralised album ‘We Are Humans’, which they released on white vinyl. I’ve always wanted to do this, because I’ve always loved the skits on hip-hop albums; they were rarely poetry, but they brought a different angle which felt a lot like rule breaking whilst also being painfully simple. And in terms of spoken word in songs, I’ll never forget the first time that I heard ‘Stan’ by Eminem, ‘Weak Become Heroes’ by The Streets or ‘The First Big Weekend’ by Arab Strap.
Spoken word in music is a whole new blog post, but when you think about artists like Linton, JCC and Gil Scott-Heron, it’s an obvious crossover. It’s even rarer that you hear poetry on vinyl with absolutely no musical backing whatsoever. For some, it’s a necessary evil which doesn’t work on most occasions (sorry, JCC) and for others, it’s a match made in heaven (Linton, Gil, etc.).
Both poetry and vinyl enjoyed a huge and largely unexpected resurgence in the 2010s. I don’t think that poetry on vinyl has anything to do with that, and I also don’t think that poetry on vinyl itself has become a “thing” as a result of it either. But as somebody that loves both, I’m happy to shout about it from the rooftops. And if it does become a “thing” over the 2020s, the world will be a slightly better place as a result.
Matt Abbott is a poet, educator and activist. His debut one-man show ‘Two Little Ducks’ earned critical acclaim during a full Edinburgh Fringe run in 2017, followed by a 22-date UK theatre tour in 2018. It was published as a poetry collection by VERVE Poetry Press in October 2018. His debut kids’ poetry collection ‘A Hurricane in my Head’ was published by Bloomsbury last summer.
Matt formed independent spoken word record label Nymphs & Thugs in spring 2015, and fronts alternative indie band Skint & Demoralised. He’s an ambassador for Eureka! The National Children’s Museum and Trinity Homeless Projects.