'Poetry is not as inclusive as it should be' - European Slam Champion MiKo Berry

European Slam Champion MiKo Berry is a founder of Loud Poets, a spoken-word collective bringing their second show to the Scottish Storytelling Centre this August. Broadway Baby Poetry Correspondent Carly Brown met him to discuss his recent performance at Glastonbury, his efforts to make poetry more accessible and the upcoming Loud Poets Fringe show.

I got to 26 years old before I knew spoken word existed.

Recently you performed down at Glastonbury Festival. Congratulations. Can you tell us about that experience and how you prepared for it?

It was amazing. The coolest thing, in my mind, had already happened before the festival began, which was that I was booked to perform at Glastonbury. I’d never been before, so I didn’t know what it would be like or if anyone would come to see my show. But when I got there all my fears were quashed. I was with friends and people I wanted to get to know better. There was a great atmosphere among the poets. But I did not prepare a lot. I know some poets, such as yourself and Sara Hirsch, prepared a set of different poems for different days.

Although sometimes those set lists go out the window when one is actually on stage, I think.

Exactly. I didn’t know what the crowd would be like. In my head, I thought I might start with my poem ‘Tongue Tied’, which is very energetic, but when it came time for the show, the crowd there was very relaxed, so I chose not to. One of the things I’m confident in, as a performer, is my ability to react to a crowd.

So you’ve been very active on the Scottish spoken word scene for the past few years. How did you first get involved in spoken word?

A few years back, I didn’t know what slam poetry was. Then I was looking at some YouTube videos of the rapper Mos Def. He hosted this thing called Def Jam Poetry. I clicked on that link and I thought, ‘Oh that’s really cool, I’ve never seen poetry like that before.’ From there, I found Shane Koyczan and then five minutes later I was crying and smiling. I’d been on this entire roller coaster of emotion.

I was really involved in my music at the time, but I didn’t know that slam existed. I started looking into poetry slams and I thought I’d give it a try. I did the same with stand up comedy years ago. I’m one of those people who says, ‘I want to try that!’ So I tried it and it didn’t go terribly. I knew what I needed to do to get better and I never looked back from there.

That’s interesting that you tried your hand at stand-up comedy. Your performances on stage are always very confident and theatrical. Do you have a background in acting, as well?

Yes, I definitely came at this more from a performer’s side than from a writer’s side. I did acting from a young age in school and I wanted to be an actor, but I fell out of love with the industry. I’ve also worked on a cruise ship as an entertainer and I’ve done a lot of MC-ing, but I kind of had to relearn how to perform when it came to poetry because it’s the only art that I’ve ever done where it’s okay to look vulnerable on stage. You can’t go on to a comedy stage and look unsure.

Never let them see you sweat.

Absolutely, but poetry is different. If anything, when I started I was too confident in my performance persona because that was my training. I had to learn how to get the right balance between confidence and sincerity.

So you feel like your style really evolved over time?

Yeah and it still is evolving. I have a lot of social anxiety and I get scared on stage, but my way of dealing with that is being polished and confident, so it really is hard for me to get that balance right in a sincere way, but poetry has definitely helped.

A theme that I’ve noticed in a lot of your poetry is the difficulty we have expressing our emotions through language, such as in your poem ‘Tongue Tied.’ Do you feel that’s a big theme in your work?

That’s a really cool observation. I do struggle to communicate how I feel with words. I never related to those love poems that are like, ‘I love you like a thousand suns!’ Because that’s not what people say. People feel awkward and they say things like: ‘Do you, um, want to go to a movie sometime?’

It’s the same thing with bigger issues like body image or self-harm. Those are things that even someone who talks as much as me struggles to articulate. Struggling with my words is definitely something that is thematic in my work.

You mentioned you had a background in music. I noticed that on your new CD your poems are accompanied by music. Do you write your poems with the intention of performing them with musical accompaniment or was that something you decided to add later?

Music was something added later for some of my older poems, but now I’m writing more poems with music in mind. I always knew that I wanted to make poetry more accessible. That’s really how Loud Poets came about, out of a desire to make poetry more accessible. One way I felt strongly about doing that was with music.

One of the reasons I loved Shane Koyczan so much was that a lot of his videos were animated or there was music in the background, which always kept me engaged.

Can you tell me more about the other stylistic choices that you made when creating the poetry collective Loud Poets, in addition to incorporating music? I’m thinking about how all poets must perform their poems from memory, how there are no lengthy introductions etc.

Poetry can be a really inclusive place for certain types of people, but I think the fact that so many people around the world and in this country, especially young people, don’t engage with poetry is kind of proof that it’s not as inclusive as it should be. I certainly didn’t feel included. I think a lot of it comes from class background or academic privilege, which is stuff that doesn’t get talked a lot about in poetry, but I certainly know that where I grew up nobody was into poetry. It wasn’t just a niche thing. It was not a thing. That’s why I got to 26 years old before I knew spoken word existed. So some of the choices that we made for Loud Poets, like having poems memorized, was to make it accessible. We wanted to create something that people outside of the poetry community would find engaging, polished and entertaining.

It was important to put it on a weekend. We wanted to make it cheap enough for students, but also to charge enough so we could pay the acts. We wanted poems with instantaneous impact. We wanted to make it something that poets loved doing and people loved watching.

This is the second year that Loud Poets will be putting on a Fringe show. What can audiences expect this time around? How will it differ from last year’s show?

We’re still going have the Loud band there. We’re still going have the core organizers there performing: myself, Kevin, Doug and Agnes. In total, we’ve also got a roster of ten Loud Poets and special guests. In the core Loud Poets, we have five girls and five guys who are all very talented and we’re excited to have them.

The poems are going to be different and the theme of the show is also different. Last year, it was very much an introduction to poetry, thinking about what poetry is. This year the theme is 'Why Do We Write?,' which we’re going to have a lot of fun with.

Twitter: @mikosaysstuff

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mikopoet

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OqNhlz3D3FI

Loud Poets Fringe Show: http://www.broadwaybaby.com/shows/loud-poets/70563...

Since you’re here…

… we have a small favour to ask. We don't want your money to support a hack's bar bill at Abattoir, but if you have a pound or two spare, we really encourage you to support a good cause. If this article has either helped you discover a gem or avoid a turkey, consider doing some good that will really make a difference.

You can donate to the charity of your choice, but if you're looking for inspiration, there are three charities we really like.

Mama Biashara
Kate Copstick’s charity, Mama Biashara, works with the poorest and most marginalised people in Kenya. They give grants to set up small, sustainable businesses that bring financial independence and security. That five quid you spend on a large glass of House White? They can save someone’s life with that. And the money for a pair of Air Jordans? Will take four women and their fifteen children away from a man who is raping them and into a new life with a moneymaking business for Mum and happiness for the kids.
Donate to Mama Biashara now

Theatre MAD
The Make A Difference Trust fights HIV & AIDS one stage at a time. Their UK and International grant-making strategy is based on five criteria that raise awareness, educate, and provide care and support for the most vulnerable in society. A host of fundraising events, including Bucket Collections, Late Night Cabarets, West End Eurovision, West End Bares and A West End Christmas continue to raise funds for projects both in the UK and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Donate to Theatre MAD now

Acting For Others
Acting for Others provides financial and emotional support to all theatre workers in times of need through the 14 member charities. During the COVID-19 crisis Acting for Others have raised over £1.7m to support theatre workers affected by the pandemic.
Donate to Acting For Others now