Performance Poet Spotlight # 2 Henry Bowers
– by James Webster –
Henry Bowers is awesome. A spoken word artist who burns with passions, spitting intricate and affecting rhymes, coming at familiar themes from odd angles that are often filled with disaffection and anger. And are really fun.
In October I had the thoroughly enjoyable experience of seeing Henry twice at Hammer and Tongue Camden and Oxford events. Here’s a bit about Henry:
He’s a hip-hop artist as well as a poet, having started writing hip-hop aged 10, and his music is available on CD and vinyl and for download from his website. He began performing poetry in the 90’s and started slamming in the early 2000’s.
He’s won a slew of slam competitions (in Swedenand internationally) and placed highly in many more, appeared at various festivals and high-profile poetry slam events, and frequently tours internationally. Full details on his website.
His hip-hop shows apparently often include elements of his spoken word, and his spoken word shows seem to contain elements of his rap (if you listen to his music, a lot of the same lyrics are used for both songs and poems) and the focus on the quality and poeticism of his language really shines in both.
Apparently some people tell him “Henry, you write some pretty good poems” to which his response is that he knows: he’s a Swedish and European slam champion, you don’t need to tell him he’s good. But I’m going to say it at least one more time: Henry Bowers writes some amazing poems.
My favourite is ‘Stories forSale’ a beautifully crafted piece about a boy, a kind of waif-prophet ignored by the masses, selling stories to survive on the street. The poem speaks of disenfranchisement, of poverty and of grasping onto what you love to do in the worst of circumstances. It’s like listening to words laced with fire, building up this character burning with the words he wants to share, who “lives more in one day than we do in our lives”.
‘I’m all Outta Dog Food’ is another cracker. It’s impressively put together, with flowing rhyme keeping it moving through his unique phraseology, he seems to be creating words and music for the disaffected masses, it’s “poetry to make the mad sane, or drive the sane mad … depends how you look at it”. It’s a poem that dances over a wealth of imagery and topics, without ever landing, but giving you the feeling of summing up an aspect of existence.
And ‘I Like Darkness’ gives you a plethora of examples of his wicked wit. A list of things in life he actually likes (as he’s accused of being too negative), that starts with “I like DARKNESS, not evil, just the absence of light/ I like movies in black and white/ Not without colour, just with diametric opposites”. It’s a great list, creating a kind of quirky canon of himself out of his likes and ending in the pathos-inducing “and I’m slowly starting to like myself too”. Which is strange, as it took all of one poem for the audience to realise they loved him.
And his delivery is amazing. A lot of his poems are available as hip-hop tracks (available from his website, they excellent), but when delivered as spoken word they sound very different. He is very engaging, oozing laid back charisma and his easy-going stage presence a surprising contrast to sometimes frenetic performance.
Take his ‘Party Rhyme’ the one attempt he’s made at writing a ‘party song’ as he sometimes feels that, as a hip-hop artist, he should do more of. He introduces it with the amusing line “So anyone here listened to the radio … Oh, I feel sorry for you, you shouldn’t have done that.” And he means rhyme literally here, it’s just one rhyme. “Throw your hands in the air like they’re not attached/ then realise that without hands, they’ll be hard to catch.” He says it in faux-party style, initial enthusiasm quickly fading as you get to the punch-line.
Or ‘Night Time’ where he gleefully storms through the end times, fast and furious rhymes matching his joyfulness at his desire to bring the world to and end with his words as he was “born with the ability to destroy the world”. With superb imagery and machine-gun delivery, it’s powerful stuff expressed powerfully; and when he tells us “Doomsday’s even better live!” I believe him wholeheartedly. And the line “You all spit metaphors, while I spit meta-fives” is priceless. As a rule, he comes off as Robin Williams re-imagined as a street preacher.
It’s probably quite telling that even when he does poems in Swedish and the audience have no clue what he’s on about, it’s still frighteningly compelling. In “Take Us to Your Leader”, he sets the scene of an alien coming down from the sky in clouds of green smoke in English first (making it clear it’s ok that we don’t understand, the English just don’t learn other languages, “it’s not your fault you’re arrogant”) and by the time he starts the audience is already rapt. And stays so. Through a whole poem in a language they don’t understand (except for the odd words like “brie and camembert” which gets a laugh solely on recognition). He’s just that entertaining. He’s also a disturbingly convincing alien.
To sum up, he’s a ferociously entertaining and thought-provoking performer. Blending the personal and the social/political and managing to preach without sounding preachy, I heartily advise you to see him if you can. And if you can’t, go to his website and buy his music (he does let you download it for free, but I think you should buy it: it’s worth it).