Review: ‘Everything Speaks in its Own Way’ by Kate Tempest

– reviewed by Dan Holloway

One of the most beautiful things I own

Kate Tempest’s first full-length book, published through her own imprint Zingaro, is printed on thick, acid-free paper that nestles between unctuous card covers embossed with minimalist gold print and the imperial purple endpapers that each hide a surprise – pocketed inside are the accompanying CD and DVD. To focus too long on the beauty of this book, CD and DVD set would be an injustice (though it’s hard not to linger on the sheer satisfaction of the object as it sits in your hand). Everything Speaks in its Own Way is both a superb book and an important one.

From Stage to Page

The multimedia format from an artist best known for her coruscating live performances could be seen as a hedging of bets – if the words don’t work quite as well on the page you can turn the sound on to see how they’re “supposed to be.” But that’s not it. Both sound and sight stand on their own (on which note I have to mention the layout of the words – presented on the page as paragraphs more than poems, which works incredibly well, not forcing us to guess or impose rhyme and metre but to let the words flow through us), but this does what beautiful artisan books should do – it is both a full introduction to an author’s work and a collector’s item, perfect for fans and newcomers alike, and a fitting way of bringing a genuinely landmark book to the world.

Tempest: a storming performer

Kate Tempest is such a stunning live performer, her shows so inspirational, that the first book asks key questions, especially for those who believe that performance and page poetry are different things. I first saw her last December in a disused boot factory in Oxford that had no working door, one heater and a dripping roof. She was wrapped in five or six layers, hat, and hood, with her arms wrapped around herself but for half an hour as her passionate, imploring voice rang through the building we were transported somewhere magical. The big question is: how on earth it is possible to distil moments like that onto the page?

With a precious and important voice

It was no surprise to me that the answer is her words are just as precious on the page as they are on the stage. Tempest may be a hip hop MC as well as a poet but she weaves Blake and Shakespeare effortlessly with the patois of the street. ‘What We Came After’, for example, is both a meditation on the loneliness of Prospero and Caliban and a piece railing against elitism in literature/education. It builds itself around imagery from the Tempest, riffing on the line “you know that Hell is empty coz all the devils are here”, effortlessly and intelligently glossing on the play in achingly beautiful language and rhyming as delicately as filigree:

“So, call me Caliban” she says, adding “they gave me language so I could rain down my curses in verses” though back in the day “this island was mine for a home. I was free to rhyme as I roamed now my mind is alone as I writhe and I moan – I’m the captive of consonants” before bringing the significance right to the present:

“we’re needing a breeze through the stifling heat of elitist descriptions of what we can reach”

Why it’s important:

The whole collection moves this effortlessly through the whole cultural canon whilst never losing its biting contemporary edge, from the brutal ‘Cannibal Kids’ to the brilliant dissection of modern working life, ‘Bubble Muzzle’:

“life goes on in a bubble, it’s tunnel vision all week and the weekend’s for seeing double…we’re like a dog wagging its tail, expecting a treat coz it learnt how to put on its own muzzle”

The highlight is the final poem, ‘Renegade’, a call to arms that had the audience in whoops and tears when I heard it, sending us out into the night with a very simple message “I care about genius I don’t care about celebrity” but it’s a message Tempest weaves brilliantly as she leads us through a long, dark night of the cultural soul:

“I’m writing tonight, I got a jam jar of wine, I’m rolling smokes spitting bars to myself with a swollen throat…if you wanna talk, just come find me – I’ll be on Lewisham way watching the dawn melt away”

through her personal epiphany

“I learnt about patience, I learnt about stamina, and every little moment stacked up and it all added to the present”

to the new, angry and frustrated, eyes through which she saw the world

“it’s all so physical here, the alcoholic in the offie, filling up his trolley till the world disappears”

before returning to Shakespeare

“why must we starve while they banquet and feast? But Banquo will rise, he has a message for the guilty”

as she builds to her climax

“meet me at the bar we’ll raise a drink to the sky – and I will show you that you’re fucking incredible.

We’re not flesh, we’re all energy.”

You can buy it here.

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