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14 May 2023

Kae Tempest’s Q&A: “I can go from ‘Stayin’ Alive’ to Mozart in an afternoon”

The poet on the works of Leslie Feinberg, being photographed by Wolfgang Tillmans, and James Joyce.

By New Statesman

Kae Tempest was born in London in 1985. A poet, spoken-word performer, recording artist, playwright and novelist, they have twice been nominated for the Mercury music prize.

What’s your earliest memory?

I was crawling underneath a table during a family gathering at my grandparents’ house. I was three or four. I liked guessing which feet belonged to which adult.

Who are your heroes?

I had loads of heroes as a kid because I read so much and watched so much TV. Sparrowhawk from Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy was a big one when I was about seven. Also, the kid from Free Willy. My adult hero changes all the time. Right now it’s James Joyce because he managed to endure constant rejection, from publishers, newspapers, literary critics; he managed to dig in and write even as the vice societies burned his manuscripts.

What book last changed your thinking?

I love the crush that comes with encountering new ideas, but my thinking itself doesn’t seem to change.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Leslie Feinberg. The first time I read Stone Butch Blues I couldn’t stop crying. It played a big part in spurring me on in my own journey towards accepting myself.

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What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

Golden-era rap lyricism. Especially 1993-98, US east coast.

What TV show could you not live without?

Nothing really comes to mind. I used to watch Cheers a lot when I should have been at school. But I’m sure I could keep going if I never saw it again.

[See also: Russell Tovey’s Q&A: “In another life, I’d run the Tate Modern”]

Who would paint your portrait?

Wolfgang Tillmans shot the portrait on the cover of my last record, The Line is a Curve,and it was incredible to work with him. I hate being photographed. I’m always awkward and stressed out by the process. But Wolfgang made it easy.

What’s your theme tune?

Depends on the brain I’m in. It can go from “Stayin’ Alive” to Mozart’s Requiem in the space of an afternoon.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

I did a poetry gig in a warehouse in Latvia in 2010. I was in a bad way, drinking a lot. I told my poems and wandered around the party, where I met a woman. She was tall and stern and I liked her. She thought my poems were all right but that I shouldn’t have been drinking so much on stage. She said to me: “If you keep turning your back on the light, eventually it will stop trying to find you.” That advice buried itself in my consciousness. Over time I’ve come to realise how true it is.

What’s currently bugging you?

Time. There is so much to do.

What single thing would make your life better?

A clean bill of health for everyone.

When were you happiest?

Right now. I’m happier than I’ve ever been.  

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I’d work at a dog rescue place. Somewhere near the sea with a decent pub. My missus would probably work in the pub.

Are we all doomed?

No. We’re all going to die, of course. And we’re all going to experience suffering. But I just don’t think we’re that important. I went to the planetarium in Greenwich once. Seeing the planet in that context, spinning in a vast galaxy, gave me respite. It’s so noisy down here in the human ego. But one day there’ll be nothing left of any of this. For me, it’s a calming thought.

“Divisible by Itself and One”, a poetry collection by Kae Tempest, is published by Picador

[See also: Simon Armitage: “One of my faults is that I look for faults in others”]

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This article appears in the 17 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Left Power List