Interview: Mark Grist

Mark Grist is one of my favourite poets, so when the chance to interview him came up, once I’d stopped leaping around with excitement, I picked up the phone and gave him a ring. He’s performing at the TakeOver Festival in York on Friday 22nd, get yourself tickets because it’s going to be a great show. Thanks to The Yorker + Katharine Wootton for arranging the interview

Mark Grist is the teacher-poet-rap battler who shot to Reddit-induced fame last year when he out-lyriced cocky youngster Bradley “Blizzard” Green. In his spare time, as well as leading projects in schools, teaching, being half of the double act Dead Poets, spitting lyrics, making TV and radio appearances, Mark manges to find time for a spot of touring. He’ll be at the TakeOver Festival in York next week, so Farrah Kelly rang him up for a chat.

His show, “Rogue Teacher” will be part of the annual theatre festival spread over three weeks in March, June and October in York. Performing on Friday 22nd March, “it’s the story- the tragic tale- of a secondary school teacher who quits to become a rap-battler. Then he shoots to fame after going viral on the internet, and we find out about all the chaos and fun that comes with that”

Sound familiar? Grist’s rap battle with rising rap star Blizzard has rocketed to well over 3 million views- not bad for one of the scenes most unlikely stars. “It’s quite a distinct art form, separate from page poetry. With page poets, they seem distant, like they’re hiding away. Rap battling is high-stress, you get a great nervous energy.

“I enjoy the restricting elements rap battling enforces on you, creativity comes from being restricted.”

Amongst these restrictions, Grist is a big fan of making things that little bit harder for himself. He’s written poems and spat bars only using one vowel, and has also vowed not to use sexist or homophobic language in his battles.

“It’s surprisingly difficult, it’s so widespread in battling that you have to analyse everything. Everyone else asks me ‘”why are you worried?”, but on my journey as a teacher, I punished people for using the same language. I can’t then use it myself, because I don’t want to be a hypocrite.”

Since the video, things have cooled down considerably for Grist; “it’s all less intense now. I’ve got a more regular working week.” Is he still recognised? “Yeah, I find it funny, I’ll be chatting to someone and tell them I do rap battles. They’ll then tell me about this YouTube video they saw with a teacher and a student…Then they go ‘that was you, wasn’t it?’”.

Teaching clearly still has it’s hold. He runs workshops in schools with the other half of the Dead Poets duo, Mixy, showing pupils how to tap into their poetic creativity through rap.

“I’m worried about the direction education is going in. It’s looking bleak, they’re stifling these kid’s creativity”. Grist is unimpressed with Gove’s changes, commenting that the EBacc makes it easier for middle class suburban youngsters, but much harder for others.

“I do miss teaching, I might go back in a few years. It’s really amazing that I’ve got to do these things, it’s nice to mix it up a bit.”

Grist’s softer side resides in his more “standard” poetry. Away from the buzz and aggression of battles, some of his best work is starting to gain appreciation. His “feminist anthem”, Girls Who Read also shared a little of the internet fame, making the front page of Reddit.

“There’s lots of reasons a rap battle will become big, but that was just a poem being recorded on a mobile phone.” Hopefully, this is a sign of things to come. Grist’s poetry deserves real recognition- this isn’t just your average “down-with-the-kids” teacher.

Grist seems to agree: “I’ll do rap battling for another year, but I’d like to produce another piece of work to be remembered by. I won’t always be ‘that guy from the YouTube video’”. Though to be fair, the battle isn’t a bad piece of work to be remembered by.


Originally published: TheYorker March 17th 2013. Read my orignial blog post on the viral video here: Rapping Lyrical


Review: Rats’ Tales (The Yorker Archives)

Ever feel like your childhood wasn’t traumatising enough? That’s because you didn’t get to see Rats’ Tales at the age of seven. Ah- don’t be put off. This peculiar take of fairytales on stage is probably the best piece of theatre you will see this winter.

Carol Ann Duffy-of poet laureate and GCSE English Literature Syllabus fame- has dramatized The Pied Piper and other less famous children’s stories into a beautifully sinister and charming show. Using a cast of incredibly talented actors, two impressive musicians and a whole host of local school children dressed as rats, these traditional tales are brought to life in a way you weren’t quite expecting.

Each of the eight rats’ tales retells a fairytale astonishingly. Including truly beautiful photography and excellent use of live music and floating televisions, the script is wonderfully lyrical at points- really charming and enchanting the audience.

Using stunning physical theatre, and utilising every aspect of their space (including the audience to hold up props); the in-the-round stage is the perfect setting, as rats and children appear from all corners, and the audience is delighted from all angles.

Perhaps too dark for younger children, the overarching theme of stolen childhood can be all too realistic at points. The blood on the hands of the parents clawing at mountain walls that their children have just disappeared into, courtesy of the Pied Piper’s little strop, for instance, might be a little much for the faint hearted.

Equally haunting as is it is delightful, writers and cast have balanced out the sinister nature and deeply emotional scenes with some light-hearted humour- use of song and the child troll being personal highlights- and some witty social commentary for good measure- another highlight being the politician’s use of “we’re a Big Society” to refuse payment to the Pied Piper.

One criticism I have of the show is the sometimes tenuous links between the separate stories. Each, in their own right, was equally spectacular and well performed, yet the general motif of rats weren’t as present as one might expect in a show called Rats’ Tales. Saying that, the final story ties them all together, only feeling a touch last minute and perfectly performed.

The talent of the tiny cast cannot be overstated. As each actor played several different roles through the course of the show, we were really treated to a full set of the cast’s skills; from playing a sycophantic politician to a little lost boy or from playing a doll who turned into an oversized woman to a tap-dancing mule. This is one of the most creative and exciting pieces of theatre out there now.

Rats’ Tales is at the Manchester Royal Exchange until 12th January 2013.

Originally published here


Review: Stewart Francis

You might expect your 99th show would be a rushed affair, lacklustre with dreams of clocking off from the tour. Not for Stewart Francis, who excelled in his final show of his Outstanding In His Field tour.

His torrent of puns and one-liners saw laughter continuously rippling from the audience. With such an act, it can take varying lengths of time for audience members to catch the punchline, creating a lovely atmosphere of chuckles erupting from different seats as people piece together the joke.

Francis’s pace is brilliant – there’s just enough time in between his jokes for you to register what he’s said before the next punchline. If you don’t like one joke, another comes along straightaway.

His routine is full of clever witticisms – “People say fame has changed me, I used to be a self conscious waitress from Swindon” – and flows well. Even when he was heckled in the middle of an ironic listing of all the American presidents in order (no mean feat), he turned the heckle into a punchline.

He left the majority of audience participation to his warm-up act, the spritely Matt Rudge.

Naturally, there were lulls when Stewart’s jokes weren’t as well received as they could have been.His encore almost entirely relied on a comparison between rock stars and comedians that didn’t quite hit the mark, but Francis was extremely adept in snapping back the audience by pulling out some shocking jokes or groan-inducing puns.

The show was punchy, a just-right mix of snappy one-liners, terrible puns and clever irony that provided the audience with some great laughs and a few jokes to tell their mates when they got home.

Originally published in The York Press, 05/12/12.