Rebecca Tantony is one of the leading figures in the thriving spoken word scene in Bristol and beyond. We caught up with her shortly after she submitted to the publisher the manuscript of her latest book, Singing My Mother’s Song – a collection of poetry examining a range of deeply personal yet universal concepts such as identity, motherhood, family lineage, diaspora and the feminine. An explorative and inquisitive spoken word artist, Rebecca talked to us about the immersive narrative structure she created in her latest poetry collection, and gave us some beautifully poetic answers to Bhanu Kapil’s questions from The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers.
Rebecca, how did you arrive at your world as it is now? What are the milestones of your journey?
I was born in a hospital corridor. My mum had told the doctors she was ready but they told her she was wrong. I started coming out between places, apparently I let out the hugest cry when I entered the world. It’s kinda been like that ever since.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
Most of my childhood was in some make believe land. Either me being a badass warrior on a horse rescuing people from danger (I never wanted to be the saved princess), or running my own Famous Five influenced mystery club, in which I solved ridiculous problems that never really existed in the first place. It was always daydreaming of alternate realities and doing that outside, by the sea or in a woods somewhere.
How did poetry enter your life?
Through vinyl. I remember listening to hip hop as a teenager, rappers speaking the story of self, listening to Slick Rick and being like ‘YES, this is such an incredible way to explore through language.’
How would you define the relationship between your speaking voice and your written voice?
They are both one of the same thing. When you speak poetry you use the silences between words, so the body and the voice also becomes the poem. It is the same on the page, you have form and blank space. I find writing poetry a really freeing experience where the internal suddenly becomes external, the mind ordered in some kind of structure, feelings flee the body and find themselves on a page. When they are then spoken you let them go, they no longer belong to you, they are now everyone else’s to find themselves inside of.
In your latest project, Singing My Mother’s Song, you explore a range of deeply personal yet universal concepts: identity, motherhood, family, belonging, displacement and trauma. Can you tell us a little more about the overarching narrative structure you want to create with this collection, and how will it stand in relation to your previous books?
Well it is my mother’s story. She grew up in a number of orphanages between the ages of seven and fourteen. The narrative is my journey to make sense of this, our heritage and challenge, so to find ways to re-direct a past and ultimately heal a future. I think in many ways it echos themes of my previous work (belonging, home, relationship) but this time rather than a collection of musings, Singing My Mother’s Song follows an emotional and physical journey of discovery.
What do you hope the audience will get out of the book?
‘To everyone holding this book, I hope if nothing else it may serve to remind that in our ordinary lives, we have the chance to redefine the past and then change the future.’
What metaphor would best describe Singing My Mother’s Song?
What about the future? Have you given any thought about what will you be working towards after Singing My Mother’s Song? How do you see yourself evolving as an artist?
I have no idea. And this is both enlivening and petrifying. I am trying to fall into this, the unknown of what happens next. I think in the past I would have the next project lined up, but right now it feels right to let this settle and inform all that is to come. As an artist I continually hope to examine, explore and example the human experience in all its wild, messy wonder.
What is more important to you, having strong beliefs or deconstructing them?
Deconstruction, so to inform the strength of the belief and its validity.
What are three lesser known poets we should know about?
I can think of one right now. I love Ilya Kaminsky, a poet from Ukraine.
What are three questions you don’t have an answer for?
What it actually sounds like when doves cry?
Why Lidl is not a place of worship?
How East is 17?
If your life would be a poem, what would you name it and how would you perform it?
I think I would get my goddaughter Rhi to perform it for me. And I think it would be a mix of dance moves, eating and back flips.
Rebecca answers Bhanu Kapil’s questions from The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers:
Who are you and whom do you love?
Probably the space between words and matter, between thought and feeling. When I am this, I love without exception.
Where did you come from / how did you arrive?
An accident, in a rush of feeling.
How will you begin?
Now, like this.
How will you live now?
What is the shape of your body?
Who was responsible for the suffering of your mother?
What do you remember about the earth?
The Sun dropping over the ocean. The creatures. The light.
What are the consequences of silence?
Depends on the moment. Freedom or prison are the consequences of silence.
Tell me what you know about dismemberment.
Well I suppose every time I have eaten an animal I have known this in my stomach. Whenever someone takes something away from body ‒ blood, hair, teeth ‒ I mourn for it. I don’t think it makes sense to lose parts of ourselves in this way.
Describe a morning you woke without fear.
I remember it clearly. It felt like everything was colour. I always think back to that morning. It was so ordinary, I should have felt scared of the day ahead. But the world was too vibrant to stay afraid.
How will you / have you prepare(d) for your death?
I imagined being buried in the ground. I have collapsed onto the ground when I have heard those I love have died. I once heard every moment is preparation for death. That death is in every affliction we feel.
And what would you say if you could?
I forgive you.