*Picture – Sam Ryley

This month, Afshan D’souza-Lodhi caught up with Commonword’s Superheroes of Slam 2011 winner Mark Mace Smith, who tells us about how he got to where he is, his current projects, and his plans for the future!

Tell me about yourself as an artist. How do you define art? What art do you make?
Currently, I do photography, poetry – I always do poetry – I used to paint, I’ve done some sculpting, I’ve done some acting, singing, music… all sorts of stuff. I’ve tried all the arts because I figured it was a good way of expressing myself and not being caught in the slave trade(!).

What do you find it the best form of expression for you?
The one that’s easiest to express myself with is poetry. You can distill your thoughts into as few words as possible, and you have the opportunity to do it out of the way and on your own, and then present it to someone. It helps a lot with arguments, so to speak, and with seduction…

Tell me about the book you released last year
The book’s called A Fruit Filled With Bitter Ashes, which is a quote from André Gide, and it takes its title because it’s a political book about being a black man in the UK. It’s within me: the poetry is the fruit and it can be delicious, but in the same sense, it has bitter ashes – so it can also be bitter. But it’s also an expression. It covers a lot of topics to do with VIP pedophilia…death of Mark Duggan, death of Stephen Lawrence, you know, black people dying in police custody… just the general political issues that affect black people in this country, or non-white people in this country. Of course, I think if people really recognise the depth of which pedophilia is used by the VIPs, as a control system, then they’d actually revolt against the system, because the system does need to change. I think if people were aware of that, they’d just go “right we can’t allow this” It’s like the people ignore it – they say it doesn’t exist, it doesn’t happen – but no, it really does.

Would you say you use your poetry to be politically active?
I think it’s a by-product in a sense. Everything in life is political, but I think it’s a by-product. I use my art to express what I feel, and it is cathartic. But if, for instance, the case of Dalian Atkinson – a footballer for Aston Villa – who died at the hands of police who apparently tasered him more times than they needed to and gave him a good kicking – that makes me absolutely furious. The only way I can really express that fury is through a poem. I write a poem and I share the poem. And then if that poem affects people, illuminates to other people what it is that Dalian’s gone through or what black people go through, then it becomes an active, political poem. But I don’t write it for that purpose – I write it because I need to express it, otherwise I’ll just go crazy holding all that stuff in.

How long have you been writing for?
Since I was a teenager.

You won Superheroes of Slam back in 2011…How did you find the experience? Was that the first poetry competition you won?
No… I used to live in Preston and I used to perform poetry at a place called Green Leaves and Super Juice, which is run by my friend. She once came over to Contact Theatre to do a slam, and she came runners-up. I was like I’m better than her – I’m going to go to Contact Theatre and see if I can do that slam! And so my first slam, I went, and I won. And so I continued to slam. And then the Superheroes came up and Ben Mellor won the first one, I came second. The next time, Dominic Berry won, Chanje Kunda came second and I came third. Then the following one in 2011, I won! I really, really worked so hard to win that. And it was a fantastic day! I played all the tricks I could to win that thing and it was an amazing experience for me.

In my first experience at Superheroes of Slam – you started off the night with your poem about art, using the stage in a really creative way…
Yeah, that poem was fun. One Hopes That One Day Even the Hamster on the Wheel Will Eventually GET OVER IT! As you know I do this thing where I pretend to be running on an hamsters wheel, without saying a word and that’s because the slam time only starts when you start speaking.

Do you do theatre?
Yeah, I used to. I’ve been in a couple of plays with Certain Curtain Theatre Company. That’s part of what gave me the stage presence and I know how to command the stage. Poetry is an expression of myself, so it comes as performance – it comes as acting. Poets who just stand there and read, maybe the tone of their voice changes a bit. It’s kind of boring, and slam is performance poetry, you know…

Tell me a bit about your current project, ‘The Blackness of Blackness’
Where do I start?! There’s a book called Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, which has a prologue that I recognised myself in. It’s a black guy talking about how he is perceived by white people: they don’t see him, they see the idea of him – so that’s the invisible man. In that book, there is a preacher who says ‘Tell me something, (yes Ma’am!), about the blackness of blackness’. I just loved the phrase.
At the same time – this is all a recent thing – I went to see a play called ‘Swear School’ by Thick Richard. It went through all the different swearwords alphabetically and when it got to N, the word I was anticipating, as I sat there in the middle of the audience as the only black person in the room, was not said. It made me feel so black, so brilliantly black that it was like there was a massive effect on that word, whether it’s nigger or whether it’s black, that just could not be said by a white poet/artist. I wanted him to say it to destroy it’s mystique.
I created a podcast which asks the question ‘Tell me something about the blackness of blackness?”  You can either answer it in a race racial way or you could just answer it to do with the colour black. It’s all about perception and freedom of expression. The word ‘nigger’ – if it’s not said, then you can’t discuss why the word is difficult, why the word is problematic and where this problem comes from. Instead, people just say ‘oh I can’t say that’, and so it’s like well let’s have a debate on that. Lets’s talk about it. I’m taking vagueness of ‘the blackness of blackness; and seeing where that takes us in a conversation, and hopefully, most people don’t talk about race, they talk about blackness.

What do you define as blackness?
I can’t help it that the word ‘nigger’ refers to me. I can’t help for the word black to refer to me. I’m an artist. Black is a colour – it actually isn’t a colour – but it’s something I use when I’m painting. I don’t see myself as black, people see me as black, so I embody blackness to people. By my definition of blackness… there is no single truth. There is no single definition of anything.

Do you feel like you have an identity being imposed on you by other people?
Yes, and then be expected to behave forthwith. The other day, some white Nazi got punched. I was of the opinion – because I’m a peace loving person(!)  – that you don’t just do that. You could actually have a debate with him, you don’t have to punch him and run away. I thought the person who did it was a coward. I voiced this on a thread and then a black woman (I knew she was a black woman because I checked her Facebook) was calling me out and saying he deserved it. Basically, she ended up saying ‘what do you know?, Go back to your ‘whiteboying’. I’ve never heard that phrase before – it’s a bit like whitesplaining or mansplaining. I looked it up. Then I looked at my Facebook page to see what she could see. I realised she would not know I am black! So she was assuming from my opinions that I was white. I continued the conversation (for far too long) not letting her know that I am black, until I told her then she didn’t believe me. And then, once she had done a bit of research, she called me a coconut for holding my opinions.

What top tips do you have for slammers?
If I ever intended to slam again, I would not tell you these tips. But I probably won’t slam anymore (too old for it)…
Top tips – it is to own the stage. Make sure you recognise that your introduction is part of your presentation, seeing as some people do waffle on for ages and then start the poem. Even if the poem is short, that’s still part of what people will like or not like about you. The main thing I do when I go to slam is prior to the slam, I visualise winning the slam.  I make sure I learn the first poem I’m doing and check it’s the right length and that, but I visualise it in the space. I visualise the second poem in the space, and think I will get to this second round, and I visualise picking up the trophy, and doing the third poem which you get for winning. I also, and this is the really naughty thing, I steal people’s mojo. I go and shake hands with everybody else who is competing, and while I shake their hand, in my head I’m stealing their mojo. It’s never, never failed. So wise people who listen to or read the podcasts from Commonword, they can have these tips. People who don’t know that, that’s just for us to know!

What project are you currently working on?
Aside from The Blackness of Blackness – which is a photoshoot and an interview based on seven core questions with the main one being tell me something about blackness – I’m doing just general photography. I’m also doing a thing called Ask Mace, which is just saying ask me any questions and I’ll try and give you a reasonable answer.
But I think the most important thing I need to do, which I haven’t really given a lot of thought yet, is start an alternative news channel, frankly, because there is a war on alternative news. A year ago, I would’ve said people don’t know enough about what’s really going on, and now, it’s so much worse. YouTube is a wonderful place to set up these channels: it can be censored, but then it’s like but we have to put these voices out, because in a year’s time, they won’t be there. So that’s my major project which I haven’t started, but it’s something which needs to be done

Is there a place where we can find all of your work – current, past and future plans?
My web ID on all of the social platforms is Citizen Mace… I am a citizen of this country, of this world, and yeah, I’m like mace in your face!

Sum up your writing experience in one word

Well my artist experience, my whole life experience, in one word, is Acrawithsy.
When there when there was a financial collapse in 2008, there was this banker, who said ‘I made a lot of money by betting against my bank. The bank collapsed – now you’d think I wouldn’t bet against my bank, but it was acting rationally within the system’.
So I’ve taken the first two letters of that phrase, ACting RAtionally WIthin THe SYstem, and it spells Acrawithsy. It’s a new word. It’s my word. Ever since I was a teenager, and I was looking at the world and what I can and can’t do, the options for a black guy living in London, and the odds of going to university were lower than being in a mental health institute or being in prison. Jobs were not really out there. I looked at it and thought, why not be an artist? Why not express yourself through art? So I started writing poems and sharing them, did a bit of photography, started acting. I chose to be an artist so I didn’t end up in prison or a mental health institute, and I did go to university, to be educated and to express myself through art. To me that was acting rationally within the system before I even knew that phrase. So I’m a human being, I’m an artist and then I explore the different kinds of arts that I can do. So that’s me acting rationally within the system, yeah, hmmm. Hopefully, it will catch on.