Interview with Charlene Shepherdson

desintation: INK

Following the success of Alt-topia – an event conceived by the Poletariat Poetry Factory and hosted by Centre 42 at last year’s Night Festival – we’ve decided to build on that by presenting Late-Night Texting this time. Held for one night only, it is a celebration of text-based works across different genres, from theatre to spoken word, and features performances by four local companies. In this series of blog posts, we’ll be speaking with each of them to find out what they’ll be getting up to on the night.

Here, we speak with spoken word poet Charlene Shepherdson, who founded Singapore’s first open mic spoken word series, destination: INK, in 2012 along with her fellow spacer.gif collective members, Nabilah Husna and Vanessa Victoria. For Late-Night Texting, she’s put together a line-up of eight poets to perform at a programme entitled One Mic Stand. Find out more below!

When and how did you first get into spoken word poetry?
Actually, I tripped and fell face-flat into spoken word. I was at a poetry slam to support a friend but she couldn’t make it 30 minutes before it started and asked me to let the organiser know. We had all recently collaborated on a devised show and he went, “Oh no, we don’t have enough performers.” He was looking at me, so I said, “Nope, don’t ask me.” Then he smiled and said, “That’s right, you have poems! Please?” So I went up, read some super-short poems off my Facebook notes and tanked big-time. That was in 2011. I went back a few months later, voluntarily and better prepared.

Around the same time, I met Nabilah (Husna) and Vanessa (Victoria). We all loved Andrea Gibson and worked with both visual and literary arts. What started as a monthly side project to explore creative arts for expression and community-building became a four-year old child who has learnt to walk and talk on its own.

How would you describe the spoken word scene in Singapore right now?
Very varied. One of my favourite things about the scene is that most performers have their own voice and style. It isn’t homogenous. Sometimes you get performance poetry. Sometimes you get monologues. Sometimes, it’s comedic storytelling. There are five regular monthly events, starting with WordJamm at The Wallich (first Saturday of the month), destination: INK at BluJaz Cafe (second Monday of the month), SPEAK. at Canvas (usually on a Wednesday), Speakeasy at Artistry (usually on another Wednesday) and Poetry Slam Singapore (last Thursday of the month). There’s also Story Slam Singapore, which has some elements of spoken word depending on the storytellers. Each of them has its own focus – and to some extent their own crowd – but everyone is really supportive of each other.

You founded destination: INK as part of the spacer.gif collective. What’s your group’s mission, and what are some of the other projects that you’ve worked on?
We started spacer.gif in 2011 after working on an art exhibition together. We wanted to play with spaces and see how we could inject visual-literary arts into them to expand them (hence the name). We started off with a group show at The Arts House where we created paintings based off one of Jay Bernard’s poems, and created on-site installations for Kilowatt Fest and Lit Up Festival. Our main project the last two years has been building communities through destination: INK (d:INK). We’ve run workshops and curated events in addition to the open mic, such as the recent series of Human Writes, a human rights-based spoken word competition which Vanessa helped organise with Sayoni (a community of and for queer women).

The first edition of destination: INK took place in 2012. How did it start, and what did you hope to achieve in setting up an open mic night?
Nabilah went to London for a trip and came back with an idea to do a multidisciplinary open mic. Vanessa and I liked the idea, there wasn’t a space for people to share different genres of writing in one place. Most open mics in Singapore at that point were only for music or poetry or competition. We didn’t know of a space that allowed for live experiments, a test-bed for ideas or to seek collaborators and there wasn’t a space you could play with props, or art or photography while reading words. The main component of d:INK is really the audience. They are incredibly supportive of everyone whether they’re reading for the first time or trying something completely different from their regular repertoire. They create a safe space for performers to be open and brave on stage. Every month, there’s at least one person who has second thoughts about coming up because it’s their first time, but the support from the crowd helps them overcome the anxiety.

Is there a common theme or criteria that you set the poets who will be performing at One Mic Stand at Late-Night Texting?
I wanted to showcase some of the variety in Singapore’s spoken word scene so I guess it’d be, “Do You”. They’re all different from each other. For instance, Shaan is hilarious with his comedic monologues and his accents are on-point, Cheyenne does an amazing job combining environmental issues and science with personal narratives and Liy & Z take mirroring duets to a whole new level. There’ll be puns, dead-pan humour and even poetry improv.

You’ll also be performing a poem on the night – could you tell us a bit about it?
[Laughs] I don’t have a poem written. I’ll be creating improvised poetry from words contributed from the audience. My spoken word is influenced by my two loves: interactive narratives and devised theatre. One of my favourite parts of the writing process is the discovery of new connections between words and images. I like sharing that lightbulb moment live with others through co-devising a piece with an audience. Some of my published poems have started off as improvisations at open mics in which I played with the audience; experimenting with pace and story based off their reactions. Then I bring it back, explore the ideas that resonated (or didn’t) and develop it further.

Interview by Gwen Pew

Centre 42 is throwing open the doors of its blue house on Saturday, 20 August for the public to enjoy a free evening of exciting textual experiences. Held in conjunction with the Singapore Night Festival, this one night only event is titled Late-Night Texting and features over 15 bite-sized, text-based performances by four local groups. Find out more about the event here.