They say you should be careful speaking to someone you admire, the illusion can easily be ruined. Well that definitely wasn’t the case when we spoke to lesbian spoken word artist Bethany Rose! 2018 has been a massive year for her, so we caught up with her to speak all things work, mental health, LGBTQ and lots more…
If you’ve never listened to or watched spoken word poetry before, PINK is where you should start. The poem, which talks about what it is to be a lesbian, went viral earlier this year when it was recorded and shared by the BBC. Poet Bethany Rose really didn’t expect the 4.5 million views, tens of thousands of shares and exposure it would bring. She said: ”I thought nobody would watch it, I was wearing a t-shirt covered in cat hair and my eyebrows were crooked. It really was just not what I was expecting, I mean I really should have got a fucking haircut.”
Bethany started out in spoken word ten years ago, going to Spoken Word London, a night which still runs at Vogue Fabrics in Dalston, opposite Dalston Superstore. Nowadays if you go there you’re lucky to get a foot in the door, as with a lot of spoken word nights in London, but a decade ago, things were different: “It was every other Wednesday, and nobody came. I remember there’d be like 7 or 9 of us. This is before Kate Tempest, before everything.”
She performed a poem called My First Day at School, about her experience of being a queer woman working at a Catholic school. Pat Cash (not the tennis player), who founded the event and continues to run it today, was such a fan of Bethany that he spoke about her in an interview, resulting in her first gig (which only three people attended: her partner and two friends). She was then mentioned as one of the top spoken word poets in a feature in DIVA after a performance of her poem Rainbow was filmed and sent to them.
And things continued to build from there: “At first I was taking gigs in the LGBTQ fucking dives you know, The Glory, and all these places which are kind of fabulous: they’re almost always the best gigs”.
“But then, all of a sudden, you get a paid thing. They start to creep in. And I just carried on taking gigs, lots of gigs, doing a lot of queer nights, I did the ITV nationwide advert last year and then the PINK video happened this January which kind of went mad for me really.”
Since PINK, Bethany has done work with Amnesty International, the Courtauld, the V&A and further TV work. She’s also performed at L Fest and on the main stage at Gay Pride. She said: “It was not what I was expecting at all. I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily a good thing or a bad thing, I think it’s just been very different. And I do miss the days of going somewhere where there was 6 of us, in a basement.”
Bethany continues to manage her career as a spoken word artist alongside her day job: working in a pupil referral unit and training to become a psychotherapist. The way she sees it, there’s a common theme running through all of her her work: “The thing that I’m about ultimately is mental health. I think there’s a huge correlation between our LGBTQ population and mental health issues, but also even our young straight men. I just think there’s an endemic and people don’t talk about their emotions enough”.
“I also think that we are a life that presents a polished profile online and people are very afraid to be vulnerable. There’s a huge discrepancy between what people say they’re doing and what they feel. That’s why I do spoken word ultimately: to try and bridge that gap to say ‘look you know, I sit at home and eat cheese out of the packet too, it’s okay.’ But I try and do it in rhyme so it’s a bit more interesting.”
In trying to encourage vulnerability, she has to be vulnerable herself, and much of her work is very raw and personal. But that’s not what’s scary for her: “I think what was scarier for me was holding it in. I think when you have had depression or anxiety or you’ve suffered on and off with it your whole life I think it gets to the point where you have to make a choice and you have to find a place to put your pain. Sometimes I feel quite lucky that I can write, draw and because I have a place to put it. Sometimes I think the only difference between being unwell and being an artist is when you’re an artist you have output.”
The response from the LGBTQ+ community and beyond has also helped her share her vulnerability: “I think for me that’s been the most important thing. What was really scary for me growing up pre-internet was just that you just had no idea that other people felt the same way that you did.”
Bethany is clear in her belief that vulnerability isn’t what defines you: “I’m quite ferocious woman and I’m pretty sick of the fact that being mentally unwell means that people associate you with being kind of vulnerable and unstable. There’s a way to be vulnerable and mentally unwell in a way that’s also empowering and empowers others because I’m not just that: I’m a million and one other things, and all of those things are of equal importance”.
“I do think that there is something to be done and something to be explored in the mental health world or world about how having mental illnesses can make you extraordinarily brave, extraordinarily brave.”
The next step is to hopefully translate all of it – the vulnerability, the ferociousness, and the other million and one things – into a different medium: “I really want to have a book out. I illustrate my work as well so hopefully I can put it all in a book.
“I just can’t even imagine it… It’s just it’s quite far away because it’s not a translatable world, spoken word into literary, but I’m plugging away at it really because it’s just been a dream of mine to have a collection published.”
And beyond that, she wants to use her position to help others, and maybe even be someone else’s Pat Cash: “I really want to be able to start curating and making space for younger poets. I want to be able to publish some work and then take a step back and maybe help and give platforms and give the mic over a little bit. Still use it sometimes but, share it. You know, you’ve got to share it”.
“I always try and make sure that I’m putting younger queer girls, especially queer girls of colour actually, forward for jobs. I’m very aware that it’s my white privilege that allows me to have a voice. Sometimes people say: “you do this because you’re talented” and I say: “well it’s also luck”.
“I was in the right place at the right time. I was doing it at the right time. I met the right people. And I don’t ever want to forget that, because there are plenty of people out there that are just as good as me, if not better, and literally just cannot find someone that will listen to them because of their upbringing, or where they’re from, or what they look like.”
“You’ve got to share the light that you’re given because you only have it because someone shared theirs with you.”
She has a few pieces of advice for people looking to get into spoken word:
“Go to open mic nights (as many as you can, wherever they are), keep writing (it’s never as shit as you think, what’s shit is not writing at all), speak it out (don’t just keep it in a drawer), film yourself (and watch it back), and if you need help, reach out on instagram @bethany_rose_poetry (give her a follow, she’s lovely!)
But, most of all, do it for the right reasons: “Are you writing for fame and to say you performed in incredible venues? Or are you writing because you burn? It’s one or the other, and you’ll only ever get somewhere if you write because you burn”.
“I never wrote for this. I wrote because I was some fucked-up 21-year-old who was completely fucked, couldn’t even get a job, like just could not cope with everyday life, cried every day, and I picked up my pen because I didn’t know what else to do. I did it because I had to find my voice and I didn’t necessarily need other people to hear it, though I’m very lucky they now do.”
And when they do hear it? “I really hope people just feel a bit fucking less lonely. Or I managed to put something into words that they’ve felt their whole life that they haven’t necessarily been able to articulate.
“I hope people will feel like it’s okay to be vulnerable, it’s okay to not be able to do your trousers up. I don’t mean like hot vulnerable, like Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted vulnerable, I mean like actually like you fell really fat and you’ve got stretch marks and you can’t wash your hair and you’re really tired and you’re wearing the same socks because you literally cannot find any more in your drawer because you don’t ever sort your shit out and you never tidy.”
“And the other thing that I would like people to take away from my work is that it makes them laugh. I like to make people laugh sometimes, believe it or not.”
Bethany, for the amazing time we had talking to you, the work you’re doing, and the person you are, thank you!
Team NL x