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A Magazine for Sheffield

Mark Grist: Dead Poets and Rap Battling

Mark Grist is a poet, promoter and former teacher but also the unlikely public face for Don't Flop, the UK rap battle organisation, after his battle with 17 year old rapper Blizzard went viral. To date, he's had well over two million views and, since the video was released in December of last year, has toured the country with his Dead Poets show. We spoke to Mark about poetry, education, the trappings of his new found fame and future plans ahead of his appearance at our Varsity Slam event last month as part of Off the Shelf Festival of Words. What started you writing? I started writing at primary school. I used to write these long comedy ballads to crack my mates up. I was more into humourous poetry really - Road Dahl, Dennis Lee. What started you teaching? I went really quickly into teaching after my degree. There was this new initiative that supposedly in five to ten years time there would be a lack of head teachers, so I went on this fast-track thing. We'd go on these weekend-long interviews with people from Eastenders playings kids. You'd never see an actual kid though, and everyone else I was there with was really into telling people what to do. I was really into teaching though. I loved it - really enjoyed working with teenagers. I used to write poems for the students I taught. Education is very focused on a narrative, and isn't very focused on creativity. Just writing poems with students and mucking about with words felt really important, especially in Peterborough, where not much creative stuff was happening. You're one of a few poets who write formal poetry, perform regularly and rap battle. Do you see poetry as being inclusive of all these things? I've always found it kind of embarrassing how artists can feel about their work. I know how some people want to police their stretch. Someone called out Carol Ann Duffy as the Mills and Boon of poetry recently, I've heard poets slating other poets' work as soon as they're out of earshot, and I've heard page poets talk about spoken word in the same way that some spoken word artists speak about rappers. Everyone tries to validate what they do. As a school teacher, if I have two kids that are being creative in one way that suits my personal palette, and another one that doesn't, it's my job to remove my personal palette and see the value of what both students make. The divisions that people put up about art can be really damaging and embarrassing. I think it makes people feel scared or threatened about other people's work. Tell us about how the Don't Flop battle video came about. We were doing the Dead Poets show, and it was about Mixy as a rapper and me as a poet trying to swap art forms. We didn't know each other. It was just two guys who had no-one else to bounce ideas off. I was very cynical initially about rap battle. I was still teaching at the time. I did a few locally and they ended up in our show. Rowan who runs Don't Flop came to see our show in Norwich, and he thought it'd be funny for me to get involved. The first battle I did got about 2,000 views, and then Blizzard wanted to do a battle, so Rowan suggested we go with the idea that I was a teacher and he was a student, so we went along and did it. And it seemed the whole world turned on its head. Suddenly every producer and radio exec wanted to have a meeting. There was never any expectation that I'd become known for my rap battling, and to be honest I could have crashed and burned. I'm a bit surprised, because it could have been seen as a middle class pursuit of a working class thing. I'm pretty much an advocate of rap battle now. There's ways it could be really useful. It's incredibly clever. It's really honest as well. I mean, I can't compete lyrically with half the roster of Don't Flop. I think hip hop at the heart of it has got truth, and it's the same with poetry. It's best when you expose truth. I'm not tough or dangerous, but in battles I know that, and I looked at other rappers and I thought "you're like me", which had a lot of scope for comedy within it. If you're really honest about everything there's not a lot that people can hit you with. The video went up on Reddit, and then someone else put it on Buzzfeed, and it went crazy through those. It was getting to the point that overnight it would gain 200,000 views. I'd been used to travelling for two hours to a pub to read to 12 people, and then travelling home and going to bed. All of a sudden you go to sleep and 200,000 have seen you perform, and they haven't seen all of the debilitating failures that you've had, and then go have lunch, and come home and another 70,000 have seen the video. It was just insane. The school I used to teach at had newspapers phoning, I had reporters to my house, and about two weeks after it went viral I got people coming up to me in the pub. People think you're popping champagne, bouncing down the street in some car. There's no gin and juice. You spend two weeks not leaving your bedroom, because all of a sudden you've gone from getting a tweet a day to a thousand overnight. Google asked me to read in San Francisco at a staff party. Big Brother asked if I'd be interested in coming on. Rap battle has changed my life, but for about three weeks it made me feel really ill. You're terrified you've been launched really far and high too fast. I don't want everyone in four years time saying, "Mark Grist was that guy from the Blizzard battle". I'd like to do something else at some point. What are you working on at the moment? I'm about to have a rap battle at the weekend. I'm trying to beat someone without using the letter 'I'. I've prepped all my bars, with the hope no-one will realise I've only used four vowels and then reveal it at the end. I'm taking a new Dead Poets show to Edinburgh. I'm also working on a children's collection called The Truth About Big School, and some TV work that hopefully will be really big. Have you got any advice for any young poets? Always read, or see or hear more poetry. Always absorb more art than you create. The better the ratio, the better your work will be. I probably spent most of my life thinking I was a shit poet, and there's still a part of me that thinks that on a fairly regular basis, but that's not the end of the world. Do what you want to do, the way you want to do it. As long as it's got some truth to it, then carry on. )

Next article in issue 56

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