Harry Baker tells Claire Brine about the inspiration behind his poems and performances
HARRY BAKER is a Poetry World Cup champion, a rap battler, a dinosaur enthusiast, a fan of maths and, according to Ed Sheeran, ‘a champion’ for his witty wordplay and command of the English language. Whether he is performing his puns in front of a class of school kids, taking the stage at the Glastonbury Festival or entertaining TV audiences alongside his musical pal Chris on The Russell Howard Hour, Harry’s poetry captivates those who hear it – as can be judged from the 1.6 million views of his TED talk on YouTube. It’s smart and funny. Touching and punchy.
‘It’s a bit like rap and a bit like comedy and it’s slightly theatrical,’ Harry says of his style. ‘I like the term “spoken word poetry” because, in a very literal sense, that’s what it is. Through my poems I try to share the way I see the world. I love it when they make people laugh and uplift people. But I also try to include elements of thoughtfulness and poignancy in them.
‘I prefer to perform my poems rather than simply write them down, because that way I have slightly more control over how they are received. Having said that, I love that poetry is about putting your words out there and letting people interpret them in their own way. Poetry is fantastic at articulating all human experiences.’
Harry’s poems are about a variety of topics, including prime numbers, dinosaur love and masculinity. One of Harry’s most popular poems is ‘Paper People’. It’s the poem for which he scored the most points at a competition in Paris, winning him the Poetry World Cup in 2012.
‘It’s the poem that embodies so much of my philosophy,’ he explains. ‘It started off as a playful experiment with language and went on to be the first poem in which I mentioned politics. But it’s also got a personal element to it, in that I talk about my grandparents.
‘When I wrote “Paper People”, I was trying to find hope in what felt like a hopeless world. Some people like the poem because it has silly alliteration which makes it sound like a big tongue-twister. But then it becomes more serious – and I love how generous an audience can be when they let me take them on that journey.’
Harry has understood and appreciated the draw of poetry since childhood. Even before he was writing his own poems, he loved reading them.
‘Growing up, I read a lot of silly rhyming, nonsense poetry,’ he says. ‘I enjoyed reading works by Michael Rosen and Benjamin Zephaniah because they were so playful and whimsical. They had such a joyful way of using language.
‘When I moved up to secondary school, I was in a band with some friends, and I began to write lyrics. I couldn’t really sing, so I rapped them while my friends played guitars. I loved the freedom that came from that.
‘My dad wanted to encourage my writing, so he took me to some poetry open mike nights, and I began to see the range of poetry on offer. There were older and younger poets performing funny and serious stuff. We celebrated listening to other people and celebrated being listened to. Poetry suddenly became a lot more exciting than what I was studying at GCSE. The live performances reeled me in.’
Harry wrote more poetry. Still in his teens, he started performing at open mike nights in front of a handful of people. He also enjoyed entering poetry slams – events where, after poets performed their work, the audience would vote for their favourite poem.
‘At 17 I went to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to enter a poetry slam, and I won my heat,’ Harry remembers. ‘A week later I went back for the final and came joint first. My prize was a packet of crisps, which I shared with the other winner. I love that about poetry – it’s so not rock’n’roll.’
While Harry devoted much of his spare time to writing and performing, he was also an A-level student pondering university choices. He thought about studying medicine. He had decided it was the sensible choice. But his heart wasn’t in it.
‘The stability of a career in medicine appealed to me,’ he says. ‘But then I told my parents that I didn’t want to do it any more. I think they breathed a sigh of relief. They could see that poetry was the thing that inspired me, where I felt the most myself. But they had the wisdom to let me figure that out without telling me what I should or shouldn’t do. I’m grateful for that.
‘So in 2011, I went to Bristol University to study maths, because I thought it would give me time to work on my poetry on the side. And if my poetry didn’t lead anywhere, then I still enjoyed maths and could fall back on that.’
At the end of his first year at university, Harry won the Poetry World Cup.
‘I didn’t know such an event even existed,’ he laughs. ‘But I won a London poetry slam, which meant I qualified for the UK poetry slam, and after I won that, I was told that I could represent the UK at the Poetry World Cup slam in Paris. I had to check it didn’t clash with my first year maths exams.’
It didn’t. Harry went to Paris, performed his poetry alongside other international poets and was voted the winner.
‘Being successful at that event made me think about doing poetry full-time – but then I was brought back to earth with a bump because as soon as I told people at home that I had won the Poetry World Cup slam, they said: “Oh cool! Er, what’s that?” It was quite funny.’
By the time Harry had graduated from university in 2015, he’d published his first book of poems, entitled The Sunshine Kid. The life of a full-time poet was calling.
‘Choosing a path of uncertainty as a self-employed artist was terrifying, but equally part of the fun was not knowing what I was going to do next,’ he explains. ‘My poetry had always been about trusting doors to open and then being willing to go through them. Yes, the future was a big unknown, but there was an underlying confidence that everything would be OK. And that was grounded in my faith.’
Growing up in a Christian family, Harry attended church throughout his childhood and teens. His Church of England secondary school played a key role in the development of his faith.
‘In a worship session on a school trip, I made a decision to become a Christian,’ Harry says. ‘We had been asked to pray and think about what faith meant to us. I’m a logical person, but I sat there and didn’t think I needed to find proof that God existed; it seemed to make complete sense that he did. Becoming a Christian was a huge, personal and reflective decision.
‘For me, faith is about love and being loved in a way that may feel at odds with what the world tells us. Such unconditional love is radically countercultural. God’s love brings me security.’
It also inspires Harry’s poetry.
‘I don’t try to convert people through my poetry, but part of my writing is relaying my experience, so my poems embody what love looks like to me. I hope that the way I write poems can make people laugh but also help them to love themselves and look at the world through a lens of love.’
In his poem ‘22’, in which he reflects on that age, Harry quotes the Bible words: ‘You are fearfully and wonderfully made.’ In ‘Paper People’, he reveals that his grandparents pray for him every day. He explains why faith appears in his poetry.
‘I try to take the elements of my faith journey that I think are poetic, profound and beautiful and share them with people. I think it is incredible that my grandparents have prayed for me every day since I was born, and I’m not sure that you have to be a Christian to understand that. Also, the idea that we are fearfully and wonderfully made is powerful.
‘So much of the Bible is poetry. I love the opening of the Gospel of John, which says: “In the beginning was the Word.” I find this idea of God being interchangeable with language amazing. I also love the Creation account in Genesis. Some people read it as a scientific account, but I find the description of how the world came into being very poetic. And I feel that if a poem can be interpreted in many ways, so can the Bible. There are endless possibilities in how we read it.’
There are also endless possibilities when it comes to deciding what to write next. As well as working on and performing solo material, Harry frequently partners his old school friend, a guitarist named Chris, in writing new poems and songs. After performing a gig at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2016, they were introduced to comedian Russell Howard.
‘Someone from a comedy agency saw our show, liked it and asked us to reserve a seat for Russell Howard so that he could see us on another night. The seats at our Fringe venue were unallocated, so we wrote “Russell Howard” on a piece of cardboard and put it on the benches. People thought it was a joke!
‘But then he came along and loved the show. I think its strength was that it incorporated singing, poetry and comedy. We don’t do just one thing.’
In September 2017 Russell asked Harry and Chris to perform their comedy songs on his Sky One series, The Russell Howard Hour. The duo jumped at the opportunity to take part in three episodes, including the Christmas special, and are hoping to line up some more TV appearances in the autumn.
In the meantime, Harry is focusing his efforts on what he does best – writing new poems, performing across the globe and running poetry workshops in schools. He tells me he has a trip lined up to Dubai, where he will perform his creations alongside the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy. He is also gearing up for another Edinburgh Festival Fringe in the summer.
‘I used to set a lot of goals and keep looking forwards, but I’ve got much better at enjoying the present moment,’ Harry says. ‘I love sharing my words with people – and that’s enough for me.’
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