Chapeltown-born performance poet Asher Hoyles talks about her roots, finding her way in life and using the voice she’s been given...
That she left aged just 15 to find her way in the world, travelling to the capital to learn to stand on her own two feet (as she puts it), has not weakened her attachment to the city which raised her. Indeed, she visits regularly.
“I still go back there,” she reminisces fondly. “And me being a Leeds girl, when I do, I end up walking around like I own the place.”
By day, the mother-of-one (she has a daughter, Rosa, 23) works as a learning support practitioner at New Vic Sixth Form College in Newham, east London and also runs poetry workshops in schools, colleges and prisons, as well as teaching performance poetry for the last 16 years at Clean Break Theatre Company in Kentish Town, north-west London.
Poetry and in particular performance poetry has become a major part of her life. Over the years, she has performed at Glastonbury, Westminster Abbey and won plaudits from the likes of Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze and Benjamin Zaphaniah. Now, after years of plying her trade and honing her skills, she has published a book of her works, Raise Up The Low, Bring Down the Mighty. It’s a rallying, almost anti-establishment call for justice grounded in a kind of no-nonsense earthy realism. When I speak to her on the phone from her home in London, her voice is rich and lyrical and about a million miles away from the long-vowelled, rounded accents we’re so used to hearing on radio and television. There’s something refreshing about that, because there’s an honesty - an authenticity - which many strive for years to perfect and yet with her seems effortless.
“I started writing poetry because in truth I was not very confident growing up. I used to be one of those people who admired what other people were doing but did not recognise my own talent but I still felt an urge to express myself.
“A friend of mine, Michael, wanted to be a comedian and he used to try his stuff out on me and vice versa. I never thought for a moment it would grow into what it has.”
But it was an impromptu comment which launched her onto the big stage.
“I had a friend, Paula Edwards, she was a performance poet. I kept promising to go see her but kept forgetting, until one day I turned up and I was really impressed by her. Afterwards, we were speaking to the guy who runs the place and she said to him, ‘This is Asher, she’s a performance poet’ and asked if I would like to perform. At the time, getting carried away with the evening, I said ‘oh yeah’ but then went home and basically didn’t sleep.”
She goes on: “That’s how I got into it and I haven’t looked back. That was over 20 years ago now. I thought I was going to collapse on the spot.
“I think I must have had my mum on my shoulder. I’m from a culture where if you say you will do something, then you will do it, so you don’t let people down. You go up there and do your best and whatever happens happens. You go up there and put your passion into the poem you are delivering.
“When you first start, you are probably speaking too fast, but as you get used to it and you get positive feedback from people, then you change… all those small things people say - yes, they saw I was nervous but they also said I had something… it’s things like that which drive you on. And the fact they just kept inviting me back.”
She traces her drive to keep her promises and be true to herself to her upbringing. A former pupil of Allerton Grange High, she also attended Seventh Day Adventist Church, Meanwood Road, where as a child she would recite ‘memory verses’, something she now looks back on with a certain sense of gratitude.
“A lot of valuable lessons. I would like to think the passion in the book about leaving your home, family, standing on your own two feet, the choices and decisions you have to make there.
“As a child, I needed space to work things out. Sometimes when you are not in your best place, you don’t see things clear; sometimes when you look back and see the things you were angry about, you see them for what they are and you’re glad of the things you learned.”
She adds: “I do enjoy the process of poetry, the excitement of having an idea and seeing where it goes but I think it has to come from a real place - you can’t inspire people if they don’t believe you.” As if to underline that her feet are still well and truly on the ground, she adds jauntily: “And now I’m off to hang my washing out.”
60 SECOND READ
Asher Hoyles was born Sophia Smithen and grew up in Chapeltown with her sisters. She cited her mother, Myra, as her inspiration. She left Leeds for London after leaving Allerton Grange and in her 20s became interested in performance poetry, eventually being asked to perform her own work on stage.
Over the years, she has won a following from some well known names. Benjamin Zephaniah says: “Asher Hoyles brings poetry to you that is funny, moving, honest and true. I hear years of tradition meeting the modern and the relevant, passion and the voice of a woman who is in love with an art form. Her poems make me feel educated, cultured, alive and loved.”
She has performed at Glastonbury and Westminster Abbey and recently published a book of her work, Raise Up The Low, Bring Down The Mighty (Hansib, £9.99).
We Living Too Long!
The government has brought it to our attention
Dat we got to put more money in a we pension
So de people dem a question
How the government draw dat conclusion
For when we working too long
We want kick back and relax
But you living too long
Dem can mek a money out a dat
So they’re rooting for the people
To work until dem drop
And wid de money dat dem save
They can bridge de debt gap
Dat is legitimizing tiefing
The people won’t accept dat
You gwine see how de people feel
When everyting stop
No bus, no train, no school, no shop
People need de money
But everyting stop
For we a run de programme
Dem done forget dat
Catch we left, right and centre
Wid pay freeze and VAT
So a beg you wid we pension
Keep your dity hands of a dat
For we nar bruck back
To pay off the banks