Craft & Culture Creatives in profile - interview series

Creatives in profile: interview with Grae J Wall

"I think poetry (and the arts in general) has the ability to offer fresh perspectives and visions, to challenge the status quo and allow folks to walk for a moment in others' shoes," argues slam poet Grae J Wall in this 'Creatives in Profile' interview
Grae J Wall (Photograph by Johannes Haslinger)

Grae J. Wall is a poet, lomographer and songwriter from St Albans, UK. As a regular performer at venues and festivals, both at home and around continental Europe, his work is often inspired by those travels along with global issues, anxiety, red wine and cats.

Wall had a childhood inspired by Bowie and Lou Reed, followed by Patti Smith, Richard Hell and Leonard Cohen, whilst reading the beats and Rimbaud. As a musician, Wall mixes poetry with more regular lyrics. Then, during the noughties, he published his poetry in a ‘DIY’ style, publishing poetry in zines and producing a tiny booklet of poems to sell at gigs. He set up a virtual cafe space where he and a developing community of ‘outsider’ poets could share their work.

Now, at the age of 56, he has entered the world of slam poetry, with his first collection of slam poetry, The Sound of Revolution, receiving praise from critics – who have described it as “a collection like no other”, featuring beat, lyricism and working class revolution poetry.

It’s an honour to bring you this detailed interview…

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

WALL

I’m from the small city of St Albans in the UK, 22 minutes from London on the train. I hated school and it hated me right back so I developed a mistrust of authority figures from a very early age. The only subject that I had any success in was English and thankfully I had a few good teachers who inspired me. Having failed most of my O Level exams my parents insisted I went to a Further Education College to retake some of them but by then The Clash and Patti Smith had arrived in my life so I failed the exams again but formed a band instead. Apart from a few crazy temporary jobs early on (they sent this skinny kid to work with a demolition team) I have managed to live as a troubadour whilst maintaining a string of jobs in the Arts, facilitating and promoting events and projects.

INTERVIEWER

Is writing your first love, or do you have another passion?

WALL

I guess at this stage I would say I am equal parts poet, musician and lomographer. I started with poetry when I was very young and that developed in to song writing when I hit my teens. I never stopped writing poems though and in the last couple of decades they have gone more hand in hand. I inherited my granddad’s Kodak Brownie camera when I was a kid and that’s always been there too but I never really enjoyed using big fancy cameras. About 12 years ago I picked up a Holga 135 plastic camera for £19.99 and it stole my heart. I now have a small collection of lo-fi cameras and always take one with me on tour.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

WALL

Working in the arts I have had the pleasure and honour of working with so many folks and watching their journey. This includes many who have overcome disabilities or tough circumstances to follow some kind of creative path and that is often very inspiring.

In my teens I discovered David Bowie and he did have a profound effect – that realisation that it was OK to be an outsider – the beauty and passion of his words and music. He remains an inspiration and for me his final two albums are strikingly as good as anything he produced. The year he died I was on tour in Germany and with my band mates we went to visit the apartment in Berlin where he’d lived with Iggy Pop in the ‘70’s and just hung out for a while absorbing and contemplating. On the corner of the road a cafe bar displayed a black star in the window – we just took some photos, goofed around – silly really but had to be done.

I was 15 when punk broke and that was ultimately life changing. Patti Smith, Richard Hell, The Clash and The Ramones – suddenly the doors had been kicked in and I felt like maybe I could actually be part of this magical new world of street-punk-beat-art-blues. The ethos that art should be accessible to all to pursue and engage with has been central to almost all I have done since.

Nowadays I find inspiration in all sorts of arts and situations – just wandering round a gallery, sitting at a pavement cafe, delving in to new books, CDs and movies – though often still it’s those outsider voices that strike a chord.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

WALL

My mum was probably my earliest teacher but in a kind of organic way. She was a poet herself and would send in poems to the letters page of our local newspaper. Sometimes amusing, these would usually be in response to something she’d read that cast local characters in a bad light – teens drinking cider in town or rehearsing rock music at the church hall, a homeless man sleeping in the church porch. Through her words she was able to speak on their behalf and offer a more charitable perspective but in a way that perhaps ‘Mr. Angry’ might find more palatable. As mentioned I fortunately had some good English teachers and by the time I hit secondary school I was already reading Shakespeare, Chaucer, Betjeman and Kipling. I guess I was bit of a weird kid.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about your collection The Sound of Revolution?

WALL

When the pandemic hit last year I was immediately furloughed and found myself unable to get together with band mates or head out on tour. I knew that I needed to maintain a level of creativity just to preserve my sanity, so I decamped to the little summerhouse at the bottom of our garden and set about recording a collection of poems and songs. This I released through bandcamp as the mouseclubvirusblues album and it started getting some positive attention on various radio shows and podcasts. I also started getting asked to contribute to or perform at a variety of virtual events and festivals which was sweet.

At several interviews I was asked whether the poems were available in a book that folks could find and the truth was they weren’t. The last book I’d published was just a tiny collection around 7 years ago that had sold out pretty fast and since then I had mostly just been sharing work at the Poetry Underground Facebook page that I run. So with time on my hands and the help of my daughter I set about putting this new book together. I had this poem called The Sound of Revolution and that just seemed to be a great starting point for choosing a collection of poems that in some way related to change, resilience, anxiety and resolution.

There are a few poems which are directly inspired by global issues – Extinction Rebellion, inequality and injustice – but most are a lot less literal – cats, red wine and train journeys. The response so far has been incredibly positive and genuinely heart warming. As well as the physical book which is available from my website (www.graejwall.com) I have also released it as an e-book on all the major platforms, though I have to confess to having never actually read an e-book or used a kindle myself.

For the love of cats? Slam poet Grae J Wall pictured here with kittens. (Photograph by Johannes Haslinger)

INTERVIEWER

What has drawn you to beat poetry? And how do you think your work compares to the writing of the original beatniks?

WALL

I was probably about 18 when (like so many) I read On The Road and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and they just lead me to that cool, gonzo, stream of consciousness, outsider rock ‘n’ roll style. So I read Ginsberg and Burroughs and also worked backwards to Rimbaud and Baudelaire.

I think pouring over the lyrics to Aladdin Sane had already kind of opened me up to that kind of pre-punk, scatter-gun, no rules world of writing. I could hear it in Lou Reed and Bob Dylan and it resonated. Patti Smith for me was like a bomb exploding – the first time I heard Piss Factory it just blew me away and I think it remains one of the great defining artistic moments of the Twentieth Century.

Similarly Richard Hell was a great influence and I could see how as those past beatniks had responded to jazz and be-bop for my generation we had punk and new wave to spar with – perfect. Being a musician as well there is inevitably rhythm to the way I write and it’s about spotting the beauty and the anger amongst the mundane and everyday – the diamonds in the sand. I

have been fortunate enough to perform on the same stage as John Cooper Clarke and he along with the likes of Patrik Fitzgerald have of course inspired. Sharing a (graffiti covered) dressing room with John was a delight – the first thing he said to me as we came off stage was ‘I love your go-go dancers’ – a true national treasure.

INTERVIEWER

Gil Scott Heron famously told us that the revolution will not be televised. So what role does poetry have to play in the revolution?  

WALL

I think poetry (and the arts in general) has the ability to offer fresh perspectives and visions, to challenge the status quo and allow folks to walk for a moment in others’ shoes. As a poet you can be quite idealist and not really worry too much about the mechanism of obtaining that beauty – that’s kind of our job – but also exclaiming that visceral pain at a world that is so obviously not working for so many.

It’s also about highlighting the connectivity, the shared human experience, empathy and angst. People see revolution as holding the barricades and sometimes that is the case; I have felt compelled to join the London XR actions in the last few years, but sometimes it is just about a changing mindset, quiet positive actions and genuine empathy. It seems so obvious to me that if economic policies are killing the planet, children are dying of starvation and people are persecuted and killed for the colour of their skin, their faith or sexuality than we have a need to dismantle the machine that causes these things and build something fresh.

As a poet (musician and lomographer) I see the construct of nations and borders to be an outdated irrelevance – my comrades and colleagues lie all around the world in this strange collective of back-room troubadours and discontented agitators. These are the people with whom I share aspirations and convictions and I see so many standing up and saying enough is enough. Poetry just holds up a little mirror and allows us a glimpse of the you that is in there somewhere, encourages that soul to surface.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility in your role as a writer?

WALL

I kind of do but I also think it’s important not to force it or fake it. Some days I’m just inspired to write about love, loss or hanging out with my cat and that’s fine too. I also think it’s important to acknowledge that the art and the artist are two separate things and actually it’s almost that realisation that you can recognise and relate to the inner spirit of someone whom in other ways you might fundamentally disagree with that reveals that connecting spirit.

I find myself quite confused in my own mind when it comes to things like the closing down of free speech and the emergence of cancel culture. I feel like whilst it is important to combat and challenge viewpoints and ideologies, unless it is genuinely hate speech or inciting violence towards others, then we need to be able to hear those voices and understand how they evolve. I feel that extends to venues and galleries as well as social media or TV. Also I’d add that there’s nothing wrong with owning your flaws and contradictions – that is to be human. Whilst attempting to smash down the walls of our gated community world I still want St Albans FC to beat their adversaries each week.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific ‘reader’ or audience in mind when you write?

WALL

I really don’t but sometimes folks let you know that they have related to what you have written and that is always gratifying. When you are writing about things like losing someone to suicide or battling depression it’s often these things that people don’t often open up about or discuss that can allow others to feel that ‘thank god it’s not just me’ sense of relief. That’s not really what you set out to do, you just need to release those emotions and let them fly – a kind of self-therapy – but sometimes they help and that is a positive thing.

As an artist you of course want to provoke reaction, be it joy, anger, relief or sadness but it can be a surprise to discover which pieces or words have deeply touched another. When I am performing live I far prefer a room full of complete strangers to a local crowd or friends of friends – it’s when those strangers come up after and say ‘thanks, I really related to what you were saying there’ that you really feel you have achieved something.

INTERVIEWER

What advice can you give to aspiring creatives and poets who are interested in pursuing a similar pathway?

WALL

Don’t plan the pathway too thoroughly – there will be paths that lead from paths that lead from other paths and that’s all good. Allow yourself to be taken by the wind especially in to uncharted territories. Listen, travel, read and relate. Open your heart to others – be kind, courteous and forgiving and you will find doors opening in the most unexpected of places. Enjoy the journey and realise that your journey is unique – it is the uniqueness of your voice that is special so allow it to bloom. The moment is everything for you cannot change your past and the future is always something of an unknown.

INTERVIEWER

If you had to draw up an essential reading list everyone should read, which books would make the cut?

WALL

I have already mentioned On the Road (Jack Kerouac) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter S. Thompson) both of which would be near the top of my list. Other desert island books would also include Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums and Thompson’s The Rum Diary. From Patti Smith it would be Just Kids, her love letter to Robert Mapplethorpe and their emerging creative selves. Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys by Viv Albertine is a beautiful, raw and honest autobiography that I found delightful and surprisingly moving. Danny Sugerman’s No One Here Gets out Alive biography of Jim Morrison is a wild rock ‘n’ roll read. You’ve gotta throw in collected works or Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Brecht. I think both Charles Bukowski’s Love is a Dog from Hell and Leonard Cohen’s Book of Longing are indispensable poetry tomes. George Orwell’s Down and out in Paris and London along with Homage to Catalonia are perhaps more essential than the predictable Animal Farm. I have a beautiful old copy of Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin with illustrations by George Grosz, which is a treasure. I could go on and on but I’ll finish with Herge’s Tintin in Tibet – the crowning glory of that series bears rereading on a fairly regular basis.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

WALL

It’s so difficult to plan right now but I have a number of on-line performances on the horizon. I’ve started recording more poems and I think a second mouseclubvirusblues collection is likely. When we return to some kind of normality I have a few ideas around trying to do something that mixes exhibition and performance – so something of a combined arts project utilising poetry, music and photos.

I’m obviously looking forward to getting back together with my musical cohorts and returning to venues. Touring on the continent has been an important part of my annual schedule for the last 25 years and I’ve really missed that. My worry there though is how it’s all going to work in these new Brexit times with work permits and visas – it’s a huge concern for thousands of artists who work regularly abroad. More live poetry for sure.

Quick fire round!

INTERVIEWER

Favourite book?

WALL

Patti Smith – Just Kids

INTERVIEWER

Curl up with a book or head to the movies? 

WALL

For a treat it has to be the movies – we have an amazing cinema in St Albans called The Odyssey – all art deco with plush seating, tables and a bar – a decadent delight.

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

WALL

Cult classic – be it book, CD or movie.

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated writer?

WALL

Rod McKuen – often critically ignored – I think he is a bit of a lost gem.

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated writer?

WALL

Jean-Paul Sartre – I’ve tried, I really have.

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think people should know more about?

WALL

Geoff  Berner is a Canadian singer-songwriter who should be much better known – he can make me laugh out loud and then weep within the space of minutes. He’s kind of a contemporary alternative klezmer artiste.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

WALL

I haven’t really checked which of these I can still do but I used to be able to unicycle, juggle and dive roll over 12 people lying down. I’m pretty sure I can’t do the dive roll thing anymore.

INTERVIEWER

Most embarrassing moment?

WALL

After a gig one time this girl was chatting to me for a few minutes before proclaiming ‘you don’t remember me do you?’ I searched my memory but had to admit ‘I’m so sorry, I’m afraid I don’t.’ She looked daggers at me and growled ‘I went out with you for six weeks!’

INTERVIEWER

Something you’re particularly proud of?

WALL

When I was an Arts Council Music Officer I helped kick-start a number of cool projects and organisations including the wonderful Attitude is Everything, an important UK Charity that improves Deaf and disabled people’s access to live music by working in partnership with venues, audiences, artists and the music industry. I carried on working with them for some years after I left The Arts Council and programmed Attitude showcases at Glastonbury Festival including an appearance by the legendary Heavy Load.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

WALL

The plague arrived and the world closed.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 10 tips for aspiring authors/artists?

WALL

Find your own voice

Don’t worry about being cool/current

Be generous of heart and supportive of others

Travel and absorb

Relish the journey

Write about the tough stuff

If it’s not working today, leave it a while then come back to it

Always have tools to hand

Try not to punch critics, count to ten and walk away

Remember to breathe

2 comments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: