Dublin spoken-word poet Stephen James Smith talks to Ellie O’Byrne as he faces economic exile from his city.
Tallaght spoken-word poet Stephen James Smith is an engaging modern-day laureate for the Irish capital.
Videos of his work, including the gritty love letter to his native city, ‘Dublin You Are’, and his St Patrick’s Festival commission, ‘My Ireland’, have amassed over 2.5m thousands of views online.
Akin to others in the new generation of spoken-word poets, including Kate Tempest, his work straddles the borders of poetry and musical influences including hip-hop and punk.
He’s appeared alongside Glen Hansard at the London Palladium, opened for the Boomtown Rats, featured on The Late Late Show, and collaborated with a host of musicians and videographers.
On the face of it, he’s a remarkable success.
But at 37, he’s living in the box room of his mother’s house in Tallaght and looking at leaving the city he documents with such verve come September, a city where average monthly rents topped €2,000 per month in the first quarter of 2019.
“I’ve looked at Belfast, and I’m looking at Wexford at the moment,” Smith says over the phone, the bustle and hubbub of Moore St aptly audible behind him.
Office workers at the city’s tech multinationals can just about get by, sometimes paying up to 75% of their income on rent, according to a report by Social Justice Ireland. Smith is not alone in his quandary:
The impact of Dublin’s inflated rents on those subsisting on the irregular incomes of the creative industries has been highlighted by others, including musician David Kitt and music journalist Nialler9.
The issue is to the fore in Smith’s mind because he’s been working on a commission for homeless charity Focus Ireland, collaborating with videographers and producer DJ Kormac for a piece that premiered at Body & Soul festival.
He knows his own situation pales into insignificance in comparison to that of people living on the streets or packed into insecure emergency accommodation.
“I’m not trying to be a martyr: I’m lucky and privileged,” he says. “I’m one of many and my situation is far more manageable than most, so I don’t want to sound ‘poor me’. I recognise how blessed I am in my life.”
Smith’s keen interest in politics and justice sees him weave references to modern Ireland’s challenges and injustices, as well as its romanticised heritage, into his work — part, he says, of “the responsibility of the artist”.
Alongside his need to make ends meet, though, this raises interesting questions around patronage. Many of his high-profile commissions have come from NGOs, local authorities, and corporations; Aviva funded his ‘Bring It Home’ rugby piece, released to coincide with Ireland’s grand slam bid against England last St Patrick’s Day. And in some of this work, those who pay the piper may wish to gloss over the tune.
“I’ve said no to things,” he says.
“I had one commission for an organisation I won’t name.
"They liked the idea of me writing a poem, but when I bared a little teeth on the subject matter — not much — there was push-back. I got called to a meeting that was like being back in school.
“I just said, ‘You know what? This isn’t for me.’
Although Smith has been composing poems since he was 21, publishing a book came second to cementing his reputation as a performer, both live and on video. Last year, he published his first collection of poems, Fear Not.
His dyslexia, only diagnosed when he was doing a degree in English as a mature student, caused confidence problems when it come to the written word.
“I can hear my own words in my head, and the pace and the tone that I want them to be said with, because poetry is an oral art form for me,” he says.
“But it’s liberating having the book out there and knowing people can read it in their own way, too.”
Donning the mantle of poet was something that Smith was reluctant to do for many years.
“I never called myself a poet,” he says.
“But Pat Ingoldsby was my favourite poet and when he called me a poet, I felt like I could own this a little bit. Now, I feel I’m a custodian for a craft that I’m always learning.
“That’s my job, and that’s the gift to be cherished.”
Stephen James Smith appears at West Cork Literary Festival on Saturday, July 13, at 6.30pm in The Maritime Hotel, Bantry, and will also hold a teen poetry workshop in Bantry Library at 3pm. westcorkmusic.ie