James Massiah on Poetry, Family and Religion

His first poetry recital was a church sermon that he delivered in rhyme. James Massiah is now being commissioned by the BBC, Tate and Nike and features in Young Blood: a new series of documentaries. Here we talk poetry, parties, upbringing and religion…

This interview was first published on The Early Hour in 2016.

James Massiah, 25, lives in Mitcham, south London, with his parents. As well as performing poetry, DJing and taking on occasional shop work, he features in Young Blood – a new series of documentaries about the young people of today.

Meet James Massiah

“My childhood was spent playing out with friends, lots of computer games, going on church camps, quite a few holidays. It was pretty normal; but with a backdrop of being from a conservative, religious background, which put limits on the fun. I’m atheist now.

I was introduced to poetry at school, in English lessons, when I was young. But also, my parents were avid readers and would often encourage my brother and I to read. I was into Roald Dahl, poetry anthologies, collections for kids, the Allan Ahlberg books. I started writing my own stuff when I was quite young.

My first public performance was when I was 12 and it was in church. I preached a sermon but preached it as a poem, a 30-minute poem. Since then, I’ve continued writing but after uni I started working in retail – I worked for American Apparel for a while – to keep my parents happy. These jobs are always short-lived but provide cash in the interim periods between commissions. Also, I DJ and make music so that brings in some money.

James Massiah - poet - theearlyhour.com

I live in my parents’ house so that’s huge support but I think there’s a love hate thing going on with my poetry. They’re proud of the achievements but my dad says if you haven’t got a contract with £30k a year coming in, and you’re having to hustle and duck and dive to make ends meet, it’s no good. If, however, you’re a teacher – you’ve got your pension and all the rest. He’s got his qualms with the entertainment industry; he thinks it’s a den of inequity. But then he hasn’t kicked me out or told me to stop what I’m doing.

It’s wrapped up not just in career worries but because the poetry I used to write – like that first piece – was a mini sermon but now it’s as if I’m writing as an atheist, which is morally ambiguous and an affront to their beliefs. In their eyes, I’m making my way as a writer, but it might be at odds with my salvation.

My first big commission

Every now and then a big job comes in and affords me a period of time when I definitely don’t have to work. My first big commission was for Nike in 2011. They wanted me to bring one of their shoes to life so they flew me to Portland and I performed in their headquarters. I was in the middle of my dissertation at the time – I studied English at Brunel – and had to get an extension.

I never thought it was a way to make money. All poets are starving artists – there’s a poor poet trope – but I thought maybe I’d get published, or paid to perform, or I might get a poem on an album or write some lyrics. As it is, I’m more of a copywriter – producing copy for brands, or innovation. But if all the brands dropped me I’d still be hosting my own events and putting my poems on Youtube.

James Massiah takes the Tate

It was 2010/11, and I wrote this piece for Tate Britain and that became my signature piece; the piece that I perform the most often. The commission was to ‘perform a piece that relates in some way to Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall’. It was a Late Tate evening thing and the idea was to create a link between the art in the gallery at the time and Michael Jackson. I wanted to reference Burn This Disco Out and a piece by Cy Twombly. So my poem was called Dance with the Devil and it was about an Armageddon, before whole world goes up in smoke.

Last year I was doing work for marketing agency Amplify, working on a Converse project about giving young creatives the opportunity to take their work to the next level. Young Blood [a seven-part documentary series produced by Amplify, exploring youth culture and featuring James Massiah] was about taking the messages behind that project further; offer young creatives the chance to express themselves, talk about what they do, in a more intellectual forum. Then at the agency it’s about showing how in touch they are with young people; the youth market and offering some relevant and useful content that other people can look at and draw something from.

My best pieces come either when I’m cycling or in the shower. When I say the best pieces, that’s probably not fair on myself. That’s the creation process I enjoy most because it’s free flowing. There’s also a disciplined approach when I sit down and ask: who am I writing this for, what do I want it to do to them. I call it New Funk – knowledge and function – how am I actually going to apply my skills as a writer to get this done.

For inspiration I go to religion, the occult. That’s like my foundation – not just with the writing, but for me as a person. It’s about spirituality, higher beings. Whether it’s the Bible, or holistics – it’s always a religion or cult inspiring a metaphor or image. Then, moving away from that, I look into primal instincts. Rather than trying to appeal to moral fortitude, it’s about appealing to the self-interested nature, to move forward in life. That’s what motivates me: mysticism, base human instinct, the occult. And then the poets I like are TS Elliot, Aleister Crowley, Benjamin Zephaniah, Allen Ginsberg – they are my go-tos. Gertrude Stein as well.

There’s no average weekday for me. I’m talking to people about work and jobs each day but it’s tricky as I know I want to live a comfortable life; I don’t want to be the struggling artist. So I’m like I’m like: I’ve had a good run with the poetry, now I’m going to get a job. Then I get an email saying: do you want to fly to this place and do this… so work keeps finding me. I know there will be work, meetings, almost definitely a party. And writing. There will be a dinner, I love to eat, and to socialise. But where it will be; where I’ll be DJing – it’s all up in the air. Makes life interesting, though.

I like to think of myself as a morning person

I was in Leeds on Saturday and I woke up at 1pm, then got home, went to a friend’s performance in Deptford, woke up early Monday morning to do radio stuff then today woke up at midday. I like to think of myself as a morning person but the reality is far from the dream – I’m an afternoon, brunchy person.

And the weekends vary. Last week I had a gig on Thursday and a performance Sunday. So my weekend could be Tuesday and Wednesday. Friday is like my Monday. Sundays tend to be quite restful. Monday can be all kinds of things.

The future of UK poetry, according to James Massiah…

It’s exciting. There are people who are working with different formats, there’s more of it, or at least it’s happening more visibly. I know that the rise in activism; social justice stuff has sparked a real interest in poetry as a medium for conveying political ideas in a more immediate way than music. If you want to put on a gig that’s one thing, but with a poetry event you’ve got an audience and you can say what you want to say to them.

Then there are new publishing houses, new Youtube channels…it’s alive and well. Maybe poets are wanting more money for what they’re doing but what remains to be seen is whether the buying public want to pay for it. So that’s the challenge ahead: functioning in way a washing machine does, or the internet does, people wake up and BANG. Like they say “I need to know the weather” – we need to make poetry like that: I need to hear a poem.”

Listen to James Massiah 

Watch James Massiah in Young Blood…