Interview: Deborah Stevenson

Interview: James Walker
Thursday 07 July 2011
reading time: min, words

Deborah Stevenson left London to study in Nottingham and find her feet as a festival organiser, founder of Mouthy Poets and one of the UK’s most exciting spoken word acts – all filmed by Channel 4 as part of their Year Dot project. One year after the cameras stopped rolling, she’s still going from strength to strength…


What inspires your work?
People. Especially young people. I see myself as an explorer of the sometimes mundane, but always revolutionary, moments in life. John Stuart Mill’s notion of truth as an ever changing landscape has also been important. Whether a blade of grass or a mountain, we all have something to contribute to that landscape. He felt that naivety could be a good thing, because it asked the questions necessary for that landscape to evolve. It is those questions that inspire me and the reason I text friends at 4am to ask stuff such as ‘how do you know when you are wrong?’

Tell us about Year Dot...
It was a project that tried to capture that first defining year in your life when you made decisions that would shape you. There were fifteen of us, and we all kept video diaries. Some were about getting off Prozac, being a teenage parent, aspiring to be professional ballerinas, making it as a female footballer, to becoming a young politician. I applied to be on it and after a long, long process that involved applications, psychological assessments, CRBs, medical tests etc. I was one of the lucky ones selected out of a few thousand.

What was the most difficult thing about being filmed?
The people filming me became my friends, so I would forget they were also working. This meant sometimes when they asked intruding questions I would take it personally and get upset. They wanted to see stress, tension and conflict when I wanted to be amicable so it felt like a fight at times and wasn’t easy. I also felt their editing made me look condescending... but then again, maybe I was.

How did your parents view the recordings, as a lot was filmed at home?
I don’t think they liked it much because a lot of the conflict in the house was between us due to their religion. My parents are strict Mormons. But I’m glad in other ways because the things I said needed to be heard. That is the funny thing about Year Dot; watching it all back again made me realise how much you forget events and reshape them in your head. But the arguments don’t capture their other sides. For example, my mum used to do the comedy circuit in Soho when French and Saunders were around and so may have been the inspiration for Patsy Stone in Absolutely Fabulous – minus the drinking! There’s a lot of laughter in the house as well.

You tested out a lot of your poems as part of your video diaries. How did you find the feedback?
I did it more to become comfortable with myself because before that I had hated all footage of me performing. People’s comments helped me refine the words I use and the direction I push them in. But mostly it was vital in forging contacts. Charlie Dark saw one of the videos and hunted me down and got me work with John Agard and Louis Vuitton. I was published in a limited edition book of 40 copies that retail at £15,000 each.

What was it like once you stopped being filmed for Year Dot?
It stopped over a year ago, so I am back into being just Deborah now. But immediately after it was scary, very scary, a little bit of a come down, and quite lonely too. It was a crazy time for me, I worked myself unhealthily hard. When it all ended I basically couldn’t stop crying for a day (from happiness mainly) and then couldn’t stop sleeping for a month. I needed some rest.

Tell us about the Turning Point Festival…
I was brought in to represent poetry but ended up hosting the main stage in front of 2,000,
organising and hosting a debate with UK Youth parliament, auditioning and scheduling fifty unsigned acts, organising flash mobs to promote the festival, running a marketplace where young people could sell their designs and scattering workshops across the building. I did all that because I had a point to prove – give young people responsibility and they will rise to it.

Is that why you started your own event in Nottingham?
As part of the Lyric Lounge I worked alongside Andrew ‘MulletProofPoet’ Graves with YARD (Youth Arts Research & Development) at the New Art Exchange. Our job was to help a youth group create pieces inspired by museum objects. It was a fantastic experience and I hadn’t seen anything else like it before in Nottingham and so when the project finished, I was eager to see this kind of work continue. Mouthy Poets was born out of this. It’s specifically for young poets (15-25 years old) and we meet every Friday 5pm-8pm. Unlike other spoken word events, at Mouthy we all help direct the shows, design the flyers, manage the budget and write the poems.

How does the Nottingham scene differ from your London roots?
It is hard to compare because the scene I was part of in London doesn’t exist here, so many of the East London poets had been born out of grime, inspired by Dizzee Rascal and De Ja Vu, the pirate radio station. We were all young and you could tell we were fighting for something. Weirdly I see those same young people in Nottingham but I am yet to find their voices and that may well be because I am looking in the wrong places. You find a lot of rappers on Clumber Street trying to sell you CDs for £3, desperate to get their words heard.

You’re in the last year of a degree. Is this another key turning point for you?
I’m studying Creative and Professional Writing at the University of Nottingham and I love it. I don’t want to leave. There’s so much more I want to do though. An MA, a promotionalDVD, work in a wider range of schools and libraries. I want Mouthy to become self-sustainable and able to run successfully without me. To be honest the list is endless but I want to do everything I can to be better at writing and help others do the same because I think it is the key to self-affirmation.

How has dyslexia affected your study and performances?
I don’t see it as a disability or something fighting against me, it is part of who I am, one of many things that I need to utilise to achieve what I want in life. Yes, I read four times slower than the average twenty-year-old, but it also means where other people go straight from a to b, I go via x. I believe it is that unique journey of understanding that has bred my creativity and I go to great lengths to study and understand dyslexia so I can have control over it, rather than it having control over me. Dyslexia is not something that stops your brain from doing things it’s just that your brain goes about doing them in a different way. Multi-sensory learning is the key; eat, smell, feel, say and see the things you want to learn.

The Mouthy Poets performed at the Nottingham Playhouse on Saturday 9 July as part of the NEAT11 festival.

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