London's Junglist Bard Proves Poetry's for the People
Miguel Cullen just released a book of poems inspired by pirate radio and all-night raves.
An illustration from Wave Caps by Alix Janta-Polczynski
Poetry. It’s the death of the party – the linguistic equivalent of that guy who switches the tunes off at 3AM in favour of a Steve Reich percussion marathon. At least, that’s what the scores of Thought Catalog bards and coffee shop Silversteins might have unfortunately led you to believe.
Journalist, poet and publisher Miguel Cullen isn’t happy about that; he thinks more should be done to reinvigorate what he claims is almost a taboo art form for anyone under 35. Earlier this month, he and illustrator Alix Janta-Polczynski – both of them founders of the publishing platform Odilo Press – released Wave Caps, a collection of poems retelling his late nights and early mornings hop-scotching London’s jungle raves and abandoned office block parties in the late-1990s.
The lawless energy of those days comes through in all of Wave Caps’ shorts, not least because the last page is fit with a microchip that, once pressed, plays a few Shabba D bars from his Kool FM days. “I couldn’t really finish that one in any other way,” says Miguel.
Miguel with reggae DJ and producer Tapper Zukie (Photo by Marc Sethi)
VICE: Can you remember how you first got interested in bass music? Was it via pirate radio stations?
Miguel Cullen: I suppose the first hip-hop I listened to was something like Vanilla Ice. It didn’t mean all that much to a 12-year-old. Then I started listening to Biggie’s Ready to Die and various other, harder rap forms. I got into jungle because everyone was kind of into jungle when I was young. I remember the first time I heard a drum and bass beat – like a rave tape. I was in the gym at school, hanging upside down on a push up bar. I immediately got really excited by it and started swaying on this bar. It was pretty amazing.
It sounds it. What’s your earliest memory of clubbing?
I remember going to a hip-hop night called Funkin’ Pussy in Covent Garden when I was like 17. Jazzie B had a famous soul night near the flower market – in the Africa Centre, just off the square – called Soul II Soul. They had this thing where they kick people out at 1AM and let the rest of the queue in, kind of like a crowd swap. I used to go the One In the Jungle nights – that was a pirate radio station, but I only learned that later.
What kind of poetry were you reading then?
I read quite a lot of stuff in Spanish, like Garcia Lorca and Eugenio Montale – very rarified stuff. Charles Bukowski, too, the original pisshead. Then there’s Silvia Plath, Robert Lowell and Danté Alighieri. Frederick Seidel is one of my major influences, I think. I interviewed him in New York once. He’s a very, very good writer, but he’s very much someone that people like to reject. He wrote about when he was 17 and travelled to the Mayan Temple in Mexico. He met and fell in love with a prostitute in Mexico City and ended up on a raft with a Nazi. It’s just incredibly written and was pretty inspiring for Wave Caps.
So his “lived poetry” method helped form the book's concept, right?
Yeah, it’s definitely lived – all of it, all of the book's stories.
How integrated were you with MC culture in London in the late-90s?
When I was 18 or 19 I started going to small raves, like Trouble On Vinyl, Breakin’ Science, One Nation, Clash of the Titans... as well Swerve on Wednesdays at The End and The Telegraph in Brixton. Me and my friend, who’s a breakdancer, were really into MCs. We’d always have in jokes about them; we knew where all of them were from. Fearless is from Woolwich, Vox is from Peckham, Shabba comes from Clapton and used to play for West Ham, Eksman’s from Brockley, Skibadee’s from Surrey…
Solid knowledge. What do you think Wave Caps’ main function is?
I guess it's primarily a documentation of those days, using the energy from the time and realising that grime and jungle were punk movements through and through. MCing is an aggressive, reactive, spiky art form. It’s anti-authoritarian and it’s completely sceptical and lawless. Frederick Seidel, he’s a reactive, rebellious guy, and again probably my favourite poet. He said that when he writes, he's writing a performance.
It sounds as though you might have dabbled in MCing in the past.
Every now and then, yeah. There was a student radio called Burst that I used to MC on when I studied at Bristol University. I blagged my way onto the stage at Lakota in Bristol once and MCed for a few minutes before I got kicked out of the place. I went to the cloakroom and got my coat so it looked like I was there to perform.
An illustration from Wave Caps by Alix Janta-Polczynski
And you used to put on nights as well, right?
There was one in a reggae club called Globe on Talbot Road. It's a genuinely bizarre place: you might see Pixie Lott bumping shoulders with all these West Indian and Caribbean reggae guys from the neighbourhood. It’s a really cool place. It's fun. I put on a night there with Saxon Sound System, who I really like. I asked Lloyd Bradley, who wrote a book about reggae, to play too.
How did you meet Alix and why did you decide to start Odilo?
Odilo is a platform for new and underground poets... stuff that’s a little bit different, essentially. Poets can get their work into bookshops without having a publishing deal. I met Alix through a friend of mine from school. She's Belgian and is very sensitive and intuitive. She’s really into Bauhaus artists and black and white and industrial aesthetics. She has another publishing house called ADAD Books and has published stuff by Tracy Emin and others. She’s never really illustrated a book before, so this is new terrain for her. She used a photocopying process for the book and did all the text kerning and design. She had to put up with me, too – and I’m a complete fucking nightmare.
Poetry is a marginalised craft, isn’t it. It’s as if nobody feels they can talk about it, even if they write it.
Especially in London, actually. English people are very sceptical. They're scared to trust themselves with it, I think. Wave Caps is kind of upfront and aggressive on purpose; it has a flow that’s similar to MCing, but it’s poetry. Sometimes I invent words that fold over others like water through rockeries. It helps me find a way to be real about my barriers. It’s a massive relief.
Cool. Finally, talk me through the logic behind the MC Shabba D sound clip.
I downloaded it off YouTube. Kool FM was a pirate radio station until about 2006, so it’s legal for me to use it. I was feeling quite intense at the time I decided to include it. The poem is about Alexander the Great sending armies out to battle. Adding a snippet of pirate drum and bass to the equation felt right.
Wave Caps is available to buy via Odilo-press.com and from booksellers Artwords, Ti Pi Tin, Brick Lane Books and Heywood Hill.
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