In the midst of the recession, Mark Grist gave up a job in teaching to become a full-time poet, and somehow became a rap battling YouTube sensation. As he prepares to tell his story in his Fringe show ‘Rogue Teacher’, ThreeWeeks asked some questions…
CC: Why did you decide to turn your back on teaching and become a full-time poet?
MG: Wow. That’s a huge question to start out with! My decision to leave my teaching job during a recession forms the backbone of ‘Rogue Teacher’, so I don’t want to give too much away. The truth is I still really miss teaching, but at the time, leaving it seemed like the only available option, considering what was going on in my life.
CC: What did you teach, was there much of an outlet for your poetry when you were teaching?
MG: I used to teach English and Drama and I was also a Head Of Progress (kind of like a Head Of Year). Most of my poetry during this time was written for my students. There were quite a few students that I’d share pieces with over break/lunchtime.
CC: Did teaching prepare you for performing?
MG: I’d say that teaching gives you a pretty good background for becoming a performer – particularly as I had to deliver a weekly assembly.
CC: What were the challenges involved in pursuing your poetry full-time?
MG: Everyday bills became painful. Money was suddenly a serious cause for concern. Also, we’re all defined, to an extent, by the things we do throughout the day. When you work in a school, you’re always thinking about ways to help the students you work with. All of a sudden, I had nobody to support – and I realised that I was just doing things for myself. That certainly felt less worthwhile.
CC: You competed in a rap battle with a 17 year old rising MC called Blizzard. How did that come about?
MG: I’d already battled once for [rap battle organisers] Don’t Flop, and Rowan [the founder] suggested it as a good option for my second shot at it. I knew quite a bit about Blizzard beforehand. I’m really impressed with his work and it seemed like it could be a funny angle. We never expected it to become such a big deal, though. When I heard that it was going viral on YouTube it was surreal.
CC: How did it feel to become a YouTube phenomenon?
MG: Um…strange – it was really nice to get so much positive feedback from people. My Twitter feed went nuts, I had over a thousand friend requests within 24 hours and started getting hundreds of emails from all over the world. There were even marriage proposals in there! People said that it was really original, which is great. But it was strange how digital the whole thing was. When the video first went viral I hardly got to go out for a fortnight, because there was so much admin generated. I don’t think that many people I meet or hang out with ‘in the real world’ are that bothered, though, which is a bit of a relief.
CC: On one level rap and poetry are the same thing – but what are the main differences, as a writer and performer?
MG: I don’t really like to pigeonhole my work, to be honest. Poetry, for example, is such a broad art form and has so much variety to it. When I taught students I always focused on the techniques being used in writing before moving onto the form that was chosen. I’ve learnt that worrying about the divisions between different art forms isn’t very conducive to creativity. Although I would say that outside of their work, poets seem to swear a lot more than rappers. That kind of cracks me up.
CC: Tell us about your Edinburgh show, what can we expect?
MG: The show is the true story of my decision to leave teaching to become a full time poet, and the surreal journey that it’s taken me on. It features my first ever failings with girls at primary school all the way to me calling out the AQA Chief Examiner for his draconian views on poetry. Oh, and I rap battle myself (aged 13). It’s pretty unusual as spoken word shows go.
CC: Poetry and spoken word has really grown at the Fringe of late – and now has it’s own section in the programme – why do you think that is?
MG: There are a few reasons for it, I suppose. I think that Spoken Word is a really successful (and cost-effective) form of entertainment, which (thanks to the surge that comedy has gained over the past decade) has become of interest to an audience who are looking for something a bit different, in particular those who want to be challenged a little more and who are keen to experience a wider emotional range. Specifically regards the Fringe, it’s also thanks to the hard work of several spoken word artists. Superbard, Richard Tyrone Jones and Fay Roberts have all worked particularly hard – hats off to them.
CC: Last time you did the Fringe as part of a double act, how do you think doing a solo show will compare?
MG: A solo show is drastically different to a double act. It’s quite scary, actually, as I could always rely on Mixy to bounce on stage (or slope on stage after a heavy night of Jaegerbombs) and add texture/variety to what I was doing. Dead Poets was loads of fun, but we both decided that solo shows would be useful in helping us to develop our craft. I saw Mixy’s first scratch show last week and ‘Content’ is going to be incredible. It’s part of PBH’s Free Fringe and I’d definitely recommend it.
CC: I see you’ve been named Chief Bard Of The Fens. What does that entitle you to?
MG: Haha. A lot of raised eyebrows in the staffroom, I suppose. And a few more gigs. And a crown made out of twigs. And (bizarrely) a throne. A little one, made of wood, which sits out in the fens. I won the title in 2009 and for a year I had this throne in the middle of nowhere, which, (I was told) would keep me virile as long as I sat in it every three months. Who needs a company car, eh?
Mark Grist performed ‘Rogue Teacher’ at Underbelly Cowgate at Fringe 2012.