Dog Ear Feature – Interview with Casey Bailey

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Casey Bailey is a writer, performer and educator who was born and raised in Nechells, Birmingham. In 2017 Casey drew attention with his first collection, Waiting at Bloomsbury Park, a selection of texts that are centred around his experience of growing up in Nechells. Soon after came the critically acclaimed Adjusted which came from Verve Poetry Press. Adjusted is a revealing and honest text, that deals with adaptation, survival, and assimilation. The poems by their very nature deal with some particularly harsh realities, and the complexity of life. Such is the strength of Casey’s voice, in October 2020 Casey was named Birmingham’s Poet Laureate, a post that he will hold until 2022. Alongside this, Casey has forged a career in education, and has risen to the position of Assistant Headteacher. Casey is passionate about engaging young people with the curriculum, but more than this he is known for his work in the community. Casey’s work in the community has been recognised, for in 2018 he was named one of the thirty most influential under thirty-year-olds in the city of Birmingham. In 2019 Casey’s work was rewarded by the University of Worcester, where he studied for his undergraduate and his PGCE as they awarded him with an Honorary Fellowship and Membership to the University’s College of Fellows. 2019 was a big year for Casey as he was also commissioned to write The Ballad of Peaky Blinders by the BBC which he has performed widely festivals.

AP: Perhaps the best place to begin the interview is to ask you about your musical endeavours. During my research I have read that you first embarked on your writing and performance career by performing and recording in bedroom studios, and on pirate radio stations. Do you want to tell us a little more about that and what it was that drew you towards that scene?

CB: Sure, so as you said I grew up in Nechells, Birmingham. Nechells is an inner-city community that has a lot of issues that are attached to inner-city communities, around gangs, drugs, and crime. I was always passionate about music my dad and my mum were big music fans. My dad was particularly a fan of Tupac, and I started trying to rap at quite a young age. I think I enjoyed it, but never really took it very seriously until there were some workshops at my school with a local DJ and he told me that he thought I had a talent for this. My cousin actually recorded music at the time, two of my cousins did. So, they had a recording set-up at their house so I could just go to my cousins house and record music, which was kind of rare. Nobody had that kind of access at the time, My cousin would also come to my mum’s house and bring the mobile recording set-up and my friends would come over and record stuff at mine which made me quite popular in an area where nobody had access to that kind of thing. It was good because I enjoyed doing it, and people thought I was good at it, so it was a kind of like was an identifying thing, you know Casey, Casey who raps! It was also a really strong release, dealing with a lot of different issues, seeing a lot of things in my area that I was struggling with at the time, the rap really gave me a chance to channel that into what I thought with a positive thing. The reason I stopped rapping for a very long time, is that I realised that I was having a negative impact. A couple of younger people came up to me saying Casey, I did this… and I would say Why? That’s a stupid thing to do and they said to me, It’s like you said in your song, and that was the first time I really understood the power that your voice can have. I really became aware that what I was saying could actually change how someone acts.

Photo of Casey Bailey

AP: It is very honest of you to acknowledge this, to come out and to say that Perhaps some of the things I was saying was having a negative influence, and how you realised, quite quickly, the instrumental force and power that that your language has in the contingent world, how it can create agency and people will do things as a result. It’s wonderful that you took that time and then tries to alter your position and your perspective, to become a force for good.

CB: I went through a weird time when I first started trying to make music again, and people from where I grew up were basically saying don’t make this positive music, this isn’t what we want. Make the angry stuff you were making before! So, I kind of dipped back out of music again, although I still wanted to share something.

PRM: Casey, the poetry that I’ve read of yours is quite observational, in the sense that you take characters out of your own life, and you take characters off the street, and bring them to life through your words. Is this something that you consciously do, or do you think that by nature you just are an observational poet rather than abstract poet? How important is it for you to represent the streets and the communities that we live in with your words?

CB: I wouldn’t say that it’s a conscious decision to write in an observational way, but it is a conscious decision to not be too abstract. There’s a Gil Scott Heron clip where he speaks about the way in which we write poetry and how some poets feel the need to write deep poetry that nobody can understand. He said you know we don’t need poets to make things more complex and he goes on to talk about the importance of using language that people in his community were familiar with, to speak to Harlem at a time when nobody in Harlem wanted to hear anything about poetry, and I’m from somewhere where nobody wants to hear anything about poetry. So, part of what I’m trying to do now, and back when I was rapping us trying to shed a light on things that there really isn’t that much light on. People ask me how I became the Poet Laureate and I tell them it’s because nobody writes about what I write about, which I’m sure is not true, but very few of these voices get much exposure writing about this kind of environment. Whereas lots of other poets are writing about things that lots of other poets are writing about.

PRM: That’s such a strange moment for me because I’ve had The Revolution Will Not Be Televised on today, and John Coltrane all afternoon. I’m a huge fan of Gil Scott Heron, and it’s clear that like him you cross between genres. Is there anybody else you would cite as a major influence in either the musical or poetic world which has helped shape your voice?

CB: Yeah, I think I mentioned earlier how my dad was a huge fan of Tupac and that’s something I took on very much for myself, so Tupac is another key voice for me. And I think that it’s weird because I’m somewhere in the middle, between abstract poetry and hip hop, which can be utter nonsense at times, where it doesn’t matter what you say as long as it rhymes and it really matters what you say but nobody really needs to get it. Then in the middle it is important to be artistic, and creative, and poetic with language; but it is also important to be saying something and as I got older, I’m turning into my dad I’m sure, kind of saying the music that you listen to is nonsense to anyone younger than me. But there has been a further step towards it doesn’t matter what you say in in hip hop and so I’m kind of routed back to Tupac and Nas, for whom it was very important what they said. It was more important they said something, then how they said it, so Tupac is a huge influence on the way that I write and the way that I think.

PRM: I know that Alan is going to talk a little bit more to you about education, because I’m a former teacher, and Alan is just starting his teaching career, and of course we know about your history in education. I’m interested to ask when you acquire a name like you have, I mean to be named in the top thirty most influential people under thirty in your city, are the kids at school aware of this, and if so, how did they react to that?

CB: I’m laughing immediately because I was not at the school, I’m at now when that first came out, and I was walking down the corridor – I’m a very approachable teacher, like I teach because I enjoy the company of fifteen-year-olds more than I enjoy the company of older people, they’re hilarious – and one boy comes up to me and says Oi Bailey! I saw you in the newspaper and I’m thinking Yeah, wicked! And the lad says to me It said you were young though!

PRM: That’s credit though, isn’t it? In some sense it’s still credit for a fifteen-year-old, it’s as complementary as it’s going to get…

CB: He was not sure how they come to that conclusion, he wanted to question it. Kids are great, especially with the music I tend to make. The reason why I still record music is because I think it connects to a younger audience than my poetry connects to naturally and so the kids who I teach are not the direct target of my music, but they are around the same age and interested in the same things. Kids are sometimes coming up to me saying that song was actually sick, you know.

AP: I just wanted to touch on this on this chat about Gil Scott Heron, and ask if you knew that his dad played football for Celtic? If Wikipedia is to be believed that is.

CB: Ha-ha, yeah so, I haven’t seen that on Wikipedia. My former Headteacher, who knew I was a poet, came to speak to me about poetry and said do you follow the work of Gil Scott Heron? And I say Oh definitely, and he says did you know his dad played for Celtic?

AP: If we follow this line of questioning, and I hope it doesn’t get too weighty, I think it probably needs to be asked, how do you respond to those people who refuse to entertain rap as an artistic form of any merit? There are those people out there who are perhaps elitist… On a grander scale, and this is not a slight on your output, but we have seen just how important the likes of Stormzy can be for the young, and somewhat disenfranchised people. Despite this, rap, and urban music of other genres and youth culture more broadly continues to have to swim against the tide, do you think that it is just about elitism or is race an issue here?

CB: I think I think there’s a lot of different things that come together to make that really. I think that definitely there are elements of elitism and race. Ultimately, rap is an art form which is connected to the working classes and connected to black people, and I think the arts are often seen as a very elite space. I think in many ways, things happen which make art more elitist, that kind of restrict more people from accessing it. There’s a similar discussion ongoing about spoken word and page poetry, between stage and page poetry. Poetry for me, tracks back to a point in time when nobody wrote anything, and everybody just spoke. When people started using language, they made sure only certainly people had access to the language, because the language held the power. I feel that as the poetry journey has gone on, people have end tried to find ways to hold onto that power writing, as Gil Scott Heron said, they write in a way that most people cannot understand and it kind of keeps it in this little bubble. I think in many ways I’m a huge critic of rap, because I’m a huge lover of rap music. I listen to a lot of rap music and think this has very little artistic merit, because I’ve heard top quality rappers, and I think part of the rub is that it is not an art form where you necessarily have to be the most skilled, to be the most successful. So, what rises to the top isn’t necessarily the best of hip hop, or the best of grime. That’s why if you talk to you know major grime fans, they kind of cast Stormzy out because they know who the grime artists who are better than Stormzy, who haven’t had the luck that he has had. Despite the fact that he has done phenomenal work. And similarly, if you talk to people who are huge hip hop heads, they will tell you of the people who are charting and being really successful they will not listen to that, and that nobody listens to that, because it’s watered down for the masses. So, if that’s the work you hear, you’ll immediately think that it’s not very good, what they have said doesn’t make any sense makes sense. But there is somebody somewhere making a phenomenal body of work that you will never go and listen to. I think mixed in with that, something I really try not to do though I know I am sometimes guilty of it, I think every generation does this weird thing of thinking that when you’re fifteen years old, everything that you know is the most important stuff in the world. Your parents tell you that it’s nonsense; the way that you live is nonsense; the music you listen to is nonsense; the clothes that you wear are horrendous. All of this stuff,  In my day we had style. In my day we had taste and fifteen years later you’re telling fifteen-year-olds that everything that they love is nonsense. I see my dad go from the jeans are too baggy, to me telling people Your jeans are too skinny. There is this perpetual thing, what was happening when I was certain age was correct, and everything outside of that is either too old or two new. I think that hip hop, because it evolved so rapidly, it still has a very new feel. It’s a very old art form now really, or relatively old art form but it still has a feeling of newness. People still look at it and ask what’s all that about? It’s nothing like what I listen to! I like a bit of Elvis. I like a bit of Black Sabbath. We should remember that when Black Sabbath first started there were forty-year-olds asking similar questions like, What’s all that screaming about?

PRM: Absolutely! They’re from your neck of the woods, aren’t they, Black Sabbath?

CB: They are, indeed, just down the road. Ozzy and the lads.

PRM: What impact has it had on you becoming a dad, on your art, life, and as an educator?

CB: It’s weird, in many ways very little impact. You do hear the cliches like you don’t understand how important it is until you have your own children, but I feel like I’ve always been quite aware of how important the work that I do with young people is. I think that’s because I didn’t start working with young people in schools. I started working at a community football club, when I was maybe nineteen years old, working with twelve-year-olds who seemed like they were destined for gangs, drugs, and guns. We were working in this community and everything that we did with them was really important. I also tried to coach them football and all of them were better than me by about the age of thirteen. So, in many ways it hasn’t changed the way that I work with young people, I don’t think. But it’s totally tore up all of my priorities because nothing is more important than them. I knew logically this would be the case, but understanding that and feeling it are two very different things. I think it’s changed the way that I look at things, and it’s changed the way that I will write because I always kind of think, my sons might read this. And that’s a weird thing to think. Although maybe because kids are cool and parents are not, they might not read it until I’m not there to justify what I said.

PRM: Does that mean that you self-censor more?

CB: I censor when I write music, but that’s not about my son. That is more about societal perceptions of hip hop music. I wouldn’t say that I censor, but I try to be very clear. Sometimes I’m more uncensored, because I want what I’m saying to be exactly what I want to say, and I want what I say to represent and exactly what I thought when I said it.

AP: I think I think that sometimes there is a need, either in the reader or in the writer to be blunt. When we when we put out our submission calls, we specifically request writers to be honest and brave, it just happens to be what we like. I’m interested to follow up on Paul’s question, you spoke a little bit about working as a coach in youth football, at what point did a career in education present itself to you? Was it always on the cards? Or was it working with young people that made you realise that you needed to do it day after day?

CB: When I was about fourteen or fifteen years old, I wanted to be a maths teacher, which is really weird because who wants to be a maths teacher, right? Now I am a maths teacher because that’s how it came around. But I really enjoyed maths, which again I don’t know who says that out loud, but I just I was just good at it just it just came really easily to me, so I felt, I like this. I kind of thought I’d either be a rap star or a maths teacher. Modern Casey thinks, Do both! Don’t pick! Why pick? I went off to do A-Level maths, and I dropped out because I was having like a weird issue with somebody in my group. I had just stop going to the lessons and the teacher said to me I know you’re naturally quite good at maths but this ain’t gonna cut it at A-Level. You’re going to bomb in the exam! I thought, No, no I always do well in exams, and I absolutely fluffed the first exam and we agreed I should stop doing maths. But I was also doing P.E. and I love P.E. I find it really interesting. I find sports really interesting. I’m not particularly good at sports, round and about average. My now wife was going off to university, and I wanted to go to the same university so I just did this course called P.E. thinking it was just like what I had been doing. It turns out it was about teaching P.E. About eight weeks in, they said, Oh we’re going to have the primary school in, you are going to teach your first session. I was wondering, Why am I teaching people’s kids? I hadn’t realised, but spent the next three years studying the National Curriculum and at the same time starting to coach kids in the area, I was hooked. I realised this is exactly the type of thing I want to do.

PRM: One thing I’d like to ask you Casey, with Alan and I both being poets, we both love to write and we publish stuff, and I think that’s a brave thing in itself as I’m sure you’ll probably agree. Just to get the word on the page is brave. To then send you word out into the world is a second level of bravery. Spoken word poetry in front of an audience is a whole new level of bravery, isn’t it? Can you tell us why you were inspired to do that, and also what you think it takes inside someone to be brave enough to do it for the first time?

CB: I think when I first started writing poetry it was a weird scenario. I took a group of kids on a school trip and there was a poet there who would wrap up each day with a poem, and I thought I could do that, being an idiot, and the kids challenged, so I started writing and reading it to them at the end of the day. So, I always wrote with the intention there, and I think this comes from doing music first. I never had belief that anyone would read what I wrote. I would write it and I would share it, so you would get it as I wanted it to come across. When I was writing, everything was rhyme driven, and it’s not so much anymore. Often, it’s not rhyme driven at all. But at that time that rhythm was really important, so it had to kind of come from me. Otherwise, you wouldn’t pick up that rhythm necessarily. Because of the way that I write hip hop, I would write in kind of multisyllabic rhymes, rhyme internally within the line structure, so you wouldn’t just read it and pick up that those two words inside that line actually rhyme as well. I think in general a lot of people find it really difficult, and some people can perform poetry really well, and writing is not so much their strong point. Whereas some people write gorgeous poetry you hear and read and you think that would be better if I just read it, because they don’t connect the way that they read to the level of writing. Then you’ve got people like Liz Berry from the Black Country who writes poetry that can make me cry, and then she reads in her Black Country accent and it’s just magical, like the sum of all parts. Like this is the thing we are all reaching for and we don’t even know that it exists. So, when you see Liz Berry, you just stop and think I’m not gonna do this anymore, I’m just gonna go home. I think that it does take real bravery. I think that when you perform if you’re comfortable and confident, it’s like punctuation. It can be that difference. If you took all the punctuation out of some poets work, they wouldn’t want to share it with anyone, because they feel that comma has to go there, there needs to be that colon. And in the same way when you perform, the pause, or the part where you say something slightly louder and with more aggression can change the whole feeling of a poem. There is a poet from Birmingham called Jasmine Gardosi, who you may or may not be aware of, and her performance just transforms a poem into a whole different piece of poetry. I feel that’s really important to me as a writer, that I get to bring the words to life through performance.

AP: Changing direction, I wanted to ask you about your current position as Poet Laureate of Birmingham, how it came about, and how you would like to use that office, if that’s not too grand a word? Maybe you will want to break down barriers, or increase community engagement between generations…

CB: I think you’ve literally nailed exactly what I’ve said my focus is coming into the role, which is breaking down barriers. It’s something I’ve kind of been able to look at already, but it will hopefully become easier as we come out of Lockdown and as the weather improves because one of the projects, I started couldn’t really get off the ground. It’s called Poetry in the Park and it’s I literally go to the local park where I grew up, Bloomsbury Park and I just share a poem and share a prompt for people to write around and I share a poem from another poet and the idea is that people head down to their local park or green space and just share a poem, and share it online and tag the Poetry in the Park on social media, and we’ll reshare it. It came to mind because during Lockdown, the importance of those green spaces became more evident. I grew up around a minimal green space, but there was definitely green space there, so, there’s a reason why the first set of poetry I wrote is called Waiting at Bloomsbury Park. The collection even references the fact there was not much of this green space. I think part of the issue is that people who grow up in communities like mine don’t see that space as being there for them. We kind of lock ourselves out of it, and in many ways, poetry is the same. Poetry is accessible to anyone who can conjure words basically, and there will be varying degrees of what people might call high quality poetry or not, but you can create poetry. Through this poetry, there is a level of expression and, as I’m sure you guys will know there’s a level of liberation, or even therapy through the words. So, I want to pull together this idea that this space, this physical space is here for you, but also this artistic space is here for you, regardless of who you are. So, that concept of bringing down those barriers and telling people that actually, the poetry is yours. It does not belong to those people who want you to believe that you are not meant to be a poet; you’re not meant to read poetry; you’re not meant to engage with poetry. For everybody who I encounter, there is a poet like them. I never knew that when I was a kid, when I was a kid, I thought all of the poets were like my English teacher. I want the boys who grow up where I grew up to listen to Caleb Femi, and realise that actually there’s a voice that represents the kind of things that they represent. In my experience, getting into that kind of poetry, meant I could sit down and read a Liz Berry poem which has got nothing to do with where I grow up, which is about her journey into motherhood and it can move me to tears. But I wouldn’t have just picked up Liz Berry and experienced that. My love of poetry came after I found poetry that was for me. As Poet Laureate, I want to make more people feel like poetry is theirs. That they can do whatever they want with it. How it came about, you have to apply, send a sample of poetry, and you do an interview, you do a reading of a poem from a style of poetry that you’re not particularly fond of and you talk about why you chose that poem. So, there’s a whole process, and fortunately I came out the other end and happy days!

PRM: Great stuff! It’s something you should be very proud of Casey. Obviously, it’s something that you’ve got great influence with now, with younger people. If you were mentoring a younger person who was only just starting their poetry journey, how important do you think it is to get them savvy with sending the poems out into the world, to magazines, ezines, anthologies? Or do you think that is not particularly necessary? How would you shape their pathway into poetry?

CB: It’s something that even now I’m working on with myself, my organisation is my issue. So, I do stuff like I see a magazine, and I think That magazine, I really want my poetry in it.I buy that magazine, I read that magazine, see the deadline date, craft my poems, work on them a little bit more, and then I go on Twitter and see that the submission window has closed. Then I’m like, Oh no, that was yesterday! Then the next submission window doesn’t open for another three months. I think I’m never going to get in that magazine. Then when you finally send your work off, you inevitably deal with the rejection. So, this is something I would like to be better at. When you spoke earlier, about the bravery of performing, often poetry crowds are very generous, so you will never know whether everyone loved or didn’t like you poem. But when you send it off to a magazine, they either print it or they don’t. And if they don’t print it, it’s because they didn’t want it in their magazine. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad poem, but you know you can’t tell somebody that when they get a rejection email. So, I think there’s a real bravery in sending it out, because the response it you get is a much more honest response. If I’m sitting in the audience of a poetry event, the poet performing is never going to get a negative response from me, because I know how brave it is for them to be up there. I want to say Well done. You were great, good work. Whereas if you send it to me for an anthology, I’m going to go, That’s not the one.

PRM: Of course, and we’re all used to rejections, aren’t we? In fact, I think I was reading somewhere that for those organised ones amongst us, which may include all of us or none of us, I think the rejection rate is about ninety-nine per-cent, even for people with established names. So, poetry is a way to learn how to deal with rejection really, well before you go out into real life… I guess

CB: And poets are fine, because ultimately most if you write poetry, then you write poetry because you love writing poetry before anything else. So, when your poetry is rejected, well, people can reject wherever they want. It’s like, Okay I didn’t get the job that I didn’t necessarily want to do, but I need to earn a living, I can get on with my life. Actually, to answer your question, I think I would encourage them to get their poetry out, because I think that whether we like it or not, and there’s good reason for it I suppose if you start to get a kind of catalogue of acceptances and can say My poem was featured here, my poem was featured there… people do look at you and take your work more seriously. And writing is something that you want to do as a career, then that of course helps. I also think there’s kind of an element of The Emperor’s New Clothes in the poetry community at times, where once we are told something is good, we really look for it to be good. So, once someone tells you This poet is amazing, they have been featured in this magazine, that magazine… you read their work looking for it to be good. So, even if it doesn’t click the first time, you think what have I missed here? If they come with none of that, then it’s like the poem has to do it for itself the first time.

AP: I would totally agree I think you’ve made some really salient points there. As editors, we request that poets include their publication history in their bios, because it gives the poets themselves more authenticity, and it shares the love about too. We know that we’re publishing the names of other publications we admire. Our readers might then go and search elsewhere, and there are plenty of hotbeds of good work. Paul, do you have a final question for Casey?

PRM: Casey, for somebody so young you’ve already achieved so much in this field, because you know I hate to say it, but poetry tends to be a world where you establish your name a little bit later on in life, whereas music as we all know you can often to do it much earlier. So, I guess I would like to ask, what else do you have left to achieve in terms of publications, and what do you have left to achieve in the community with your poetry?

CB: You know when you get interviewed, and somebody asks you where can you see yourself in five years? I never have any idea, not really beyond about two hours from now. The only thing that I ever really looked at long term with becoming the Poet Laureate. About four or five years ago I saw Roy McFarlane perform, and someone said he was the Poet Laureate, and I thought I don’t know what that is I want to be the Poet Laureate. So, I think in many ways there are things that I’m doing which have carved a little bit of my own name for myself, in terms of writing outside of poetry. So, writing poetry in different avenues. I’m working on theatre pieces, and with ballet companies, and orchestras, which is all quite terrifying and quite exciting. I really enjoy that and I think what’s good about that is that I don’t know what’s next. People contact me and say, Do you think you could write something for this?  And I often think, who decided that was a good idea to put poetry with that? In terms of publication, I would love to continue to be published and have my work receive a certain level of critical acclaim. I’m not massively attached to that, but I feel I have reached a level where that’s like a natural progression. My favourite writer, who is not a poet ironically, is Ian Rankin, he is a novelist. I am always in awe of just how much he writes, and I just want to keep writing, and for someone to think it’s good enough to publish and to put it in a book. That kind of surprises me every time it happens. I think Oh my God like someone wants to publish what I’ve written. Every time that carries its own little bit of magic, so I can gladly continue like this until I am grey, and old, and dusty. It would be nice if this came with a little bit of recognition, but there are a lot of great poets writing, so getting recognition is tough.

AP: I don’t think it is at all egotistical to want that sort of acclaim. As a poet myself, and Paul will attest to this too, the amount of work and effort it takes to get your work to a standard for magazines to accept it, and for publishers to be happy to put your work out. I would concur that it is the next step for you to want somebody to say that your work is good. It is perfectly reasonable, and even honourable to be driven by that.

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