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INTERVIEW: Kenny Cumino – Bringing Poetry to the Stage

Kenny Cumino is an actress, writer and director of the company Pint Sized Poetry, a curated night full of spoken word poetry. Steadily growing over the years, the nights have been massively succesful and have attracted performers and artists as well as complete newbies to the world of spoken word. With a night in the works with the National Youth Theatre, we sat down with Kenny to have a chat about all things poetry, performing and writing.

RC: When and why did you start Pint Sized Poetry?

KC: Our first show was in March 2018 and I recently started getting into spoken word poetry and doing gigs and I found it terrifying. I was about 18 at the time when I first started travelling into London for these open mic gigs. You had to queue to be seen and you might not even get a chance to speak. Sometimes I would just speak to people trying to eat their dinner in a Wetherspoons while I was talking about sucking cock and it was just awful. So after a while I thought it would be really cool if there was a night of just programmed poets as opposed to an open mic. I was also annoyed with the amount of gigs I was doing and them all being unpaid, and especially with spoken word it’s so personal, and people get to hear that for free. So with Pint Sized, I definitely wanted to be able to pay the performers even if it was just their travel expenses. I didn’t want anyone to feel like they were wasting their time and that there was a care for the creatives.

RC: How do you go about curating the night and how do you select the pieces?

KC: I usually see quite quickly if someone is good within the first few seconds of their submission. As I am a performer myself, I do look for strong performers. They don’t neccesarily need to be actors or anything like that, but they need to bring an energy to their own writing. I guess, it’s a mixture of things. I do always try to curate a diverse show, so people don’t just talk about the same things and they’re not all from the same background. Spoken word by nature is quite deep and quite political so it’s nice when there is a really funny piece to mix things up. I also try to not just pick pieces based on my taste. If I did that we would just have a night of angry feminists and we can’t have that, there’s men in the audiences (laughs).

RC: Do you find as an actress as well, it helps with your spoken word performance?

KC: Definitely. I think that’s why a lot of spoken word poets are actors as well. I started doing spoken word gigs because I wasn’t acting and I wanted to be in front of an audience and get feedback. When I first started gigging I didn’t even think about the fact it was about me and my words, I would just play a character and distance myself a bit. Now, my stuff does touch on things that are much deeper and has a lot more experience and it takes a lot more out of me. I did a slam the other day (on Zoom obviously), and after I did my poem I just muted my screen and burst into tears. It was something so personal and it really happened and there are only so many metaphors you can throw at something.

RC: I do think it’s so hard when you write about things that you know so well, distancing yourself after a while must be difficult.

KC: Completely. And I do think it goes back to ‘who are you making the work for?’. I do feel like I’ve lost that a bit more over the years and I’m not so worried about this ‘third eye’ watching over me. Because I think it’s less organic when you’re trying to appease someone’s opinion who isn’t even there when you’re writing it. I’d rather be skirting on the edge of love and hate than making mediocre work.

RC: I think that’s so interesting because writing in general is so much worrying about what other people think. But you kind of need to say ‘fuck it’ and write what you want.

KC: Yes, even in journals or diaries, people write for themselves and some of it is so interesting because it’s true. That’s why biographies are so good, because it really happened and you can’t change it.

RC: So for writing what is your process like? Are there any topics you find interesting?

KC: Well, I am quite known for writing poems that are really depressing (laughs). But that’s because it’s like a therapy for me. You do have to be savvy about it, because people only have so much tolerance for you being a whiny bitch. But poetry for me, does help me process things that are going on in my head and then let them be. I do try to now write more about happy things that have happened, but it’s so hard especially with lockdown. We aren’t really experiencing much so all we have is our past experiences and they might be crap.

RC: Do you think there is such a difference between reading poetry over listening to a performance? Why do you think it’s so important?

KC: It all comes back to storytelling and that’s why performing it is so important. When you are reading it you are in your own bubble, but when it’s performed there is a human-to-human contact. You see someone live out that poem and it just hits in a different way and makes you relate to it differently. It’s the same as going to see a film in the cinema, and you might think it’s the best film ever and then you watch it at home by yourself and think it’s shit.

RC: Not to be that person, but with the pandemic, you’ve had to put the performances up online. Do you think there are any positives to this?

KC: Definitely with outreach. Obviously people might not be comfortable in their own home to log onto a zoom call, but it feels like (and this might be a sweeping statement) but most people are able to access it and they don’t have to travel or pay for a ticket. So in that sense, the access feels broader and that’s been great. You can get people involved that might be all the way in Scotland or America and that’s brilliant. Theatre can be very inaccessible, you might not finish work on time or have kids at home, so Zoom does help with that.

RC: Talking about accessible: we’re obviously talking about it in the physical sense, but poetry can be very elitist as well. How do you find spoken word helps with that?

KC: I agree. I haven’t done a degree, I can count on one hand how many books I’ve read, and certain art forms are definitely considered to be ‘high-brow’ because of the people involved in it. The joy with spoken word is that you can take it as far as you want. When you think about it, even music is spoken word poetry when you strip it down to the core and anyone can do that.

RC: Poetry is now going to be made optional for GCSEs, do you think that will only aid in making it more inaccesible and do you hope that spoken word nights will help change that?

KC: I mean I would have never known about spoken word nights if it wasn’t for actor friends dragging me to gigs and I loved that, but I hated poetry in school. The dismantling and overthinking it just sucked the life out of it. I hope that in education they will fill that gap with something else: maybe not even spoken word, but anything with an element of poetry to it. Though, I’m sure they’re probably just going to fill it with a book by another old white man.

RC: I’m similar to you, in that I never read poetry, but I love spoken word and it can be so emotional and I hope more people get to experience that. Where do you hope Pint Sized will go in the future?

KC: Oh, God… Well, I’m just going to say it: I would love for us to have a house residency in a big theatre. And to have a team that is beyond me, to get an outreach that I would love to have. So we can have a varied range of poets and pay everyone properly. Slowly building up our audience while keeping that special intimacy that our shows have and to have a space that feels like ours. I would love for people that have never heard of spoken word poetry but that might run the finance upstairs or that work in the kebab shop across the road to come over and watch it. Because it’s so enjoyable to watch and it’s people’s personal stories and that’s so interesting. And as a human race we are such gossips and we love to know everyone’s business, so it’s basically the perfect night.

The 8th Pint Sized Poetry show (on Zoom, of course.) is on the 4th of December. Tickets now on sale here.

All photos shot by Chloe van der Klaauw.

You can check out our other interviews here.

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