On a rare, warm March morning, I meet up with writer and co-founder of House of Rhymes, Sam Bruce in London Fields. Almost a year since we’ve last seen each other, we grab a coffee for a much-needed catch-up and an opportunity for me to ask them about their writing, our mutual love of London and the highly-successful spoken word nights they have been co-organising for two years.
“I started writing when I was 18, and I got my first job in London”, Sam explains. “I’d always known I wanted a London-life. I didn’t know yet I was queer at the time, but I used to look at the people here thinking, ‘they are so cool, everything is fluid’. There was this spoken word artist called Lotte Rice, and her work is just astounding. She is the one who inspired me to do something I hadn’t done before, and I haven’t stopped since.”
When seeing Sam on stage, it is clear spoken word is something they were meant to do. It is hard to believe then, when Sam reveals they have only been reading their poetry out loud for a couple of years. “It was really scary at first. I was shaking, I couldn’t breathe and I thought I was going to shit myself,” Sam laughs. “It was in front of all of these actors and I’m not an actor, I’m actually quite shy, so I had no idea how it was going to go.” The reactions however, were nothing but positive. Sharing the work in front of an audience has even changed Sam’s view towards their own work: “Sometimes, I don’t realise how strongly I felt until I read it. . It’s like a therapy room. It’s like a release, it’s such an illuminating feeling. Like a weight of your shoulders.”
Sam’s work often centres around very personal moments, never shying away from tackling topics that might be considered difficult to talk about. “I don’t hide anything,” Sam says. “I’m all about breaking taboos and you know, you’ve got one life: say what you need to say.” Sam goes on explaining that writing has been there for important moments in their life, such as their coming out. “Poetry has definitely helped me come to terms with myself. That’s how I always dealt with things, just to write. Sometimes I don’t know what I want to say until I sit down with a piece of paper. And this is going to sound like a classic idiot speaking, but when I’ve got that pen in my hand it writes for me. And I know that sounds really stupid and it might be the most pathetic thing I’ve ever said, but it’s true,” Sam laughs.
This bold fearless approach to writing and sharing work is not surprising when looking at Sam’s background and upbringing. Growing up in Essex, their mum and grandmother clearly had a big influence. “My mum was raised by my nan, who was a queer, vegan in the seventies, so she literally lives through me,” Sam reflects. “My mum has taught me to not give a shit. You know, she swears like a chimney, she used to smoke like a chimney, she lives life the way she wants to live life and she’s such a great mum so that’s just embedded in me and all of us as a family. We’re the Kardashians without the butt implants. We’re just a crazy household and that helps, to have that support. To have a mum who’s that supportive and an ally. And she gave me that support to evolve and become who I am, because there’s been no limits and no shame.”
After several years of writing, Sam meets Hayley McFadyen in a coffee shop, and the two immediately hit it off. Not long after, House of Rhymes was born. Founded on their mutual love for poetry and inspired by events such as Pint Sized Poetry, House of Rhymes has held several sold-out poetry evenings, allowing people from all different backgrounds to share their work on stage. “We wanted a space where we could lift others up, especially a space where I used to be, to read their poetry for the first time and it be such a welcoming audience,” Sam muses. “What’s really interesting is that me and Hayley don’t want to be perceived as like pretentious, we want to break that taboo and make it fun and comedic and creative.”
Even though poetry may not seem like the most accessible art form, Hayley and Sam have managed to create an event that makes everyone feel welcome. Held in small venues, the evenings feel like you’re in a living room with your friends. “With poetry events, it can feel like a frat, we didn’t want that. We wanted a space where anyone could come in, no matter your experience with poetry and writing, you’re welcome from the get-go,” Sam explains. “We’re still learning as people, we’re not here to teach you anything and look down on you. We’re all humans and we’re still evolving, and it’s got a very communal sense to it. Which is very important to us both.”
Then Covid came around, making live shows impossible which changed the course House of Rhymes was on. However, instead of completely pausing the company, Sam and Hayley decided to evolve it into something more. Now, it has become a platform for creatives and independent business, with people sharing their work through the Instagram of House of Rhymes. “I think what we learned over lockdown is that it’s not just a poetry evening and that we’re able to branch out and work with different creatives,” Sam says.
With lockdown slowly easing and House of Rhymes being registered as a limited company, Sam is looking forward to the future: “I really want my own coffee shop with poetry nights, and for it to be a queer safe space.” Naturally, House of Rhymes would use the space as a venue and workshop-area. “We would love to have one venue as a home. And to keep it small, anyone will always be welcome, but we want to keep it on a level that isn’t too big for anybody’s heads. We don’t want to go corporate. We want to keep it fun, creative and light and supportive. That’s my aim. And I can envision it so well, there are going to be so many couples. And little gender-neutral babies running around. I’m here for it, I’m ready.” So are we, Sam. So are we.
Photography by Chloë van der Klaauw.