Interview with Karl Nova

We've been chatting to National Poetry Day Ambassador and award-winning poet/hip hop artist, Karl Nova. Karl performs poetry workshops for young people across the country, and his debut book 'Rhythm and Poetry' won the CLPE, CLiPPA 2018 Poetry award. Here, he talks about his unique mixture of rap lyricism and poetry, and how he uses it to uplift and inspire.

How would you describe your poetry?

Wow, this is quite an interesting question because it’s not something I think about and can be answered in many ways. I guess I can describe my poetry as the meeting place between hip hop lyricism, spoken word and me trying to make sense of the world I’m facing. The world outside and the world inside.

How did you get into writing?

My discovery of hip hop and also having an older cousin who showed me that writing can be fun at a young age. It took writing out of school where it was mainly academic and showed me it can be fun for me personally. I would write with him and then just scribble lyrics and little poems that were only for me. I want to add here that I never got to do poetry in school, not even once. I never read a poetry book either as a child. I knew some nursery rhymes and that was it.

What inspires your poetry?

I think what inspires my poetry is the desire to make sense of the world. I think I’ve always been curious. I also have a desire to communicate what I observe. I also really love it so the love inspires more poetry. Hip hop that I grew up with was more fun and showed me there’s joy in creative expression. I know many see rap today as menacing and dark but I was fortunate to be raised on the other joyful side and it inspires me ‘till this day! I came up when it was more diverse in the mainstream and more skilfully done as far as actually crafting of verses was concerned. 

How do you integrate rap lyricism and Hip Hop into your work?

To me it is all poetry. I grew up wanting to write beautiful rap lyrics that would look good on paper when read and great when spoken. Rap at its best employs all the poetic devices that any poetic verse uses. Rap is a very conversational style of poetry so it helps me communicate in a more eye level kind of way. I’m not speaking down to people but speaking with a more “let’s reason together” kind of voice. Also the rhythmical style of rap gives me an extra bounce. Rap is very theatrical so that helped me become a performer of what I wrote. You write with the aim of showcasing it on a stage.

Do you have a particular approach or philosophy when it comes to your writing?

Over time my motto has become “uplift, inform and inspire” when I write I want to fundamentally do those three things. I want to communicate truth, goodness and beauty. This might sound a bit idealistic but it’s an approach that guides me. I want to write honestly and communicate stories, experiences and moments as a human being like anyone else.

You work a lot with young people through workshops – what does this involve?

My main focus with the workshops is to expand their idea about what poetry can be. A lot of young people love rap music and even though the popular kind of rap today can be dark sometimes it gives me an inroad to show them that poetry is accessible and present to them every day! I want to show them poetry can give them a voice and be an outlet for them. I guess I’m playing the role my older cousin played for me. I’m trying to show them it’s fun and powerful. It’s an art form in its own right that they can participate in.

How do you go about inspiring young people to write?

The first thing I do is show them through performance how it has inspired me. You have to show before you tell. In hip hop we call that “show and prove” Once I have done that I break it down for them and share the process of actually writing in my style. I give them tools and techniques via fun writing exercises. It resonates with them because what I do is much closer to them. It’s current. The themes I touch on are what they’re going through so they feel they have a voice to express themselves in a way that’s cool to them.

What was your life like growing up and how has this informed the work you do now?

My childhood was not easy. It would require a whole book (hehe) to explain. I was born in London and lived between London and Haverhill, Suffolk until I was 7 and a half and taken to Nigeria with no forewarning where I was separated from my mother for 14 years. It’s a long story I will tell properly soon. I think what I went through makes me see young people better. They are people with thoughts, feelings and a voice that is often ignored. Falling in love with reading, discovering hip hop and actually writing creatively were my escape routes out of very tough and confusing times. Also being a son to a Harvard graduate who is very academically inclined as well as very strict informs what I do now too.

How did you come to write 'Rhythm and Poetry'?

I had started doing creative writing workshops in schools in 2009 under a company called Student of life. This created the need to have material I could perform and use. So I had a few pieces I had written and memorised inspired by my interaction with young people in schools. I had thought of writing a book but then also thought it was too much to handle. In 2015 Authors Abroad started booking me to do workshops and told me they had a publishing arm (caboodle books) they encouraged me to do a book so I went and dusted off the few pages I had and that’s how I wrote “Rhythm And Poetry” mostly typing it on my phone as I moved around and in between lots of recording sessions for albums I released during the time.

How does writing poetry for publication compare to performance poetry?

I think because of how I came up with the mindset that my verses must hopefully read beautifully on the page as well as sound good on the stage it wasn’t that difficult to make the transition. I did struggle with the fact that page poetry removes the performance element and it made me scared that something would be lost, however I added little footnotes and backstories to each piece to give the book a more “breaking the fourth wall” personal feel. I also wanted to give context because I hate being misunderstood and trust me being a hip hop artist makes it easy to be misunderstood. I had to learn to believe more in the words I wrote down to resonate and from the feedback I’ve gotten it’s doing that. This was such a relief for me. Winning the CLiPPA poetry prize with my first book last year was such a surprise and I did feel a sense of validation.

How will you be celebrating National Poetry Day?

On national poetry day I will be in a school doing some performances and very active on my Twitter and instagram (both @KarlNova) sharing videos, poems and thoughts about poetry all day. I was made a national poetry day ambassador so I’m going all out on that day to celebrate! I recorded a new piece called “the misinformation age” which is on the National Poetry Day website right now.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on my next collection. I’m very excited about it because I have a bit more confidence. My first book was a shot in the dark. It’s going to go into more detail about my childhood story of being London born but raised in Lagos. I’m also working on picture books and my next full hip hop album.

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