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Labi Siffre Interview

(Originally published in The Argotist magazine in 1997)  

Labi Siffre is a British poet, composer and singer who has also written for the stage. Born in London to a Barbadian/Belgian mother and a Nigerian father, Siffre was schooled in Ealing and brought up in Bayswater and Hampstead. In the early 1970s he had solo hits with ‘It Must Be Love’ (1971), ‘Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying’ (1972) and ‘Watch Me’ (1972). His poetry collections include: Nigger (1993), Blood on the Page (1995) and Monument (1997). i


His song, 'Something Inside So Strong' won the 1986 Ivor Novello award for best song musically and lyrically. It was sung as an anti-apartheid anthem in apartheid South Africa and is used worldwide by gay groups, women’s groups, disability groups, sexual abuse recovery groups and many other organisations (Amnesty International, for example) as an anthem of self-empowerment.


Eminem’s first hit single ‘My Name Is’ sampled the rhythm track of ‘I Got The ...’ from Siffre’s (1975) album Remember My Song, including Siffre on electric piano. Siffre retired from music performance after The Last Songs Tour in '98/'99. 



Jeffrey Side has had poetry published in various magazines such as Poetry Salzburg Review, and on poetry web sites such as Underground Window, A Little Poetry, Poethia, Nthposition, Eratio, Pirene’s Fountain, Fieralingue, Moria, Ancient Heart, Blazevox, Lily, Big Bridge, Jacket, Textimagepoem, Apochryphaltext, 9th St. Laboratories, P. F. S. Post, Great Works, Hutt, The Dande Review, Poetry Bay and Dusie.


He has reviewed poetry for Jacket, Eyewear, The Colorado Review, New Hope International, Stride, Acumen and Shearsman. From 1996 to 2000 he was the deputy editor of The Argotist magazine.


His publications include, Carrier of the Seed, Distorted Reflections, Slimvol, Collected Poetry Reviews 2004-2013, Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes (with Jake Berry) and Outside Voices: An Email Correspondence (with Jake Berry), available as a free ebook here.




JS: How did you get into songwriting?

LS: My father and one of my brothers had very big record collections, mostly jazz, so by about the age of twelve or thirteen I’d pretty much decided I wanted to be a musician. When I was sixteen, I bought myself a guitar and started to learn to play country blues. When I was eighteen I started writing songs out of a desire, I suppose, to express myself. So that’s how I started songwriting.

JS: Who were your songwriting influences?

LS: I was influenced by people like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Mingus, John Coltraine, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Little Richard, Muddy Waters, John Lennon, Randy Newman and Harry Nielson. These people were writing something that I thought was worth saying. And the inspiration in it was the encouragement that somebody was going the way you would like to go.

JS: What got you into writing poetry?

LS: I’d been writing songs for about 25 or 26 years, and although I’d managed to examine issues that I felt were important, the actual limitations of songwriting had become irksome to me. For example, in popular song you tend to have to rhyme. And rhyme is a problem in itself, in so far as few people do it well. And if you are constrained by rhyming, then the technique of rhyming becomes paramount, and what you want to say has to take a secondary position to getting the next rhyme. And I found that an irksome constraint. Also, because I was in the popular music field, I found there are things you just cannot say if you want your songs recorded. The idea that Pop/Rock music is full of liberated people is a myth.

JS: Do you see yourself as a songwriter or a poet?

LS: I think of myself primarily as a writer. The ideas transmitted through words have always been the most important thing to me. I’ve always been interested in what is behind the story. There is the façade of what is read and what is written—I’m always interested in what’s behind it. The love songs and love poems are just different ways of writing. So I don’t see myself as either a songwriter or a poet. But if you put me against a wall and threaten me with a gun, I’d have to tell you that I think of myself as a poet.

JS: What do you see as the difference between songs and poetry?

LS: Songs and poems communicate different things, in so far as songs constitute words and music, and as an abstract art form it conveys only feelings and emotions. And those feelings and emotions of the music may, in fact, be more profound than the lyric of the song—and quite often are. I think poetry can be as immediate emotionally.

JS: Who are your favourite poets?

LS: Berryman and Lowell are two poets I like. But Berryman is a poet I find incredibly difficult. I have a book of his poems I picked up in a bookshop, and just knew at the time that it was going to be important to me, even though I didn’t really understand any of it. And two years later, one stanza suddenly leapt out and made sense to me. I suddenly realised, “Yes, I’m getting into this”. As far as confessional poets are concerned, I think that it is through an examination of one’s self that one reaches an examination of everything else. I suppose because of the technical constraints of songwriting, perhaps poetry is a freer environment to express oneself. I’m in favour of accepting the fact that when one is writing one is always writing about oneself, no matter how you express yourself on whatever issue.

JS: What do you see as the purpose of the poet in society?

LS: The role of the poet is the same as that of anyone else—to examine why we are here and what we’re going to do while we are here. The most important thing in art is life. I don’t think you can divorce art from life. The duties of the poet are the duties of confronting honesty, confronting one’s behaviour and confronting how one treats other people.

JS: What is the difference between written poetry and that which is performed?

LS: A poem lives in different places, in different contexts. When you read a poem to yourself, that is performance. It’s a different artistic experience when it’s on the page and you read it to yourself. And it’s a different artistic experience when it’s read to you—especially by the poet. When you read the poem to yourself, you are interpreting the poem totally in your own way. If I read one of my poems to you, it can make the poem only one thing—my interpretation. When I read my poem, I present my view of my work. The job of the artist is to give the reader, listener or viewer a means of imagination and interpretation. 




copyright © Labi Siffre & Jeffrey Side