Celebrating CLiPPA shortlistee Karl Nova

Today I’m excited to bring you an interview with Karl Nova (@KarlNova), whose début collection Rhythm and Poetry is shortlisted for this year’s CLiPPA (Centre for Literacy in Primary Poetry Award), the only award in the UK for published poetry for children.

Karl Nova is a Hip Hop artist, author and poet. Born and raised in London as well as Lagos, Karl is a social commentator, creative writing workshop facilitator, broadcaster and cultural critic who creates platforms for other artists as he seeks to uplift, inform and inspire through this artistic expression. Apart from being a wordsmith and energetic live performer, Karl Nova is an avid beatmaker and he released a compilation of electronic music that he created on his phone called “Made ‘Em On My Phone”.

In the run up to the announcement later this month of the winner of this year’s CLiPPA, I talked with Karl about his poetry, his life and inspiration, and we started at the beginning, with a bit of background, and a discussion about how Karl got into delighting in words, rhythm and rhyme.

Well I was born in London (Hampstead) and I can say it was my mother introducing me to books quite early that got me into reading. She tells me I could read the newspaper at 4 even though I didn’t understand what I was reading. I was taken to live with my father in Lagos, Nigeria when I was 7 and it was there that I discovered rap music through a much older cousin and spoken word slam poetry from watching “SLAM” featuring Saul Williams. It was from then that I got into trying my hand out at writing verses of my own. In particular that scene where the character played by Saul Williams recites an amazing poem in a prison courtyard; it made me know that I must be a poet.

Another lightbulb moment for me would definitely be hearing the first rap song I can remember. It was “Paid In Full” by a legendary Hip Hop artist from New York City called Rakim.

Then there was younger sister encouraging me to write out my feelings through poetry when she saw how down and depressed I was as a teen. I had failed my exams and had to repeat a whole class in secondary school (that is how it was in Nigerian schools at the time). Another experience that brought me to where I am today was being involved in music in my teens. I had very musical friends and we formed an acappella quartet which involved singing, rapping, vocal instrumentation and a lot of improvisation.

Hearing Karl talk about being a musician, I pick up on a word he’s fairly recently started using to describe himself, in addition to being a Hip Hop Artist; that of POET.

I ask Karl what it means to him and how being a poet is or isn’t different from other aspects of his creative life, and about the experience and process of being a poet.

I do different things, I rap, I sing, I produce music and now I am an author. As a Hip Hop artist I am rapper/MC and to me being that is being a poet. A poet to me is someone who communicates an experience or viewpoint or feeling in verse. When I started writing rap verses my main thought was to always write verses that would sound great when I performed them, but also somehow jump off the page if they are read. I wanted to write verses that could stand on their own even without music and not lean too heavily or just be carried by the instrumental part of a song. I have always aimed to write verses that even looked good on the page with how I arranged the words. I made this choice long before I ever thought of having a book. It was just something I admired about great Hip Hop artists I grew up listening to and more conventional poets I discovered afterwards.

Rap is a very conversational kind of art form in style and delivery even though it is informed by other oral traditions so my challenge when writing a book was to find a way to put the words together so that in some way inside people’s heads I am sort of joining in with their internal monologue. I really thought about this and hope I’ve achieved it! The feedback I get from people reading it is they can actually sort of hear my “voice” come through the words which is quite an amazing thing.

The editing process was tough because I had to chop off parts and change other parts. It was a back and forth process that was quite gruelling. It is letting someone else into the world you are creating with your words and trusting that they understand your vision and can help build it better without you losing your authenticity in the process.”

At this point in our interview I fess up and admit my own experience of hip hop is pretty much limited to my kids’ passion for the musical Hamilton. and I ask Karl what he says to those of us adults who might not know where to start with his poems (given that it is the adults who will often make the decisions about what books to buy and share) and who might almost be a little bit intimidated by the idea of rap.

To anyone who is new to my style of poetry I will just say read it! Also try reading it out loud and I guarantee as that is done you will find the rhythm in the verses. It is quite a magical thing because that rhythm and flow is there waiting to be discovered. I made sure the content of the poems has humour, warmth, truth, humanity and stories that we can all find a common ground to stand out. The theme of Rhythm And Poetry is going from childhood to adulthood so I dug deep into my own childhood and unearthed a lot of stories of me growing up. I have stories about playing on the playground, being pushed into a puddle, being chased by a dog and all kinds of common experiences we can all relate to. Rap is all about conversation and storytelling and the stories I tell strike a chord with many because they are things we’ve all experienced to a great degree.

One aspect of Rhythm and Poetry that really excited me personally when I first read Karl’s Rhythm and Poetry is how it bursts with incredible positivity. It’s full of optimism and brightness. So I ask Karl where that come from in him and what difference it makes to him, having a positive outlook on life.

It is so funny to me that my writing comes out how it does in my book. I guess I have always felt words put together creatively are doorways into a world in my imagination where things are brighter and better. Writing has always been my way to escape into my own personal Narnia. My personal faith that somehow all things good, bad and ugly work together for good definitely informs my writing in some roundabout way so I guess the optimism and hope I get from that comes through even when I am not intentionally doing that. I guess writing a book like this where I dug deep into my childhood and also where I was inspired by the young people I have been meeting while doing Hip Hop-flavoured creative writing workshops helped me tap into my inner child maybe? Haha! I have been through a lot of dark places and low times in my life so I guess I am thankful I am still here and want to share some of the joy that I found through the art form that was instrumental in me getting through those tough times.

I totally get that idea of wanting to share joy – it’s part of what Playing by the Book is about for me, sharing the joy that comes from books and being creative with my kids. So I wrap up my conversation with Karl by asking him about the last time he read something which inspired him go out and do something linked to what he had read – What was the most book that most recently got him doing/playing?

Wow this is a very interesting question. There is a book called The War of Art: Winning the inner creative battle by Steven Pressfield that I read. That book is all about the challenge of writing and the way it is written is in such a brutally real challenge that it made me want to write lots of verses. I guess a book about how challenging being a writer can be helped me write my own book.

Could there be a better note to end our interview on?! My thanks go to Karl for his generosity as we chatted. Now go and find his book!

Find out all about the CLiPPA and the other books on this year’s shortlist here: https://www.clpe.org.uk/poetryline/clippa