Six Questions for…Agnes Torok!

Agnes Török is a spoken word performer, poetry workshop leader, poetry event organiser and happiness researcher. She is the winner of multiple Poetry Slams in three different countries and two different languages. Török has been featured as a TED speaker, on The Today Programme and BBC Radio Scotland. Her two acclaimed one-woman spoken word shows ‘Sorry I Don’t Speak Culture’ and ‘If You’re Happy and You Know It Take This Survey’ have been awarded the Best International Spoken Word Show Award (2014) and the Best Wellbeing Show Award (2015) at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (PBH). She’ll be performing at Rally & Broad on Sunday 22nd November at Stereo, Glasgow with ‘Said the Joker to the Thief…’ and in the meantime, took the time to speak with R&B’s wonderful Josephine Sillars.

  1. Your latest Fringe show, ‘if you’re happy and you know it – take this survey’ has been described as the ‘science of happiness’. What makes you happy?
Lots of stuff! People, mostly. Good people and good books. Writing and performing poems. Wine doesn’t hurt either.
2.Your poetry deals with themes ranging from personal to political. Do you believe in ‘art for arts sake’ or do you feel that poetry has a responsibility to challenge people?

I think art can do and should do lots of different things. All of it doesn’t consist of challenging people politically – but some of it does. I think poetry has a responsibility to speak to people, to speak to readers and audiences and to try to communicate directly, inclusively and honestly. Poetry has a responsibility to start conversations, and not simply mutter pretty words to itself. That makes art be more than for the artist’s own sake. But there are many ways to do that. Some of the things that I want to communicate are about politics, in the personal sphere and in the world. But I appreciate and admire other artists and poets who communicate and start conversations about topics that I am not able to. About life and death, and human experiences that I haven’t lived but want to understand.
3. You’ve said that poetry has only been a ‘big deal’ in your life for the past two years. What made you start writing poetry, and how does it feel to have two award winning shows and a viral video in such a short space of time?
I’ve always loved writing and I think it’s a basic need as much as something I want to do writing poetry has been important to me for a near decade or so now, although that started in my first language (Swedish) before moving onto my second (English). It’s only in the last five years that I’ve started performing my poetry – first in Swedish back in Sweden, then in English after I moved to South Africa, and then on to Scotland. For the last two or three years poetry’s been a BIG DEAL to me – a main focus. It’s only in these past few years that I have started performing multiple times a week, running several poetry nights and workshop series – and considering poetry an actual sort of (amazing! confusing! terrifying!) job. Looking back, it seems like a linear path that was always leading here, and where I’ve learned skills along the way and developed as an artist step by step. In that context, it doesn’t seem quite as mad that my shows and videos have been doing so well. They were the effect of a lot of years of dedication, playfulness, and extremely structured hard work. But actually living that journey made a lot less sense. I never knew what the next step was going to be or how the next experiment was going to turn out (a bilingual spoken word show with subtitles!? not exactly something I expected would win awards!). Ultimately, it still came as a (very good) shock when the video for my poem ‘Worthless’, made with film maker Perry Jonsson, went viral. Getting 100,000 views in the first 24 hours wasn’t something either of us were expecting. We kept sending each other texts along the lines of “Is this really happening?” and “Did you see that hilarious comment about how I look like a chipmunk?”. But it doesn’t feel like the success of the video was something that came about fast or easy – just wonderfully unexpected, a weird climax to a long journey.
5. Best gig/worst gig: spill!
That’s really difficult! I think my best ever gig was performing this year’s Fringe show ‘If You’re Happy and You Know It – Take This Survey’ to an unexpected and huge audience on the first night. We were in the middle of a massively loud bar, separated from some very drunk and merry people by only a curtain (that kept falling down!) and I was genuinely afraid that the audience wouldn’t be able to hear me – or that there would be no audience at all. In the end, it turned out amazingly, with a really generous and attentive audience and me feeling like I was both getting lots of kindness from them and giving them some kindness through the show. The idea of the show was to give everyone an hour to think about their own happiness through the poems, and to tell me on the way out if there was something they wanted to change or do more of to add to their own happiness. On the way out, several people hugged me or cried. Sometimes both. And lots of people shared with me their plans for what they were going to do to make their own lives a little bit more joyful. That felt important. That felt like the point of making art.
      As for the worst gig ever – that’s harder. I don’t know if they’re so bad I’ve repressed them or if there just haven’t been that many bad experiences. Probably repression. Anyway. I do remember a very weird gig I did a year or two back. It was for the celebration of the anniversary of a local monument, and a small restaurant in Fife (that shall remain nameless) decided to invite a few poets along on the anniversary to get more people to come to the restaurant. I am sure they were expecting some very low-key recitals that people could chat and eat simultaneously to. But as they had invited me and a few more wildly gesticulating spoken word poets, they might have gotten more than they bargained for. It felt very definitely weird to be speaking poems sort of AT, rather than TO, people, positioned in an awkward corner of a restaurant, only a metre away from someone having their dinner. I kept thinking I needed to use my hands less when I spoke or I’d knock over someone’s wine glass. Not a great gig, all in all. But I learnt from that too.
5. You have won an impressive number of slams in three different countries and two different languages! Where do you consider home? 
I used to really want to define home, to have one or the other. But I’ve grown up with two stable families in two stable houses, and I am quite happy to consider more than one place home. Stockholm and Sweden is home. And Edinburgh and Scotland is home. In the lead up to the Scottish independence referendum, I spent a lot of time thinking about and discussing what it was to be an immigrant in Scotland, and whether someone like me, who has never wanted to apply for citizenship, can still consider it home. And I think you can. I know I do. The beauty of it is that for the few of us that still have access to free movement within the EU, in these days of closed borders and policed migration, is that we can decide and define our own homes. And that those homes have nothing to do with citizenship. I wish that same principle applied to people who weren’t as lucky in where they happened to be born as I was. No human being is illegal. And home is something we make.
6. What’s next for Agnes Torok?
I have just launched my first spoken word CD! The next wee while looks like launching that. The album is called Poetry // Resistance and is a collaboration with brilliant local band Baluga Music, mixing some of my best political poems with incredible music. I am also in the process of finishing my degree and finally getting on the road to start touring my shows. I am really excited to bring the shows to new crowds and see what they have to teach me and what new possibilities arise. After a week of working with Rally & Broad, Roundhouse Theatre and BBC 1Xtra on workshop series Words First and having to write a new poem about the future – the future looks pretty bright. I am excited to get lost and found in new places and with new writing. We’ll see where it goes. Even if it doesn’t now, I am sure it will all make sense later.
Find out more about Agnes at http://agnestorok.org/

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