Irish poet and playwright Stephen James Smith on the release of his first book of poetry and upcoming UK tour
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Irish poet and playwright Stephen James Smith on the release of his first book of poetry and upcoming UK tour

IRISH poet and playwright Stephen James Smith speaks to The Irish Post about the release of his first book of poetry and his upcoming UK tour.

Smith is one of the most unique artists to emerge from Dublin in recent years, with videos of his spoken word poetry amassing thousands of views on YouTube.

His work is central to the rise of the vibrant spoken word scene in Ireland today.

Stephen’s debut collection, Fear Not, is published by Arlen House and came out earlier this year.

Off the back of the release of this body of work which spans almost 15 years of writing, Stephen is embarking on a tour of the UK and Ireland that includes 28 gigs making up much of October and November.

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We spoke with Stephen on the eve of his show in Glasgow about the trials and tribulations of being an artist in Ireland and performing for the Irish community in London.

"This is my first time ever in Glasgow," he said.

"I tried a deep fried Mars bar yesterday and threw it away after a couple of bites. Being on the road for the next three weeks If I start eating shit food everyday ill be in a heap."

Having just opened for The Boomtown Rats at Head for the Hills festival in Lancashire last month, Stephen is reeling from the recent opportunities that have come his way.

Gary Dunne, Cultural Officer at the London Irish Centre in Camden recently asked him to write a poem about the London Irish community which he will perform on Friday night's Late Late Show live from London.

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Perhaps Stephen's best-known work is My Ireland, an 11-minute piece he wrote for St Patrick's Festival in 2017.

The video has over 84,000 views on YouTube and was directed by the brilliant Irish filmmaker Myles O'Reilly, whom Stephen has been collaborating with for years.

"I've been friends with Myles for years. He's a great artist. I was actually with him just last week down in Dingle at an event called Come On Up To The House which is put on by the Footsbarn Travelling Theatre," said Stephen.

"I performed with Glen Hansard in a tent in a field in the middle of nowhere. It was great.

"There's this collective community of supportive and varied artists in Ireland at the moment. There's so many talented people doing great things. Ye Vagabonds also performed at that event in Dingle and they're great lads. Saint Sister are doing great and are amazing women. Lisa O'Neill has new music out too.

"When I was starting out years ago in Dublin, there would be music nights, then comedy night and then poetry nights. Everything was separated.

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"Now there are collaborate nights where everybody is invited to bring a little bit of everything to the table," Stephen added.

"There's a sense that we’re all artists in it together and there's no need to worry about genre. It's very heartwarming to see."

With all that has been going on in Irish society in recent months, there's no shortage of topics to discuss.

Smith recognises the responsibility as an artist to address these issues, but insists it cannot be forced.

"I try to stay informed of whats going on. Ive now been given a little bit of a platform and I think it's important to have empathy within the art for whats going on in the society. I'm aware of the responsibility that comes with it," he said.

"Im always chipping away at things. I got asked to write something for a cause really believe in just last week but the timing was off.

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"Ive so much on right now that Im just treading water. I felt like a dickhead for saying no but I just couldn’t do it justice if I couldn’t devote the time."

A common problem for Irish artists at the moment is the cost of living in the country.

Just last month, Dublin musician David Kitt took to social media to reveal his sadness at having to leave home to be able to afford to pursue his art elsewhere. This is a pressure Stephen has begun to feel of late too.

"My rent is changing in January and I'm not sure what I'll do yet. I might end up in Belfast. The cost of living is a lot cheaper there," he said.

"It’s an economic exile that I am possibly facing into.

"This tour is now or never for me. It's the right time with book being released just a few months back.

"If it goes well great I can sustain myself if it doesn’t at least I’ve tried and I’ll just have to accept it.

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"I am optimistic and determined and focused so my attitude is everything will work out one way or another."

Stephen is no stranger to performing in London, having taken to the stage at the St Patrick's Parade in Trafalgar Square last year.

"That was a bizarre experience. I followed Mayor Sadiq Khan. It was one of those moments where you pinch yourself and ask 'what am I doing here?'.

"Moments like that make me wonder how I've been afforded these opportunities.

"Now don't get me wrong I'm currently sitting in a budget hotel in Glasgow so I'm by no means living a rockstar lifestyle but those opportunities mean a lot to me.

"The Irish in London have been great to me I have to say," he continued.

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"I did a gig in the London Irish Centre recently and I was humbled by how many people came and embraced my work.

"I've realised that there are many different constructs that make Irishness. Travelling and performing outside of Ireland has definitely given me a new perspective on what it means to be Irish.

"I think Irish identity is changing both inside and outside of Ireland. It’s a positive thing."

Stephen James Smith performs at London's St Pancras Old Church on Thursday 18 October.

Tickets for that show and all other shows on his UK and Ireland tour are available here.