With her booming voice, ready smile and sheer solid presence it is hard to associate stage jitters with performance poet Asher Hoyles.
But that is what always has always accompanied her as she steps up to face her audience, from her first show in a West End cafe bar to more recent outings in Westminster Abbey and Glastonbury.
“I am usually a bag of nerves and scared out of my wits,” she laughs. “But once I start I am all right.”
Today she is in particularly ebullient form. After composing and performing poetry for more than 25 years, she is celebrating the publication of her first compilation, Rise Up The Low, Bring Down The Mighty, a title inspired as much by Shelley’s Masque of Anarchy as by Marley’s Small Axe, two of the many influences that inform her work.
The book and two accompanying CDs comprise 52 poems whose subject matter is equally diverse – anything from her mum’s shopping list to the invasion of Iraq – but always powerfully evoked.
“My poems come from real experiences, when I am usually touched by someone or something. It is my way of stamping my voice on things,” she explains in a broad Yorkshire accent rooted in her upbringing in Chapeltown, an area of Leeds where Caribbean migrants first settled.
Asher’s mum and dad had moved there from Nevis, raising their six girls in a strict household, where getting a good education, learning to run a home and going to church regularly were considered paramount.
It was at church that she realised early on that there was something about her voice that seemed to attract attention: “From when I was a small girl I used to have to learn quotes from the Bible off by heart and recite them in church. Although I was always nervous to start with, the positive way people responded encouraged me to do it every week.”
But she struggled at school and like many children of Windrush generation parents felt she didn’t really belong in Britain. “People were always telling us to go back to our own country even though we were born here. It was very confusing,” she says.
Her refuge became the local clubs where top reggae sound systems like Saxon and Coxsone played: “I loved the culture of the DJs and their sounds, and the way they could turn their hand at anything, from building the speakers to creating the lyrics. It was through the sounds men that I learned that my roots were in Africa. It was so comforting to hear I belonged somewhere and I felt empowered.”
One day she and a friend asked to take the mic themselves: “Chatting lyrics on the mic was my earliest experience of poetry, though of course we never called it that. As young women, we got respect from the male MCs and that was a big thing for us.”
Her next step was to leave home altogether. “I had failed in the school system and I wanted to start afresh. My mother had always taught us to dare to dream the dream and so I headed for London.”
Resilient and resourceful, she quickly found her feet and carved a life out for herself, eventually studying for a degree in education and communication studies.
It was at uni that she discovered that she was dyslexic, which explained that her difficulties in reading and writing were down to the way she processed information rather than any lack of grey matter.
“I had such a lot to say and I just wanted to get it out. When I found my voice I was shocked about how much came pouring out of me. Performance poetry gave me a safe place to say it without getting into trouble,” she adds, cracking a wide smile.
Her first performance was at Bunjies in Charing Cross Road, where she’d attended a poetry gig. “I got introduced to the events manager and he suggested that I should come there and perform too. I immediately said yes but went away thinking, ‘what on earth have I let myself in for?’ I was scared stiff on the night but afterwards people came up to congratulate me and I felt very encouraged.”
Since then there has been no stopping her and the 51-year-old has performed at venues up and down the country, big and small, including Westminster Abbey at the dedication of the memorial plaque to abolitionist Olaudah Equiano in 2009.
Based in north London, where she lives with husband Martin and daughter Rosa, Asher also runs poetry workshops, most regularly at the Clean Break Theatre Company in Kentish Town, and works as a special needs support teacher at New Vic Sixth Form College in Plaistow.
Although she has a long line of favourite poets, Benjamin Zephania and Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze among them, she is attracted by anyone that sheds light on the human condition, hence her love of Shelley and Shakespeare. “They were talking about the same experiences I had,” she exclaims.
It is her own connection with the world that she wishes to impart to her audience, to enlighten and entertain, as well as to encourage them to likewise express themselves through the spoken word.
Raise Up The Low, Bring Down The Mighty by Asher Hoyles is published by Hansib, £9.99
This article first appeared in Review, New Journal Enterprises, on October 18