Chin up with London poet James Massiah

“Nothing is wrong.”


If you’re currently in Amsterdam, you simply can’t have missed it: Ace & Tate’s WORD UP campaign is gracing the totem-like advertising columns along the canals and plastered all across construction site surfaces. Its sky blue imagery and overcast white typography, alongside the beautiful hearts and minds of “three game-changing, non-conforming voices” represents the optimism the Dutch brand desires to convey through the art of poetry.

One of the featured faces, James Massiah, is a South London born and bred poet, producer, philosopher and DJ whose honest words have captivated people from all strands of society. Beyond his autonomous work, James is commissioned by the likes of Prince Charles and the British Fashion Council, and involved in charity-related events and performances; most recently raising money for CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably), a charity dedicated to preventing male suicide.

Glamcult was lucky to share a word or two with the creative mastermind about language, Amsterdam, and the subjective nature of good and evil.

Do you remember the first moment you discovered the strength behind words?

Not at any given or specific moment, really. I know I’ve always enjoyed playing with words and English was always my strongest subject at school, followed by Drama. Perhaps I could say that it may well have through my time growing up in the church. Weekly sermons, daily prayers and Bible readings, always meditating on the beauty of the language in the King James Version which was similar in many ways to the language of Shakespeare, which I came across though classes at school. The impact that those sermons had on the congregation and the way people would respond to given Bible verses perhaps showed me from a young age what words could do.

Is there a recipe to writing a successful poem? Are there any poetry clichés you dislike?

Different poems have different intentions and I guess it all comes down to whether the poem has accomplished what its author set out for it to achieve. This could be from a technical or creative perspective, where you set specific parameters and force yourself to work within a given framework, or a commissioned piece where you hope that what you create hits the spot for the audience you created it for. More generally I think I like poems that lend themselves to a certain philosophical ideal, manifested in the construction or the content or the piece, highlighting a certain knowledge of and disregard for prevailing standards, often in the realm of ethics or morals but also in literary terms too.

For those who don’t know, could you explain your AE (amoral egoism) philosophy?

Amoral Egoism is a combination of pre-existing philosophical notions Moral Nihilism and Psychological Egoism. I came to discover them both through my own thinking and in trying to see if anyone else had similar ideas I learned they had names and had already been coined. Amoral Egoism as a combination of the two lends itself to Causal Determinism in some ways. As an observation of reality it simply states that there is no objective good or evil and that all voluntary human behaviour is motivated by the idea of self-interest, which is to say, subjective good and evil.

What inspires you in your environment?

I’d say I was inspired by life in general, ups and downs, writing as a stoic exercise to take stock of different moments and the things that I observe in people and my surroundings, both at home and abroad.

Have you ever experienced writers block, and how do you overcome one?

Yes, definitely but not for a while now. It’s down to pressure, often self-imposed in my case. Looking back I’d trace it back to external expectations and fear of judgment, two things which have been remedied by my current philosophical perspective.

As a spoken word artist, DJ and performer, what makes a good audience?

I’m not a spoken word artist, but can say that as a poet and performer it differs from time to time. It depends on the circumstance. It depends on what lesson there is to be learned. In a stoic way I’d almost say that for one reason or another, every crowd is a good crowd. I had a good time playing over the weekend with friends to a room full of friends and that was great for it’s own reason. Then I’ve had good times playing to small crowds of strangers miles away. There are so many variables, people could walk out and leave but that doesn’t make it a bad audience, necessarily.

Where do you feel most comfortable? Do you have any particular venues, cities or places you enjoy reciting poetry?

I definitely feel most at home performing in London, a lot of the things I write reference London and the goings on here that people who are from here will recognise and appreciate the nuances of. At the same time I know through social media that my work is seen, heard and appreciated by people all over the world and I’d say that’s the beauty of having the poetry there for people to see written for the sake of being able to break it down and interact with it and translate it in their own time.

London is a subject you’re not afraid to confront and analyse in your work. If you had to write a tribute to the city of Amsterdam, what would you say?

Well, stopping short of actually writing it, I’d seek to mention the good times I’ve had out there. In many ways I’m a hedonist and I like my poetry to reflect that, partly as a dog whistle to others who’d be reading or hearing the words I write. Might mention specific landmarks, places I’d been, people I’d seen and the moments that live in the memory from Paradiso to De School to the friends house on the canal opposite the restaurant we thought might be a front down the street from the first house I saw with a ruby window on my last full night in town before the first meal I had with Laura the following day. There, I’ve almost written it!

You have a unique relationship with the fashion industry, collaborating with designers such as Grace Wales Bonner, Liam Hodges and being a guest on SHOWstudio. Do you believe style can hold the same authority as words?

I contributed to a piece for VOGUE on the subject of fashion’s interaction with poetry over the years. They’re both mediums for communication that offer different ways to say a given thing. I guess I’ve generally had a personal connection with the designers I’ve worked with and that’s certainly helped, in so far as we’d have a conversation about what it is that we want communicate and how we can best do that.

Finally, do you have a life motto you live by?

Nothing is wrong.

Follow James on Instagram


Words by Lawrence Harrison

Photography by Lottie Bea Spencer

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