The spell of slam poetry and compulsion of art

“Prepare to be Varjacked!” This is how fellow artists in the performance scene describes or, more appropriately, warns the audience of writer and contemporary performer Paula Varjack. It refers to the idea of being hit with real and immediate impact with a certain act. “I’d like to kind of leave with something that I think has either a message or creates a certain feeling or makes you think afterwards.”

For more than 6 years now, this British-American performer has been working as a full-time artist and her works has taken a variety and hybrid of forms ranging from spoken words, monologues, devised performance, videography, audio-visual pieces, stories and poems. Mostly in London, Berlin and Washington DC, she has also been touring in different cities not only in the UK but also around Europe. 

Paula’s disposition of being from all the places and prancing around practically everywhere inspired the title of her latest two-month tour Always Back From Somewhere, which sees her performing in England, Belgium, Scotland, Germany and Denmark. The tour started on the 7th of October with the whole month spent guesting in events around London and eventually the rest of the UK. With half of the tour remaining, she’ll be spending most of November outside the country culminating to her last performance on the 21st of the month at South Bank Centre in London as part of the celebration of Polari’s (multi award-winning LGBT literary salon) fourth birthday.

Paula, being the outspoken individual that she is, talks around topics of romantic and sexual relationships; dating; club culture; and, the politics of being a cosmopolitan woman of colour. “My work or performance is always monologue driven. It’s always narrative driven. It’s always autobiographical. And I often use elements of video and sound, as well,” she says.

Cabaret bars, galleries, theatre and poetry slams are the venues often dominated by her thunderous and passionate voice. Conquering the stage with her big hair; tantalising eyes; strong presence; and, expressive persona, she expresses her musings about her life and what she sees happening around her. “My writing is always a reflection of my life. I’m very literal as a writer. I raise my hand to that. I do have a thing about embellishing and I can be quite hyperbolic but I pretty much document what is happening to me at a given time” she explained. Art is her life as life is her art. 

This 36 year-old, having spent less than a decade in the performance art business, already has three solo shows in her pocket and three previous performances at Glastonbury. Additionally, she was also nominated for ‘Best Performance by International Poet’ in Farrago London Slam awards in 2008.

Nevertheless, this is not an area Paula imagined herself to be in. “When I was growing up, I always was interested in the arts and I always felt very creative. But, I guess, I was very scared of this idea of having artist lifestyle and struggling,” says Paula.  “I just felt that no one lives-off of being an artist. So, I had to figure-out something else and then I will just figure out how to do my art on the side,” she added. 

Trained as a filmmaker in London, she then pursued a documentary filmmaking career in Berlin. Suddenly, she made a leap and started performing as a slam poet. “The very short version is… I had a bit of an emotional breakdown,” she said. “There was definitely this moment when I had this cabaret performance. A lot of major life changes happened that led to this moment. But suddenly it was the only thing that I wanted to be doing. I’ve hit 30 and I felt like I figured this out really late, so I need to put as much energy and drive into it as possible and I did that and everything just kind of snowballed from that point,” she explained. 

Paula’s innate talent to perform and work with words is obvious but with her fears and doubts, it’s often a question why performing remains her passion and job. “The ironic thing about it is art is a kind of compulsion. The reason you do it more than anything is because it’s just something that you have to do. Sometimes, it is not really enjoyable. For me, a really big part of the process often is anxiety and not knowing and being stress about a number of things… But you do it anyway! It’s because maybe you are a little bit crazy but also because you just have to.”