Hazel is a transgender woman originally from Birkenhead. She had hopes of becoming an electrician or maybe an electronics engineer. Through a series of unexpected events she has ended up in Plymouth as a musician, artist and a poet. During lockdown in 2020 she wrote poems as she tried to make a connection in what had become a very upside down world. Someone said she should publish them. There is a rule that says, “just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should.” She ignored that rule and did it anyway. Furthermore, she continued to write poems and inadvertently became a performance poet and open mic compère. Made in Plymouth Community Reporter, Nick Ingram, went along to meet her at Leadworks, where is currently their resident writer.
It’s a cool November day somewhere around mid-day as I make my way down a damp Rendle Street in Stonehouse towards Leadworks – a post-industrial space, repurposed into a community hub, with an exhibition space, performance space, community café, artist’s studios, and community fridge where people can come to get fresh food should the need arise.
As I enter there is the sound of banging going on upstairs where there is being built a new community kitchen, which has over the summer been crowd funded through donations. Donna Maughan, a director of this rather welcoming community describes Leadworks as a: ‘community hub, being a space for everybody, to do whatever they want to do, whether they’re an artist, musician, spoken word, or into heritage and culture, a place to be and give them access to space, people, and community.’
It’s the kind of place where diversity thrives and is welcome. Leadworks is the base of Plymouth Pride. Kaboom pair Matt Kemp and Maria Moreno of Kid Hyena, run Plymouth Improv Group and Tap Wing Tap Classes from here among other things. Cross Country Writers, organised by Shearman’s published Plymouth poet Kenny Knight, hosts a monthly open mic for budding poets of all levels of attainment. There’s a lot going on in this place.
Only today I’m here to speak to Hazel Hon who happens to be Leadwork’s resident writer, a spoken word and cabaret artist that has made this place her second home from home. She heads up regular spoken word night Crème de la Crème, hosted by the normally very droll Pete Golding, as well as running Leadwork’s Open Mic Night, which attracts a whole host of Plymouth’s musical talent, while at the same time organising the Queer Café. As we sit down with a coffee, I suggest her accent betrays here origins: ‘Birkenhead, not a real Scouser, a plastic Scouser, some people would call me a woolly back,’ she says as she sips coffee with her keynote chuckle.
She explains that she came here from the North of England, via Wales, and ended up in Plymouth where she found Leadwork’s or Leadwork’s found her, even though it does surprise her: ‘How the hell did I get here? Now here I am in Plymouth. Resident Writer!’ She shrugs looking a little unusual because I’m not used to seeing her new fresh buzz cut hair, because during performance or reading she normally wears one of her trademark personally decorated top hats.
As we chat around the place about Leadworks and Spoken Word and her influences, she seems to be quite proud of Queer Café: ‘Queer Café was something I had talked about for a long time with me friend. Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a café for queer people? You just drink coffee, listen to music or whatever, and you just sit and talk with your friends, because it’s not about drinking, you can go anywhere and get drunk. But to sit there and have a coffee in a queer space where everyone is accepting of who you are.’ Which if we are honest about it is everything which Leadworks is about. The acceptance of who we are as individuals, regardless of where we come from in society. It takes bravery to create spaces like this in this world today. Hazel embodies this kind of courage to stand up and up with a come as you are attitude, full of dry wit and language.
This sums up Hazel best. In fact, when I’ve heard her perform and the ideas that she expresses not only in her poetry and spoken word, but also in the events which she helps organise I can hear the dark baritone of Kurt Cobain singing Nirvana’s pean to acceptance from 1992 – Come As You Are. Cobain sings: ‘Come as you are/As I want you to be/as a friend, as a friend /As an old enemy…’
This is a song which reaches out to society and asks that even if you happen to be the ‘…old enemy…’ we all can meet back in the middle again and reconcile our differences regardless of who are. In the ed we can all change our thinking and hopefully become better human beings. There is within these words a hope that one day regardless of who we are we will one day be accepted more by society. Even though this song is normally read as an angry rant against an unaccepting society, a society that turns certain people into outsiders, there is still a hope here that at some unknown point in the future this will not be the case and we will all meet in the middle ground – after all society is always a shifting paradigm.
‘Your poetry and spoken word then from the stuff I’ve heard you perform there tends to be a wiry, funny, melancholy about it. Where did your poetry begin? Where did it come from it come from?’ I ask.
‘Ermm…,’ she gives the question a little bit of thought. ‘We’re going back to the nineties. I was writing on my computer to keep a sort of a dairy, but when it came to exploring my inner dialogue, and letting my voice speak, these little poems started coming out, and they were really good little ditties. I didn’t know what I was doing I was just writing stuff. These were good these little things. So that’s where it started.’
We begin to discuss her various influences which I’m surprised does not necessarily cover poetry and writers, she adores John Cooper Clark, mainly for his directness; Terry Pratchett, for his human angle. Although I would suggest that there is a major influence on her comic sensibility which comes from both of these authors. She also lists a long list of comedy acts who came from the British new wave of alternative comedy of the 1980’s: Rik Mayal and Ade Edmondson; Ben Elton; Alexei Sayle. Along with others such as Billy Connolly and Jasper Carrot. Meaning that Hazel Hon is plugged into a tradition of British comedy which tends towards the punk and anarchist traditions – a kind of comedy and melancholy that was spawned by the great Spike Milligan. A style of performance which subverts what we would normally expect from a poet and writer in this day and age; although this might not be so much shown in her two published collection Facets of Love and Angles, which tend towards her more melancholic tone.
Hazel qualifies the melancholic tone in her work in this sense: ‘Most of the time I’ve been depressed. It’s like clinical depression. It’s severe stuff. I spend too many days looking into the dark. You know what it’s like? It’s like you’re looking into the void, and the void waves back at you, only for you to realise that the void is waving at somebody stood behind you.’ Hazel is laughing as she says this, her depression is an extension of her comedy, and none of this can be divorced from either. It’s part of her creative package. It’s what makes her – her. A sense that you can look into the void and laugh as if it’s one elongated joke that has to unravel and provide each side of the same coin. Spike Milligan and Billy Connolly tend to have similar temperaments making narrate to the world from a slightly obtuse angle.
It’s the sense that life is an absurd, ironic, comic performance, where we can laugh even during the darkest of hours. We have the habit of laughing at what the universe hands to us; laugher becoming a mechanism we use as a form of catharsis to keep entropy at bay, allowing us to live our lives without being continually crushed. Laughter is the thing which holds us together. Laughter shows us our own humanity writ large even within those times when we are meant to be solemn and thoughtful: ‘It’s like when my Dad died,’ she says. ‘We got him cremated. My brother didn’t want anything to do with the ashes – so I had to do it, sprinkling the ashes onto the rose bush, and because of the direction of the wind, the ashes blew all over me. My dad blew all over me! I just looked at my brother and we both started laughing.’
To be honest this is how the audience reacts to Hazel’s performance. There is a mixture of laugher and tenderness; and acceptance that life will always offer something to break through the darkness, the fact that there is a light out there in that darkness that we can reach for. ‘Take me out tonight/ Where there’s music and there’s people/And there young and alive…/Because I want to see people /And I want to see life…/ There is a light and it never goes out/ There is a light and it never goes out…/’ As The Smith’s would grapple with this idea back in the 1980’s. It’s the kind of performance which takes courage to that hope in the darkness, but this is what Hazel pushes for not only in the fact that she asks for more acceptance, but like this song by The Smiths she wants you to see this hope. She is the proof that hope in life still exists.
So, in the very act of laughing at life directly in its face Hazel is planning on taking her whole performance further out into the realm of concept cabaret. She has the need to push at the boundaries of the kind of performance which is available in this city. She is embodying the idea of come as you are, which will if she has her way with what she has up her sleeve, will place her at the bleeding edge of performance poetry/spoken word/art in this city. Hazel gives off this vibe that she is not willing to compromise on any level which within itself is powerful statement in its own right. ‘I’m prepared to do it naked – if it pays well. I’ve got something lined up here where I’ll be performing my poetry completely naked – but they need a special licence for it! Because me being trans it involves female nipples and a penis, which is too much of anything, and they need a special licence… the reason I want to do it is not to shock people. It’s partly a thing of this is what a trans body looks like. I don’t fit any kind of classic beauty. There’s nothing about me. I just want to do it because this is what a trans body looks like…’
When she said this there was not a trace of irony in her voice. She was being deadly serious. For some reason or another because of her courage I don’t think that Hazel Hon is cracking a joke here, and one can only tip a very well decorated top hat to her. This is one performance, that if it goes ahead, will be one of the highlights of next year.
Check out Leadworks Facebook page for details of Crème de la Crème, Queer Café, and Open Mic opportunities. Kaboom offer workshops on a weekly basis.