Harry Baker: a mathematician and a poet

Harry Baker has a devilish duo of skills: mathematics and spoken word poetry. This has given him a World Champion title, TED fame and a voiceover commission for Deliveroo. The secret to this pairing, Emma Clegg discovers, is word play, and humanity.

Poetry slam was new to me, so when I talked to spoken word artist and 2012 World Poetry Slam Champion Harry Baker this needed clarification. A poetry slam, he told me, is a competitive art event where poets perform spoken word poetry before a live audience and a panel of judges. “It all started in 1984 with construction worker and American poet Marc Smith,” explains Harry. “Marc wanted people to talk poetry to each other, and this was his solution. He said that poetry should be for whoever was in front of it, and part of calling it a slam was trying to make it sound more exciting.”

A poetry slam gives performers three minutes to connect with the audience as quickly as possible. “The atmosphere is amazing because it doesn’t involve a panel of esteemed literary judges – it is five random people in the audience voting for their favourite. So there are no specific rules on what makes it good – it’s just about connecting with people. That’s what I loved about it and that’s what I still try and bring to my shows.”

The unusual thing about Harry is that his poetry grew from passion and performance, and wasn’t fed by an English or arts degree. In fact Harry proudly defines himself as a poet and a mathematician. So what’s the connection? One is an arts form, the other a science. We know that arts is driven by the right hand side of the brain, mathematics and science by the left, and for most people one side is dominant. But go deeper and it’s not so clear cut; while the two sides function differently – they work together and complement each other.

Harry Baker embraces this cross-fertilisation. He originally applied to study medicine at the University of Bristol. Before he took up his place he had discovered a penchant for spoken word poetry and so decided to take a gap year. “I thought, ‘I’m going spend the rest of my life being a doctor’, and so in that year before university I did as many poetry gigs as possible, almost to get it out of my system. But it was in doing this I realised that I loved it and, more than that, I could feel myself coming alive with the poetry.”

Credit: TED Talks

With a science and maths background, Harry’s passion for poetry didn’t appear to have a natural connection with his specialist subjects, but they were all part of him. The solution was to move from medicine to mathematics, which would allow him to carry on his poetry while he was at university. He threw in German for good measure.

“It was quite hard to compare at the time, because with medicine it was very clear how you were helping people, but with poetry it’s more abstract. Because I’d focused on maths and science for A Levels I didn’t feel I could switch to doing an English degree, and part of me was worried that if I studied it I’d be told that the way I was doing it was wrong, and it wouldn’t feel natural any more.”

When Harry graduated at the age of 22 he became a full time poet. “It wasn’t such a massive a leap of faith as it sounds, because I’d been doing it for a few years anyway. I’d been doing slams and I’d done a TED talk that had just been shared so there was enough momentum to give it a go. And I’ve not looked back since.”

Harry describes himself as “combining the nerdiness of being a math student with the hopefulness of being a human”. It’s a winning combination, celebrated through word play. We see this in the poetry excerpt in the previous column: humour and pathos, rhythm and rhyme, logic and emotion, maths and humanity.

“I like maths because of its concise nature and it is very satisfying when you solve an equation. Poetry felt more free, but what they have in common is this idea of patterns and connection and trying to slot things into place. And when I find a satisfying rhyme or turn of phrase, it feels right, as if you have solved an equation. But there will always be space for breaking those patterns and rules.

“I do love the freedom of the spoken word. There is always some level of intricacy there, especially with the rhythm and the rhyme, but what is under-acknowledged in both maths and poetry is a playful process. When you are trying to figure out a maths problem you have to let yourself play around and make mistakes. To do that you have to have that sense of wonder – that’s where the crossover happens.”

It’s by leaning in to all our interests that we can become the fullest version of ourselves

Harry Baker

The TED gig was quite a different challenge to the three-minute poetry slam performances, says Harry. “My first TED performance was the most nervous I have ever been. With the poetry slam competition you just go on and let the poem speak for itself. With TED you have a maximum of 18 minutes, and so which poems to choose and how to slot them together felt important.”

The first TED talk Harry did when he performed the Prime Numbers poem at TEDx Exeter in 2014 got shared on the main TED website and that meant that over a million people saw it. “The poem was just nerdy enough that people who were into it were really into it. That was one of the first times I thought “actually I am a mathematician and I am a poet and where those two combine is where I thrive.” It’s by leaning in to all of our interests that we can become the fullest versions of ourselves. I loved having a chance to do that.”

Harry is versatile; his commissioned work has included a voiceover poem for Deliveroo and a Blank Canvas #AnchorGoStrong advert about milk. He also does spoken word workshops in schools and he has published two poetry books. He took his performance tour Unashamed to the Edinburgh Festival in 2022 and has been touring since September.

“I wanted Unashamed to be funny and light and enjoyable, and to have the space to acknowledge how tough the last couple of years has been. Poetry is wonderful in that it can hold those heavier emotions as well, and this show is trying not to apologise for either of those things. What is amazing about the human spirit is that we can be ecstatic and we can be heartbroken and this is about celebrating all those things.”

Harry was born in Bath and he always wanted to bring the tour to the city so his godfather, who can’t travel, could come. “I love going to new places but some gigs feel more like homecomings, and Bath is one of those.” Save the date.

Harry Baker’s Unashame­­­d is at Komedia Bath on 24 January at 7.30. £12/£10 | komedia.co.uk