Mark Grist became an internet sensation as an unlikely rap- battle victor last year. Now he wants to win over Edinburgh
You may not recognise the name Mark Grist, but you might just know who I'm talking about when I say "the teacher in that rap battle". In November last year, the suited-and-tied 30-year-old triumphed over a young grime MC with his virtuoso tirade in a Brixton nightclub. When a video of the unlikely victory was posted online, it went viral. Come February, it had racked up more than one million views and "Rap fan sir" was making national headlines. "I couldn't go out for two weeks. It was not unusual for me to get 1,000 tweets in a day and my Facebook maxed out. I even had some girls come and chat to me in a nightclub," he says in disbelief, "but I was mainly feeling a bit tired, really."
Not everything was so charmed for the coolest YouTube sensation since Fenton the Labrador. First, there was misreporting to contend with, not least the assumption that his opponent, MC Blizzard, was also his pupil. Then there was the matter of his lyrical content, his especially lewd variation on that rap battle staple, the mum joke, not sitting well with his day job, running creative writing workshops in schools. And, finally, there was the "bullying campaign" directed at his supposedly "cocky" 17-year-old Mancunian opponent by the media and others. "Blizzard is a musician with a great work ethic and the basic message was 'Ha ha ha, look at this teenage boy getting a taste of his own medicine', and that was not what it was about at all."
More typically known as a performance poet, Grist has channelled these anxieties, and more, into Rogue Teacher, an Edinburgh festival show that sees him toying with preconceptions once again. Those expecting an extension of that YouTube moment will be disappointed by the conspicuous scarcity of raps and insults. Everyone else, though, will likely be moved, humoured, and provoked by a show that employs verse and storytelling to reflect on Grist's formative experiences, romantic, professional and otherwise. Does he see it as a coming-of-age story? "A coming-of-age-a-bit-too-late story," he smiles.
Indeed, there is something of the big kid about its idealistic, puppyishly enthusiastic creator. He grew up on the Shetland isle of Unst, whose barren landscape he credits for his literary leanings: as well as reading voraciously, he would come home from primary school and pen "these ridiculously lengthy ballads", complete with knights and monsters. His teenage years saw him rocking out in a band, however, and he returned to writing poetry only in his twenties. By that stage, he had moved to Peterborough to teach English after studying at the University of East Anglia.
"In Peterborough, there was nothing like the cultural scene there was in Norwich, so some friends and I set up an [open mic] night called A Pint of Poetry. That gave me a reason to write a poem every month, so I just used to write things about my experiences in my job."
Grist makes for an impassioned educationalist, and a key section of Rogue Teacher deals with his frustrations during his five-year stint in a secondary school. On the one hand, he worked at a relatively progressive institution that allowed him to
pursue his own quirky teaching methods involving poetry and rap. But on the other, he found himself ground down by the callous and unimaginative nature of the system as a whole. The show's angriest poem is directed at a composite colleague character with no time for "fuck-up" pupils; another offers a riposte to a chief examiner he heard mocking a pupil's offbeat poetry analysis at a conference.
Nor is Grist a stranger to harsh judgement himself. After quitting to become a full-time poet in 2010, he decided to take a creative writing MA at Goldsmiths College, London. …