How to Write a Performance Poem, Garnham-style.

Ok, so I’ve been having a little think about it and I think I’ve come up with the ultimate strategy for composing a performance poem. Or at the very least, a Robert Garnham performance poem.

Step one. Title.
The title can be anything, as long as it’s snappy. A good title is often ‘Poem’. It’s only four letters long. Some people have titles that are as long as their poems, such as a haiku I once read called ‘Haiku to be read on a train or a bus (but preferably a train because the clickerty clack rhythms of the rails kind of match it’s inner rhythms),

Step two. Snappy first line.
The first line needs to dunk the reader straight into the poem. Similar to swimming in a cold sea. It might not look appealing or comfortable but you just got to do it so that later on you can say, ‘Hey, you know, I’m so cool I swam in the sea / read a poem today’. Pam Ayres does this a lot. (Snappy first lines. Not swimming in the sea. Jeez.)

Step two. Interesting first stanza.
The first few lines should back up the first line and kind of hint at the attitude of the poem. The audience is just getting warmed up, you see. No room for error or digression, you’ve really got to stick to what the poem is about. And then keep on piling it on until the end oft he first stanza. Then you can insert a little joke. Just don’t mention knobs just yet. Save your best material for later on.

Huh Huh. Knobs.

Step three. Create a stanza pattern.
The next two stanzas should be similar to the first with some subtle changes in which you build up a rhythm both of language and imagery. At this point you should start to playa round with the template that you have created for yourself. You should relish language and really get your mouth around certain words, especially those that end with a hard sound. Like plop.

Step four. The turn.
This is where it all goes spatial. The poem suddenly embraces other themes or subjects or starts going all universal. This is where the audience realises what the poem is ACTUALLY about. Or you decide what it’s about and then you take it a step further. This is where you get all poet-like and arty farty. Conjur up the ages, emotion, existence, the human condition, not just shopping trollies with wonky wheels. Or knobs.

Step five. The Robert Garnham Patented Fifth Verse Freak Out.
Do it, man. Go on, do it. Pile in the words and rank up the pace. Maximum attack! Take the poem wherever the hell it wants to go. Scream. Bang them in like a woodpecker with a caffeine fix.

Step six. The last stanza.
Take it back to the template you set for yourself but now the audience has a clearer idea of who you are and what the poem is about. Slow it down, be ironic, sardonic, tender and loving.

Step seven. The last line.
And now to have some fun. Say what you’ve wanted to say all along. Knock them out with a killer last line. This is the difficult part, so good luck. But my hero Frank O’Hara is a good place to look for inspiration. You might already know the last line when you start the poem. Or it might come to you days later, usually when it’s least convenient. Like at the dentists, or a funeral.

So there you go. Sit back and relax and follow these steps, and you too can write your own Robert Garnham performance poem!

Oh dear.

And now here comes a new poem which does none of the things I mentioned above. Enjoy!


If I was a marine biologist
I’d always know where the unguents were kept
If anyone got bitten by a puffer fish.

If I was a marine biologist
I’d wear a denim cap
Faded by the sunshine
And stained with salt.

If I was a marine biologist
I’d have a lot of sympathy
For the gurnards

If I was a marine biologist
I’d have a big long fuzzy beard
Which I’d swing from side to side
Like a donkey’s tail
When no one was looking.

If I was a marine biologist
I’d be ever so interested
In barnacles.

If I was a marine biologist
I’d have a first mate.

If I was a marine biologist
I’d be able to answer the question
‘Excuse me,
Are you a marine biologist?’
With the response
‘Yes, I’m a marine biologist,
And I like fish.
Make of that what you will, Mr Sullivan
Make of that what you will’.

If I was a marine biologist
I’d look at the landlubbers
The gravel bashers,
The whippersnappers,
The haberdashers,
Looking for beauty in art
Or a bottle
And not a bottle nosed dolphin
Or a hammer head shark
Mind you
Nobody likes a smart arse.

Plunge into the ocean, Steve,
And grab me that Dover sole,
There’s a good lad.
Now pass me my magnifying glass.
Look at those gills!
Look at those gills!
Look at those gills!
That’s one creepy flip flap mother fish.

If I was a marine biologist
I’d wear skimpy shorts
Skimpy ever so subtly Hubba bubba too short far too short skinny jean cut-off shorty shorty short shorts, feel my legs, feel my legs, see the way they glisten in the sun, slinky, slinky!

If I was a marine biologist
There I would be
Sifting through fish guts
Rancid squid
Probing tentacles and proboscis
Occasionally looking up
Over the oozing fish slime
And the mounds of blubber
And thinking
This is disgusting, fish are disgusting,
Everything down here is vile,
Oh my god
Oh my god
Ferocious fins
Dorsal fins perplexed
Snapper snapper teethy things
Fish cakes!
Fish cakes!
How can fish make cakes?
They haven’t got any hands!
But if fish haven’t got hands, then where do fish fingers come from?

Morrissons do ten for about a quid.