Performance Poetry and Me

This is the speech I shall be giving in a couple of weeks time at a sixth form college.

Robert Garnham – On Writing and on Being a Poet

For some reason I have always wanted to be a writer. When I was a kid I would write whenever the opportunity arose. Blank paper and notebooks used to fill me with a strange excitement as if I could just reach out and touch the stories that hadn’t come into existence yet. They seemed imbued with the promise of a thousand possible plot developments, characteristics, humour and high jinx, whimsy and rhyme. I would walk to school hoping that it would rain at lunchtime so that I could stay in the classroom and write on scrap paper instead of running around the playground and playing ‘It’ or whatever the hell it was we used to do. To this day I still love it when it rains because it reminds me of those days. The rain brings people down to my level.

As I grew up I found myself with less time for writing. But I did a lot of reading. Where friends watched football and sports and would know everything about what I believe they call the ‘FA Cup’, I followed the Booker Prize, the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Best Seller lists, the Culture Show, the weekend book reviews. Instead of Keegan, Wayne Rooney and David Beckmann, I had Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Marcel Proust. These were my heroes. I’d write emulating their style and I’d hope that someone might read it and say that I was just as good as them. My writing was rubbish. And my school friends would laugh because I didn’t know who was leading the ‘FA Cup’.

And then modern life intervened, like a rhinoceros poking through the bins out the back of Lidls. GCSEs, A-levels, exams, my first job in Sainsbury’s, falling in love, all the usual things. Powerboat racing. Haberdashery. Eventually I had a full time job and I was an adult, and then I decided to do Open University in the evenings while working during the day time. My writing suffered, as you can tell from this paragraph. And instead of writing to write novels and epics and modernist classics, I found myself writing short stories, plays and poems. Looking back now it’s a wonder I found the time even to do these. I had a bit of moderate success when a couple of short stories were published in a magazine. I was so happy that I wrote to the editor to thank him for taking a chance on an unknown twenty-three year old. He wrote back to say that he was seventeen. A few years later, a play I wrote called ‘Fuselage’ won a competition and excerpts from it were put on over two nights at the Northcott Theatre in Exeter by a professional cast, one of whom had been in Doctor Who. Things were looking up. And then the Northcott went bankrupt and fired everyone I’d been working with. I’m still not sure if the two events were connected!

‘Fuselage’ is in a drawer at home, at the moment.

In late 2010 I decided I needed to get out more and see some culture in my local area. By this time I was doing an MA in Museum Management and my brain was becoming frazzled. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to manage a museum as a job, but I concluded that I’d better finish what I’d started. To distract myself, I went to a night of performance poetry hosted by a comedian poet by the name of Chris Brooks, and I thoroughly enjoyed what I saw. It seemed to speak to me, and the audience was engaged, supportive, appreciative.

I’d never heard of performance poetry before, but I could see that it was a cross between comedy and poetry, and I thought, ‘I want to have a go at this’. Chris Brooks took a chance on and offered me a slot at the next evening. Feeling incredibly nervous, I went along a performed a couple of silly poems I’d written, and to my surprise the audience liked it, and so did Chris. They laughed in all the right places and clapped at the end. Nobody booed and nobody threw anything, and the one person who did walk out had only gone to the toilet. Chris invited me along to the next night, and then every night thereafter.

From this point, things built up steadily. I studied the craft of performance poetry – or ‘spoken word’, as some like to call it – and quickly deduced who the best ones were. There were the obvious choices, like John Hegley, Matt Harvey, John Cooper Clarke, and yes, Pam Ayres. These were the big names, with radio and TV exposure, legions of fans and each with well-crafted and rehearsed poems, polished rhymes, a certain rapport with their audiences. And then there were others, just as good if not better, like Byron Vincent, Rob Auton, Ash Dickinson, Liv Torc, Thommie Gillow, Nathan Filer. These were the people I was completely in awe of.

Big names from the spoken word circuit would come down to Torquay and I’d start to find myself invited to other places to perform. When Liv Torc, the Bard of Exeter at the time, invited me to her evening in Exeter, I felt like Wayne Rooney when he scored that thing he did for that team he plays for in the FA Cup Championship. Rachel Pantechnicon so liked my oeuvre that they invited me to London, offering me my first paid gig as a performance poet. And since then I have slowly built up a little bit of a reputation as poet of interest, performing regularly in London and various other places. The fact I get paid for it is still, for me, deeply surprising.

The other thing I’ve done of late is to start entering slams. Poetry slams are competitions in which the poet and their performance are judged by the audience. I was fortunate enough to win the Exeter Poetry Slam in 2012, and I came second at the Bristol Poetry Slam in 2013. I also came 22nd in the Cheltenham Slam, but I don’t talk about that one. My favourite slam was in Berlin, where I came fourth, even though I was the only one in English, and I couldn’t understand a word that anyone was saying.

So. How do I write?

To write, I have to be in a certain frame of mind. Sometimes this frame of mind comes easily, and I can just sit down and go for it. Sometimes it doesn’t. I might be distracted by small things, like whether or not the freezer needs defrosting, or whether or not to do a selfie and put it on Instagram, or why on earth it is that people like Eammon Holmes. So I have to get myself in the mood for writing. The best method is to get a piece of paper and just write anything. It can be a poem, or a paragraph, or some lines about nothing in particular, anything just to get the ink flowing and the mind conditioned. It’s kind of like swimming in the sea. You just have to plunge in and get used to it. Once you’ve got over the psychological barrier, then you’re free to go.

It’s good to have a specific place to write. I have an old-fashioned desk in my flat which is great for note taking and rough outlines, but there are too many distractions, like books, the TV, the freezer as it defrosts, and how many people have liked the selfie I put on Instagram. If you’re good at ignoring such distractions, then that’s half the battle won. The best place I have for writing is at my parent’s house. They have a room at the back of their garage which is totally shut off from the rest of the world and far enough from their house so as not to hear them arguing about dinner. There’s no TV or Facebook or Family Guy or whatever it is that young people watch these days. The only distraction is the tumble dryer, the rhythm of which, I find, actually helps with poetry.

I always write in pen first. I’ve used the same pen since 1995 for everything I’ve written. I write everything in hand first, then type it up. I’m writing this right now in long hand using the 1995 pen. This very sentence. This very word. And the full stop at the end of this sentence. Some people can just type straight away, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I was chatting to a poet the other day who uses a voice recognition computer program and just speaks his poems right on to the screen. Maybe this is something I’d like to try one day, but I’d probably get a sneezing fit halfway through. Which would be very interesting.

The other thing I do is to read. I read all the modern poets, particularly those in the performance poetry community. I watch poets on YouTube and I go to poetry nights, usually with a notebook to make notes on what I see. I read as much as I possibly can for inspiration, and I take the poems I really like apart just to see how the poet gets a certain effect. I also get inspiration from other places, like music. I love pop music. The use of words in pop music is both economical and pure. Take for example The Wanted’s ‘Walks Like Rhianna’, or a song by One Direction. No matter what you think of the bands, the lyrics do a really good job of creating an impression quickly, efficiently.

Finally, I take my notebook everywhere. It’s amazing where inspiration comes from. Just listening to people, or seeing things happen and the way people act, may result I a certain line or idea coming into your head. I’ve filled in so many notebooks with lines and snippets of conversation that it’s fun to read back every now and then. Of course, sometimes ideas come at the worst of places. I do a lot of swimming, and that’s when ideas seem to come.

So to top it all off, if I had one piece of advice for any writer, it is to read a lot, see a lot, write a lot. Read books, read the classics, look at the world, look at both high and low culture, literature and pop, listen to people, but most of all, write!


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