Why I Am Not A Surrealist

When I was younger some of my favourite artists and musicians were surrealists. Salvador Dali and The Beatles, for example. Semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower. That sort of thing. The imagery and the language of these were exciting and daring and I couldn’t get enough of the thinking behind such overtly provocative works. But as my adventures in art and music progressed, I started to realise that while the effects of these were immediate on the first viewing, they quickly wore off.

I don’t want to see another damn melting clock.

It took a while, but I began to realise that surrealism in small doses is okay, but there always has to be some kind of grounding in the familiar, in real life. It has to be relatable. Maybe it’s just the way I look at the world, but I’ve got to a stage in my life where surrealism is deeply unsatisfactory to see or read, particularly in poetry.

Let’s make a hypothetical poem. It’s going to be a surreal one, so we’re going to look at imagery. I see a plum. The plum has a moustache for some reason. The plum has a moustache, that’s the first line of this poem. Okay, so if this poem was a Robert Garnham poem, I’d then go on to follow the plum around for a few stanzas to see what life is like being a plum with a moustache. In such a way I ground the poem in the every day, in the humdrum. The plum has a problem eating soup because of the moustache. The plum can’t get a date because every plum he meets doesn’t like moustaches. You know, run of the mill kind of stuff.

But if I were a surrealist, then in the next verse, I’d move on from the plum with the moustache. I see a tap dancing horse called Mona, and the King of South Dakota is there, waving a cricket bat. And yes, this is all rather whimsical at the moment and a little but humorous, but if I read this again tomorrow I’d think: yeah, whatever.

I have, therefore, identified the moment, the junction, where a poem can go either way. On the left, full blown surrealism, all sunny and stupid and a bit dizzy. And on the right, the kind of tempered down-to-earth surrealism that people can relate to. This Point of Realist Return (PRR) is immediately divisible by the interest of the reader (I) and responds well to Repeating Reading (RR). I divided by PRR times RR equals a Satisfying Read (SR). A surrealist poem may also have a PRR but there the I is, unfortunately, not equal to the RR, and therefore the SR is of a lower outcome than the less surrealistic piece.

I hope that this has cleared things up.

What I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that the poems which work best for me are those which have some kind of bearing on my life. My hero, Frank O’Hara, wrote poems based on his own life, his famous ‘I Do This I Do That’ poems. Yet he, too, dabbled in surrealism earlier in his career, and these poems are stodgy and hard work to read. You could tell that he was having a lot of fun writing them, but as a reader, well, there’s ironing to be getting on with.

I’m not against other poets being surreal. The performance poetry community is wide and varied and this is what makes it so vibrant. If every poet was the same, then we’d be better off not turning up. And who knows, perhaps someone might come along and surprise me with a set of sheer surrealist excellence.

Or perhaps my life is just so strange that I can’t possibly deal with any more of it!fun front

An Interview with AJ McKenna

Hello, AJ. You’ve had a busy couple of years, it looks like. What have been the highlights, both in terms of your poetry, and personally?

I think the two biggest highlights professionally have been my film, ‘Letter to a Minnesota Prison’, about the case of CeCe McDonald, which was shown at the Royal Festival Hall as part of ‘Architects of Our Republic’, an Apples and Snakes project – and, more recently, working as Deputy Editor at the online LGBT magazine So So Gay, which I did from last spring until I stepped down at the start of this year to concentrate on my own writing. The great thing about that role was the opportunity it gave me to amplify other trans voices, by commissioning work from people like J Mase III, Elaine O’Neill and Jude Enroljas.

– You’re a wonderfully outspoken person, fighting intolerance in all its forms. Do all poets have a duty to highlight the things that make them angry?

We live in very angry times: the news reports over the past week have been enough to confirm that. But equally, they’ve been very interesting in giving us space in which to consider what kinds of expression of anger are artistically worth it. If you look at the stuff that Charlie Hebdo was publishing, there is undoubtedly an anger behind it, but it’s a kind of spluttering, obvious, one-dimensional anger. No-one deserves to die for producing cartoons like that, but equally, they aren’t worth dying for either. If you think about some of the great free speech cases, stuff like the suppression of Ulysses, or the Lady Chatterley trial, or the Howl case, it absolutely would have been worth dying to have produced works like those. They were all to some extent motivated by anger, but it seems to me that they made something out of their anger which is beautiful and arresting and three-dimensional. So I think the question you have to ask is – can I make something worthwhile of my anger? Can I turn it into something which has space in it? That’s what you should ask yourself.

– Can you tell us a little bit about transphobia?

Well, it’s obviously the main thing I get angry about! Transphobia is the irrational prejudice people have against trans people – I don’t want to say it’s ‘the same as’ homophobia is for cisgender (non-trans) gay people, but obviously there are differences. Transphobia is still a lot more casually tolerated in this society than homophobia, for one. For another, you often encounter cis gay people who can be horribly transphobic, which really makes me angry, because you’d think if you understand what it’s like to be a minority you would hope people wouldn’t inflict the same hurt on other people.

– I see you are putting together a one hour show for the Edinburgh Fringe. Can you tell us anything about it?

The original idea for the show was to do an extended version of one of my 20-minute sets, a set which focuses on performing pieces which are inspired by the worst things people have said to me. It’s still based on that initial premise, but gradually other themes are emerging – politics (gender politics particularly), family, my years as a teenage anorexic, and a large helping of what I can only refer to as sex and violence. Hopefully people will find that a heady enough combination!

– Which poems do you consider to be your ‘greatest hits’?

The two poems people ask for most at gigs are ‘You’re fucking dead lol j/k’, which is my anti-banter poem, and ‘My revelation will not be trivialised’, which is a poem I wrote in response to transphobic labels. And the video of mine which has had the most hits on YouTube is ‘The Bathroom Thing’, my poem about anti-trans bathroom panic. So yes, I see your point about being outspoken…

– What aims do you have when you sit down to write a poem?

I tend to write in one of two ways – either something will make me very immediately angry, in which case I’ll write something as a kind of rapid response. Usually with these I don’t really have an idea of where the piece will end up – I’ll start with a line and then riff on it from there and see where it gets me. ‘My revelation’ was written in that way – I’d been annoyed by being referred to as a ‘TV’ and so I started riffing on the phrase ‘I am not a TV’, coming up with ways in which I’m not, which of course led me to think about Gil Scott-Heron and ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ and so I thought I’d carry on in that fashion and…eventually the poem was pretty much written, and only needed a few tweaks thereafter.

The other way I tend to write is that I’ll have an idea in my head which worries away at me for ages, unconsciously, then eventually I’ll find a way into it and come up with something. ‘Letter to a Minnesota Prison’ went like that: I’d wanted to write a poem about CeCe McDonald for a while – indeed I’d made numerous attempts and none of them had really came off. I’d heard about her being wrongly imprisoned for defending herself against a transphobic, racist attack, and I’d initially tried to write a poem about it in the style of that Bob Dylan song, ‘The Ballad of the Hurricane’, but…well, it worked out about as well as you can expect.

Then I was commissioned to do a poem for ‘Architects of Our Republic’, an Apples and Snakes event commemorating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. I had no idea how to proceed with it – in fact I found the commission quite daunting. So I decided to start by reading over the speech – the whole speech, not just the peroration, the ‘I have a dream’ bit, which everyone remembers. One of the interesting moments in the earlier part of the speech is a point when he compares the Declaration of Independence to a bad cheque. The interesting thing about this in the context of the CeCe McDonald case was that one of the key pieces of evidence used against her in her pre-trial hearing was that she’d written a cheque that bounced. So this gave me a way in. I began with ‘Your cheque bounced, CeCe…’ and the poem flowed from there. Then it was just a matter of editing.

– Who are your heroes, both in literature, and more widely?

In contemporary poetry my heroes are, in no particular order, Joelle Taylor, Sophia Walker and Angela Readman. More widely I adore the work of Alison Bechdel, the cartoonist who wrote Fun Home, which was a key influence on my decision to come out; Laverne Cox, who’s used her fame from appearing in Orange is the New Black to help advance trans rights; Fallon Fox, who’s done similar work in a much more dangerous environment as the world’s first out trans mixed martial arts fighter…and I’ve always been a massive, massive Tori Amos fan. I don’t think I’d actually write poetry if it hadn’t been for Tori!

– And who are your villains?

Now that is a much longer list! But you could probably sum it up as Tories, transphobes, and Ukip supporters.

– There seems to be a thriving performance poetry scene in Newcastle. Who are the other notable poets who perform regularly there?

That’d be another long list then! But we are blessed to have some amazing poetry and spoken word artists in the region. There’s Jenni Pascoe, who runs Jibba Jabba, Kirsten Luckins, whose show ‘The Moon Cannot Be Stolen’ is an amazing blend of poetry and music…Rowan McCabe is a massive rising star too, who’s also done an amazing show called ‘North East Rising’. Degna Stone, winner of the Verb new voices award…Amy Mackelden, who…her shows are not pure poetry but as spoken word they’re amazing. I remember seeing a performance of her show the ‘Seven Fatal Mistakes of Online Dating’ which finished with her performing a poem to a random guy on Chatroulette, after which the entire audience gave him a big wave. Such an amazing, risk-taking moment. And so nice, too! There’s Ira Lightman, as well, who I consider Britain’s most avant-garde poet, though he doubtless knows 18 different people doing even more experimental stuff than him. Ask him about the clown t-shirts. There’s Asa J Maddison, whose performance poem, ‘Boom’, is one of the most powerful things I saw last year; Sky Hawkins, Chris Harland…there are loads of us. Just move up here already! All of you!

– What are your plans as a poet for the next couple of years?

There is no plan!

AJ is performing at Stirred in Manchester on Monday 23rd February, Talking Heids in Leith on Tuesday 22nd, and at ‘Do Us Proud’, a special event to mark the end of LGBT History Month in York, on Thursday 25th


An Interview with Tim King

Tim King

One of my best friends in the world of performance poetry is Tim King. He is a man of integrity and innovation, art and language, with a real sense of justice and an understanding of what it is which keeps us all going. His poetry is by turns personal and universal, exploring themes of loss, addiction and living. Some of his work is playful, with rules and strictures which he imposes on himself for the purposes of their composition. Some of his poems, also, are incredibly funny.

I first met Tim at a performance poetry workshop almost five years ago. Since then we have worked closely at venues all over the south west of England, appearing together at the Rest Festival in Salisbury, slams in Bristol and Cheltenham, and as part of a larger ensemble at festivals in both Barnstaple and Denbury.

We have also shared some crazy adventures getting to these events, most of which have been shared on this blog in months past.

Tim is a first class poet and performer and a wonderful human being. There’s also something very reassuring about his beard.

1. Hi Tim. It’s a simple question, but how did you get in to ‘performance poetry’?

Hello Robert. Thanks for breaking me in gently. I think it’s all to do with feeling I have stuff to say. I’m trying to discover what that stuff is and how best to say it, but of course it keeps changing. In the past I wrote songs and sung in bands, although I always deferred to the musicians in those situations so often the focus would slip. I had this idealistic notion that if we all worked together a certain synergy would occur and the end product would become more than the sum of it’s parts. In reality I found my ideas were routinely diluted. At that time I lacked the confidence, musicianship and persuasiveness to articulate myself adequately or the authority to impose my half-baked ideas on people who could do things I couldn’t do. Performance poetry seemed like a way to achieve roughly the same thing without having to worry about all the musical nonsense. Liv Torc got me started.

2. Your themes touch on issues which ought to concern everyone such as environmental matters and FGM. Should all poets or performers draw attention to such matters? Is it ok to be political?

I think it’s definitely okay to be political with a small ‘p’ – we’re social creatures and essentially society and politics are the same thing. That said, engaging from an explicitly party political perspective seems counter-productive. I don’t see the point in alienating folk before you’ve even started. I wouldn’t presume to say what other poets and performers should do, although I do think making work which reflects one’s own interests and enthusiasms is probably a good start. I feel passionately about the environment and the sexual abuse of children, so I make some of my work about those subjects. For me the whole point of performing is to connect in such a way that the audience realises I’m a person, just like them. Of course, everybody already knows this, it’s obvious… but there are levels of knowing. It’s about getting under the skin, exchanging a spark or doing whatever it takes to truly communicate the shared nature of our humanity – our oneness – if you will. To that extent, I think so long as it emanates from a real place all art is automatically political. It’s ultimately subversive, because accepting that all people are essentially the same makes it harder to countenance authoritarianism, inequity and cruelty.

3. Will you be doing more musical works in the future?

Yes and no. I’ll definitely be incorporating more musical ideas into my ‘act’ over the coming period but I’m not planning to do anything exclusively musical (e.g. a musical).

4. Who are your influences, both within poetry, and outside?

As a child I loved Spike Milligan, Edward Lear and Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol. I also grew up entranced by 60’s pop music: the Beatles, the Kinks, the Small Faces, etcetera. I really like intimate, cosy, domestic seeming stuff that somehow speaks of underlying profundity. I like nonsense too.

As a teenager I was greatly influenced by gender-bending glam-rock minstrels Bolan and Bowie, although probably the biggest single impetus to my creativity came from the discovery of Kate Bush in the late 70’s.

I loved the way her work was so different from anything I’d encountered before. It opened the door to the possibility of not following the herd, not trying to be true to anything other than the little voice inside. She gave me the kick I needed to stop worrying about whether or not I was good enough and just get on with it. She touched me deeply and I love her to bits.

John Cooper-Clarke, John Hegley and Neil Innes all featured quite heavily in my adolescence and early adulthood, but it wasn’t until I went along to Taking the Mic in Exeter and saw Liv Torc host and perform in 2010 that I began to think seriously about doing something similar myself. Liv is great – totally outspoken, a brilliantly funny and original poet and very encouraging. She’s helped a lot of excellent poets in Devon on their way and now she’s doing similarly inspirational things in Somerset with Take Art and further afield with the Hip Yak Poetry Shack. I love Liv too – not to quite as many bits as Kate though. Kate gets the lion’s share of the bits and Liv gets more hugs. To be honest, I guess that’s more a matter of opportunity than anything else. I hope that doesn’t look bad? What was the question again?

5. Your work is unique and no two poems seem to adopt the same rules or format. Is constant reinvention important in any art form?

That’s an extremely kind thing to say. Thank you. With regard to rules and format, I’ve frequently read that, in design ‘form should follow function’. In art, I think form is much more an integral part of function. For me, working to rules is a really good way of tying up the analytical part of my mind just enough to let the subconscious stuff through. Left to free-run, I’d probably write pretty much in strict ballad form (I blame Wilde and 60’s pop music) which could quickly become quite boring. I’ve always enjoyed setting up alternative strictures and structures to avoid this. More recently I’ve found myself using more fractured forms – re-mixing predictable forms in unlikely ways, mashing poems together, shouting “CUT” periodically, that sort of thing. It’s pathetic really.

So far as re-invention goes, lots of great artists constantly repeat themselves: Monet’s lily ponds, Shakespeare’s interminable iambic pentameter, James Turner’s brilliant sonnets. I think it’s horses for courses. I’m more of a flighty filly – but hopefully I can still run the race.

6. You have maintained the same performance image since I first met you, wearing the same type of shirt at each event. In such a way, you have a trademark style. How important is this to your performance?

I’m not sure it affects my performance at all. It is useful when I go places and people recognise me from the clothes. I may have to change the shirts soon, as the elbows are wearing a bit thin. I’m considering a complete change of style. When I can be bothered to find a ‘new look’ I’ll probably stick with it for a while. Recognisability is definitely helpful.

7. What are your plans for the following year?

I have a couple of one-man shows I’m working towards: one about growing up, called Significant Childhood Sexual Trauma and another about climate change (as part of the research I’m doing a two-month online climate-science course with Exeter Uni starting in January) – I guess these shows will be ready when they’re ready. I don’t really think in terms of years. In the more immediate future I’m planning to get out and about a lot more during the coming months, hopefully putting together a small nationwide tour of Open Mics for the Spring and Summer. I’m also going to anthologise my chap-books into one mega-chap-book so I have something to sell on the tour which hasn’t been booked yet and I need to sort out my online presence. There may be some musical collaborations in the offing too. It’s possible I’ll need a life coach.

8. As a co-host of a performance night, what advice would you give to anyone who would like to get started as a performance poet?

Do what you want. Don’t try to second-guess the audience and do what you think they want you to do. They want you to do what you want to do. They want to see your passion. They need to see your passion. Don’t be a tribute act. Be you. You rock! That’s my advice – by all means, feel free to ignore it.

9. Which work of yours are you proudest of?

Back in 2013 I put together a show with a brilliant singer/songwriter called Rebecca Maze and fellow poets James Turner and Morwenna Griffiths. We did three performances of Returning the Dark Stare in three separate venues in Torquay and Exeter. People cried and laughed and felt transformed and said wonderful, wonderful things about the evening. Could that be my single proudest achievement to date? I don’t know. I’m not terribly susceptible to pride. Being one of the performers chosen for the first WOMAD Poetry stage in 2013 was pretty cool (as was being invited back for more in 2014) and working closely with Chris Redmond and client’s of MIND as part of Take Art’s ”The Thing Is…’ workshop project was another highlight. Running Taking the Mic with Morwenna for the past three years has been a joy. Watching people develop. Making friends. I dunno. For now I’m just having a ball. Mainly I feel gratitude. I know I haven’t really answered the question, but I promise I’ll be sure to let you know when I feel properly proud of something! http://iamnotasilentpoet.wordpress.com/tag/tim-king/

Thanks so much, Tim!