Last month I spent an enjoyable four days in a tent in the pouring rain in Malmsebury at the Womad Festival. The whole site was filled with exotic foodstuff stalls and examples of world music, and lessons where you could learn to play yak skin drums. I spent all of my time at the poetry tent, marveling at the artistry and dedication of some of the finest performance poets in the UK. One of them was Scott Tyrrell.
I’d heard that he was both very good and very funny, a multiple slam winner and the current Anti-Slam Champion. Nothin quite prepared me for how good and how funny he actually was. He was very good indeed, and very funny indeed. Hilarious, animated, his wit and wordplay precision crafted for maximum effect. I was immediately captivated. So it was not a surprise when he won the BBC Poetry Slam at the Edinburgh Fringe a couple of weeks ago, meaning that he is now officially both the best and the worst slam poet in the country.
One of the reasons I celebrated his win was that as a comic poet myself, I have often come second at slams having been beaten by someone really incredibly serious and worthy. My poem about being envious of beards was completely obliterated in the final of the Bristol poetry slam by Stephen Duncan’s excellent piece about the history of black culture from slavery to the present day. Scott Tyrrell’s win showed me that you can be funny and still win slams.
This cheered me up a lot. But then it also depressed me, because it meant that I just need to be funnier.
I decided I would interview Mr Tyrrell as soon as possible to find out more about him, and to share in his amazing accomplishments.
– You use the craft of comedy to good effect in your poetry and I believe you had a background in stand up. How did you get in to performance poetry?
I actually started writing poetry before standup. I was 26 and it just happened one day. I wrote 3 poems in a row. No reason, I was inexplicably compelled. And they weren’t complete shit – well one of them was pretentious drivel but the other 2 were reasonably crisp and funny for first goes. I had a very pushy flatmate at the time called Leila who pushed me into going along to an open mic night at a pub in Byker, Newcastle called the Fighting Cocks (None of these names inspired confidence if I’m honest). Despite my legs actually shaking I got through a 4 poem set – with laughs in the right places and a pint at the end of it. I was hooked and I kept going back every week (wearing baggy jeans so no one would see my legs shaking) and that’s where the Poetry Vandals formed – 4 of us initially – Jeff Price, Aidan Halpin Annie Moir and me. To be followed later by Karl Thompson and Kate Fox.
We toured a bit round the country and did the Prague Fringe 2 years in a row and it was great fun. Then I moved to Manchester and chanced my arm doing actual standup – with poems – but soon learned that if one is introduced as a comedy poet in a comedy club one is met with groans before a word is uttered. So I prised the two disciplines apart and did straight standup in comedy clubs and tried writing poetry with a little more depth for poetry nights. It was while living in Manchester that I was invited to Bristol to compete in my first poetry slam representing Newcastle/Gateshead at the Capital of Culture Slam and was (much to my own surprise as well as everyone else) the winner – against the likes of a young Luke Wright and Julian Ramsey-Wade.
I pursued the comedy a bit more but despite winning a Manchester new act competition I was becoming disillusioned and bitchy as a comic. I’d become the comedy cliché of complaining about why so-and-so managed to get a weekend at the Store (he must be sucking up to Don Ward or manufacturing his reviews, etc.)
I met my future wife about this time on a trip back up to Newcastle and she has a daughter who neither of us wanted to uproot so I knocked the comedy on the head, moved back to Newcastle and went back to my first vocation as a graphic designer. But the need to write wouldn’t leave me alone so I continued with the poetry. There were a few wilderness years but I hit a stride again a few years back. I was talking to James Mckay (fellow poet who started in Newcastle the same time as me) that the secret to success is to just not go away.
– Who are your poetry heroes?
Spike Milligan was my first but there’s sometimes over-sentimentality and shallowness that puts me off his poetry now. John Hegley was the real revelation. He was silly, poignant, but with a melancholy that hinted at such ache under the surface. He still blows me away, both in the subtlety of his writing and his performance. He just has to flinch an eyebrow or sigh and you’re in the palm of his hand. Contemporaries I respect that come to mind are Elvis McGonegall, Kate Fox, Ann Porro, Anna Freeman, AF Harrold, Vanessa Kisuule, Jonny Fluffypunk, Erin Bolens and Megan Beech. There are loads that have me ache at the skill they employ. I feel like such a cheeky poor cousin to some of these guys.
– And who are your comedy heroes?
Late eighties Billy Connolly, early nineties Eddie Izzard, the Pythons, Milligan, Tommy Cooper, Vic and Bob, Eric Morcambe, Julie Walters and Victoria Wood, early Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson, early Mel Brooks, Graham Linehan, Dylan Moran. People with a distinctive uncompromising voice that exude real warmth and intelligence.
– What kind of a strategy do you adopt for slam competitions?
Show range. If it’s a 3 rounder I try to have a solid funny one, a deeper serious one and one that tries to combine a bit of both. But in what order I perform depends entirely on the order you’re picked and what has been previously performed. I try to contrast with what has just gone. You have to forget it’s a competition. You just have to focus on giving your best performance and feel a responsibility that the audience have come to have a good time. You’re not there to impress or prove how clever you are or preach a gospel. As soon as you get behind a mic you’re an entertainer.
– Where do you get your inspiration? Your Trip Advisor poem is just genius!
Aww cheers. That was one of those serendipitous occasions where a natural juxtaposition happened. It was close to Christmas and I just happened to be piecing together the supposed chronological events of the nativity with a colleague from what we remembered from school on a coffee break (must have been a slow day). I joked that Joseph and Mary must have been really pissed off that night as they’d travelled all the way from Nazareth whilst Mary was in the final stage of pregnancy on an uncomfortable donkey only to be offered no accommodation, just a shit-strewn stable with loads of weird strangers turning up while you’re giving birth. On the way back to my desk someone had Trip Advisor open on their machine, so I put the two together. I then made Joseph into a grumpy Geordie and that was it. Most of my ideas come from my family. I could literally (and may yet) write a book about all the weird shit my 7 year old son comes out with.
– How do you go about writing a poem for an anti-slam?
Pick your character first. Give them a basic backstory. Then either place them out of their comfort zone or let them spill their beans about something. Malcolm Odour (my Anti-slam character) more or less wrote the poem himself. He’s me if I’d never had sex and never moved away from home – a complete awkward loner who believes he’s had many girlfriends because he has a vivid imagination and has in fact stalked most of them.
– What is your rehearsal method?
It’s changed over the years. I used to be able to retain my material so easily when I was younger. 2 or 3 readings and it was in. However, since having kids I’ve found it harder as I have all the stuff they’re likely to forget about stashed in my brain corridor along with whole episodes of the Power Puff Girls and the words to every Julia Donaldson and Michael Rosen book. I have method now. I record myself doing an exaggerated version with over emphasis on rhythms and words, then play it back in the car while driving so I can remember it musically.
– How important are regional accents in extruding comedy from material?
As important as the emphasis you place on them. If the writing demands it, do it, but I’ve never been drawn to one accent or another with comedy. It’s all about the writing and whether the point comes across for me. Saying that, when Julie Walters performs Mrs. Overall saying “Coconut Macaroooon, Miss Babs” I snort.
– What advice do you have for other slam poets?
It’s just a bit of fun. It’s an arbitrary competition in which a bunch of people judge the most subjective art form there probably is for the purposes entertainment. A few poetry lovers give you 0.3 more than the next poet and hey, you’re a winner! It’s absurd, but people are strange creatures that have invisible shelves in their brain for you and your capabilities. And an award puts you on a higher pretendy shelf. Them’s the crazy rules.
– How does it feel to be the BBC champion!
See previous answer – plus kinda great despite that 😉
– What next for Scott Tyrrell?
Some nice gigs coming up on the back of the BBC Slam. Doing a headline spot at the Bare Knuckle Poetry Slam at Northern Stage, Newcastle November 5th. Doing gigs that haven’t been officially announced yet in Leicester, Southampton and Yorkshire over the coming months. Especially looking forward to representing the UK along with Sophia Walker, Toby Campion and Paula Varjack at a slam in Boston USA next July. A hugely respected gig has been offered to me next year that I can’t announce yet. And this Saturday (12th September) I’ll be joining old comic friends in a fund-raiser for Syrian refugees at the Stand, Newcastle – organised by Jason Cook, writer of BBC2’s Hebburn.