An Interview with MargOH Channing

Last month I performed in New York and I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of MargOH Channing. MargOH is a singer and comedian whose performances mix high camp and cabaret style singing with the seriousness of life itself, issues of identity and representation. We hit it off immediately, sharing a green room, though it must be noted that she finished all the Martini, and I had to help her down the stairs after a bit of a stumble on the second landing. MargOH is an engaging and almost tragic figure who has been very inspirational to me personally. I jumped at the chance to probe her in more detail in light of the recent presidential elections.

1- You come from a fishing community. How did you end up on the New York cabaret circuit?
 Darling my road was long and winding. I came from a very broken family so I had to go out on my own at a very young age. I actually moved to NYC as a child to work at my Aunt’s bar where I was discovered by Russ Meyer and was cast in his film “Common Law Cabin” and the rest is history…I call my cabaret career winding down as I’ve done just about everything, even Liberace!

2- I’ve noted from your work that you like the occasional drink. How does alcohol affect your performance?

 I don’t know how anyone can perform without it? Many years ago Elaine Stritch told me after I had a rough night at the Reno Sweeney. She said MargOH! “Stick to one before the show, one during and afterwards whose counting”. She came on a night when my panties fell off and I tripped and fell on Rex Reed, he was not happy as he picked pubes out of his teeth…well anyway its not like I gave him the clap!

3- Dear God. Trump. Did that actually happen? What’s the mood right now in liberal New York?

 Let me make a martini! People in this country are basically stupid! Reality TV has leaked into our news sources and everything is so sensationalized we can no longer tell the difference between fiction and reality any longer. Plus everyone is very nostalgic instead of looking to the future. The fact is people over 65 and their white kids vote for the old days when certain people knew their place. That is what got Trump elected. When we as a nation realize “Political Correctness” is progess then maybe we can elect visionaries instead of dusty old hacks…was that too harsh? 
4- Your performances and incredibly funny, occasionally tender, and with excellent comic timing. Who are your influences?

 I have so many influences but most of all Judy Garland is my muse, someone to aspire to be as a performer. When I started performing I wanted to be a celebrity, you know be loved, but that’s all wrong! As you get older you realize its about the work and sharing that connection with an audience. Judy did that better than anyone and I try to remember that everytime I walk out on stage, things may not be perfect but if you connect with just one person then it’s all good. I’m also a big fan of Totie Fields, Sandra Bernhard and downtown legend Penny Arcade. 
5- What’s a perfect night, in the eyes of MargOh Channing?

 Honestly, a good old dinner party with friends where someone ends up under the table or you wake up with someone in your bed and can’t remember a thing…Those are the moments I cherish…

6- There’s an underlying hint of personal tragedy in your act. Have times been hard?

 Are you sure that’s not my Chanel #5? In the world of Social Media where everyone shares their good times, I like to mess with everyone and let them see the real me…I never met a happy comedian, have you?

7- When you’re putting a show together, what makes the perfect big opening?

 As an audience member I do not like formula in a show, makes me feel they are taking the easy way out, challenge me please! Actually for the first time in my new show HUNG I open with a song, “You Go To My Head” . I’ve never done that before and do find it fun. In the past I’ve always opened with an overture or entrance song by my back up singers but since they all quit I had to change it up. The one thing I do always do is end with a ballad. Once, my musical director Tracy Stark asked me ‘Why do you always end with a sad song”? I replied, “I am a sad song.” 
8- Do your family miss you, now that you’re a big star in the big city?

 Of course, my sister Rita is always asking me to come back to Bangor to be her receptionist, she is a highly successful Opthalmologist! I never would have thought that was possible since she is cross-eyed but she is a trooper. My mother on the other hand is a bit of a problem so we shipped her off to a retirment home in Wasilla, Alaska. I thought it best Sarah Palin keep an eye on her or vice-versa…They come to shows when they can so we are all good!
9- What influences your writing?

 The underdog is my inspiration for writing. Injustice and inequality drive me to do what I do. I never felt part of the party so I write about that. It’s not always being the belle of the ball, it’s how you trip the one that is in the nicest possible way to let them know they may deserve it but I’m not sure why because you seem wretched. Does that make sense?
10- What advice might you have for any young buck who would like to take up performing?

 My best advice for an upcoming performer is something Burlesque Legend World Famous BOB said to me. “If you aren’t making yourself nervous or frightened every couple of weeks then you aren’t trying hard enough”. It was the best advice i was ever given and it’s so true. Do what you love to do and the audience will come, it may be harder and take much longer than you thought but when it happens you’ll know you stayed true to yourself and its magic. XOXO MargOH! 

Check out MargOH’s website:

On getting nervous at poetry gigs.

Last night I caught the train to Torquay and walked from the station to the Blue Walnut. It was seven years almost to the day since I started performing which means I’ve done the walk from the station regularly all that time. The road is steep and at one point it does a switch back, like a mountain road, and there are steps cutting through so that the pedestrian doesn’t have to follow the road and has a short cut. When I first started performing, I used to be so nervous walking this route that I would follow the road rather than take the short cut, because it prolonged the moment that I would arrive. In fact I used to be so nervous that before a gig, I would spend an hour in my flat lying on the floor staring at the ceiling, trying not to think about it.I chatted to Tim King last night and we both said how nervous we were before the gig. Perhaps it’s a good sign, being nervous. But even after all these years I feel something deep within, some fear of the unknown, of mucking it up, of being humiliated in front of a room full of strangers, of being exposed as an incompetent who’s only blagging his way through spoken word events. 

The biggest fear is probably of completely losing touch with everything. With the audience, with the words on the page, with the whole situation. The line between being in the audience, being a normal member of society, and being a poet, particularly a humorous poet whose job it is to make people laugh, is very thin. Anyone can do it. I did. I made that leap after coming along to a poetry night.

But there’s a suspension of disbelief inherent in being in the audience, and this is the thing that keeps me going. They’re not judging you, they’re there to have a good time and they want you to do well, particularly if they have paid to get in. The moment you step in front of the microphone you are on show, and everything you do comes through the filter of being there. Actions become acts and words become performance. The promoter has chosen you to be there, an instance of curatorial design, you have been hand picked and therefore judged as worthy to be on show. The audience knows this.

But that doesn’t stop me from being nervous. Even last night, cutting through and using the short cut on the way to the Blue Walnut, I felt that the walk was quicker than usual and I felt a bit cheated because of this. But it wasn’t as bad as it was in the old days.

A brief overview of the Devon poetry scene

Over a year ago I was asked by a magazine to write an article about the Devon performance poetry scene. They didn’t use it. So here it is in all it’s magaziney glory.
Jackie Juno is at the microphone reciting a poem. In gothic, black clothing, ankle boots and a pink feather boa, she doesn’t exactly look like the average poet. The audience is totally at her command and the room buzzes with hilarity. The poem is about Newton Abbot, and when she delivers the final line, there is laughter and thunderous applause. This is just an ordinary night at Torquay’s ‘Poetry Island’.
For the last six years I have travelled the country as a performance poet, delivering sets of whimsical and funny verse to audiences from Edinburgh to London, Wolverhampton to Swindon. Audiences everywhere tend to be enthusiastic for this niche blend of comedy, spoken word and poetry, and most cities have a certain style on the local scene which seems distinct to that area. A lot of London performers are influenced by rap, while Bristol’s thriving scene borrows the three-rhymes-per-line inflexions of hip hop. Yet I am constantly both delighted and perplexed by the diversity, flavour and creativity of the Devon performance poetry circuit.
It’s hard to pin down what it is which makes it so distinctive. Each poet is as diverse and as individual as the next without following any trend or local characteristic. As a result, the local circuit has become truly unique.
Some of these poets are starting to become recognized further afield. Ashburton’s Lucy Lepchani has recently been published by Burning Eye, the top publisher of performance poetry in the UK, and she performs regularly at festivals such as Glastonbury and Womad. Her poetry is about motherhood and nature and takes on feminist and political themes.
Tim King’s poetry is political, social and thoughtful, tackling issues such as drug addiction and child abuse, often performed with a ukulele or a loop pedal for added effect. Plymouth’s Richard Thomas has just had his second collection published by Cultured Llama Books, and his wry poetry about fatherhood and nature has seen him win praise from some of the top names in poetry. And my own oeuvre has taken me to the Edinburgh Fringe and some of the biggest poetry nights in London. We all have different styles, motivations and influences in our chosen field, yet we all come from a relatively small population spread.
What is it about the Devon scene which makes it so vibrant and diverse? For a start, there are an abnormally high number of monthly spoken word events in Devon. Because of this there are plenty of opportunities for local poets to try out new material in a supportive atmosphere. It also gives a chance for big names from further afield to visit, see the local talent, and invite them to gigs in London and Bristol.
Also, there is a culture on the local circuit of developing new talent and encouraging first time performers. Chris Brooks, the inaugural host of Poetry Island, would run workshops and courses to develop and hone the art of performance poetry, while most venues welcome new performers. The co-host of Exeter’s ‘Taking the Mic’, Tim King, is eager to give a platform to new voices.
‘Our job is to make sure they have a good experience as possible and keep coming back, learning and improving. It’s a very rare newcomer who fails to entertain at all’.
Tim reckons that the diversity and creativity of the local scene is due to the ‘tradition of openness and experimentation exhibited and encouraged by those who run local poetry events’.
Gina Sherman, the south-west coordinator for spoken word organisation Apples and Snakes says that, ‘Maybe it’s the sea air, the creative spirit and the down to earth people that make the Devon performance poetry scene so welcoming, intelligent, inclusive and witty’.
Whatever the reason, it’s clear that the local performance poetry circuit is going from strength to strength and developing an identity all of its own which has to be seen to be believed. Come along to a poetry venue yourself and you will not be disappointed!

Professionalism and free gigs

Lately I’ve been pondering on professionalism, or more precisely, my own professionalism as a performance poet. The reason I’ve been pondering on professionalism is that I’d like to get to a stage where I can say definitely that I am a professional. And I suppose the ultimate definition of professionalism is that I get paid to be a performance poet, and that it is sustainable and economically viable.
So the thing is that I’m quite lucky at the moment on two counts. The first is that I have a job, a nine to five job in retail management. So whether I’m professional as a poet or not, I’m still going to get paid. The second lucky thing is that I get paid to perform, in the most part. I also have books to sell and workshops, and I organise poetry events, and every now and then I get commissions which also pay. So in that sense I’m professional in that it’s slightly more than just a hobby.
However, I still do things which I’m sure a ‘professional’ wouldn’t. I find myself doing lots of free gigs, and these gigs will never be economically viable. It’s all very well doing a free gig if it’s for charity, giving up ones time for a good cause. But a lot of the major gigs I’ve done over the last year have been unpaid.
I live in a very silly part of the world. Paignton is nowhere near any major urban hub. There’s no culture here, so therefore there are no major poetry gigs. The last spoken word gig in Paignton was probably when the Epicentre Cafe held one of its wonderful Word Command nights, and that’s about four years ago. And then there was my book launch on the local book shop, but that’s about it. So if I’m going get paid for a gig, it would be Bristol or London at the nearest, and that means two or three hours on a train.
So every gig that I get paid for entails expense of travel and time, and actually getting there in the first place. I’m very fortunate to have had paid gigs all over the Uk and have made a bit of money doing so. But a lot of the gigs I’ve done have been unpaid.
So why do I do them? I was pondering this last night. What are the benefits? I suppose the major one is that I meet new people and get a chance to sell them books. I see other performers and o get inspired, and it’s always great to network and meet new and exciting people. And I can use my old material and see that it still works, or try out new pieces.
If I was making a living from poetry, then this would not be a viable means of making a living. Yet we need the free gigs so that people can see us. It’s advertising, and the best kind of advertising. That’s what I always tell myself.
So I’m happy to do the free gigs if they’re doable, but I have to choose them wisely. If every performer demanded payment then the gigs wouldn’t happen. If I were to leave my job and concentrate on my art full time, (something I’m considering at the moment), then I’d have to think very hard about such events.