I’d been performing for a few years as a spoken word artist, oblivious to those who had come before. And I must admit, wilfully obvious. The only big names I knew, with the exception of Pam Ayres, were those who I’d seen at gigs where I was also performing. The reason that I was oblivious was because I didn’t want to be influenced by anyone else. I knew that once I saw poets I liked, I would start to emulate them, look at what they were doing and try it for myself, like seeing someone in a fashionable hat and thinking hmmm, I wonder if that would suit me? And sure enough, this happened. I would see poets and spoken word artists reduce a room to fits of laughter, or stunned, awed silence, and I would then look at what they’d done and try to analyse it. I became a spoken word nerd. A spoken nerd,
But this knowledge was only good for those who were active at the present time. And one day, after a gig, someone asked me if I’d heard of Ivor Cutler. They said that they’d seen parallels between my own oeuvre and that of Mr Cutler. No, I hadn’t heard of him, but that night, unable to sleep due to the pumping adrenaline of having just performed at an open mic in Brixham, I went on YouTube and iTunes and knocked myself out on anything I could find of his work. Needless to say, it immediately appealed, but much more, and in a very strange sort of way, Ivor reminded me of my grandad. Not only was there a physical resemblance, but the humour, which almost sways into surrealism yet always stays grounded in truth and the human experience. I was immediately hooked.
This all happened close to ten years ago, now. My other poetry hero at the time, and major influence, was Frank O’Hara. But now it seemed I had two poets whose works I could memorise much easier than my own, two outlooks on life which I could also adopt, two poets who I can ask, as I sit down to write or stand up to perform, what would they do?
Ivor Cutler’s eccentricity seems to be something lacking these days. I go to plenty of spoken word events where the performer wants to be cool, to be liked, to get a message across, to make people laugh while still retaining the veneer of ironic and knowing cool, yet nobody seems to be genuinely eccentric. Or if they are eccentric, then this is not something which then carries over into their everyday life. Sure, I might aim for eccentricity myself, but I don’t wear the pink feather boa while going about my daily chores, and the eccentricity stops the moment I’m in a supermarket queue or on a bus. But with Mr Cutler, his whole life seemed a performance, wearing his distinctive hats while cycling, or handing out stickers with mottos on them. His genuine mission seemed to be to spread joy all the time, while basking in his own personality of glum duty. The best YouTube videos, incidentally, are those in which his mask slips and he gets an attack of the giggles during a poem.
Ivor was influenced by many factors. His Scottish upbringing, while exaggerated for comic effect, and his Jewish roots assured him the status of an outsider. The communal songs of his childhood and his appreciation of folk music formed a love of music and singing. His job as a teacher gave him the ability to talk to people, and children, at their level without pontificating. Ad as a result all of these influences combined to create a very distinctive act.
The world is a scary place. Life is meaningless. There are people who spend their time adding to the stresses and inconveniences of others. And there are people, just a few here and there, who aim to add a little colour along the way. Artists and singers, poets and writers, comedians, all of which Ivor was certainly was. Yet there was a certain underlying tenderness and love of life to many of his works which certainly stands as an example to those who are struggling to make sense of the modern world. Mr Cutler certainly remains, and increases, as a personal inspiration, and I would recommend his work to anyone.