If you go on Netflix you’ll find a comedy documentary called Jerry Seinfeld : Comedian. This film highlights the differences between a comedian just starting to make a name for himself, and an established comedian, Jerry Seinfeld, trying out new material having decided to ditch everything he’d performed, to great success, up to that point.
It’s a fascinating film because it shows the process Jerry went through of learning new lines, trying them out, occasionally forgetting his words, occasionally having a bad gig, and you can really tell that this was something that he was putting a lot of work into. And it’s also something which I can, to a lesser extent, relate to.
I’ve been performing comedy poetry now since 2008 and during that time, whenever I’ve been asked to headline or feature somewhere, there have been a certain canon of poems which I utilise, having perfected these over the years and knowing, more or less, what the audience response might be. It’s been something of a comfort, having these poems : Beard Envy, Plop, Badger in the Garden, Little House, Jellyfish, etc. The only times I’ve varied this set has been the addition of a poem or two from whatever hour show I’ve been working on. The Tea Rap, and High Tea, both came from my show Spout and found their way into my usual headline set.
However, using this method resulted in a strange feeling which I’m sure is not unique to me as a performer and as a writer. I started to become jealous of the version of me who existed when I wrote these poems. I was jealous of the version of me who existed when I started rehearsing these poems. I was jealous of an earlier version of myself. And because of this, I’d tell myself that I couldn’t write or perform this way any more. That the best years were already behind me.
In 2020 I started work on a new show, Yay : The Search for Happiness, which was all new material, though I’d been working on some of these poems since around 2016. The new show was the perfect vehicle for some of the poems which had never made their way into a headline set before, such as Sideburns, or Instructions for my Funeral. For me, there were two ‘stand out’ poems from the show, Shakka Lakka Boom, and Seaside Soul. Both can be performed with gusto and Shakka Lakka Boom has a catchy refrain that people can join in with. Hooray!, I thought. Two new ‘bangers’ which might make their way into hypothetical headline sets.
At the same time as writing Yay, I was also working on a project with the fishermen of Brixham, which eventually became a sequence of poems called Squidbox. Most of these poems were earnest and dealt with serious subjects such as wartime refugees, family history or the rigours of deep sea trawling, but I did include one poem ‘just for myself’, a very silly performance piece called Seagrasses. I performed this a couple of times at events to publicise Squidbox organised by Torbay Culture or Brixham Museum, and this too became another ‘potential banger’.
Once the pandemic quietened down a bit and normal life began, so too did gigs and offers of paid slots, and that’s when the idea came that possibly, just possibly, I might try and start performing only new material whenever the chance arose. This idea seemed both foolish and a little scary, because I’d held on to some of the old poems for so long that people told me they could recite them almost word for word. The trouble with this was that I didn’t have nearly enough potential material to fill a paid slot.
My philosophy when putting a set together has always been variety. A poem with singing, some dancing, a poem with music, a slam poem, a rhyming poem . . I always wanted to vary things up so that audiences did not become too bored, and doing away with what had become a carefully honed and varied set seemed a huge risk.
I sat down last year and started work on new poems. Yet this was fraught. There’s nothing worse, when writing, of having a preconceived idea of what the poem should sound like. The process should be organic, and some of these early poems suffered through trying to force a particular style or method of delivery. Yet even so, I kept the underlying ideas and put them to the rear of my mind.
I’ve always said that when you’re writing, the best performance pieces come where two ideas suddenly collide head on. It was a case of thinking, sometimes, ‘Hmm, what else can I throw at this poem?’ An early example was Do Wacka Do, which had a very pleasing rhythm. I then thought, actually, wouldn’t it be great to drive a truck straight through that rhythm, and completely change the direction and beat of the poem halfway through? I was very happy with this, but it still needed . . Something. One day I was mucking around with some choreography when I remembered a Scouts disco I went to in the early 1980s, where one of the Venture Scouts was disco dancing and every now and then he would flick imaginary insects from his arms. And that’s when I thought, well, what about if I did that during the Do Wacka Do poem? Along with a strange forwards pointing motion that a friend of mine does. So all of these combined to create a new performance piece, which only takes about a minute to perform, but I was really happy with it.
Another poem was called Dreamscraper. I was fairly happy with this but it didn’t seem to be going anywhere, until I began to experiment with my voice during the poem, starting off at a high tone at the beginning of every stanza, and lowering my voice until the last line of each stanza where, inevitably, the punchline of that verse might be. And I don’t know why, but this sounded both exasperated, and funny, like it was really paining me to perform the poem. I performed this once at an open mic in Exeter and it went down really well.
I’d been working on a short poem called My Friend Cliff is a Zombie, too. Again, mucking around during rehearsing this poem, I discovered that I could sing the refrain, which became more of a chorus. I then developed more choreography, which relied on the use of jazz hands and a manic straight ahead stare, but even this didn’t seem enough, until I realised that I could just start the poem with the melodica, echoing the tune of the refrain. Almost done . . Until I thought, wouldn’t it be funny to end the poem with a line which changes the whole focus of it? I wont say what this change is, but boom! My Friend Cliff is a Zombie was ready to be performed.
There are other experimental poems I’ve been playing with, which I don’t want to give away. ‘Gom’ is a sound poem, which I have a lot of fun performing. ‘The Nature Reserve’ is a new poem which starts out sounding deeply serious, but then slowly becomes more and more silly with lots of quirky noises. Again, I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but I was rehearsing this poem just a couple of days ago and I ended up having to stop because I was laughing so much.
So these are the new poems I’m working on, and there are others. I’m keeping with my philosophy of having as much variety as possible. My tribute to Dame Edith Sitwell, ‘Coffee Shop Coffee Shop’, has been performed at a couple of places and is possibly the fastest paced poem I’ve ever learned. It’s not exactly a comedy piece, though it’s experimental and uses voice and rhythm in an interesting way. ‘Bill’ is a very Ivor Cutler-esque piece which I was really happy with, detailing a man thinking about a hypothetical conversation and then getting upset with the replies that the person he was having the hypothetical conversation was coming out with, but the audience seemed to think that the hypothetical conversation was actually taking place, so this poem may need to be retooled.
So on the whole, I’m rather happy with the new poems I’ve been working on, and the work I’ve been doing during rehearsals. It’s true that none of them are exactly ‘bangers’ just yet, because I’m not sure what parts of them an audience might like until I’ve performed them live a few times. But it really does feel like I’ve turned a corner and that the old poems can be rested for a bit. In fact, it really does feel like I’m just starting out again as a performer! And that’s no bad thing. There are other poems I’m still working on and playing with, and I really can’t wait to see which way they end up going!