So a colleague from work was chatting to me the other day. ‘I’ve seen your act’, she said. ‘You become a completely different person when you’re on stage. In fact, you seem to be much more awake’. I didn’t know if this was a compliment or not. And I remember back in 1996, when I first moved down to Devon with my parents from Surrey, and then surprising them with the announcement that I’d decided to take acting lessons at a night school run in a local theatre. ‘I suppose this means that you’ll want to grow your hair long’, my Dad replied. (Mind you, hair length was always a touchy subject with my father. He would complain about the students at the local college with their long hair and he would declare that everyone should have the same hairstyle. Dad had gone bald in his mid twenties). So it really does come as a surprise when people discover that I am a comedy performance poet. It’s like having a secret double life. It’s not like I’m the sort of person who wouldn’t say boo to a goose, but I probably would preface the boo with ‘I hope you don’t mind, but . .’, before I said it. If anything, my parents had always taught me to be polite. ‘Hang on a minute. Exactly why are you going to Milton Keynes next week?’, someone might ask. ‘I perform comedy poetry. That’s what I do’. ‘You? Really? But you’ve never said anything funny’. To which I might have responded with, yes I do, and sometimes it rhymes, but he was quite right, I never say anything funny, and by the time I’ve thought of such a witty comeback, they’ve long gone. I’m not the most outgoing person. I don’t go out much and I probably have around two or three friends. I’m not a big drinker and I hardly ever go to pubs. And yet in spite of all this, I’ve managed to make something of a career as a comedy poet who stands on stage and does outlandish things and makes people laugh. How on earth did this happen, and how did it come about? Quite by accident around twelve years ago, I started performing comedy poetry. I went along to a gig and I really liked the atmosphere and the people, and I asked the host whether it would be possible to come along and read some poems. Id always written comedy poems, only I’d never really shown any of them to other people. I still don’t know why I decided to do this, and I remember being incredibly nervous in the days before, but the night itself went well and people seemed to laugh at the right moments. After a while, people started inviting me to other gigs in other parts of the country and before long, I was zipping about all over the place to strange and erotic places like Lancaster and Swindon. I was just as surprised as anyone else. Looking back, I didn’t think it would ever be possible that I’d have the ‘guts’ to stand up in front of a group of people. For a start, I’ve always been what you might call an introvert and it’s probably still the same now. Part of working in the arts is having the confidence to put yourself forward for opportunities, and this is still an area where I struggle. I’ve never applied for funding or any other kind of sponsorship because, well, that’s not the sort of thing you do, is it? I hardly ever apply for big gigs or showcases, either. If someone asks, that’s great, and it makes me really happy for the rest of the day. But the idea of asking them gives me the willies. Another reason is my dyslexia. I just can’t handle all the forms and the paperwork and the incredibly complicated questions using big long words like community stakeholder engagement or financial budgetary management. My mind just fizzes and pops and nothing makes sense. I’ve tried to get funding on numerous occasions, like the week or so I spent filling out an Arts Council form to apply for a development grant, only for them to immediately reject it because the form I’d used was for project grants. I’m also really bad at self-promotion. I think the default setting of a comedy poet is to downplay one’s achievements. It doesn’t seem natural to talk about one’s successes, particularly if you’re having difficulty thinking of any to begin with. A friend of mine, who works in the arts in the theatre side of things, said, ‘Just make it up. They won't check’, but that would make me feel very nervous. And it’s not just me. When I put on a poetry night in Torquay and asked a comedy performance poet to headline, I was overjoyed when they said yes. I asked them to send me some publicity material and a blurb, and the blurb they sent was so self-deprecating that I don’t think anyone would have bothered coming along if I’d used it. ‘X performs poems, badly. A lot of his friends have told him to pack it all in. None of them have any literary worth. He’s won slams in places like London and Edinburgh, but only because no-one else turned up’. The version of me who appears on stage is nothing like the version of me who exists 99% of the time. The persona I’ve created is just that. I don’t even wear the same sort of clothes on a day to day basis. And this is interesting, because for the 99% of the time that I’m not performing, the very idea of it also gives me the willies. It’s not my natural environment. Again the thought comes to mind that this is not the sort of thing that should be happening to someone like me! Yet one or two people have said that there are parallels between the stage ‘Robert Garnham’, and Robert Garnham the human being. Someone once said that they kind of liked my ‘vulnerability’, and my sense of being ‘ever so slightly nervous’. Yet typically, them saying this made me even more nervous! Nevertheless, it’s rather comforting to me to know that there aren’t too many differences between the two different sides of my personality. Social media creates avatars, versions of ourselves that we want the world to see. I see poets and comedians in the real world acting more or less the same as the version of themselves that appears on stage, and to this day it makes me wonder where they find the energy. My other little rule is that I never mention my comedic poetic adventures in ‘real life ‘. I’ve never shown any of my friends any of my books or videos, and frankly, if I did, I’d feel very embarrassed indeed, and as for my family, well, I've never even mentioned it to them at all. For a start, nobody is interested. It’s like living a bizarre double life, like some kind of poetic super hero. But that’s what makes it so amazing. Right at this moment, reading this, I wonder how on earth I can possibly stand in front of strangers and not completely clam up. I go through a comprehensive sequence of preparation methods before I perform, including putting on a costume, doing my hair, changing my glasses, lying on the floor, doing breathing exercises, and then listening to very loud music. I think it’s fair to say that I’m not a natural performer! I still get very nervous indeed. Indeed, people ask me about the nerves, and I reply that perhaps it’s good that I’m so nervous. It means that I’m concentrating on what I do, and that kind of allows me to step away from the introverted version of myself. Nerves are a sign, perhaps, that I care about what I do. It still comes as a surprise, though. Often, I’ll be on a bus, or doing my laundry, or walking home from work, and I’ll think of what I’ve done and what I’ve achieved, and it really makes me smile. Sure, it feels like it’s been done by someone else, but it’s a person I know really very well. This last year I’ve worked very hard on my performance and next I need to start working on being a bit more forthcoming and what my dad would describe as ‘pushy’. I’m like the kid in the corner who wants to join in but is too scared of the big kids. I was chatting about this to another friend, who’s a poet, and she reckons it might be a class thing. I don’t have that middle class sense of entitlement that some of the bigger names might have, nor do I have the confidence that I have a voice that should be heard. I take great comfort in those who are naturally quiet, who seem to have made a successful career, and have done so through a mix of intelligence and luck, and I think, oh, I think, wow, I, too, have been really lucky!
Biscuit donkey chocolate eclair. Weston-Super-Mare. Traffic light pomegranate Yogi Bear Weston-Super-Mare. Slam dunk Bill’s big hair. Weston-Super-Mare. Almost bought a pair of trousers there. Weston-Super-Mare. Don’t look Timmy it’s rude to stare. Weston-Super-Mare. Weston-Super-Mare. Weston Super, Weston Super, Weston-Super-Mare.
Krypton-born hero talking In a Devonian accent, six across. Weston-Super-Man. He owns a horse. Weston-Super-Mare.
Guess where the villain has his secret lair. Weston-Super-Mare. Debonair kitchenware chemical warfare Weston-Super-Mare. Can I come and spend the weekend? Don’t you dare. Weston-Super-Mare. I lost my virginity there. Where? Bournemouth. Who wants to be a millionaire? Weston-Super-Mare. Afternoon tea near Bloomsbury square, Weston-Super-Mare. Don’t move you’ve got something crawling in your hair. Weston-Super-Mare. Weston-Super-Mare. Weston Super Weston Super Weston-Super-Mare.
Since you left I’ve actually tackled that Big pile of laundry We argued about. And I fixed the shelf That we argued about. So there, you see, I can do it. Ohhhh, the things I’ve done Since you left. It’s been a crazy 14 years.
I had a lovely gig in Bristol the other week. The venue was a theatre on an old lightship in the harbour. It was moored to the quay almost totally static but even so I kept lurching sideways. The boat wasn’t even rocking, it was probably just something psychological going on deep within me. Boat = movement. What a nob, I expect people thought.
I’d fretted a lot over my set for the gig. I often get Set Fret but this was something else. I wanted to do some of my old bangers, of course, but I also know that I can’t keep hold of them forever, and that the new stuff has to be unleashed on the world at some point.
But there’s also another thing going on. Over the last couple of years I’ve begun to assess what it is that I like in a performance and I’ve been trying to translate that to what I do on stage. Humour and timing, of course, are things I’ve always had an eye on, and hopefully been got at, but lately there are one or two thinks that I’ve been tinkering with because, well people change over the years, don’t they?
One of these things is volume. I’ve begun to appreciate volume. Or rather, I’ve begun to appreciate it less.
Maybe I’ve been watching too many Ivor Cutler videos. Or Bob Newhart. Or, come to think of it, almost all the people I watch for enjoyment. Laurie Anderson. Edith Sitwell. Alan Bennett. They’re all quiet, somewhat reserved, and seldom loud. Yet they’re funny and they’re clever and I want to be both of those things. I’ve been to plenty of poetry gigs where the poet - and it’s usually a young man, though I don’t want to develop stereotypes- suddenly starts bellowing into the mic halfway through a poem. That sort of thing’s not for me. I’d feel I was bullying. If you’re going to shout, then at least stand back from the mic. I feel it also changes the dynamic of a performance from enjoyment to hostility. I know that some people may enjoy this, and may appreciate this in a performance, because a performance is what it is and what we’re all there for, but we’re all different, and hooray for that. For me, though as soon as a performer starts shouting, I feel that I want to Get Out Of There. So I come away from these performances hoping that I don’t annoy people in the same way.
So this means that I’ve been trying to adopt a more relaxed, conversational tone when delivering my linking material. And I’ve been working hard at this, because it’s hard, after a lifetime adopting something of a more performative tone. But I’ve been having a bash at it. Here’s my little secret as to how I’ve been conditioning myself to be slightly more conversational and less forced: I start my set with the words, ‘Hello, there’. It’s impossible to be loud or forced when the first thing you have said is, ‘Hello, there’. And if I feel myself getting more forced or desperate or less conversational, then I say to myself, ‘Hello, there’.
One of the other things I’ve been concentrating on is sex. No, not in that way. I mean, the sexual content of a set and the effect that this, too, has on an audience.
In the early years of my comedy poetry career, I relied quite a bit on content of a sexual nature. Naturally, this was a comedic version of sex, performed (the poem, I mean), by someone who you’d think was probably not very good at it, and therein lay the humour. Indeed, my first collection with Burning Eye, ‘Nice’, was about relationships and more specifically, sex, in the most part. I remember someone writing in a copy of it that had found its way into a poetry library in Manchester, ‘Not nearly enough mention of sex’.
The thing is, I was in my thirties when I wrote some of those poems, and possibly just about passable enough to seem naive and comfortable with such relationships. But now I’m very nearly fifty and the idea of me being on stage talking about sex seems, well, creepy. I’m aware that many in the audience will be thinking the same thing.
I’m not alone with this idea. I was chatting with an LGBT performance poet who’s much higher up the spoken word ladder than me, and he was saying that he is going through a similar process of removing the sexual content from his sets because, as he gets older, he feels it less and less appropriate. I felt that this vindicated the unease I also feel these days of standing at the mic and talking about orgasms and the such. It also maximises the humour when I might mention something vaguely sexual during a set.
So it feels that I’m becoming much more mature as a comedy poet, and gosh, that’s taken it’s damn time. I’m more aware of the audience and more aware of what it is which makes me feel, after a performance, that I’ve done something I can be proud of. This has come about through several years of studying what it is that people laugh along with (as well as laugh at). It also means, hopefully, that I’ll not be stereotyped, just like the words written in that copy of Nice.
We all change. In fact, that was the subject of my very first solo show, ‘Static’. But right now, I’ve never felt so relaxed as a performer, and so at one with my material. Another friend of mine, the American fringe performer Dandy Darkly, once said to me that you can be as silly and as weird as you want to be, so long as you do it with conviction, and that’s definitely what I’ve been aiming for of late.