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.