I Know what People Are Thinking When They See Me

I know what people are thinking when they see me. I know what theyre thinking, they’re thinking, now then a man with a smug demeanour. There’s a man who’s not in it for the money.

There’s a man who forsakes the capitalist system and does not perform poetry for personal monetary gain.

Well let me tell you, I got books for sale.

I tried to write a poem about an old photocopier last night. It just wouldn’t scan.

I don’t need contraception. Poetry is my contraception. My poetry has helped me not sleep with more people than you can imagine.

People tend to know instinctively that I am a poet. How so they know this? Is it the jacket? Is it the book of poetry? Or is it that I arrive at gigs alone?

Yet I don’t feel like a poet. My rhyming couplets have all split up. My found poems were hidden for a reason. Nobody has hung around long enough to tell me what my rhyme scheme is.

So, what is poetry? Percy Bysshe Shelley said that poets are the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’. I suppose the ‘acknowledged legislators ‘ would be governments and town councils.

To be honest, I don’t think it would work. Have you ever seen a group of poets trying to solve a planning dispute?

I suppose it depends if they work in rhyme or blank verse.

Well, I think we’ll put the school next to the pool. And perhaps also the church hall.

The shopping centre. Hmmm, can’t think of where to put the shopping centre. I know! Let’s call it a mall, and then it can go with the school and the pool and the church hall!

The library. Hmm, has this town got an aviary?

The food waste refuse anaerobic digestion chamber . . . What the hell?

Mind you, judging by the high street in Swindon, it looks like the surrealists have already been at work.

So I’m a poet, and I get all kinds of weird commissions. Sometimes I think that my career is going nowhere. Sometimes I don’t.

I’ve recently been working as a Poet in Residence at a paper clip factory. It really is stationery.

I was supposed to do a workshop for a fear of commitment support group, but nobody put their name down.

The other night I was double booked, I was also meant to be at a gig for a group of amnesiacs. So what I’ll do is I’ll go along next week and remind them how good I was.

I’m actually looking for ways out into other lines of work and I think I’ve come up with a winner. I’ve decided to start up assertiveness training courses.

Because if it doesn’t work, nobody’s going to ask for a refund. They won’t be brave enough.

And if anyone does ask for a refund . . .
I can just say, well. There you go.

But poetry for me is a lot like sex. When it’s good, it’s very, very good and you wish it would never stop.

And when it’s bad, it’s just plain embarrassing. Although I do get roughly the same number of laughs.

The thing I like best about poetry is that it’s not all about profit and personal gain, it’s not a hugely capitalist enterprise, people aren’t in it to make a quick buck. And by the way, I’ve got books for sale.

Spoken word as fun : The peculiar Torbay spoken word micro climate

Spoken word as fun : The peculiar Torbay spoken word micro climate

I don’t know what’s happening with spoken word in Torbay at the moment, but there seems to be a remarkable increase in energy and interest which is quite thrilling to see. This last month, both Stanza Extravaganza and Big Poetry, the two spoken word nights in Torquay, were standing room only and sold out. Both had audiences that were bigger than the actual venues, which is certainly a nice problem to have.

I was chatting with Brenda Hutchings as she gave me a lift home, and she was of the opinion that spoken word audiences in Torbay now see it as normal that they should come to such a night and expect comedy poetry. I believe she’s right, and that this is a local thing, a peculiar speciality just of the Torbay scene. Audience members in Bristol, London, even Exeter, do not automatically expect that what they are about to see will necessarily make them laugh, and that if this happens, then it’s just a bonus. However, Torbay’s audiences expect to be entertained and to have a laugh. This is not to say that serious poetry and serious issues are not tolerated. Indeed, serious content is magnified by such expectations. Witness, for example, the rapturous response to Melanie Crump’s poem about women’s rights and empowerment.

Not only do there seem to be a lot of comedic poets in Torbay, but they are diverse and funny in their own unique way. Melanie Crump and Brenda Hutchings can both be hilariously funny and also deeply serious and emotional. Steve O uses props for incredible effect, Tom Austin uses props and costumes, Joanna Hatfull uses rhyme and storytelling, Shelley Szender explores her material in a relaxed and relatable manner. Both myself and Samantha Boarer, my co host at Big Poetry, look at life and relationships and erotic issues within our work juxtaposing the everyday with the downright filthy.

Part of the success of the local comedy poetry scene is the curating policy of Big Poetry. Each night is put together with one eye on the holistic effect of so many diverse performers, but a big philosophy of the night is to include comedy poets. As well as the local Torbay performers, we invite the funniest poets from Exeter and Plymouth, Totnes and further afield, such as Julie Mullen, Ross Bryant and Jackie Juno, and they become as much a part of Big Poetry as the venue itself. Each has their own loyal following.

I’ve written before of the perculiar nature of the local scene. The poetry nights at the Blue Walnut started almost ten years ago and the emphasis was always on experimentation and comedy, thanks to performers such as Chris Brooks, Bryce Dumont, and the previously mentioned Tom Austin, who would push the performance envelope and be as downright weird as they possibly could be. It was this atmosphere that attracted me to performance and it was with these people that I crafted my own act and stage persona. I can think of nowhere else in the country where these elements hold sway in such a tight geographical location.

We are also very lucky to have some fine poets whose styles are so different and diverse as to add a singular touch to any evening, such as Becky Nuttall, who does an enormous amount for the local art and spoken word scene, and Jason Disley, whose jazz influenced beat poetry is utterly unique. Jason has just started running a new night in Paignton called Speaky Blinders, which is also going from strength to strength and is imbued with the whole Torbay ethos of spoken word as fun. Becky is working hard on various projects bringing art and poetry together, while also running the Stanza Extravaganza poetry nights at the Artizan Gallery.

It’s a thriving scene down here in Torbay, and I feel incredibly privileged to be a part of it. Our audiences are amazing and without them and their encouragement, the scene would not be quite as vibrant as it is.

One year as a semi professional spoken word artist

So it’s been almost a year now since I went semi professional and things are going well. I’ve done some amazing things and had some great opportunities, and I’ve glimpsed what it’s like to be a professional self employed artist, and how tentative the financial side of things can be. I feel like I’ve never worked harder. Every decision has to be made with a financial head rather than the usual emotional impulse to do something, whatever the consequences. The admin has taken over my life, in that there are days when I spend hours on end just filling in forms and understanding how things work.

All of this has left me with a deep admiration for those who are full time self employed creatives. We only seem to celebrate them when things go well, when they win big commissions or competitions, when they appear on Britain’s Got Talent and amaze the audience, or win poetry slams, or get parts in plays and films. What we don’t see is the frantic administration behind the scenes, the hours of self doubt and the incredible practice and industry these people put in to get something back.

For me, the result of being self employed is the idea that I have to choose my projects carefully. Every now and then something comes along which I really want to do, but I have to weigh up whether or not if will be a good use of my resources and money. I can no longer flit to a gig the other side of the country just to do an open mic slot like I used to in the old days, because if I did then I wouldn’t have enough money for the rest of the month. However, if I could combine it with another project which makes it financially viable, then I would.

One of the most surprising aspects of being self employed is the fact that I get commissions every now and then. I’ve written bespoke poems for people, for weddings and anniversaries, christening and parties. This week I had a commission and while I was in the shower, some great rhymes came. I went to my desk and spent an hour carefully crafting a poem in memory of someone’s grandmother and was just about to send it to them when I checked the original email. I’d got the name wrong. The real name didn’t even rhyme with anything I’d written. Looking back now, iT was rather comical.

So over the last year I have put together a brand new show with all new material, and taken myself out of my comfort zone with storytelling, serious material and a one hundred percent polyester ringmaster outfit, and then toured it around the UK. I’ve hired small theatres and venues and put together the gigs myself. I’ve taken over a regular spoken word night in Torquay. I’ve become the editor of a comedy online journal, and I’ve been employed as the social media manager for a more serious poetry magazine. It’s been quite a year.

So of course, I’m still semi employed. I still have a job for most of the week, which is where I’m off to now. But the progress I’ve made over the last year fills me with hope, all I need now is to build on what I’ve done, and who knows, there’ll be no stopping me!

Edinburgh Fringe Diary Day Four

So I’m over halfway through my run now at the Edinburgh Fringe and it’s been the usual case of highs and lows, though the highs are not as high as last year (with that whole Guardian joke lost Thing) and the lows are not as low (I arrived with all of my luggage). I’ve had good audiences and bad audiences. I had a day with low attendance but the audience was incredibly enthusiastic and generous with their donations. I’ve had a day with a sizeable audience who just sat there in a stony silence.

As ever it is the camaraderie which makes the fringe. My venue is a complex of seven stages and in other rooms are magicians, actors and comedians, and we all meet up in the room where we store our fliers, and chat about how it’s going. One of them told me that he spends eighty pounds a day hiring four flyerers and then gets audiences of sixty, which more than pays for them, it’s simple economics, he says. He’s a magician. Others are more philosophical and say, well, whatever happens, happens. Going on the advice of the magician, I hired a flyerers for an hour. It didn’t seem to make much difference.

I’ve seen some amazing shows, so far, and I’m aiming to get out today and see some more. In fact I might hold back on the flyering and enjoy a day in Edinburgh. The best thing I’ve seen so far is my favourite spoken word artist, Dandy Darkly, and his show All Aboard, a rip roaring cabaret style digression on politics and social issues delivered in brash camp storytelling. It was utterly transfixing and Dandy remains of the finest performers I’ve ever seen. Fay Roberts show The Selkie was a quieter mystical study of myth and nature.

The other day while I was flyering, someone asked me if there was dancing in my show. I shall only come along, she said, if there’s dancing. Someone else asked me what the weather forecast was, and when I said I didn’t know, she got very angry. It takes all sorts, I suppose.

So I have three more shows to go and a couple of guest spots here and there. And each night I come back to my student flat, cook dinner, drink red wine and ponder on how it has gone. And of course, I think about next year. What can I do next year? Now, what can I do?

Edinburgh Fringe Diary Day One

I’m currently on a train heading north towards Edinburgh for the fringe. This is my sixth year as a performer, and my eighth in all, so I’m starting to feel like an Edinburgh veteran. Yet for some reason it seems in inconceivable that I’m going at all this year. I suppose the main reason for this is that I feel more prepared than I have done for years, with a show that I have rehearsed and polished and written specifically for the fringe, rather than a collection of greatest hits. I have also done more promotion work behind the scenes, and worked with a director. My whole year, in fact, the last two years, have been leading up to this, and yet, now I’m on the way, I can hardly believe it.

I stayed in London last night, in a hotel that I’ve been staying in on and off for twenty years. There’s something labyrinthine about the place, with rooms and corridors decorated as if from 1970s Czechoslovakia. There’s a complicated system of dials and knobs next to the bed to work the radio. The bed is surrounded by tongue and groove pine panelling. Every morning for the last twenty years, a man who looks like Leonard Cohen rules the breakfast restaurant with an iron fist, but he wasn’t there this morning. I felt cheated. I hoped that he was okay. It just didn’t seem the same without him.

The madness starts tomorrow, with my first show, and appearances at other events. I also want to see as much as possible when I get there, particularly cabaret and comedy as well as spoken word. And this is the first year that everything has gone ok. I haven’t lost my passport like I did the year before last. My luggage hasn’t got lost, like it did last year. And I won’t be staying in a tent or a flat with no roof, like I have done in years past, but in the same university flats that I’ve used for the last couple of years. Auld Reekie awaits, and I can’t wait!

A Brief History of the Thing on my Ear

About a month ago I noticed a lump on my earlobe which shouldn’t have been there. It wasn’t there before but it was there now. I knew that it was something dodgy so I went to the Doctor and she agreed. She explained that it was caused by exposure to UV light and this was a direct result of the hole in the ozone layer. I don’t want you to worry, she said, but we need to treat this seriously.

So of course, I did worry, but I decided also not to tell anyone because that would just spread the worry. I became aware of the lump at all times and regular Robheads will have noticed a slight reduction in selfies at this time. I continued with preparations for Edinburgh and zipped about all over the UK performing my new solo show. Barnstaple, Bristol, Guildford, Denbury, Torquay, Newcastle. Yet at the same time there was this nagging doubt in my head, that I couldn’t really enjoy any of these experiences because of the Thing On My Ear.

The ironic thing is that generally, I do not go out into the sun. I work indoors and the only time I go outside is to queue for a train or to walk to the rubbish bins. Nevertheless, I undoubtedly had a Thing On My Ear and it must have come from somewhere. Every time I shaved, I saw the Thing On My Ear. Every time I made plans for anything beyond Edinburgh, I thought of the Thing On My Ear. And every time I heard that someone had died, I thought of the Thing On My Ear.

The other weird thing that happened was that I worked really, really hard. I rehearsed every spare minute, and wrote the best I’ve ever written, and I put everything into every performance, particularly Totnes and all of my Yak shows. It was like I was trying to say something to the Thing On My Ear.

Today I got my emergency hospital appointment. I arrived early and a nurse asked me to go in a room and take off all my clothes. ‘But it’s on my ear ‘, I pointed out. ‘Yes, but we will need to see all of you’.

I duly undressed and seconds later, the door opened, and in came prominent Bristol poet and artist Hazel Hammond. Well, I thought, what kind of a sick joke is this? But she wasn’t Hazel, of course. She was the doctor, a wonderfully eccentric German lady who told me to lie on the bed. She then went over every inch of me, humming every now and then, flicking at various bits like one of the judges on British Bake Off looking at a meringue. She then looked at my ear. ‘Ah yes’, she said. ‘That is skin cancer. Now put your clothes back on’.

I did so, and I felt pretty down. The last time I dressed like this while feeling down was after that night of passion I spent with my ex just before I was dumped. She came back in the room.

‘You know, it is a very common form. It has a technical name, but it’s better known as a rat lesion. It’s not nasty though we will have to remove it at some point. This won’t be for a long time, in fact, you might think we’ve forgotten all about you. But rest assured, Mr Garnham, we haven’t forgotten.’

‘So it’s not . . A really bad one?’

‘No, it’s not. It’s a rat lesion. You have fair skin, Mr Garnham. You have the same sort of skin that ginger haired people have. Keep away from the sun. Go out, Mr Garnham, and do some shopping. And enjoy your afternoon. But keep away from the sun. Here are some leaflets. And on the day of your operation, bring a book to read. There will be lots of waiting around ‘.

So I’m back home, now. And the future suddenly looks much brighter, at least, with one less thing to worry about. Edinburgh now beckons, and so do many other exciting projects, and I’ve got a sudden urge to do two things. The first is to become more active in looking an environmental issues, which means, alas, I might have to start doing poems about recycling and sustainable energy. And the second is to reread some of my Hazel Hammond poetry books.

The moral of all this is, of course, that we should all cover up more in the sun. One of the leaflets says that it’s best to wear hats and use sunscreen. The bus home took me past Torquay sea front where semi naked people were frolicking in the sun, and I felt bad for them. Other people won’t be so lucky and we should perhaps do all that we can to make sure that we lessen the risks.

Was that the best I’ve ever performed? Is it all downhill from here?!

I’ve been very fortunate in having some amazing gigs this year with great audience reactions, but last night in a pub in Totnes really was rather special. It was a night of poetry and music set up by the amazing Julie Mullen and I was so pleased to be asked to headline, yet at the same time, fairly nervous. The problem with headlining is that there is nowhere to hide, and if you are slightly below par or not performing on all cylinders, then you can appear weak and unprepared. And it was an eclectic night of fantastic performances : Japanese style drummers, acapella singers, a jazz band, and comedy performance poets such as Brenda Hutchings, Shelley Szender and Samantha Boarer, all of whom are very accomplished and comedy oriented.

On top of that, a last minute venue change meant that the gig took place in a very crowded pub on a Friday night, the stage area set up right next to where people go outside to the pub garden and the toilets, so there was a constant footfall of customers and their dogs, walking from the bar to the garden or the bogs. So all of this conspired to make me feel even more nervous than normal before the gig and worried that audience fatigue would set in, for it was also incredibly hot.

But I needn’t have worried, as my set went down incredibly well and the audience were incredibly responsive. The sheer lunacy of the Beard Envy poem served well to accustom the audience to my style, and then the rest of the set, with its short, sharp, funny poems, was received rather well indeed. Indeed, such was the unusual location of the stage area that i was able to interact with the people walking past. During the Beard poem, a man with the most amazing rampant beard came in through the door behind me, and the place just fell about. And then during the Little House poem, just as I’m talking about the sexy handyman, a rather good looking young man appeared from nowhere right at a critical moment as if he were an extra in a play, and again, the place fell about, as I walked after him with my hand out as if he were a lover, leaving me.

I couldn’t have asked for a better response. And it was hot in there, and I was wearing my jacket, feather boa, sequinned hat, and the sweat was rolling down my face, yet it didn’t matter because a strange force had taken hold, something ethereal, I felt like Ayrton Senna on a pole position lap at Monaco, I really felt I couldn’t do any better or that things had never been better. I was dancing along to my poems, walking around, jumping up and down at one point, everything combined in a way that it never normally does, and then it seemed over too soon. I even did the one thing I’ve learned from others, always to do slightly less than the time you’ve been allocated, and leave them wanting more.

Not all gigs are like this. Not all audiences are like this. An audience is a fluid thing, only good for one small brief moment in history, and this was a good audience. A drunk Liverpudlian later told me that he thought I was hilarious, and that made my night. It’s these small connections that help.

This is the last time for a while that I’ll be performing that particular set. It’s next scheduled appearance is in New York, and I have no idea how it will go. But I got home last night and I thought, hmmm, was that the best I’ve ever performed? I’m still smiling about it now!

Robert Garnham’s Rules for Living an Harmonious Life

1. No one is ever worth writing a poem for, though every now and then you’ll meet someone who’s worth a limerick, particularly if they come from Chard.

2. If someone tells you that they love you, it’s not always a test, it’s an affectation of the status quo, a joy delivered in the beauty of a relationship which actually works, so it’s best not to answer with, oh, that’s good.

3. Shrimp will always give you raging guts ache.

4. Hold on to your nostalgia, otherwise you’ll have nothing to be nostalgic about, except possibly for the time you used to be nostalgic about things, so maybe you can be nostalgic about that.

5. Look at your life. Isolate your fears, your demons, and anything else that gives you the willies. Engage with them and dance, and banish them with a smile and a wave and a cheer. Unless, of course, the thing that scares you the most is crushing loneliness.

6. It’s never too late to learn. It’s never too early to forget.

7. Only concentrate in that which requires no thought.

8. You might not ever mention the elephant in the room, but you can certainly wonder how it got through the door, and up the stairs.

9. Look at the mirror every morning and say, I am loved, I am loved, I am loved. At least this way you’re prepared for any other bullshit that comes along.

10. Everyone you see or meet or talk to has been born. Even Avril Lavigne. And if you think being born was difficult, try getting a mortgage.

11. Go on, help yourself to the last cake in life. Living is all about grabbing the last cake. Go on, have it. Enjoy it. The dog licked it.

12. Get up early one morning, when the dew is still on the grass, and go for a walk barefoot in the park. Let me know when you’re doing this so that I can come round and borrow your vacuum cleaner.

13.Do something that excites you every day. Subvert the rules. Turn things on their head. Naturally this does not apply if you’re an airline pilot.

14. How do we know that opening an umbrella indoors is bad luck? Who was the first person to discover this? How many similar things do we do which are good or bad luck without us knowing? Brandishing a vase on a Thursday? Sitting on a pouffe just after lunch? The mind boggles, Mrs Henderson, the mind boggles.

15. Give as much joy to the small things in life as you do to the large. Which is why me and my ex split up.

16. If at first you don’t succeed, then maybe catching bullets with your teeth isn’t the job for you.

17. If you don’t think you can get it out, don’t put it in there in the first place

My avant gard poetry past

When I first started performing back in the late 2000s, the local scene was heavily influenced by comedy and surrealism in south Devon, and I soon joined in with a bizarre mix of my own, of prop-based avant gard and whimsical verse which, at the same time, mocked the whole idea of poetry performance. And for a while, this was my Unique Selling Point. Lately I’ve been thinking of going back to this style of performance, working, as I do, on the outskirts of the spoken word community. Winning slams kind of focussed my mind into performance and comedy without any prop embellishment, but now I have moved on from entering slams, I feel I am able to reconnect with my avant gard past.

So here are a few things that I got up to over the years, before I became mainstream sometime during 2014. And thanks to Bryce Dumont, who faithfully recorded almost all of my performance between 2008 and 2014.

1. Used a mobile phone to deliver my set from a cubicle in the toilets.

2. Built a cardboard robot called Robot Garnham on stage and let him do my performance.

3. Phoned a friend halfway through a set to ask him what my next line was.

4. Performed a set of Pam Ayres poems through the window from the street.

5. Pretended to drink Pam Ayres urine after pretending to choke on a cream cracker.

6. Performed a whole set with a tea bag sellotaped to my forehead.

7. Performed the same poem twice in a row with no explanation.

8. Tried to get inanimate objects to race each other.

9. Built a large hadron collider on stage.

10. Got a poet to dress as a spaceman and pretend to interrupt my set as visitors from the future intent on making sure my rise from obscurity did not occur,

11. Got an eminent and well respected page poet to perform Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance as a poem.

12. Stood behind another poet as he performed and ate crisps, noisily, while staring straight ahead.

13. Performed while standing on a hip exercise swivel disc.

14. Performed through an iPad which I held up to my face while wearing a large box on my head.

15. Dressed as a crocodile, which had nothing to do with my set.

16. Wore a fake moustache which slowly moved around my face.

17. Performed the Pet Shop Boys song Two Divided By Zero on a talking calculator.

18. Used an Elefun toy game to blow small pieces of crepe paper with poems written on them into the air.

19. Hired out my five minute set to another poet who wasn’t on the bill.

20. Read a poem from an incredibly large piece of paper.

I’m sure there were other things and I shall add them as I remember them. But needless to say, I calmed down a bit as I began to travel around the UK.

Poem written at the Lit and Phil., Newcastle

Amidst the balconies, galleries and catacombs,

Ornate and functional with a weight

Other than history,

Worn wood seats and tables battered

With a century’s elbows,

I came to escape the thrum and sit

Surrounded by philosophical insight,

Such that a building should exist partly

For my own inclusion,

Partly for my imagination,

Partly so as I can say I’ve now been here.

Let its spirit and geniality,

It’s learning and it’s beauty,

Infuse into me a certain earnestness.

The first thing that happens is

I can’t fit my fat arse into the wooden armchair seat.

And then I get a crick in my neck

Trying to read what the man next to me

Is writing

And then I bang my knee on the underside of the table

And the resulting jog

Spills the coffee of the man across from me,

Who sighs,

Mops it up with a handkerchief,

Doesn’t say anything at all,

How northern.

I skim above the surface of potential intelligence.

I have the glasses, the pens, and even the haircut

Of a man who aims to probe the mysteries

Of the human condition,

But I just googled the fastest route to the

Nearest Tesco’s Metro.

Tick, goes the old Victorian clock.

Tick, and indeed, tock.

How many times has it ticked and it tocked

It’s inevitable onerous tick tock

As amateur learners write margin notes,

And fuss over spilled coffee?

Often e Crave the journey more

Than the destination.

They serve tea here in borrowed mugs.

The intricate coving and architectural embellishments

Gaze down on Sunday supplements.

I dribbled bottled water on my shorts

And it looks like I’ve wet myself.

The old man next to me chuckles

At a passage in his book on ethical Christianity.

If I stay still long enough

I will discover myself,

That I, a loose conglomerate of

Atoms, molecules and thought processes,

Should stand for more than

The repetition of my name.

Closure in the anonymity,

Physical presence, location, time.

If I stay still long enough . . .

These things may come.

And if I can’t get my arse out

From this seat wherein it is wedged,

This may happen

Sooner rather than later.