It’s been a couple of years since the last Barnstaple Theatrefest Fringe, due to obvious reasons. It must have been so worrying for the organisers, with the world changing so rapidly over the last few months and the uncertainty which has clouded almost everything in the artistic community. It’s a brave decision these days to try and plan anything much too far ahead, whether it be a wedding or a party or, in the case of Barnstaple Theatrefest, one of the leading fringe events in the country.
So it was a huge joy that this year’s event went ahead, and the organisers must be applauded for making it happen. Yet even on the weekend itself, there were more challenges: an increase in Covid numbers, the train strike, the hot weather. It seemed that circumstance was conspiring to remind everyone involved that it’s really not too wise at the moment to get one’s hopes up.
But it went ahead, and it was a remarkable event. The one thing that has always struck me about Barnstaple Theatrefest has been the wonderful sense of camaraderie. Barnstaple is not the biggest town in the world, and there aren’t hundreds of events which make up the schedule, so anyone who participates in the fringe soon becomes acquainted with all of the other performers and technicians. On top of this there are several events where people can meet up and talk about their shows, whether these be the taster sessions, or the cabaret, or more social events in bars, pubs and cafes.
This is why I love being a part of it. There’s a genuine enthusiasm from everyone involved for theatre and performance, and I have several friends who I know only from the Theatrefest. This year there was the added bonus of the Soundwave Radio van parked in the square outside the museum, where one could just turn up and be interviewed live on the air about their show. I went along with my friend Melanie Branton, and we ended up chatting for over an hour about our shows and our art, and it was great to be there and have someone take what we do so seriously.
Naturally, any fringe event is hard work. My own strategy for getting in audiences involved flyering, exit flyering, taster sessions and chatting to other performers and fringe-goers. I’m not a religious man, but I also considered a damn good pray, too. As it happens I had a lovely audience every day for my show and made a few people smile and be happy, which is what my show was all about.
The world needs events such as this, and I can’t praise the organisers of Barnstaple Theatrefest highly enough. They are professional, enthusiastic, and I could sense the worry whenever I spoke to them, particularly on the first day with the train strike and the performers calling in unable to attend due to positive Covid tests and the such. And it’s true that perhaps audiences aren’t yet fully behind the idea of going out and seeing a show, particularly at the moment, but several performers had massive audiences nonetheless.
It’s always sad leaving Barnstaple. As the train left the station I felt just a slight pang of regret that life cannot always be like this. Maybe more towns should have fringe events, I told myself, or perhaps, maybe not, because this is what makes Barnstaple Theatrefest so unique.
I’m hoping that next year will be more stress free for the organisers, and that the world will be finally starting to look a bit normal. But for now, there’s a big smile on my face, because, wow, it was an excellent weekend!
Our eyes met across the literary festival tent, at the exact moment Professor Zazzo Thiim erupted into a coughing fit shortly after he’d tried to pronounce the names of the Welsh rural communities in Memflak’s Operetta Lampeter. It was cruel of the organisers not to cut his mic, but I looked up again and I saw you were still looking over at me, and both embarrassed, we smiled. Even to this day the sound of a phlegmy cough is enough to fill my heart with romance.
Ballad of a sad bouncer
We met outside the canvas marquee, the strong sun throwing red and white stripes across us.
‘So . . You like Memflak?’
And then we stood there for a while until a security guard asked us to move. Professor Zazzo was making his way to the book signing table, and we were in the way.
‘Do you need anything?’, someone asked him.
‘A glass of water, please’.
‘He wasn’t the most engaging of speakers’, you said, as we were bundled sideways. ‘Have you ever read any of his works?’
‘Only his pamphlet on the poetry of TV darts commentaries’.
‘Oh really? And what was his conclusion?’
‘That there wasn’t any’.
‘A wise man’, you said, and we both turned and watched as he took a seat behind a wallpapering table piled high with copies of his Memflak biography. There wasn’t a queue and a bird had defecated on his Panama hat.
‘So if you don’t like Memflak, then why did you come along?’, you asked.
I’d just assumed that most of the people who were there would have been single, naturally.
‘Just . . . Chilling’.
We chatted about so much that sunny afternoon. You told me your biggest fear was 3D printing machines suddenly gaining consciousness and 3D printing only other 3D printing machines and then the whole world becoming drowned in 3D printing machines. And I told you about a friend who had a 3D printing machine, but the first thing that the 3D printing machine had to print as soon as you got it was the instruction manual on how to print on a 3D printing machine, but the only way you could print the instructions on how to print on a 3D printing machine was to have the instructions on how to print on a 3D printing machine. We both laughed and agreed that the world was an unusual place, and I wanted to invite you back to my B and B, oh, how I wanted to invite you back to my B and B, but there was something lazy and wonderful about our sudden new friendship, and anyway, you weren’t allowed back in the B and B until 3pm. Instead, we went to the crowded cafe tent and shared a vegan sausage roll.
When you told me that you were a published poet, I almost fell off my seat.
‘But you’re so passably handsome!’
‘I know. It’s a shock, isn’t it?’
‘Are you . . . Rich?’
You couldn’t stop laughing.
‘I’m a poet. In fact, it’s the perfect career choice for me, thanks to my crippling fear of success’.
You told me that your first collection, Do Sheep Find Us Boring?, had won the Fortescue Prize for the best poetry collection to feature a mangle. Your second collection, The Non-existent Coffee Table, had fared less well, especially the scratch’n’sniff sonnet about sewage. And your third book, A Machine Which Exists Only to Destroy Itself, was what those in the publishing industry call a faulty fluorescent tube.
‘Why is it called that?’
‘Because it barely makes a flicker’.
I knew that it was because you were too handsome to be a poet. Your teeth were mostly the same colour and you had hardly any dandruff. When you sipped your tea, only a few drops went on your trousers.
I looked deep into your eyes. You looked deep into mine. The world around us seemed to fade from existence until its only components were you and me. And surely, in that stuffy tent over an over-priced sausage roll, we would surely have begun to kiss, had not there been a sudden clatter and thud from the next table and a cry of, ‘Buggering ‘ell!’, as Professor Zazzo Thiim’s chair collapsed.
We helped the old fella up from the grass.
We queued for a while to buy tickets to see the famous performance artist Bonjour Twain, for it was rumoured that she would be debuting a new piece called The Measurement of Intense Disappointment, only it turned out that queuing for the piece was the actual piece itself, and that Bonjour Twain was a thousand miles away at her home in the Alps. We then went in to a lively debate between a surrealist poet and another surrealist poet, which had been especially choreographed by the festival organisers who had told both surrealist poets that their opponent was an adherent to ultra-realism and would only be pretending to be a surrealist poet. Our next port of call was to see a book reading by Will Self, but Will Self was stuck in a traffic jam, so the audience passed the time by playing a good-natured game of battleships. Our final stop of the afternoon was a speech on Bouncy Castle Development and Design : From Mock-Medieval to the Integration of New Technologies’, which Doctor Margaret McParson actually delivered while bouncing on a bouncy castle, which went very well until she had to sip a glass of water.
It was a full afternoon.
‘Well’, you said, ‘I’d better be going’.
And now the world did that thing it does every now and then where it reveals its true colours and kind of stamps on the hopes and dreams that only reveal themselves in retrospect.
‘It’s been fun’.
‘Sure has. When will I . . . Where will I . . See you again?’
‘You can have one of my collections, if you like, then I’ll always be with you’.
‘I don’t really like poetry’.
‘My picture is on the cover. I’d like you to have it’.
You rummaged around in your shoulder bag and showed me the cover of Do Sheep Find Us Boring?. You looked about fifteen years younger.
‘That’s nine ninety-nine’.
I slipped you ten pounds. You didn’t have any change. Which is a shame, because I would have cherished that penny forever, perhaps drilled a hole in it and worn it around my neck. The book was OK, though.
You walked away after we parted with a jovial wave, and I watched you disappear into the middle-class utopia of the literary festival. I was distracted, momentarily, by Professor Zazzo Thiim tripping over a guy rope, and when I looked up again, you were gone.
I went over to the bouncy castle, and took off my shoes, and I clambered on. I bounced once. Twice. Possibly as many as five times. But my heart wasn’t in it and I was worried that someone would steal my shoes. This happened once at a funfair in Bournemouth. I’d had to walk home in my socks.
You know, things were jogging along just fine and the future looked incredibly exciting. I’d spent most of 2019 on the road, not only with the Hammer and Tongue tour to Hackney, Bristol, Brighton, Cambridge, Oxford and Southampton, but I’d taken my show Spout to Barnstaple, Reading, Guildford, Edinburgh and Petersfield, and I’d also performed headline sets in Newcastle, Milton Keynes, London, Swindon, Bristol, Exeter and even the Eden Project, where I’d actually performed in the main dome itself surrounded by thick jungle vegetation, before spending the night in a shipping container which had been transformed into a hotel room. Added to this the corporate work I’d been doing for a certain building society, and my December I was absolutely burned out. I decided to take three months off from performing.
And you’ll never guess what happened next.
I’d been looking forward to 2020. I had gigs booked in faraway places and I was planning a new show, Yay!: The Search for Happiness, which would be something of a departure and I was excited about the whole process of putting it together. If 2019 had been amazing, I was sure that 2020 would be even better, the momentum having built up, but the international pandemic stopped everything in its tracks and all of a sudden, the whole world narrowed down to just my small flat in an out of season seaside town.
I wasn’t alone in this, of course. I mean, obviously I was alone in my small flat, but I wasn’t the only performer for whom the future had suddenly turned to mush. Up and down the country, and throughout the world, singers, artists, performers of all types suddenly found themselves without a livelihood and a very bleak future. In a way I felt lucky that I only had myself to look after, and no mortgage, but on the other hand, things would be tough.
I tried to make the best of it. I launched into online gigs. I made videos. I wrote, and wrote, and wrote. I started rehearsing and learning the new show. But the one thing that didn’t happen was that I was making any money.
So, things weren’t entirely ideal. But then something wonderful did happen. Torbay Council were looking for artists to pay to do create local works in order to help them recover from the financial hardship of the pandemic situation, and add colour to the local artistic landscape. I applied, with the vague idea of writing about a subject of which I knew very little, yet was a big part of the local culture. I went through several ideas, from hotel workers to those involved in the holiday industry, until it struck me that, in spite of having a wonderful relationship with the town of Brixham, I’d never actually learned much about its fishing industry.
The Trawler Basin (p10)
I sent an email to the Torbay Culture organisation, which was allocating funds, detailing an idea I had to write poetry about the Brixham fishing industry. It would be a strange departure for an LGBT comedy performance poet, but I was looking forward to embarking on a new project, and more than anything else, I was looking forward to earning some money.
Amazingly, they said yes. They gave me a timetable of when things should be accomplished, and then assigned me a producer, who would put me in touch with various people within the fishing industry. And for the first time in a very long while, I felt like a proper artist.
All I had to do was get started.
I didn’t know the first thing about the fishing industry. I knew that the fishing port in Brixham was one of the largest in the UK and that it had been there since god know’s when. My producer was a wonderful person called Clare with whom I had a couple of Zoom meetings and she gave me a few pointers of where to start. The harbour master? The fish market? Perhaps I should write to one of the trawler companies and see if I could interview one of their skippers. I was also interested in the ecological side of the business and how it affects the local ecosystem. But most of all I was glad to be involved in a project which took me way out of my comfort zone and my usual oeuvre of poems about badgers and dentists.
By the marvels of social media I managed to get in contact with the skipper of a trawler. Indeed, he was the only person who worked on the trawler. Officially, it was the smallest trawler in the Brixham fleet, yet Tristan managed to go out every single day and get his catch and then sell it straight from his boat on the harbour side. As a result he had made quite a good living over the last couple of years and slowly built up a reputation for the quality of his fish.
We exchanged a couple of messages and he invited me to come down to the harbour and interview him aboard his boat, the Adela.
This was my official first foray into the world of reportage and I must admit I did not exactly cut a very athletic figure as I clambered from the quay on to his vessel. I’m sure there have been less graceful entrances into the trawling business, but the damn boat kept going up and down on a swell and I kind of managed it by kneeling on the edge of the vessel and kind of falling sideways.
Tristan gave me a quick tour of his boat and then invited me into the cabin where we had a chat about what he did.
‘I started out on the bigger trawlers’, he explained. ‘Several of us going out for days at a time.’
‘Did you get seasick?’
I’d once caught a catamaran from Cairns to the Great Barrier Reef and I’d spent the whole journey honking up.
‘Yes’, he replied. ‘Really badly, for the first six months, every single day I was so ill you wouldn’t believe it. But you know what? I hid it from the rest of the crew. I tried to be all tough and manly about it, but I would find a space where they couldn’t see me and up it would all come’.
The cabin of the boat was decorated with photographs of his family and he explained that the boat was named after his daughter. I then turned the chat to what it was that he caught in his nets.
‘Anything with eyes and an arsehole’, he replied.
We both had a good laugh about that and he said I was welcome to use it in one of my poems.
‘Seriously, though, the impact of climate change is affecting the types of fish that I can catch. Ordinarily, you’d be assured of catching certain species at certain times of the year. But now, it’s all over the place. Fish which rely on warmer waters are spending more and more time further north. And this affects what I can sell on the quay when I return. Most of my customers are restaurants and hotels and what they put in their menus depends on what I can catch while I’m out’.
I asked him where he fishes.
‘That’s a secret’, he replied. ‘I can’t tell you, because I want to keep these places to myself. But let’s just say, some mornings the entire Brixham fleet leaves together, and they all go one way, and I go the other. I have my methods’.
We had a great time chatting and I think I was more tense than he was about it. Indeed, he seemed very media savvy, which was a relief, and the one thing I was worried about was that I would write all these notes and then not be able to understand my own handwriting.
Once we’d done, I clambered off the craft with all the grace of a hippopotamus, then went to the bus stop and wrote up my notes as quickly as I could before I forgot anything.
But I was on a high, because this was my first ever bit of serious community engagement. Perhaps, I thought, people might start to see me as a proper poet after all!
Solo Skipper (p18)
One of the things I looked into, with the help of Clare, my producer, was the history of Brixham.
Clare arranged for me to spend a day at Brixham Museum, poking through their archives and chatting to the curator. I was assigned a desk in the stores and the curator brought me files, folders and newspaper cuttings about the fishing industry, and we chatted about the Fishawkers.
The Fishawkers were a band of fishermen’s wives who ran the town while their husbands were out at sea in the 1880s. They would congregate on the quayside and bid on the fish that the fishing boats brought back. As this was conducted in the form of a traditional auction, the winning bidders were usually the ones who had the loudest voices and the Fishawkers had perfected the technique. They weren’t at all averse to using a bit of physical intimidation to make sure that they bought the best fish, which they would then ‘hawk’ from door to door in barrels. The museum provided me with plenty of newspaper accounts of Fishawkers brawling in the alleyways and streets of Brixham, and one in particular who was hauled up before the local judge for a breach of the peace and was then fined extra for her cheekiness in court. The judge had asked her if she had anything to say, and she’d replied, ‘I’ve got a bit of extra money here, guv, if you’d like to put it towards my next misdemeanour’, or words to that effect.
The thing about the Fishawkers was that they were officially breaking the law. They weren’t allowed to bid on fish and then sell them around the town. As a group, they appealed this law and won and as a result struck something of a minor triumph in the advance of women’s rights at a time when women weren’t even allowed to vote.
I also read about the role that the Brixham trawlers played in the First World War, when the fleet was attacked by a German U-boat, the captain of whom demanded he board each vessel and rob their kitchens of food and cooking utensils. I guess such things were hard to come by when working as a submariner. But the most stirring story was that of the work the town did to accommodate refugees from the Second World War. Belgians from the fishing towns on the North Sea ferried across the Channel to Brixham, having forged friendships during peaceful times with visiting Brixham fishermen. And as a the Nazis moved in, they piled all of their belongings, family members, furniture and hopes and dreams aboard their fishing boats and made the journey. In such a way, welcomed by the local townspeople, Brixham became known as ‘Little Ostend’, and the Belgians became a part of the town’s culture and community, getting jobs in shops and on farms, marrying locals and helping with the war effort. When the war ended, quite a few stayed behind. The rest left in a fleet of buses in order to make the return journey, the whole town coming out to wave them off.
And now here I was, at a time of Lockdown and pandemic restrictions, reading about their exploits in the confines of the museum store room, feeling the swirl of history around me and the odd idea that really, no matter what we all go through, we are just the continuation of something much bigger. Which was a pretty profound thought for a comedy performance poet.
Little Ostend (p47)
Clare suggested I look at the environmental aspect of the fishing industry. Bizarrely, a couple of months earlier I’d done a couple of online education courses, once it became obvious that lockdown was happening and that I’d be indoors for pretty much the foreseeable future. The two courses I did were both about as distinct from each other as I could manage. The first was a study of the Icelandic Sagas, delivered by the University of Reykjavik, and sure, it gave me one or two ideas for poems and short stories, but I took the course more out of interest. The second was delivered by the University of Queensland in Australia, and it was all about the coastal ecosystem, with special emphasis on coral reefs, mangroves and seagrasses.
So you can imagine my delight when I discovered that an area of Brixham just off the coast was home to a very important patch of seagrass. This was now something I could speak about with a small degree of prior knowledge, of how seagrass is a vital piece of the marine ecosystem in that it acts as a nursery for younger fish and the next generation of fish stocks. Not only that, but seahorses were a feature of the seagrass environment, and I’d always felt a strange kinship with seahorses. I have no idea why. Perhaps it’s the flippers.
During the time I was working on the Brixham project, I was also planning my new Edinburgh fringe show for this year. And as you can tell from the following extract, the project certainly had an influence!
Poet In Residence
The crew soon grew tired of my constant questions . .
Shakka Lakka Boom
At night, the captain regailed us with tall tales from a life spent on the ocean.
Captain and the Sea Monster
Wouldn’t you know, the weather was awful. I’d never seen such rain. I wore my usual ‘performance’ costume, but due to the intense and very persistent deluge, I wore a large raincoat over the top of them, and then a plastic mac over that, too. I was more worried about the camera and the microphone that I was wearing, but John and Clare kept themselves very dry while I stood on the quay with the rain rolling down my neck, performing to the camera. Worse still, the persistent rain flattened my traditional gelled, spiked hairstyle flat to my face, and the gel began to drip into my eyes. The book became a sodden mulch in my hands. In fact, it all reminded me of flyering in Edinburgh.
And thus, the Squidbox project finished with something of a damp squib. But it had brought me closer to the town, and for the first time I felt truly a part of the local community. The poems made their way out into the world and I was asked to perform some of them at Brixham’s Museum during their inaugural poetry festival in the spring. And sadly, when a Brixham trawler sank off the coast of Sussex that winter, the poem We are Brixham featured on the Devon News website. Indeed, the whole tragedy affected me not only that I’d spent the summer with the trawler crews, and we’d chatted about the potential for danger, but also because one of those who died had been a friend of a friend and I’d hoped to interview him at some point, though never got around to it.
Looking back now, the project seems a very interesting diversion. Once Squidbox was done, I was able to concentrate on the next solo show, and I incorporated a couple of the poems into the narrative, the storyline of which poked gentle fun at the whole process. By the time I’d finished the project, I understood that I certainly had the creative abilities to engage myself in something different, and this made me kind of fearless when it came to choosing a new project. But most of all, it demonstrated that no matter where we are and who we are, we are tied to the history, community and environment in which we are placed, and this kind of made me feel a little better about the world itself.
We are Brixham (p62)
You can watch a video of some of these poems, recording in the pouring rain in Brixham, right here:
Dear fellow scone enthusiasts. It pains me to write this letter, but circumstance has forced my hand. For many years, the Brixham Town Scone Society website has been a valuable tool for members to connect, ask advice, share cooking tips, and buy and sell both equipment and ingredients. There have been no complaints and many of us have both enjoyed, and taken advantage of, this wealth of scone-cooking know-how just a click of the mouse away. However, lately it has come to the attention of this committee that the Classified section of the website has been coming under some abuse from certain members whose interests lay beyond mixing methods and how to create a really cracking milk glaze. The problem first came to light when it was pointed out to me that a lot of our newer subscribers to the website, who filled in the online form, listed the classified section as their main motivation for doing so, yet almost all of them answered the question ‘How many hours a week do you spend cooking scones?’ with the response, ‘None’, and in a lot of cases, ‘I do not like scones’. This was somewhat perplexing and an investigation was launched in case there were some confusion in the title of our website, (Scones A-Plenty.com), or indeed if there were some new boy band or comic perhaps titled ‘Scone Man’, that was leading to this sudden influx in new members. However, after a terrible mix-up (no pun intended) the other day in which one of our senior committee members, Maureen Hepplethwaite, found herself not at a scone cookery demonstration as she had been expecting, but at a swinger’s sex party, it was decided that action was needed. The first thing we noticed was the number of young men offering a variety of different shaped spatulas for sale in the classifieds. While these are great implements in the mixing process, it is probably more common in the scone community to use wooden spoons, so I think it’s fair to say that this raised a few eyebrows among the committee. Most of these spatulas were advertised as being new, ‘or in new condition’, while some were being offered in a slightly battered state. At this stage, alarm-bells didn’t actually start ringing. The admin behind running a pro-scone website means that some matters don’t actually get attended to until there’s some kind of emergency. The Great Flour Shortage of 2005 was one such calamity, and equally fraught was the resignation of our chairman in 2009 when he announced that frankly, he preferred muffins. We then noticed the alarming number of society members offering scones of varying states of completion, some of which were ‘ready to pick up now’, others were, ‘come and collect’, while many were ‘lacking one final ingredient’. ‘Already in the mixing bowl’, apparently, (and according to Reginald, who does not proclaim to be an expert on such matters), means that the ‘seller’ is willing to conduct the process in their own home. ‘On the baking tray’, apparently means that they are willing to travel. And it’s anyone’s guess what ‘ready to be consumed with fresh fresh salad’, means. Suspicions were raised further when Phil Burton (member since 1988), advertised that he had a home-made ready mix featuring fresh sultana pieces and fruity chunks only to receive an email which read, ‘You’re a dirty boy, oh my, you’re a dirty boy!’, followed by someone’s phone number. Dear society members, this will just not do. To get to the root of the problem, we have employed a code-breaker whose previous area of expertise was the Egyptian hieroglyphs and also the mating call of the common sparrow. And it was no surprise to learn that the codes adopted by many of the users of our classified pages were also a base form of mating call in themselves . Once she had explained what many of the codes and terminologies
were, I, as your brave Chairman, decided to pose online as one of these lovelorn scone-bakers with an advertisement composed specifically to entrap the guilty. Spatula for sale (or rent). Slightly rusty yet ergonomically designed to offer maximum stirring. Mixture in bowl yet also functions on the tray. Fellow mixer must have GSOH. No salad please. Jam and cream to spread as desired. Satisfaction guaranteed. Stirs in an anti-clockwise or circular motion. Alas, the only reply to my classified ad was from another society member who offered me a ‘lasagne’. ‘I don’t get it’, I said to the code-breaker. ‘Nor do I’, she replied. And just to be safe, I haven’t eaten a lasagne since. Dear society member, it is time to put an end to this, and the decision was recently taken at a committee level to put an end to the classified section of our website. We understand that this may very well reduce the number of people who have joined our society, (over twenty thousand new members in the last six weeks, a figure which still manages to perplex us), but we believe that this is the safest method to rid our wholesome community of undesirable attention. Like many of you, I started out as a young man with a head full of ideas and dreams intent on devoting my life to the construction and consumption of the humble scone. Starstruck by such scone-bakers as Ethel P. Anderson and Audrey ‘Iron Knuckles’ McGinty, I saw the society as a means to connect with like minded souls whose purpose and heart were in a similar vein to my own. It has been nothing short of tragic to see our fine institution highjacked by those whose thoughts remain as base as their own animalistic instincts. I see this as an opportunity to root out these wrongdoers and make our society safe again! The moment I’ve finished writing this email, I shall be visiting the committee where no doubt we shall be indulging in the wholesome pursuit of the perfect scone. And yes, fellow committee members, thanks for asking, I shall definitely be bringing my own spatula. Yours The chairman.
So I often get asked to write poems about issues and an issue was recently brought to my attention. I usually write about human rights and political matters but in this case I was asked by the Plumbing Standards and Water Supply Appliance Regulatory Commission to promote a campaign raising awareness of the contamination and pressure issues which come with unregulated backflow systems. The trouble was, before contacting me, they’d been watching videos of American slam poets, you know, those really big-voiced shouty ones. So they asked if I could grow a beard and wear a check shirt and come up with a poem for them.
He said, It’s there all the time, That drip drip drip, That rhythm which colours my life, This drip drip drip Like my life is a hip hop, It’s a drip hop It’s a drip drip drip It’s a clogged drain in a chip shop Like a clock tick tock counting down The seconds to the next time I have to do the washing up. And he’s tired. And he’s got a strange stain on his trousers, A kind of waxy residue.
He said, no pressure. I said, How dare you tell me there’s no pressure! You have no right to tell me that there’s no pressure! I’ve known pressure since before you were born. I’ve walked under stormy skies. I’ve asked such questions, the where’s and why’s, Life can be a disappointment but it’s seldom a surprise You can see it in my eyes You have no right to tell me that there’s no pressure! And he said, I meant water pressure.
He said, The pipes, they rattle, Like the plumbing in France. You never get a chance. It’s like a Broadway musical, You should see the tap dance. It’s a hotspot, it’s like hopscotch, I’ll show you where you can find the stop cock, Start a stopwatch I’ll time you It’s insanity It’s you and me, I said, It’s a violation of regulation six Slash four seven dash three, You see.
Because Because Because The two of us Brothers in arms Brothers with arms We can fix this leak together And be ever so clever Don’t tell me whatever The world is improving This really is moving But I tell you what isn’t moving - The water in these pipes. Don’t tell me you haven’t used an isolation valve. Don’t tell me you haven’t used a tap back nut spanner. Don’t tell me you don’t know your way around a pipe vice That’s not nice Like cooking a chicken tikka And then running out of rice Don’t you understand This stanza is so long I might possibly pass out!
Huhhhhh! (Pant!) The way I passed out from plumbing school. I ain’t no fool. Pass me that pipe deburring tool. But you, You’re a tap squirty bloke, You’re a basin filling jerk You’re a water meter cheater You’re a low flow joke And me? I ain’t going sixty foot down a well To fix a pipe, I ain’t plumbing the depths!
It’s heart skipping It’s reality tripping And all because the pipes are dripping I’ll leave a gap now For some audience finger clicking.
And now the emotions Are getting to me. Because no one understands that I need To
Let’s not succumb to the backflow. It’s a blowback. Like a distant memory, a throwback. Everything has been inverted, Like getting hot water from the cold tap. Like that time I managed to persuade my life coach On a change of career. He’s now a chiropodist. And me? I’m an optimist. And you? You’re a Sagittarius, And this? This? Needs no wonder Nor hearts to plunder This is going to take more Than a sink plunger
And it’s why We need Industry regulation in the plumbing and water supply Appliance sector.
That’s it for me now It’s the end of the poem Because just like the pipes I’m drained.
In the Glare of the Neon Yak is a rip roaring piece of spoken word storytelling set on a sleeper service in the middle of winter. A train full of circus performers are being stalked by a mysterious entity which seems to mean more than just its eerie manifestation. A portent, an omen, the Neon Yak symbolises dark times. Will our hero find love? Will Jacques, the tightrope walker, get back together again with his ex, the circus clown? Does the secret of the Neon Yak lie in the hands of a randy old lady? Has the buffet car run out of sausage rolls? Will Tony the Train Manager find where they’ve put Carriage F?
An hour show combining poetry, storytelling and music, In the Glare of the Neon Yak is by turns delightful, magical, disturbing. It’s a veritable modern fairy tale!
I don’t get asked to do workshops very much. But every now and then someone will say, oh, hey, erm, someone cancelled, is there any way you can lead a workshop on humour in poetry? Below you will find the notes that I use when I’m doing one of these.
Due to dyslexia, workshops aren’t something that I feel comfortable providing, because I can never successfully answer any questions which might come up. So I have these notes with me which I read from. I hope you find them useful!
Finding the Funny (and what to do with it when you’ve found it)
This workshop gives us a snapshot on how to formulate ideas to use in poetry (or comedy) and how to expand on a theme. The second part of the workshop covers the attitudes we apply to those themes.
The purpose is not to create deep philosophical page poetry. That can take months and possibly years, though it may be a start along that route.
By its nature comedy has the ability to say more than can be said through serious poems, or at least, gives the poet a platform in which they might easily bring to the surface serious themes. These themes can then be explored in a comedic manner, for example, homophobic bullying, gender expectation, heteronormativity.
However comedy is only funny when you’re punching up. If you’re in a minority or an under-represented part of the community, comedy poetry can be a way of connecting with a wider audience, because everyone enjoys a laugh no matter what your background.
Punching down, though, is not funny. It’s downright mean and it enforces stereotypes.
While this workshop might not necessarily result in a fully-formed completed poem, it will hopefully give you the tools and the impetus to get working on something funny and compelling.
So what is performance poetry? What do you understand by that phrase? (There are no wrong answers).
Discussion five to ten minutes, possible discussion points:
A juxtaposition of ‘high’ art of poetry and it’s usual ‘serious’ tone with the mundane, therefore elevating the mundane to high status.
The surprise which comes with elevating the mundane to high status.
Saying what nobody has ever noticed, but through a poem.
Saying what everybody has always noticed, again, through a poem.
The communal fun of a shared experience, including content, rhymes, rhythm and the atmosphere in the room which comes from these.
Breaking up the tone of a poetry recital or gig which isn’t necessarily comedy-focussed.
Hiding serious messages and social concerns behind the veneer of comedy.
The surprise which comes with the juxtaposition of rhythms and expectations of poetry and the conversational tone of words and phrases. (Lidls, muffins).
Punchlines and jokes to make the audience laugh.
Exaggeration and attitude.
Creating tension and then relieving it with humour, punchline, tag, afterthought.
Using language, repetition, rhyme, rhythm, repetition, metaphor, simile, repetition, vocabulary and sounds for easy aural consumption.
Ideas and material generation
Pick a subject to write about. Tricky, huh? It can be something mundane like turnips or teapots, or something abstract, like ennui or clumsiness. Or a place, or a memory, or a year. Or just an interesting word that you might have heard. Write the subject in the middle of a sheet of paper. (Two minutes)
Add around the subject some free associations, once again ignoring the social editor, and the links can be as tenuous as you like. Just write the first thought that pops into your head. (Five minutes)
Go around the word again and add a second layer of free associations to the first ones. Again, write the first ideas that come to mind. However more than just words, these will be more like statements or ideas. (Five minutes)
Choose one or two of these ‘branches’ and add three, four, or as many new associations as you like. Each one could follow the logic of the last one or it could be an ‘afterthought’ – like a comedy punchline. (‘I like my nephews. But I could never eat a whole one – unless they were served with roast potatoes – however I’m trying to cut down on my carbs’. (Five minutes)
If you’re really lucky, the last association might be a punchline or some kind of method of drawing all of these together neatly. If so, then you’ve probably got the basis of a joke. In any case, you’ve now got the structure of a pretty weird poem.
Just concentrating on one of these ‘branches’, free write a poem, ignoring the social editor.
The social editor is the part of the brain that tells you that you can’t say or write something because it isn’t proper. Part of writing comedy is learning to ignore the little voice that says, ‘Hey, that’s not logical, you wouldn’t find a duck driving a bus’, or, ‘In real life, people would certainly not try and have a conversation with an elephant about prunes mistaking them for a supermarket manager’.
Often when you ignore the social editor, several disconnected themes suddenly connect. Writers have been trying to think of methods to achieve this over the years. Some take to drinking, some take to drugs. My own method is to kind of take my brain out of gear, relax, free-write and see what emerges. (Fifteen minutes)
(Read examples people have come up with, ten minutes).
This is the ‘what to do with it once you’ve found it’ part of the workshop.
There are many attitudes that you can take while writing or performing. You can write in praise of a subject, or you can rant against it. You can be angry, venting, quizzical, perplexed, speak from a certain authority, you can be in awe, laughing at it, laughing with it, having fun, or you can be surreal or just plain weird. There are many different attitudes.
Others include : fun, surreal, plain / neutral, angry, ranting, in character, monotone. A lot of these depend on your tone of voice, facial expressions, movements and gestures.
Think about what kind of attitude you might like to apply to what you have written. (Five minutes).
(Let people demonstrate some of their attitudes, five to ten minutes).
Now look at these attitudes again and choose what you would consider to be the complete opposite. For example, ranting might become fawning, fun might become scared, angry could be enthusiastic. Or just pick a completely different attitude at random just to play around. (Five minutes).
(Let people demonstrate some of these attitudes, five to ten minutes).