Not the Same Poet, But Always an Artist – A review of the Hazel Hammond exhibition, Arnolfini, Bristol

Exhibition Photo, Image by Vonalina Cake Photography

I first heard about Hazel Hammond about thirteen years ago. I had just started in performance poetry and someone mentioned this artist and poet in Bristol, who did a show in which she invited audience members to write and draw fake tattoos on her body, the idea being that she had a date and needed some tattoos fast. I then went to a gig at the Artizan Coffee Shop in Paignton, Hazel was headlining and her poetry was amazing, life affirming and very human. I became absolutely smitten with her as a poet and as a person.

A short while later I started attending various open mics up and down the country and one of these was Acoustic Night in Bristol. Hazel was there, and we became acquainted and I would stay at her house every now and then when I was visiting Bristol. Amazing company and absolutely devoted to art, she would tell me about her various projects such as Marietta’s Wardrobe in which she created a box containing postcards of the contents of the wardrobe of a lady named Marietta, and a poem to accompany each. Marietta’s Wardrobe was a study of memory, loss and grief and brought a curator’s eye to the keeping of memories. And when I put together my show about tea, which I toured throughout the UK, Hazel knitted a hat for me in the shape of a teapot based on the exact dimensions of my head.

Knitting is one of Hazel’s artistic mediums. She told me about one of her performance art exhibitions in which she knitted herself into a cocoon live on stage. The cocoon was then taken to an arboretum. In such a way, Hazel remains one of the most original artists you are every likely to meet, unafraid to blur the boundaries between disciplines, and poetry was at the heart of this.

I’m 2018, Hazel had a stroke. It was an incredibly anxious time for her friends and admirers. Her friend, fellow poet Andi, used social media to update us on her condition, but you couldn’t help but fear the worst.

During her recovery, Hazel turned to art as therapy, from the models and characters she would create with plasticine, to the exotic finger dancing she would develop when listening to music. But during this time, she found that words had left her. Afflicted with the condition aphasia, Hazel could no longer rely on her mind to deliver the words that she so cherished as a poet. In the film which accompanies her exhibition at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol, she explained that she shunned the company of poets. I asked her why and she replied, ‘Jealousy’. Poets had their words, and Hazel did not.

The title of the exhibition is ‘Not the Same Poet, But Always an Artist’, which is an apt description of how Hazel’s life has changed in the years following her stroke. The film details her use of art as therapy and the work that she has been doing in the community, using the lessons learned through her own therapy to help other stroke sufferers. In the next room, there are photographs of the knitted hats she has been making which deal with her stroke. One of them is a visual metaphor for the stroke itself, in which one can put one’s fingers as if right down into the centre of someone’s brain. I explained that I found this one a little creepy. She laughed and said, ‘It’s not real, it’s only a sculpture’.

There’s a lot of Hazel’s trademark humour in the exhibition, in spite of the serious message about art which it delivers. Photographs of Hazel wearing her hats are humorous. In one of them, she looks out slyly from behind what she calls her ‘Shouting Hat’, which she wears when she wants to shout because the stroke has left her with a soft voice. Another demonstrates the visual disturbances she suffered, and another is paired with gloves which demonstrate how she uses her fingers and hand gestures to add meaning to her speech.

The exhibition is hugely atmospheric and emotional. The viewer is left truly astounded at how Hazel has overcome such adversity through art, and it is hugely inspirational that she should make the absolute best of such a horrible situation. Hazel has always been an inspiration in any case, and this exhibition cements that feeling.

But what of the poetry? I wanted to ask Hazel if she thought she might write again, but it didn’t seem appropriate to ask. The question is addressed during the film. One of her friends says that perhaps it will come back. Maybe not immediately, and maybe not in the form in which it once existed. But then I thought, this whole exhibition is poetry. It’s the visual manifestation of something which speaks to the viewer emotionally. Hazel has gone beyond mere words and found an even higher form of expression, the likes of which most poets can only dream about.

I heartily recommend this exhibition, and I hope that it tours to other places once the run at the Arnolfini has been completed.

Hazel, photographed by Robert Garnham, Oct. 2021
Robert Garnham wearing Hazel Hammond’s Teapot Hat, 2019

One week, two very different gigs!

I’ve been very lucky over the last few years and had some gigs with some very big audiences. This doesn’t always happen. Last weekend I did a gig in a florist in Brixham to eight people. It was a private affair so I knew what I was letting myself in for, and I did my usual routine. The demographic was, well, the youngest person there was seventy five and the oldest was eighty three. I’m not being ageist, as I work with older people and I know that they enjoy a laugh as much as the next person. However the fact that there was only eight of them made it very hard to elicit anything beyond a mild chuckle.

And then four days later, I performed to three hundred young people in a theatre in Bristol.

The whole dynamic was so different. I did the exact same poems and they were greeted so wonderfully that I felt kind of relieved, as if I had lost something along the way. The gig at the florist had made me wonder if I was just some weird bloke who had been dragged off the street into someone’s private function, which actually come to think of it, was pretty much near the truth. I’d been invited to perform after the owners of the venue had seen me walking with my family on Boxing Day and had asked me, on the spur of the moment, to come and do this private gig for them. So the whole set up was already a big weird!

To add to the weirdness, I was given my own dressing room at the florist, which was a small room filled with flowers. I’m certainly glad it wasn’t the allergy season. There was a stool in the middle of the room on which I could sit and prepare myself for the performance, and that’s where I spent most of the night, sitting on that stool going over my set and wondering how it would go. And as I say, eight people.

But Bristol. Wow. I was supporting the wonderful Dizraeli, a huge name on the Bristol scene, and as a result they had sold out and the theatre was packed. I was on near the start of the evening and I really felt that the night had a potential of going completely up the Spout. Would all these trendy young people find my work amusing? Would I cock it up completely, and forget my words? Would they not find my humour funny and start playing with their phones, or dabbing, or flossing, or fidget spinning, or whatever it is that young people are in to these days? But from the start of the set, it was completely magical. The room laughed. Indeed, they laughed a lot. They laughed at bits that audiences don’t normally laugh at. They were listening intently and with enthusiasm. The first poem usually takes two and a half minutes but it was almost a minute longer than normal because of all the laughing.

And what an amazing feeling it was to perform to so many people. The big stage, the space, the fact that all of these people were concentrating on me, made me think that anything if possible, and also that anything I wrote intending to be funny, actually was funny. Indeed, it made me feel invincible!

It was an amazing gig, and when I left the venue I was greeted by a group of these young people, who started quoting bits of my poetry at me. It was such a great moment. And then, because I’m so rock and roll, I decided to go to the local supermarket and get some groceries, only to meet some more young people next to the display of bagels, one of whom flung her arms around me and thanked me for making her laugh. I assume she had been to the gig!

So two amazing bookings in two very different places. And as I caught the train home the next day, I thought how amazing it would be if every gig were a sold out crowd of three hundred people, and how wonderful it would be if I could command such interest on my own.

A progress report on In the Glare of the Neon Yak and how it’s going.

Or, ‘On being a submarine commander.’

Not long ago I watched a TV documentary about the making of the sitcom Seinfeld, during which Jerry Seinfeld, who was writing, producing and starring in the show, said that a season of it was like being a ‘submarine commander’, in that everything else became excluded from his life and he just concentrated on the show for months on end. It was an interesting description, and I’m starting to see what he means with my new one hour show, In the Glare of the Neon Yak.

I started writing it a few days after returning from the Edinburgh fringe last year. I came up with the title first, and then I bought a circus ringmaster costume, and I tried to think of a way of combining the two. In October I had a week off from work and I sat down and wrote the whole show in five days. This surprised even me, but I was really happy with the outcome and eager to get started on rehearsing it. However, at the time I was still working on Juicy, as it had a couple of dates left.

At the end of the year I did something either brave, or stupid. I reduced the number of hours I do in my day job, in retail management. This meant there was less money coming in, of course, but it also meant I had more time to spend on Yak, and making a career out of spoken word. Little did I know that the show was about to take over my life.

Now, it must be admitted that I have always had trouble learning anything from memory. Previous to the end of the year, I couldn’t even memorise a simple three minute poem. I was asked to appear at a theatre event in Hackney and they stipulated that I had to perform a five minute poem from memory. I set about learning it and, I must say, did a damn fine job doing so. This gave me the confidence to learn something slightly longer. So what did I do? I decided to learn the whole hour show from memory!

So since the end of January, when I did my last performance of Juicy, I have been solidly lining the script for Yak. I do it every day. I do it before work, and after work. I do it on my day off, I do it at the gym while on the exercise bike, and in the sauna. I do it whenever I’m on the bus, the train, or just walking. The whole show has been completely taking up my mind all the time except for when I’m at work. And when I’m not memorising the play, I’m designing the poster, dealing with photographers for the poster, speaking to venues, filling in fringe application forms, writing blurbs, buying props and costumes, rewriting sections, working on the backing music, it really is neverending. When it snowed and I got snowed in while visiting my parents, I rehearsed while looking out the window at the snow falling. When my work colleagues left and I was alone, I rehearsed in the store room of the shop. Every spare moment has been spent on the show.

Has my normal spoken word work suffered? Possibly. I have still been writing, but not rehearsing new material with quite the same zest. I’m still promoting two spoken word nights. I’m doing feature sets around the country.

Soon I’ll be working with a director for the next couple of months. It’s an exciting chance to get someone else involved and I’m looking forward to hearing what she thinks. She’s very enthusiastic about the project.

So now I know exactly what Jerry Seinfeld meant. Today, for example, I rehearsed for an hour, got the train to work while running over lines in my head, then again at lunch time, then on the train home. This evening I’ve been working on publicity material for the show, and prewriting some Tweets for a venue.

I’m having an amazing time, and I can’t wait for people to see what I’ve been up to. It’s a departure from my normal style. According to my diary, however, my first free week off from Yak will be in early September. And that’s when the submarine will be docking for the next time!

Ant – A solemn investigation 

It has been apparent for some time that a solemn investigation were needed into the effects, physical and psychological, of an ant crawling on someone’s hat. Seeing it as upon myself, (the theme, not the ant), I set out, in a somewhat grave manner, and yet bravely, into such an investigation. 
The manner this investigation took soon revealed itself to be poetical in nature, and within a couple of hours I had completed a poem based on the theme of having an ant crawl on someone’s hat. Yet this did not fully satisfy me, and a further poem was written.
At this time, I was bitten by the bug, (again, not the ant), and more poems began to arrive. The theme of an ant on a persons hat soon took over my life and all of my creative output, until such a time arrived that I could think of little else. Indeed, the poems began to resemble a Groundhog Day syndrome, the same repeated themes, the same story with different outcomes, different languages and tones, until within a month I had thirty such poems.
The good people at Mardy Shark publishing soon recognised their worth and a pamphlet was soon produced, titled, simply, Ant.
Ant stands as the zenith of my creativity, a full flow measure of poetic and literary sensibility, all inspired by the horror and the bizarre situation of having an ant crawl on ones hat.
You can download the Kindle version of Ant herehttps://www.amazon.co.uk/Ant-Robert-Garnham-ebook/dp/B071JDZJ7X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1497201234&sr=8-1&keywords=Robert+Garnham+Ant
Or you can send off for the physical version here http://www.lulu.com/shop/robert-garnham/ant/paperback/product-23218401.html

Anatomy of a gig

  Before the gig:
At this precise moment I’m on a train and I’m going to a gig in Bristol. Indeed it’s quite an honour to be doing this gig because it’s a fundraiser for Poetry Can, an organisation I rather like, and it’s part of the Bristol Poetry Festival, and I’m one of two main guests. I thought I’d write this blog to tell you exactly how I feel.

The answer is mega nervous. My mind keeps running over the small things that can go wrong. And then it runs over the big things. The main concern at the moment is ‘will I be crap’? I know that the organisers have asked me because they like my stuff, and also because I’m cheap and available. But what if tonight’s the night where it all falls apart like a cheap microwave lasagne? What if I’m so preoccupied with other things that I don’t have my mind on it and I seem withdrawn and distracted? What if tonight’s the night that something really bad happens in the news and no one cares about my own particular brand of whimsy?

Just writing this adds to the nerves!
And what about the other things. Will nobody turn up? Will I not make it to the venue? Will I spill my drink over someone important? Will I get drunk for the first time since 1991 and upchuck over the first row during my performance? Will I have a sudden attack of the willies and run out of the room screaming? Will nobody laugh?
I’m already in costume, if you can call it a costume. I’ve got the glasses on and spiky hair, a nice jacket, some sensible shoes. I’ve got a card with me in which I’ve written the set and what I’m doing and in what order, and I’ve read it so much that it’s started to look a bit crumpled. Even so I keep having last minute jitters about the poems I’ve chosen. The set is a comfortable mix of old and new, funny and one deeply serious one which I’m worried people will laugh at. Maybe that might be a good thing.
I’m also listening to music. I listen to the bands who inspire performance rather than writing, so it’s Pet Shop Boys, Sparks, Erasure. The train has just passed through Tiverton and I’m wondering if I should turn the music off and concentrate. 
It should be a good evening. In fact it probably will. But that doesn’t make me feel any better and part of me is wondering why I do this kind of thing at all. I’m sure it will all feel much better when I’m at the venue.
After the gig.
Yes, it went very well indeed. The audience was not huge but I knew a lot of people there. I was worried initially that they might not have appreciated my oeuvre. The open mic element of the night showed a bias towards weighty, traditional poetry, and the other co-headliner was Claire Williamson, a wonderful poet, deep and meaningful and totally human, she went down very well with the audience.

But there were plenty of friends there: Melanie Branton, for one, a poet with a similar sensibility to me yet much, much better. She did her poetry to huge acclaim, and that’s when I thought that they might like me after all.
There were a few young people in the front and a young man with a big bushy beard, I’d already singled him out to be the one I point to during the Beard Envy poem. He wandered off halfway through the evening and I felt a bit of a panic that I’d have nobody else to pick on. As luck would have it he came back just before my set, and he laughed and clapped all the way through, which made the whole night that much better for me. There was a big grin on his face, and afterwards he came and chatted and said how much he’d liked my set.
As ever I don’t know what it is I’d been worrying about. If anything I worry now that it’s done that I could have done more comedy poetry, as I did a couple of serious ones halfway through. I also wonder what the night had been like if the young people weren’t there, and whether the audience would have had the same dynamic. But it doesn’t matter: it was a good night, and I really enjoyed it, and the audience enjoyed it, and that seems to be the main thing. There’s no sense in overanalysing.
At this moment I’m in my hotel room in Bristol, looking out over wasteland towards the station, and the mist is hiding the sun and making everything monochrome. Life is certainly weird at times. Next week I have to do this all over again, the exact same set yet this time in London. No doubt the same old paranoia and nervousness will kick in once more!

Why I really, really rather like Bristol.

I really like Bristol.

No, that’s not a euphemism or Cockney rhyming slang.
Since I started performing poetry all over the place, I’ve had the chance to visit towns which I never would have done for any other reason. I’ve seen Wolverhampton, Swindon and Manchester. Guildford, Berlin and Barnstaple. And all in the name of poetry. 
But there’s one city which seems to have become a talisman, a good luck charm, and that’s Bristol. Good things have happened to be on many occasions in Bristol, poetically speaking. And I have never been there for any other reason than poetry.
When I first started performing around the Torquay and Exeter area, Bristol poets were held in awe by the local hosts and promoters, and we would regularly see people such as Nathan Filer and Byron Vincent, amazing us with their skill and commitment and their sheer brilliance. Consequently, it became a kind of goal to aim for, and Bristol itself stood as a beacon of poetic endeavor to which we should all aspire.
The first time I went to Bristol was for the Bristol Slam. Indeed, this was my first ever slam and there were many names there who would go on to be friends and colleagues in the poetry world. People like Vanessa Kisuule, Tim Vosper and Stephen Duncan. None of them knew me from Adam, and amazingly, I came second in the slam to Stephen. We went for a drink afterwards, the euphoria ensuring that it wouldn’t be able to get to sleep!
The next time I went to Bristol was to Acoustic Night at the Halo. It was a birthday present to myself a little journey away, and some of the Bristol slam people were there and they remembered me. Tim Ledwitch was as brilliant as ever. Amazingly, the host of the night liked me so much that he offered me a co-headline set for a couple of months later on! The euphoria ensured that I wasn’t able to get to sleep that night.
The next time I went to Bristol was to do the headline set at Acoustic, and it went very well indeed. The euphoria ensured that I wasn’t able to get to sleep that night.
By now I was zooming about all over the country and building up a reputation as a comedic poet, so the next time I came to Bristol was to support Vanessa Kisuule at Hammer and Tongue. I made a little holiday of it and stayed in a nice hotel, and I was just about to leave for the gig when I got an email to say that my first book had been accepted for publication! I remember dancing around the hotel room in my very camp manner indeed.
And then the gig itself went very well. The two Tims were there, and Graham Chilcott, and everyone was most complimentary about my set. The euphoria ensured that I wasn’t able to get to sleep that night.
Last night I was back in Bristol again, headlining at Milk. It was a fantastic night, filled with talent and friendship. All of my Bristol poetry friends were there, and my set was greeted marvelously. I didn’t get much sleep last night.
There is a constant criticism of Bristol poetry, that there really isn’t much variety, and that it is youth orientated, slam-style, three rhymes per line and too deeply serious for its own good. Last night at Milk there was plenty of variety and styles of performance, and it was great to see Samantha Boarer, who I really do admire in a deep and special way. She’s just about one of the funniest people I know.
So Bristol remains for me a city devoted to, and standing primarily for, spoken word and performance poetry. Indeed I cannot see it except through this lens. I’m sure I will be back there again very soon, and when I do, I shall take some sleeping tablets.
I also like it because someone has spray painted, in large letters, the word ‘Arse’ on a wall next to Bristol Temple Meads.