In 2018 I toured the fringes and festivals of the UK with my show ‘In the Glare of the Neon Yak’. It was something of a gamble at the time to write and rehearse an hour long poem which took me away from the comedy and whimsy and into a strange territory of myth, folk-lore, atmosphere and storytelling. The show had taken a few years to write, from around 2015, and almost a whole year to learn. I was hugely pleased with the outcome and I got the chance to perform it everywhere from Edinburgh to London, the GlasDenbury Festival to Surrey, and then with a live jazz band in Totnes. It is the piece of work which I’m proudest.
Performing the show was a weird experience. Over the Edinburgh fringe, I suddenly became aware that the characters were almost friends, and that I would look forward to performing them again when their part of the show arrived. Indeed, it was something of a shame when the run ended and I felt genuinely sad not to perform these characters for a while. Almost immediately I began to think of a possible sequel to the show, yet I knew that it would not be the same because I didn’t want to spoil the mythology that I had built up around the show. ‘
‘In the Glare of the Neon Yak’ took place on a sleeper train heading north, filled with circus performers, and stalked by the mythological entity the Neon Yak, loosely based on the folklore tales of Herne the Hunter. I decided that a follow up show would have a similar structure, (characters telling their tales), but I wanted to go deeper and move the focus of the show to the actual situations in which these characters found themselves. I wrote three new pieces and also ‘borrowed’ the long poem ‘Bulk Carrier’ from my 2018 book Zebra, and then wrote a kind of framing narrative to bind all of these together. I envisaged an LGBT astronaut, flying to Venus, being consoled throughout his long journey by stories which would remind him of the importance of his community, until the final story details his own adventure when he finally gets to the planet.
The individual sections which make up the show could easily stand alone as performance pieces: ‘Bar Code Blues’ takes place in a supermarket in the 1990s with a character who is struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality. ‘Bulk Carrier’ takes place on a container vessel in the middle of the ocean which is haunted, (Why not?), by the ghost of Marcel Proust. ‘Much Ado About Muffins’ is a modern retelling of the Shoemaker and the Elves, taking place in a bakery which refuses to make a wedding cake for a gay wedding. And the final piece, ‘Dancing with the Electric Dragons of Venus’, takes the astronaut to a planet where every desire and hope are granted.
And as a special link to its predecessor, the voice of Ground Control is none other than Tony, previously the Train Manager from ‘In the Glare of the Neon Yak’. A change of career, perhaps, but he’s lost none of his humour.
I’d hoped to perform the show all over the UK during 2020, but world events put paid to that. With a show already written for 2021 and the publication of my new book to tie in with it, I knew that Electric Dragons would probably have to be mothballed for quite some time. So this autumn I set about making it into an audio play, a monologue delivered with musical interludes and sound effects, which I might unleash on the world this Christmas.
It’s been an amazing journey working on this show. Obviously, it’s a shame that it didn’t get to see the light of day in 2020. But without the constraints of having to fit the show into an hour slot, I was able to stretch my legs a little with the audio version. I do hope you will like it, and let me know what you think of it.
‘Dancing with the Electric Dragons of Venus’ will be released on 23rd December.
Over the last ten years I have had the privilege of performing all over the UK (and Berlin and New York), at some of the biggest performance poetry nights in the country, as well as fringes, festivals and theatres. And during this time, invariably, I have recorded my set, except for the times when I was too nervous and I forgot to press the on button. (Which usually happens on a night where things have gone amazingly!)
Like every other performer in the country, I have really missed going out and about and standing on stages this year, so I’ve used the time as an opportunity to plough through all of these recordings and find the very best ones. With the help of Bryce Dumont, I’ve crafted these into an album named after my show, Juicy.
While I was putting the album together, I realised not only how much I missed performing, but also how wonderful some of these nights had been, which I probably didn’t recognise at the time due to my usual performance nervousness. Nerves was the reason why I forgot to press play during my gig in New York, but it did go very well indeed. You’ll have to take my word for it!
Featured on the album are a couple of amazing recent gigs. The first was at the Arnolfini in Bristol, supporting Disraeli at Raise the Bar. There was an audience of over two hundred and they seemed to like what I did. Indeed, rock and roll animal that I am, after the gig I went to a 24 hour supermarket to do my shopping and met some audience members in the bread aisle, who were very complementary.
Another cracker of a gig included on the album is Scribal Gathering in Milton Keynes, a big audience who were very reactive and welcoming. However perhaps the most special gig was in my home town of Brixham, at the theatre. It was a rainy night and when I walked out on stage, there were two hundred people. It went amazingly well.
Right now, in the depths of the Covid crisis, performing on a stage in front of people seems a long way off and something that happened in a previous life. I can’t wait for things to get back to normal again so that I can be up there once more.
And just a word on the title. ‘Juicy’ was my solo show from 2017 which I took all round the UK and to the Edinburgh Fringe where it received lots of press and radio attention because one of the lines from it being mentioned in the Guardian as one of the funniest of the fringe. And yes, that line is included on this album.
The album is a tribute to those comedians who I used to listen to when I was growing up, their vinyl albums conjuring a world which I wished I were a part of. Bob Newhart, Steve Martin, Shelley Berman.
There has been talk lately in spoken word circles of the direction that the movement has been taking over the last decade and how it has shifted away from the scene that existed in the 2000s and before. Many have cited the influence of slams and American slam culture, others have pointed out that spoken word has become more literary and closer to page poetry, with the emphasis very much on words and use of language. And while neither of these are bad things – (my own philosophy being that it is what it is) – I do ponder every now and then on how it used to be.
I’ve spent the last twelve years or so performing all over the UK and during this time I have honed my regular ‘set’ down to what seems to work best on stage. My poems are mostly humorous, and rely on conventions of stand-up comedy and a certain approximation of what poetry should be contrasted with what my poetry actually is. There’s a bit of prop work and an awful lot of silliness. And some awful silliness. And people seem to like it.
As Pete Bearder pointed out in his wonderful book about the spoken word scene, ‘Stage Invasion’, ‘Many older poets I have spoken to have lamented the loss of diversity in British performance poetry that was previously known for its humour and cabaret quirk’. He goes on to mention performers such as Rachel Pantechnicon, Chloe Poems and AF Harrold, who were at the top of their game back then and were the zenith of the performance poetry scene. Reading between the lines, the question seems to be, ‘when did performance poetry get so serious?’
Over the last year I’ve been working on a spoken word / music collaboration called Croydon Tourist Office, led by my friend Bryce Dumont, who used to run the Epicentre Cafe in Paignton where there was a monthly spoken word night. It was at this time that the spoken word scene was still heavily influenced by a cabaret style where anything went, where most performed created a character on stage, and authenticity wasn’t as important as it has now become. Or indeed, maybe the creation of stage personas actually accentuated the authenticity of the performer. Who knows?
Anyway, Bryce had been diligently recording every set that I performed back then and he emailed me a link to all of the material. Several things struck me. First of all, the poems weren’t as good as I remember them, but hey, I was only just starting. Secondly, my linking material was much better than I remember it being. Thirdly, my performance voice was much, much slower than it is now. (This was before I’d even heard of poetry slams and the necessity of cramming everything into under three minutes). And fourthly, wow, I certainly did some weird things on stage!
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. And although I wore seemingly normal clothes on stage, I was very much a persona, the Professor of Whimsy, an exaggeration of my actual self.
So here are some of the incredibly bizarre things that I did back in those formative years, 2008-2012:
1. Used a mobile phone to deliver my set from a cubicle in the toilets.
This was fun. I set up a mobile phone I’d borrowed from a friend behind the mic. I put it on speaker phone and then called in my set while pretending to have raging stomach ache from the toilet at the rear of the premises.
2. Built a cardboard robot called Robot Garnham on stage and let him do my performance.
This was also fun. I operated the robot via a fishing rod from the side of the stage. And then at one moment I sat down and read the paper while the robot performed. It was really weird. People were facing the robot and laughing.
3. Phoned a friend halfway through a set to ask him what my next line was.
I had no idea if this was going to work. Again I used the speaker phone. A friend was at home with a copy of my poem. He fed me the lines down the phone.
4. Performed a set of Pam Ayres poems through the window from the street.
So the premise of this was that I’d orchestrated a row with Bryce. I said that I was going to perform some Pam Ayres poems and he pretended to physically throw me out of the cafe. I then proceeded to do a whole set of Pam Ayres poems through the glass windows from the darkened street. And people were walking past and I’d interrupt my performance to say hello to them.
5. Pretended to drink Pam Ayres urine after pretending to choke on a cream cracker.
Just the usual performance. I’d started the set by announcing that I’d gone to the doctors and Pam was in the waiting room, and that she had misunderstood when I said that I was a fan of her work. She got in a mood and left, but accidentally left behind her urine sample. I then performed a poem while eating a cream cracker and halfway through faked that I was choking. Of course, the only thing to hand was the Pam Ayres urine, and down it went in one gulp. The audience reaction was amazing. It was actually cold tea.
6. Performed a whole set with a tea bag sellotaped to my forehead.
Still no idea why.
7. Performed the same poem twice in a row with no explanation.
Which was fun but then at a gig a few years later one of the performers was so drunk that she actually did this, so now I’m a little embarrassed. Perhaps I should perform the same poem three times?
8. Tried to get inanimate objects to race each other.
OK, so this was my performance art piece, ‘Static’. I’d start by tuning a radio to static, and then placing these objects in a line on a table. I’d line them up and then wave a flag while keeping my finger on a stopwatch. Obviously the objects did not move. I tried this three times, then removed the objects, turned off the radio, and went and sat down in my seat.
9. Built a large hadron collider on stage.
Taking a length of garden hose, and a custard cream on a saucer. I’d eat half the biscuit, then pick up a crumb, and blow it through the garden hose, putting the two ends together and then taking a photo with a digital camera. I’d repeat this three times, and then use my laptop to show pictures of the atoms smashing together.
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,
You read that right.
11. Got an eminent and well respected page poet to perform Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance as a poem.
That was a beautiful evening. James Turner was the well respected poet. He did his research thoroughly and even sent me a critique of Lady Gaga’s lyrics.
12. Stood behind another poet as he performed and ate crisps, noisily, while staring straight ahead.
Not much else to add here.
13. Performed while standing on a hip exercise swivel disc.
That was fun, because the more I swivelled, the more I turned around to face the rear, so I kept having to frantically swivel to face the audience again. I’m still not sure why.
14. Performed through an iPad which I held up to my face while wearing a large box on my head.
The box was covered with fairy lights and tin foil. The iPad was showing a video but it was just my face. It was surprisingly effective. I’ll have to do this again some time.
15. Dressed as a crocodile, which had nothing to do with my set.
Nor did I refer to it during my set.
16. Wore a fake moustache which slowly moved around my face.
Halfway through the set I took out a large piece of paper and held it up and subtly moved the moustache every time I hid behind the piece of paper, which I was pretending to read from, and then pretending that I didn’t know why the audience were laughing every time I looked out from behind the big piece of paper.
17. Performed the Pet Shop Boys song Two Divided By Zero on a talking calculator.
You’ll find this funny if you know the song.
18. Used an Elefun toy game to blow small pieces of crepe paper with poems written on them into the air.
This worked amazingly well. Elefun is a plastic toy elephant that has a fan in it so it blows pieces of paper out of its long tubular trunk. And it was fun because the pieces of paper blew up out of the toy elephant’s trunk quicker than I could read them, plus I was catching them in a small net so most of the time was spent flailing around with this tiny net trying to catch and then read the small pieces of paper on which the poems were written.
19. Hired out my five minute set to another poet who wasn’t on the bill.
Inspired by a ‘gallery within the gallery’ which used to be at Tate Modern, if you’re interested. I can’t even remember who the poet was. I mean this was back in the day, so it wasn’t like anyone had come just to see me. But you should have seen the look on the host’s face. Plus I made ten quid.
20. Read a poem from an incredibly large piece of paper.
And I mean, really, really big. Which meant I’d spent the previous evening sellotaping together six incredibly large pieces of paper to form one huge humongous piece of paper.
Maybe I should be more adventurous and go back to these days. It certainly was fun. When I first started performing I received a lot of wisdom, advice and encouragement from Rachel Pantehcnicon and she told me that if she could change anything about her career, it would be that she would have less props that she had to lug around the UK. I suppose this was struck home for me when I had the pleasure and honour of supporting John Henley at a gig in London. Indeed, it would be just the two of us all evening. Willing to make a good impression, not only did I cart up on the train the biggest box of props you’ve ever seen, but also a table to put them on, which I then had to transport across London on the tube! After the gig I was so knackered that I just left it backstage at the theatre. I wonder if they ever wondered where their extra table had come from . . .
As I say, times have moved on, and maybe that’s not a bad thing. Or maybe it is. Who am I to judge? I do pine for the days when an evening out at a performance poetry gig (as they were called back then, no ‘spoken word’), could entail anything from performers getting absolutely naked to reciting poetry while standing in a paddling pool filled with jelly. Both of which, incidentally, I’ve seen. It was all a little rough around the edges, and most of the performers had stage names, and everyone was absolutely unique in their own quirky way, and the emphasis really was on comedy and spectacle, and at the end of the night you knew you’d seen something amazing. Audience expectations may be different these days. I just hope I somehow remain myself as a kind of bridge between the past and the present.
‘Yay’ is the title of my new book, to be published by Burning Eye, and my new solo show, both of which are due to come out in the Spring of 2021. I’ve been working on both of these projects for a couple of years and I thought I would explain what I’ve been up to.
‘Yay’ will be a collection of upbeat poems, most of which tell a story or deal with a very specific place. Some of them are a little bit silly, some of them are somewhat life affirming, some of them are downright weird! And all of them are comedic in tone. The whole collection has been designed to make you laugh or smile.
The collection was devised a couple of years ago when it seemed that the world couldn’t get any more depressing. Naturally, after I started working on the project, it then suddenly did! The book contains poems from In the Glare of the Neon Yak, and Spout, my two solo shows, as well as material from my new upcoming show which will accompany the book.
The show will be called ‘Yay! : The Search for Happiness’. It was written in the first few months of this year and I have begun the process of trying to learn the thing. Indeed, I have been working with a director, the wonderful Dr Maggie Irving, with some funding from Torbay Culture, and she has been instructing me in the art of mime, movement and body expression. Unlike my previous shows, ‘Yay! : The Search for Happiness’ will have no props at all, just myself and a microphone. So in other words, I need all the help I can get! The reason for this is simply that I wont have to lug bags and boxes of props all over the country.
I’m still working on the collection. At the moment I’m in the process of deciding which poems will definitely be included. And of course, new ones keep arriving. It’s a very exciting time at the moment!
I’m looking forward to getting the book and the show out there into the world. Fingers crossed, of course, that there will be a fringe circuit next year. But if not, I’ll find a way to bring Yay! to your town.
For the last couple of nights I have dreamed about the Edinburgh Fringe. I can’t remember what the dreams entailed, but there was definitely cobbles and drizzle and small theatre stages crammed into implausible locations. The cancellation of everything this year, including Edinburgh, has been pretty hard to take as a performer who relies in the most part in an audience. But most of all, it’s the communal madness and annual pilgrimage to Auld Reekie that I’ve found myself, oddly, missing muck more than I thought.
I say ‘oddly’ because last year, absolutely everything went wrong. Last year was my sixth year as a performer and my eighth fringe in all. The adventure started when the railway lines got flooded on the way there and I arrived nine hours late after various detours taking in Birmingham, Preston, Manchester and Newcastle instead of my original train which should have taken me straight there. I arrived to find that my show had not been included in the Wee Blue Book or on any of the signage at the venue, and then the venue itself had the toilets overflow because the sewage pipes had been inundated. One day I arrived at my venue to find a comedian setting up, they had assumed that the room would be empty because they had taken the wrong day off by mistake. And then on the way home, someone stole all my luggage. In spite of all this . . . I decided I wanted to go back the next year.
Edinburgh means a lot to the structure that I give to my year. I start writing a new show in November or December the year before, and then rehearse it up till April, when I unleash it on the world. I then do the same fringes every year : Barnstaple, Guildford, Reading, GlasDenbury, culminating in a trip up north. The whole year is structured around this timetable.
But Edinburgh means a lot more, too. It really is like a convention of spoken word artists and performance poets. People who you only usually see on social media are there, and a community exists of likeminded people sharing tales of flyering and accommodation. Some of these people have become very good friends over the years and it’s always somewhat emotional seeing them for the first time in a year. It’s also a great training ground, where you can hone your show and watch as many other different types of show as you can fit in. The inspiration I get from going every year lasts me a very long time and helps me experiment and push the boundaries. My last two shows wouldn’t have existed without seeing other shows.
And yes, Edinburgh is hard, physically and emotionally. I don’t know who decided to build a city right on the top of an extinct volcano where it rains most of the time and all the streets are cobbled. And you’re competing against thousands of other shows. And flyering itself is soul-destroying. I’m really no good at it. Yet the highs are extraordinary – slam wins, big audiences, great feedback, and of course, that miracle year in 2017 when I ended up on the radio and in all the papers, certainly outweighs the bad days where you get an audience of one, or you get absolutely drenched for eight hours a day.
I was looking forward to this year. I was going to do a ‘Greatest hits’ package which required minimum props and I’d found some great accommodation, and I was hoping to do everything right. Well. maybe next year, now.
And that’s if next year happens at all. The economic landscape may look very different by then, but I’m hoping there will still be a chance to go back up. With the exception of the town where I live and the town where I grew up, Edinburgh is the place I know the best having stayed and performed all over it for most of the last decade. I can’t envisage not going there for two years.
1. Sit at the back. Don’t sit at the front. If you sit at the front, when it’s your turn to perform you’ll be performing to an empty chair.
2. Also, if you sit at the back, the audience will clap for longer while you’re walking to the microphone.
3. If you are a prop poet and you bring a cow to the stage, don’t point out that you’ve brought a cow to the stage, because people can see that you’ve brought a cow to the stage.
4. Don’t milk it.
5. If you bring books to sell, beg the host for a slot in the first half. That way you can sell books during the interval and still have time to run off and get the train. Make sure you can change a twenty.
6. If someone says they like your stuff, they usually mean it. Sometimes they say it so that you’ll automatically reply that you like their stuff, but not always. Sometimes they’ll say it because you were awful and they feel sorry for you, but not always. But most of the time they mean it.
7. I mean, I think they do.
8. I’m pretty sure of it but you’ve got me thinking, now.
9. If it’s an open mic, spell your name legibly on the sign-in sheet. I usually end up being announced as Rupert Graham.
10. If you’re performing haiku, for gods sake, we all know what haiku are, so you don’t have to explain what a haiku is. Syllables and stuff. The explaining is usually longer than the haiku. Sodding haiku. Same goes for acrostics and villanelles.
11. Don’t get rat-arsed.
12. If you’re using props, check for light fixtures and obstructions.
13. I mean, is it me, or do haikus always seem like they should be longer?
14. If you want to have a laugh while performing, make eye contact only with one audience member, then glare at them, give them the old state, really freak them out.
15. It’s not a competition.
16. Well, except for slams. I forgot about slams.
17. Don’t give away all your poem in the introduction.
18. If you bow to the audience at the end of your set, don’t bang your forehead on the microphone. It bloody hurts.
19. The long walk back to your seat is still part of the performance. Maintain your aura. Try not to trip over handbags. And listen out, because the compere might make some wise-arse remark about you.
20. Always leave them wanting more. Try to do less than the time allocated. The host will love you for it.
21. Make sure your flies are done up.
22. Sitting at the back gives you a sense of mystique.
23. If you really want to infuriate the host, turn towards them almost at the end of your set and ask, ‘Have I got time for another two poems?’ They will always be too polite to say, ‘No, sod off’.
24. If there’s a mic, then don’t say, ‘Oh, I think I’ll perform without the mic. Can you all hear me?’ The people at the back who can’t hear you won’t hear you say ‘can you hear me’. For goodness sake, use the damn mic!
25. Not everyone enjoys the phrase ‘this poem requires some audience participation. Let’s practice, shall we?’
26. But poems with audience participation get stronger applause because the audience is clapping themselves, and most of them are relieved that they don’t have to do any more audience participation.
27. There really is no subtle method in plugging a book.
28. I reiterate, if you’re using props, then check for light fittings.
29, Don’t hold a massive folder in front of your face while you’re reading.
30. Practice at home, time yourself, and aim to do less than your allocated slot.
31. Talk to the other poets.
32. Look for the following: a poem about a cat, a poem in which the performer uses the expression ‘You have no right to tell me how I must feel, how dare you tell me how I must feel’, a poem in which the poet turns on the waterworks halfway through, a poem about some Ancient Greek myth which you’ve never heard about but then everyone laughs knowingly and you laugh too even though you have no idea what they were going on about, a poem which finishes with everyone just going, ‘Mmmmmm’, a poem about being a poet, a poem with a modern cultural reference or metaphor which everyone laughs about and again you join in even though you have no idea what they’re talking about, a poem in which the poet does that strange thumb and forefinger pinched motion as it plucking a finely tuned delicate word from the ether, another poem about a cat. There’s no wrong way to do it, but give yourself a point for each of these!