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.
Slain McGough Davey asked earlier this week why certain people feel compelled to make art and gave some reasons of his own, and this got me thinking about what I do and the reasons why. And then a couple of days later an article appeared in The Guardian which suggested that comedy is not seen as artistic or as worthy as more serious fare, and pointed out that it should be held in the same esteem, as the effort gone into making funny comedy is just as strenuous and as hard as so-called ‘high’ culture.
My one aim whenever I sit at a desk or stand in a rehearsal space is to make something that will make people laugh and enjoy themselves, and take them away from their normal daily concerns. Indeed, there can be no more rewarding sound than that of an audience laughing along with a poem or some humorous linking material or on-stage buffoonery.
I remember my first ever gig, in 2009. I was incredibly nervous, and I had spent the month before writing a couple of ‘humorous’ poems, which I’d typed out on big sheets of paper. I remember my hands shaking as I read the poems out, but the nervousness seemed to disappear once it became apparent that the audience was laughing at all the parts of the poems that I had thought were funny. It was a life-changing moment, because it meant that the sense of humour which I’d thought was unique to myself could be translated into laughs from an audience.
I look at the poems now and cringe, because they weren’t as fully formed or as realised as the ones that I now perform. In other words, parts of them went on and on for a bit. They were badly in need of editing, but those nuggets, those golden lines and phrases which had the audience laughing, still exist.
These days I work on poems for weeks, months at a time, before they are unleashed on an audience. In a way there’s more pressure now, because the audience expects to laugh and I have to live up to that expectation. I have a phrase I use whenever I’m writing, ‘This poem needs to be 33 percent funnier’. I don’t know where I got the figure of ’33 percent’ from, but it’s a good mantra to have at the back of my mind whenever I’m writing.
The poem really comes alive during the rehearsal process. It is at this time that I have a pen on hand, going over lines and refining them, making them funnier, adding attitude and tags to maintain the laughter, or build up the suspense only to pop it.
Regular attendees of my gigs will know that there’s always a serious undercurrent to a lot of my poetry. Indeed, comedy performance poet is the ideal manner in which to address certain subjects such as gender representation, heteronormativity and, in my most recent new slam poem, homophobic abuse. Taking the audience by the hand and guiding them through tough subject matter while making jokes, (and not punching down or being mean or unkind), and then getting a laugh or two along the way, as an immensely satisfying feeling.
It’s true that I’ve been told, only by a couple of people over the last few years, that comedy performance poetry isn’t as worthy or as well-crafted as the more serious end of the spoken word spectrum. And this is a shame, as one of those comments came from a poet who I really admire. In the context of a gig or even a slam, a poem which encourages a laugh from the audience is somehow seen as ‘cheating’, while comedy performance poems are just slung together with no artistic merit. The truth is, as any comedy performer will tell you, a lot of work goes into placing the words in the exact order to elicit that response, and a lot of work also goes into the rehearsal of those words, movement, facial expression, emphasis. If art is judged by the amount of hours that goes into its creation, then comedy performance poetry is right up there with anything else.
And because of this, I only ever perform a tiny amount of what I actually write. When it comes to being performed, my poems probably have a one in ten chance of ever making it in front of an audience. Those that don’t are prodded, poked, re-worked, or sometimes simply torn apart, the juicy, funny lines being extracted and popped into other poems.
So, why do I do what I do? For a start, it’s probably the only thing I’m halfway decent at. I can’t cook a quiche to save my life, or put a fuse in a plug, or even catch a bus on a good day without causing absolute bloody mayhem. But I can write and perform comedy poems that make an audience laugh.
And secondly, there’s no greater feeling than getting off a stage with an audience clapping and cheering because you’ve just made their evening. I remember Bristol last year, performing at the Arnolfini Theatre and then, rock and roll monster that I am, I found a late night twenty four hour Tesco and did my shopping. In the bread aisle I came across a couple of people who had been in the audience and they thanked me for making them laugh and cheering them up. And that, oh, that was probably the highlight of my year!
‘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.
In the Glare of the Neon Yak was written between 2016 and 2017 having gone through several incarnations, starting as a show called Vestibule Dreams, about people standing at the end of a packed train and sharing their stories.
The story of the Yak is based on that of Herne the Hunter, the mythical ghost who used to haunt several places including Windsor Great Park, near where I grew up.
I took the show all over the UK to various fringes and festivals culminating in a run at Edinburgh. And in 2019 I did a live version with the Totnes jazz band Shadow Factory.
A poem about a small town in West Virginia where I spent the night as a teenager.
The car is big, brash and American,
As American as a baseball game,
And just like a baseball game,
It seems to go on forever.
The size of a frigate, this thing,
Burns enough fuel to power a small city.
You be navigator, my uncle says,
Which is easy as there’s only one road
Here in the mountains of West Virginia,
Even I can’t muck this up.
I catch my reflection in the rear view mirror.
You’re a long way from Basingstoke, sonny jim.
We’re on a road trip through America.
The scenery and grandeur are simply stunning
But I haven’t had a sausage roll in ages.
A teenage lad,
Overcompensating his obvious campiness
By wearing an Arsenal football shirt,
(I have no idea who Arsenal are,
I just like the fact they’ve got
Arse in their name),
And my uncle looks like Leslie Neilsen.
No wonder that diner back there
Went very quiet the moment we walked in.
And jeez, I’ve become so terribly English.
The Americans really seem to like it,
A waitress made me read from the TV Guide
And she couldn’t stop laughing.
And no, I’ve never met Benny Hill.
Why is everyone here obsessed with Benny Hill?
A muggy, huggy, humid day.
The moment I step from the car,
Everything goes Moist.
The constant heat has led to some serious chafing.
As the sun sets the highway announces
A small town called Burnsville,
We stop for the night,
Leslie Neilsen swings the frigate off the freeway
And we book into a small motel.
The adjacent highway sighs
As if it’s all too much.
The hillsides loom,
The Neon buzzes.
Passing trucks growl and
The world smells of diesel,
Melting tarmac and decomposing weasel.
But not in a Harold Pinter sort of way,
But in the way that grit is gritty.
There’s something sticky and
Unsettling in the heat of the night,
A bit Like finding half of a frog
In a packet of Quavers.
Restless dreams in wooden homes,
This covered fold, this
Hidden valley, and I,
Jolted up from hours of driving
And awash with hormones and teenage desires,
Suddenly turned on by absolutely everything,
Which I can only quell by singing
The refrain of a tv advert for Bran Flakes.
‘They’re tasty, tasty,
Very very tasty!
They’re very tasty!’
My room is hot.
I’ve seen these places
In so many films.
A bed, a bathroom, a bible.
I open the window and the moths fly in,
Thousands of the fluttering bastards,
Moths on the Tv screen, moths
Circling the lights, moths on the window frame,
And even the bastard moths are turning me on.
I try to bat them with the bible
But the bible turns me on.
I try to shoo them out the door
But the door handle turns me on,
And the door frame,
And the door turns me on,
And I turn off the light and then
Turn it on
But even turning it on turns me on,
And I realise that I have to get away,
I have to get away.
I place my hands on my head and through
Gritted teeth I sing,
‘They’re tasty, tasty,
Very very tasty!
They’re very tasty!’
It’s warmer outside, and dark, so dark.
I walk down to a dried up stream
Behind the motel,
Turn and look at the wooded valley slopes,
It’s all so quiet and ethereal but bloody hell,
After a while it starts to turn me on.
I tell myself there must be monsters here,
Gun toting wild men,
World hating survivalists,
Angry war veterans, how masculine,
How beautifully masculine,
Sensuous and masculine,
How it turns me on!
I try to look for some natural splendour,
But all I can see is a Coca Cola machine,
Humming and electric and brash
And vibrating ever so softly, like a lover,
Which turns me on.
So I walk, I walk up to the main road,
The highway, long grass crickets chirruping,
Like the springs of a bed, (impersonate),
oh god!, back to the motel,
The motel where so many slumbering naked people
Have tossed and turned,
Oh dearie me,
How dreadfully even this motel turns me on,
And just as I’m thinking I should really
Get a grip,
I see the open door to the motel laundry room.
Bright lit fluorescent glaring in the sultry night,
And two shining hot shirtless lads operating
The machines, nonchalant, slyly sexual, the
Glistening sweat causing their lithe bodies to writhe
And contort with an ethereal glow,
They’re tasty, they’re tasty,
Oh my, they’re very, very tasty,
They’re very tasty indeed.
And all of a sudden the motel is just a motel,
The moths, the crickets, the Coca Cola machine,
The doorway and the light switch,
They are what they are,
And I am what I am,
And the lads, oh mumma!
We all know what they are.
I go back to my room,
Boy oh boy,
Do I go back to my room!
The next morning we load
Our luggage into the frigate
And Leslie Neilsen asks me
What I’d like for breakfast.
For some reason I have
Sudden hankering for Bran Flakes.
Most of the Ikebana club has been taking performance-enhancing steroids
Careful with those secateurs, Enid!
Shove the bastard in the pot,
All nuance has gone, hasn’t it?
Can someone help me pick up this
Heavy bad of Grow-More compost, oh,
It’s OK, Molly’s got it.
The judges in Biddeford last week
Thought something was amiss.
The winning creation looked more like
It had been threatened with a severe beating
And had assumed those convoluted shapes
Of its own free will.
When asked to provide a urine sample,
Ethel went berserk with a trowel.
She’s already got a two-year ban from all
Officially sanctioned ikebana competitions.
Maud was seen in the chemists
Collecting a suspicious package from a
Pharmacist who gave a knowing wink.
She’s in contention for a sixth title this year.
She also got my brother’s Fiat Punto out of a ditch.
Harold did something creative with some cherry blossom
But was too interested in
Showing everyone his glistening abs.
He’d oiled them up, apparently, with Bonjela.
Trevor’s suddenly built like a brick shithouse.
He’s got the branch of an oak tree
Rammed in a water butt and he ain’t leaving
Until he’s had it out with the committee.
Start the day with a yearn.
A bit of a yawn
And then a yearn.
When will he learn?
And then the urges kick in.
All fuzzed up on the indefinable this trendy shag happy
Fashion conscious tight t – shirted skinny jeaned hair
Purposefully unkempt to such the right degree as if
To promote architecture over aesthetics this knowingly
Crash bang handsome nonchalant gymnasium frequenter
With his yearning and his urges looking into the mirror
Thinking hmmmm, today’s the day I might meet and forever
Fall in love with
A chubby overweight forty something poet with glasses.
Yearns and urges.
This is what he wants.
You can’t spell
Two in the afternoon,
Never been up so early!
Poet dating websites.
Doesn’t see a thing he likes.
Hip hop trendy slam heroes
Slippy hip lip spitting split lip
Syntax bendy rangers and shouters
Mic crooning pouters
They go from Bard to verse
He’s looking for
Old timer rhymers,
Middle aged and overweight and
Wearers of glasses.
He’d do nicely
The pain inside
The ease at which
The poems out of themselves.
They make it look so
He’d like to do the same.
He feels he could
Bang one out
Laughing with the lads beer with the lads now
And football with the lads all nonchalant joshing
And mega bants about birds and booze and beer and boobs
And he accidentally lets it slip that he’s always had a thing
For Alan Bennett.
Did I say
To spend his years
Become old and grey
And fade away
With haiku masters
Recover from a hip op
Forgetting all that hip hop
Better fetch a stretcher, man.
How he pines for
Sneaks on to
Chubby overweight forty something poet with
Glasses and a shirt and tie dot com
Sees pictures of various midlife
Midspread jovial looking
Z list performance poets
Library return counters
Art council grant forms
He sees the look of soulless doom
Hidden behind their thick framed glasses
And fixed forced smiles
And he thinks
I’d be there for you
All the time
Every time an audience didn’t laugh
Every time you crashed out the first round
Of the Swindon Poetry Slam
Every time a trendy fresh on the scene
Battle rapper says
Have you been doing this for long?
I’d be there for you.
But the world
It still turns.
He wants a
Chubby overweight forty something poet
With glasses and a shirt and tie and possibly
Spiky hair too.
If only there were someone for him.
Just who could it be?
Just who could this person be?
Just who could this person be?