Of pirates and conveyor belt toasters

Poem

You know those
Conveyor belt toasters you get
In buffet breakfast bargain hotels?
My mate Brian
Has one of those in his kitchen.
It’s kept on all the time
On the off chance that
Someone might fancy some toast.

Brian is a pirate.
He’s proud of his toast conveyor.
I’ve seen him plunder a frigate.
I’ve seen him
Butter a crumpet.
The toast falls off the bottom
Of the conveyor belt
And he says,
Har harrrrrrrr.

We met on the high seas.
I was first mate on the poop deck.
He threatened me with his big blunderbuss
But after that we got on fine.
You must come round for dinner
Some time,
He opined.

I brought a fine Merlot.
I’d like to propose a toast, he said.
Would you like some too?
And we sat like lemons
In an awkward silence
As we waited for it to trundle through.

Four slices.
Cut in two.
Pieces of eight, he said.

I caught Icarus (and ruined a fable) / Graduation ceremony buffet

Two poems, the first is from 2010, the second is new.

Poem

I caught Icarus
And ruined a fable.
He fell into my arms
Slightly warm and slick with wax
And wild-eyed yet surprisingly
Composed
After his flight.
Did you see that?, he asked,
Did you see that?
Awwwww man, that was well wicked!
That was sick!
That’s going on Instagram later, I tell you!
These things just kind of happen to me.
He prepared to leave.

And what of me?, I asked.
You can’t just fall into my arms
And then saunter off.
This isn’t how it happens,
This is not how it’s meant to be.
Don’t look so grumpy, he said.
Don’t look so downcast.
This never would have happened
If it had been a bit overcast.

Poem

I went to a buffet
At a graduation ceremony
Sausage rolls
Cheese on sticks
Postgrad students
Selfie pics
The table laid out with food food food
It
Was
A
Mortarboard
Smorgasbord
Mortarboard
Smorgasbord
A pipe then leaked
And someone called
The water board
Mortarboard
Smorgasbord
Mortarboard
Smorgasbord
Give a sausage roll
To the man from the water board
Mortarboard
Smorgasbord
Mortarboard
Smorgasbord
Sausage rolls
Cheese on sticks
Postgrad students
Selfie pics

Yay!: The Search for Happiness (Diaries)

Yay! show diaries

4.5.20

Write down themes of poems due to go into the Yay collection and decide that most of them are about the sea or wildlife. Conscious that the theme has to be happiness. Decide to make it a love story on a trawler possibly breaking the fourth wall every now and then. Decide to include Seaside Serenade in the collection as it would fit well at the start of the show. Write out very rough approximation of the storyline. A quest to understand what happiness is. Decide against the love aspect.

5.5.20

Working on a possible poem to go at the end of the show, provisionally titled Often I Don’t Realise I’m Happy or Oh! Actually It Turns Out I’m Happy!
Read some Vanessa Kisuule and Shagufta Iqbal for inspiration but then decided it needed ‘Liv Torcing up a bit’. First draft of poem completed.

6.5.20

Finished and fiddled with Oh! It Turns Out I’m Happy! Had a tentative go at writing the first paragraph of the show. Also made a new version of the Yay book manuscript. Now wondering whether to include Seaside Soul as it fits nicely after Seaside Serenade.

7.5.20

Worked on the linking material before Seaside Soul, and between Seaside Soul and Sideburns. Pondered on adding The Lad on the Bus Watching Porn on his phone to the show. Seaside Soul is now a part of the show.

11.5.20

Worked on the linking material and the material for the trawler section. Added the Homecoming poem to the show. Also worked on the dead aunt section.

12.5.20

Continued working on linking material. Swapped running order of the poems in the middle.

13.5.20

Typed up the first few pages, changing and editing sentences, then worked on the Giant Octopus section hoping to make it a stand alone segment.

14.5.20

Typed up the rest of the existing material and rewrote the giant octopus scene.

16.5.20

Worked on coffee shop scene and linking material, worried that the show may be too long, also worried that it should end at the end of the Trawler section.

17.5.20

Completely scrapped yesterday’s writing and rewrote the end of the show keeping the action on the trawler. Ended the show with a sudden idea to incorporate the gay pride boat ride.

18.5.20

Typed up the new material and made a few cosmetic changes and loosened up some of the language. First draft of the show now complete. Put aside for a few days.

1.6.20

In preparation listened to Tina Sederholm’a podcast about writing shows. Pondered on removing Seaside Serenade as it shares too many similarities with other poems, and replacing it as the first poem with I See Me in the Future, which is only half written. Then rewrote and wrote new linking material for the first few minutes, setting the start of the show in Surrey instead of Devon. Then turned attention to Shakka Lakka Boom and thought of alternative words to make it more my own poem, including Plipperty Plopperty Ploom.

2.6.20

More work on the new beginning of the show and writing the new linking material. Added a couple of jokes, then typed up and worked on I See Me in the Future.

3.6.20

Put all of the show together and had a full read through, comes to 57 minutes but it’s over 8000 words. Made lots of notes. Rewrote the first verse of Shakka Lakka Boom. Decided to remove the Lighthouse poem and the lighthousekeeper section to free up time, and this would let me put Seaside Serenade back at the start. Started rewriting I See Me in the Future just on the off chance. Feel that Seaside Serenade would be a better opening poem.

4.6.20

Rewrote the script. Took out I see Me in the Future and added Seaside Serenade. Removed Lighthousekeeper and that whole section. Also removed I want to be a Submariner as it had the same themes as three other poems, wrote a new one based on a poem originally rejected for Spout, Dunker Dumper, which gives background to Stinky Pete’s malaise. Interestingly this poem was written in the Wetherspoons in Barnstaple during the Fringe there. Added Brandon to the end of the show. Rewrote the opening linking material to add more jokes and attitude. Word count now just over 7400.

5.6.20

Updated Yay collection to include new poems for the show, and new Shakka Lakka Boom.

10.6.20

Rewrote the Surrey linking material and also went through the show, reducing the word count and editing. Word count now 7300.

13.6.20

Rewrote the opening speech after Seaside Serenade, including some jokes that came to me and getting rid of the awkward book plug.

14.6.20

Sunrise rehearsal room, Brixham. Rewrote the end of the Skipper’s octopus story, adding a joke. After lunch did a full read through. Comes to just under 53 minutes now. Decided to lighten the poetry towards the end and looked at replacing the poem Yay, perhaps with I want to be a Submariner, or even a sequence of short silly poems from a pretend poetry workshop on board the vessel.

15.6.20

Started rewrite of the ‘poetry workshop’ section with a view to replacing the ‘Yay’ poem. Wrote rough notes and selected some previously written short, sharp poems for this section with punchlines.

16.6.20

Rewrote the poetry workshop section and put it in the script. Removed the Yay poem and the linking material leading to it. Net result, about a hundred words less. Current word count now just over 7100. Currently toying with the idea of the Dunker Dumper song being played on a mobile phone as a pretend voicemail message.

24.6.20

Rewriting odd bits of the script to add in more jokes (but not puns). Made Becky be on the rescue boat at the end. Rewrote the opening paragraph. Spent the afternoon watching YouTube videos about writing solo shows.

25.6.20

More work on adding humour to the script. Looked also at various aspects of the show, even the title. And should I perform the whole thing while ironing? And then struggling to put the ironing board away? Approaching it with a ‘nothing is sacred ‘ mentality!

26.6.20

Did some more micro-rewrites, trying to make individual sentences punchier and funnier. Then did a full table read of the show as it is now, it comes to 52 minutes. Made some notes. The idea persists of using an ironing board, it could be used as numerous props: boat, gangplank, a person, a surfboard, an ironing board, a table. Something to ponder on. Do I really need to lug an ironing board around? Spoke to Ian Beech about using one of his photos for the poster for the show and the cover for the book, and the idea had his blessing though he was worried that Burning Eye would alter his image. After dinner, started working on some different ‘workshop’ poems , the latest idea being to get audience members to read them out.

27.6.20

Finished rewriting the ‘poetry workshop’ short poems.

1.7.20

Chatting with Tina Sederholm about hiring her to do dramaturg work on the show script.

17.7.20

Printed off the script for Yay and put it in the same ring binder as used for Juicy, Yak, Spout, etc.

21.7.20

Re-begin line learning Seaside Serenade. Amazed at how much I remember.

8.9.20

Official announcement of the Yay show and book on the Burning Eye Twitter and social media account and on other various social media platforms.

15.9.20

Official announcement of the title of the book and show on the Burning Eye Twitter account and in various social media platforms.

1.11.20

Brixham: Full ‘table read’ of show and notes written. Current length 54 minutes. Is Queer Express necessary?

2.11.20

Spent the afternoon on rewrites based on yesterday’s table read. Replaced Queer Express with I Want to be a Submariner.

3.11.20

Spent the afternoon and evening on rewrites. Word count now under 7000. Pondering music for the poems, and a different voice for the mobile phone song in the middle. Just to give me a rest!

4.11.20

No election result. Started rehearsing, amazed to find I still knew most of Seaside Serenade. Went through the introduction and linking material.

5.11.20

Still no election results. Rehearsed Seaside Serenade and learned lines for the following linking material. Slight rewrites to first introduction.

6.11.20

Still no election results. Rehearsed Seaside Serenade and the following linking material. First seven minutes of the show now committed to memory. Decided against music.

9.11.20

Rehearsed the first seven minutes and began to rehearse Sideburns. Mark was bored so he came down and watched the first seven minutes.

10.11.20

Sideburns line learning.

11.11.20

Sideburns line learning.

12.11.20

Applied to PBH Free Fringe for the show for 2021. Line learning for Sideburns and re-run of first seven minutes.

13.11.20

Sideburns line learning.

14.11.20

Sideburns line learning during torrential rain storm.

15.11.20

More Sideburns line learning. More torrential rain, thunderstorm, hail. Started also on the linking material after Sideburns.

16.11.20

Rehearsing linking material.

17.11.20

Rehearsing linking material and Seaside Soul.

18.11.20

Seaside Soul line learning.

19.11.20

Did the first fifteen minutes or so of Yay and more Seaside Soul line learning.

20.11.20

A run through of Sideburns and Seaside Soul a few times to make sure they’d stuck.

24.11.20

Started work memorising linking material after Seaside Soul.

25.11.20

More work on memorising linking material. Ran through all the show so far from the beginning. Also pondering on light rewrites. A Brixham trawler sank over the weekend with two lives lost. I was asked to provide some words for the local news website. Decided that the script would need some revisions to make it less trawlercentric, in honour to the fishermen, one of whom is a friend of a friend, and the sacrifices those in the fishing industry make. Pondered on changing the location to a factory fishing ship.

26.11.20

Up early for rewrites. Research into factory fishing ships and had several ideas for jokes and funny lines. Rewrote two lots of linking material and made cosmetic changes to wording, very pleased with the results. Current word count 7043.

27.11.20

Line learning Instructions for my Funeral.

28.11.20

Line learning Instructions for my Funeral.

29.11.20

Line learning Instructions for my Funeral

30.11.20

Line learning Instructions for my Funeral

2.12.20

Line learning Instructions for my Funeral.

3.12.20

More line learning Instructions for my Funeral, followed by a complete run-through of everything learned so far. Memorised twenty minutes of material since the start of November. Therefore thinking logically that it will take two more months to memorise the rest of the show, though I wont have as much free time.

6.12.20

Line learning Instructions for my Funeral and then started learning the rehearsing the following linking material. Printed the updated script and put it in the folder. Rewrote the linking material as I went along. As I was rehearsing, (having moved the table and chairs from the bay window to create a stage), I saw a little aircraft spluttering, popping and banging as it flew over. Hopefully not an omen!

8.12.20

Line learning linking material.

9.12.20

Line learning linking material.

13.12.20

Complete run-through of the show so far. Then started the process of committing ‘Homecoming’ to memory.

14.12.20

Line learning Homecoming.

15.12.20

Debuted Seaside Soul at Big Poetry Goes Viral on Zoom. Accidentally missed out a verse.

16.12.20

Line learning Homecoming and rehearsing Seaside Soul, as I’ll be performing it tomorrow night at the Palace Theatre as part of an evening of culture in celebration of the theatre. They asked for a poem about Paignton. Funny you should ask, I replied, I’ve been working on one!

17.12.20

Debuted some linking material and Seaside Soul at Palace Avenue Theatre as part of their evening of culture.

18.12.20

Line learning Homecoming (while at work alone on the shop floor in the first, slow hour of the day).

19.12.20

Went for a walk in the bright sunshine down across Paignton Green to the harbour, line learning Homecoming. Stood on the concrete breakwater and recited the poem a few times. Later on, went through the show so far (excluding Seaside Serenade) just to make sure I could remember the poems.

21.12.20

Line learning Homecoming and the linking material which comes afterwards.

22.12.20

Line learning Homecoming.

23.12.20

Line learning linking material. Also went through all of the linking material of the show so far, (saying ‘fast forward’ once I’d got one verse into the actual poems).

26.12.20

In Brixham. Line learning linking material. Begun the process of learning Poet In Residence on a Fish Factory Ship. Rewrote the second verse using the old typewriter to type up the revisions. Only one of the crew will henceforth be known as ‘stinky’.

27.12.20

To the Sunrise Rehearsal Studio in Brixham to work on the Poet In Residence poem. Great progress rehearsing and line learning.

29.12.20

Line learning Poet In Residence. Also did a run-through of the first twenty five minutes of the show, completely error free for the first time. Felt like a big step!

1.1.21

Line learning Poet In Residence.

2.1.21

Line learning Poet In Residence.

3.1.21

Went to the sea front, prom and beach in bitterly cold winds and recorded myself underneath the pier performing Seaside Soul, to publicise the show and book. Spent the afternoon editing and re-dubbing the footage, shared to social media channels.

5.1.21

Another lockdown begins. Line learning Poet In Residence.

6.1.21

Line learning Poet In Residence and experimenting with an intro played on the melodica.

7.1.21

Line learning Poet In Residence. Then undertook a run-through of the show so far, 27 minutes. Followed this with line learning linking material.

8.1.21

Applied to Norwich Fringe and to the Guildford Fringe for 2021. Afternoon, line learning linking material and Shakka Lakka Boom.

9.1.21

Line learning Shakka Lakka Boom and linking material.

10.1.21

Line learning Shakka Lakka Boom and linking material.

11.1.21

Email from Guildford Fringe saying they’ll be in touch about dates for Yay. Spoke with Melanie Branton about providing a song via answer phone message for the ‘You Dunked a Muffin in your Cuppa’ section. Sang a version of it and sent it to her along with the lyrics. Line learning linking material. Also, performed Seaside Soul on the weekly Forsaking the Mic Zoom meeting and chatted about the show. Ran through the show so far for Mark.

12.1.21

Ran through the show so far again. 34 minutes. Pondering on what to remove if the running time is too long.

13.1.21

Did a ‘table read’ of the rest of the show to work out timings. Decided to remove two poems, ‘Moby Dick’, (which I stayed up late last night re-writing), and I Want To Be A Submariner. The Submariner poem needs rewrites in any case but I’ve never been totally happy with it and it seems superfluous to the plot. Moby Dick feels better now it’s rewritten, but it’s also superfluous to the plot. As a replacement I took the Sunrise poem from Squidbox and rewrote it, adding a final verse. This is a more contemplative piece and fits the mood nicely. This new poem will also be inserted into the Yay book in place of I Want to Be A Submariner. Hopefully, the running time will be around 55 minutes now.

15.1.21

Line learning linking material. (Sea monster section).

16.1.21

Line learning linking material. (Sea monster section).

18.1.21

Line learning linking material. (Went for a walk in the rain and dark to go over the lines in my head, the sea monster section).

19.1.21

Line learning linking material. (Sea monster section).

21.1.21

Line learning linking material. (Sea monster section).

22.1.21

Line learning linking material. (Sea monster section).

23.1.21

Decided to carry on the Yay show into 2022 as well as 2021 and to make it as ‘robust’ as possible to last the distance. Had a great rehearsal, going through the whole of the learned show so far and concentrating on movement, and incorporating a chair, which may be the only piece of furniture or prop (except the phone). Then used voice changing software to record the poem / song ‘You Dunked a Muffin in your Cuppa’, adding some dialogue at the start and the end. Edited it all together to be used in the shows. Very happy with the progress today.

24.1.21

Line learning linking material.

25.1.21

Line learning linking material. Considering some music at the start of the show. Last night recorded some vocal ideas. Today pondered using a verse from the poem Happy.

26.1.21

In a light rain shower I went to the woods down the road and filmed myself performing Instructions for my Funeral. Then home and edited the footage. Ran through the linking material and the ‘Muffin’ / ‘Sea Monster’ sections, then rehearsed ‘Nathan went for a walk in the Rain’. Finally, rewrote linking material between ‘Nathan . .’, and ‘Sunrise’.

28.1.21

Line learning ‘Sunrise’.

29.1.21

Line learning Sunrise.

30.1.21

Line learning Sunrise. Made a video for the ‘Happy’ poem.

31.1.21

Ran through all of the memorised show so far, 45 minutes. Had a minor panic when I thought the timer said 55 minutes! Did some work with the chair just to play around during the show. Then spent some time line learning Sunrise.

1.2.21

Line learning Sunrise.

2.2.21

Line learning Sunrise.

Shakka Lakka Boom

I’ve been working on the new show and collection for months now so this poem has been stuck in my head for absolutely ages, and yet the weird thing is, it’s not been out into the big wide world yet. Until now!

Behold! Enjoy this brand new video of my poem Shakka Lakka Boom!, taken from my forthcoming collection Yay!, and my solo show Yay! The Search for Happiness. I hope you like it!

Shakka Lakka Boom!

Shakka lakka boom boom,
Shakka lakka boom.

Gotta get through the day,
Gotta do your thing.
Gotta get through the day,
Feel it deep within.
Gotta get through the day.
People, make some room.
Say into the microphone:
Shakka lakka boom!

Go to bake a cake one day.
Go to bake a cake.
Go to bake a bake one day,
Hope I don’t make a mistake.
Add all the ingredients,
Stir them with a spoon,
A little salt and a pinch
Of shakka lakka boom!

Shakka lakka boom boom,
Shakka lakka boom.

Made my Broadway debut
In a Shakespeare play.
I know all my lines by heart.
I know, just want to say.
‘To be or not to be,’ I said,
And, with a sense of doom,
Forgot what came just after that,
Said, ‘Shakka lakka boom!’

Shakka lakka boom boom,
Shakka lakka boom.

Go out on a hot date,
Small talk and a chat.
Go out on a hot date
And then back to his flat.
Making lots of small talk.
Hope I don’t peak too soon.
All he did was stroke my arm
And shakka lakka boom!

Shakka lakka boom boom,
Shakka lakka boom.

And then I went to the funeral.
My aunt had passed away.
Such a lovely funeral
On such a dismal day.
I went to give the eulogy.
The coffin lid went zoom!
My aunt, she suddenly sat right up,
Said, ‘Shakka lakka boom!’

Shakka lakka boom boom,
Shakka lakka boom.

What is ‘Dancing with the Electric Dragons of Venus’?

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.

Performing ‘In the Glare of the Neon Yak’, Edinburgh, 2018

Juicy – the album

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.

I hope you like it. You can order the CD here: https://robertgarnham.bigcartel.com/product/juicy

Or you can download the album or stream here:

https://robertgarnham.bandcamp.com/album/juicy?fbclid=IwAR2rCkbMvjjjk4s2eiKjpcvjDB60Gls4fxByg5S5RbmFaXgDhPf0e1JFhY4

Life is a cabaret! (Or it used to be, in the quirky world of 2000s performance poetry, and some of the utterly bizarre things I did back then).

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.

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