The day my underpants caught fire

Poem

The day my underpants caught fire
Is one I recall
With tears in my eyes.

Someone said,
‘Stop your whingeing’.
I said, ‘I can’t.
There’s some serious singeing.
My boxers are aflame’.

There I was
Acting all nonchalant
When WOOF!
(I saw a dog).

The troubles of the world
Which I am shouldering
Are as nothing compared
To the smouldering
Of my crotch.

How I wish that someone
Would tackle the blaze
Before my tackle
Were ablaze.
This unsolicited Y-front inferno
Is no work of fiction
It was caused
By friction.
Some serious consternation
Caused by this conflagration.
Cheap nylon.
Climatic variables
And a fair amount of chafing
When I ran for that bus
Excuse me, no smoking in here,
Said the driver,
Wisps emanating from my trousers.

For the safety of other passengers,
Please take care
As you alight.

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

A Little Faith in the Moment

(This short story was adapted into a song by the music / spoken word collective Croydon Tourist Office).

A sultry midsummer evening and the clammy village is an unwarranted hug, all honeysuckle smells and foliage, sticky pine needles and fervent deciduous shade. Cottages crowd in on to the single-carriage road as if wanting to know all the gossip. The steep valley sides seem to funnel the heat, ever-present mounds of arable greenery, the low sun throwing long shadows from the flanks of the grazing sheep. How on earth did I end up here?

          I’d been to the pub, but the pub was a disappointment. I’d had a warm lager but the bare-brick furnishings and low hanging ceilings had made me feel even hotter. And I’d hit my head on a copper-bottomed pan that had been hanging from a rafter. There was laughter. I’d never felt dafter.

          But I didn’t want to go back to my rented cottage just yet. I had a desk of half-completed work waiting for me, and it was too, too hot. 

          ‘Come in for a bit of a pray, have we?’, the vicar asked.

          I’d been lingering in the porch of the village church. Stone brick, solid, a stunted tower a modest graveyard of slanting headstones. I caught a glimpse of pews.

          ‘Not really’.

          ‘Not a believer?’

          ‘To be honest, no’.

          ‘Me neither’.

          He had a long beard and a strange expression on his face, as if the top part of his face was profoundly disappointed that the bottom half of his face had grown a beard.

          ‘Really?’

          ‘Come in’, he said. ‘It’s cooler in here. Take a pew’.

          He laughed. His moustache was stained brown by nicotine. I entered the church and felt a certain coolness envelope me. A flagstone floor led to a simple altar, while the low evening sun threw stained glass colour across the aisle.

          ‘How are you a vicar if you don’t believe?’, I asked.

          ‘Nobody checks on these things’, he replied.

          ‘And don’t the audience suspect anything?’

          ‘Congregation, my son. That’s what we call them in the biz. They may have their suspicions, but they’ve not said anything’.

          He was tall and thin and he moved like a crow. There was a pile of hymn books on a side table. The air was infused with the smells of mothballs and summer fruits, furniture polish, and the merest hint of whisky. The vicar picked up a feather duster and fluffed it over the window sill.

          ‘It’s not like the congregation is very large’, he continued. ‘Six at the most. I do funerals, mostly. There weren’t any weddings at all last year. And I haven’t christened anyone in such a long time. The font is now where the wifi transmitter is kept. I use it to go on Wikipedia. It’s a font of all knowledge’.

          He laughed again. A series of slow, halting huffs.

          ‘Sorry. Just some vicar humour’.

          ‘Did you ever believe? I mean . . Did you have a faith, and then stop?’

          He sits on a pew and dangles the feather duster between his legs, kind of sways it back and forth. 

          ‘I had a total failure of faith when I was a teenager. I was on a bouncy castle at the time. The sun shone through the trees, and I wanted to bounce higher and higher, and touch the air. I wanted to stroke the face of god!’, he said, almost triumphantly. But then he lowered his voice. ‘I thought . . If I were a god, I’d not want some snotty nosed teenager touching my face and spreading his germs. Of course, god would have made the germs, too. He would have loved those germs. And the air, it was all atmosphere. Pure science! We can bounce as much as we like, but the sky will always be out of reach’.

          ‘So it was nothing to do with human suffering and unjust luck?’

          ‘No. Bouncy castles’.

          ‘Then why did you want to become a vicar?’

          He waved a nicotine stained forefinger in my face.

          ‘The uniform’, he replied. ‘Warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and I tell you, it’s more practical than it looks. That, and the chance to spend time in beautiful buildings such as this’.

          He squinted at me.

          ‘You’ve got a bruise. Have you been to the pub?’

          ‘Yes’.

          ‘I’ve been meaning to tell them about that copper bottomed pan for years’.

          The shadows begin to lengthen and all of a sudden a shard of sunlight illuminated the tip of the bronze cross on the altar as if afire with a sudden majesty, ethereal and life-affirming,

          ‘Best get home’, he said, ‘my soaps will be on’.

          I turned to the altar and watched flecks of dust curl in the air, moving on unseen currents. I turned back to the vicar, but all trace of him had gone.

          ‘What on earth?!’

          It was as if a spectre had made himself apparent only by his leaving, as if common sense had mutated, spun on a golden moment into the sublime, a supernatural hand reached out and plucked a miracle from the ether, and my heart began to race.

‘Sorry’, he said, as his head popped up from between the pews. ‘I was picking up a sweet wrapper’.

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.

Feel free to support the work I’m doing by leaving something in my tip jar or buying me a coffee right here https://ko-fi.com/robertgarnham

She sells sea shells (erroneously)

Poem

She sells sea shells on the sea shore.
The sea shore is littered with hundreds,
Thousands of sea shells.
Turn around, Cheryl, look at them!
What would I buy sea shells from thee
When there’s loads of them
Just deposited by the ocean?
It’s for the tourists, she replied.

I went to a cafe and asked for a black coffee,
Sat at a formica table.
The salt and pepper packets were kept
In upturned sea shells.
From the beach?, I asked.
No, the waitress said, from Cheryl.
They’re hand-picked and quality controlled.
She brushes all the crud out with a toothbrush.
They’re good shells, mind.
Black coffee, was it?
Do you want milk with that?

Rain against the window pane.
I looked out; Cheryl had a brolley
And I was glad she had a brolley.
It would be a shame if her sea shells got wet.
The waitress stood next to me.
Chels knows what she’s doing, she said.
You call her ‘Chels’?, I asked.
Funny that, she sells shells, and you call her Chels.
Chels sells sea shells on the sea shore.
Never really thought of it, she sighed.

Absent mindedly
The waitress poured milk in my coffee
And then an Argos delivery lorry pulled up
Blocking our view of Cheryl
And yet again
I thought about going to live somewhere else.

If there’s a bell, ring it.

Poem

If there’s a bell
Ring it.
If there’s a song
Sing it.
If there’s no plan
Wing it.
If there’s a boomerang
Fling it.
If it comes back
Fling it.
If it comes back
Fling it.
If there’s a packed punch
Bring it.
If there’s a new book
Begin it.
If it’s rubbish
Bin it.
This poem’s quite good
Innit?

Why I do what I do! (On comedy performance poetry being as valid as any other type, and that kick I get when people actually laugh!)

Why I do what I do

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!

Feel free to support the work I’m doing by leaving something in my tip jar or buying me a coffee right here https://ko-fi.com/robertgarnham