All about my new book, ‘Yay!’ (Due May 2021)

Robert Garnham’s new collection Yay!, will shortly be published by Burning Eye.

Yay! , is a selection of what Robert calls ‘upbeat, happy poems for a world in which there doesn’t seem to be much to smile about’.

‘When I first started planning this collection, I decided that every poem would be something positive and optimistic, yet with depth, a serious undertone beneath the surface, and yet a positive outlook, something cheerful which might take people away from the humdrum. There’s also an undercurrent referencing mental health, and an acknowledgement that a lot of people are struggling at the moment.

Of course, I started planning this book in 2018, just before things suddenly became even more depressing, with the global pandemic and human rights abuses coming to light.

I initially saw the book the way people might see a pop album, something bouncy and cheerful which colours their summer and brings back happy memories. Like Proust with his madeleine. It’s also something of a ‘concept album’ with a deliberate seaside feel. The first two poems, and the last poem, are all about living in a seaside town. The rest of the poems are about LGBT issues, relationships, superhero pug dogs, scratch ‘n’ sniff Egyptian hieroglyphs, and a rap about tea.

I took two weeks off in 2019 and took a scalloper to an Icelandic peninsula, and there, in a low stone hut with a turf roof, I laid out the poems and tried to whittle them down to a collection’s worth, but only ended up writing more poetry! It was there, with the scent of sulphur from the volcanoes on the breeze and the sound of the sea crashing on the hardened lava floes, that I wrote the poem about a young man on a double decker bus trying to use his mobile data to watch porn.

I then went down to the Amazon, to the city of Manaus, and stayed in a wooden cabin on the outskirts of the jungle itself. And there, amid mosquitoes and with the sound of the rainforest a constant buzz, I laid out the poems on the forest floor and decided on their order. Some of the pages got squashed insects on them, and the air was so humid that the ink began to blotch. And yet still the muse was calling to me. Surrounded by such biodiversity and the pungent aroma of the peaty earth, I wrote the poem about being trapped in the toilet at a motorbike museum.

I am so looking forward to unleashing this book on the world! There will be a show to accompany the book, and book launches planned both online, and for real!

(The book will be accompanied by a new solo show, Yay!: The Search for Happiness, which you can find out more about here : https://professorofwhimsy.com/2021/03/21/yay-the-search-for-happiness-2/

On the road (The 2019 Hammer and Tongue Tour)

I was going through some old blogs recently and daydreaming about the days when a performance poet could travel anywhere and life was pretty much normal. Though to be honest, my life has never been normal! In 2019 I was asked to do the Hammer and Tongue tour, appearing in six different cities over nine days, and it was the most amazing adventure. I’d spend the day travelling, zigzagging across the UK, and in the evenings I’d perform to a different audience every night. I met such wonderful people. In retrospect, perhaps I shouldn’t have decided halfway through to spend the weekend at home in Devon! It probably would have been easier and cheaper to stay in Surrey with relatives.

So here are the blogs I wrote during that magical period, from Hackney to Bristol, then Brighton, Cambridge, Oxford and Southampton, with an inexplicable hiatus in Devon halfway through!

The first blog was written in a Wetherspoons in Hackney the night after the gig, the night after sleeping in an office block!

https://professorofwhimsy.com/2019/04/03/on-the-road-and-looking-after-an-office-block-in-london/

The second blog was written the day after the gig in Bristol. I was on the train to Brighton when I wrote it.

https://professorofwhimsy.com/2019/04/04/thoughts-from-on-the-road-2/

The third blog was written in a hotel in Cambridge while I was at the buffet breakfast, watching what was going on around me and laughing at all of the foibles of human nature. I think by now, some kind of madness had set in!

https://professorofwhimsy.com/2019/04/06/more-thoughts-from-on-the-road-the-buffet-breakfast/

The last blog was written at my bed and breakfast in Southampton before the final gig.

https://professorofwhimsy.com/2019/04/10/final-thoughts-from-on-the-road/

The thing about lockdown is that it’s brought a very real sense of what living means to me. And this is the accumulation of memory and experience, and meeting people on the road. I can’t wait for things to get back to normal, but a part of me is worried that they never will be quite the same. As well as the Hammer and Tongue tour, 2019 also saw me at the Edinburgh Fringe, and fringes in Guildford, Reading and Barnstaple with my show about tea, and with my regular poetry set in Newcastle, Petersfield and Milton Keynes. Little did I know what 2020 would bring!

Ink to the Pen

Here’s an avant gard sound poem I used to perform back in the early 2010s. I was particularly pleased with this one, and then for some reason, promptly forgot about it for over ten years. While putting the Juicy album together, I went through some live recordings made by Bryce Dumont and found a version of it I’d performed at the Epicentre Cafe in Paignton.

Audio version: https://robertgarnham.bandcamp.com/track/ink-to-the-pen

Subsequently, Bryce has also incorporated the recording onto a Croydon Tourist Office track on the Epicentre Nights album.

Poem

Ink to the pen to the page to the mic.
Think to the pen to the page to the mic.
Wink to the pen to the page to the mic.
Sink to the pen to the page to the mic.
Pink to the pen to the page to the mic.
Drink to the pen to the page to the mic.
Kink to the pen to the page to the mic.
Link to the pen to the page to the mic.
Zinc to the pen to the page to the mic.
Jink to the pen to the page to the mic.
Ink to the pen to the page to the mic.
Think to the ink to the pen to the page to the mic.
Wink to the think to the ink to the pen to the page to the mic.
Sink to the wink to the think to the ink to the pen to the page to the mic.
Pink to the sink to the wink to the think to the ink to the pen to the page to the mic.
Drink to the pink to the sink to the wink to the think to the ink to the pen to the page to the mic.
Kink to the drink to the pink to the sink to the wink to the think to the ink to the pen to the page to the mic.
Link to the kink to the drink to the pink to the sink to the wink to the think to the ink to the page to the mic.
Zinc to the link to the kink to the drink to the pink to the sink to the wink to the think to the ink to the page to the mic.
Jink to the zinc to the kink to the drink to the pink to the sink to the wink to the think to the ink to the page to the mic.

Yay! The Search for Happiness

Robert is a poet. And he’s happy. Or is he? After the death of a favourite aunt, he decides to find out exactly what it means to be happy. He ends up as a poet-in-residence on a fish factory ship in a search for contentment on the high seas. What could possibly go wrong? Comedy and poetry collide head on in this new show from the Professor of Whimsy’.

Interview

Comedy performance poet Robert Garnham has been writing a show about happiness. It’s a project he started back in 2018.
‘It seemed to me that there was a lot of negativity around at the time’, he explains. ‘And let’s be honest, the news was always really depressing. It’s hard to be upbeat at times but I thought it would be nice to at least try. Of course, then things started getting even worse’.
During this time he was also preparing his third collection, ‘Yay!’, due to be published by Burning Eye Books in May 2021.
‘The agreement was that I would write and perform a show which I could tour in support of the book. Mind you, this agreement came about before the global pandemic and the various lockdowns’.
‘I started work on the show in April 2020. At the back of my mind was the cheerful thought that maybe by the end of the year, everything would be back to normal. Ha! But I kept writing, and then in September 2020 I started the process of learning the script and rehearsing, all the time unsure when it would ever see the light of day’.
So what is the show about?
‘The show tells a story of the main character’s search for happiness. He’s happy enough, but when his Aunt dies he realises that he needs to get to the root of happiness. He asks himself, can we ever be truly happy if we’re only going to snuff it? He becomes a poet in residence on a ship and interacts with the crew, all the time looking for those moments of happiness. Of course, things don’t go to plan, but he learns what works for other people. Relationships? Humour? Alcohol? Being kind? A sense of belonging?’
‘The show touches on matters of mental health, identity, kindness, and learning to listen. But not in a preachy kind of way. It’s a comedy, but there are serious undertones’.
‘The show is interspersed by poems from the new collection. Also, I’d made a conscious decision at the start of the process not to have any props or sound effects. I’d spent most of the last ten years touring the UK, lugging a big box of props around, and seriously, I’m getting too old for that kind of thing! But I thought it would be an amazing challenge, just to stand there with the mic, the words, and nothing else.’
‘Naturally, the show does not solve any of the problems of modern society. I just hope audiences will enjoy it as an hour of amiable poetry and storytelling, a bit of silliness and wordplay, and perhaps think about what it is that makes them truly happy’.
Yay: The Search for Happiness will be appearing throughout the UK and also be available to stream online in 2021.

Yay! Videos

I have a new book coming out in May published by those good people at Burning Eye, and with a lack of actual gigs, I’ve been making some videos of the newer poems to get them out into the world. And it must be said, I’ve had a huge amount of fun doing so! There are still a couple more ‘in the can’, as they say, but here are the one’s I’ve released so far. I hope you like them!

Seaside Soul

Shakka Lakka Boom

Dry-Stone Walling

My Mother is Banksy

Ink to the pen to the page to the mic

During 2020 I collated some of the hundreds (!) of hours of recordings I’d made since 2010 of my various performances all over the UK, and I put them in the form of a CD. It was a wonderful process revisiting some of the many gigs, especially the special ones, such as Raise the Bar in Bristol, or Scribal Gathering in Milton Keynes.

The process was helped somewhat by the fact that my friend (and fellow Croydon Tourist Office band member) Bryce Dumont had recorded some of my earliest appearances at his monthly Word Command events in Paignton, at his vegetarian cafe, Epicentre.

During this time I was much more experimental than I am now, veering from comedy to sound poetry to poems which made a lot of use of rhythm, word, syllables and sound. One of these early examples was a poem called ‘Ink to the Pen’, which, for reasons I’m still not sure, I only ever performed once. Indeed, I used a massive book in which I’d glued my poems and for an even weirder reason, I tore this poem out of the book to make way for a new one, and consequently, forgot about it for over ten years!

Hearing the poem again was remarkable, because it was like a present from my past self. And I must admit, I’m rather pleased with how it sounds! I included it on the album and you can hear it right here.https://robertgarnham.bandcamp.com/track/ink-to-the-pen

Poem

Ink to the pen to the page to the mic.
Think to the pen to the page to the mic.
Wink to the pen to the page to the mic.
Sink to the pen to the page to the mic.
Pink to the pen to the page to the mic.
Drink to the pen to the page to the mic.
Kink to the pen to the page to the mic.
Link to the pen to the page to the mic.
Zinc to the pen to the page to the mic.
Jink to the pen to the page to the mic.
Ink to the pen to the page to the mic.
Think to the ink to the pen to the page to the mic.
Wink to the think to the ink to the pen to the page to the mic.
Sink to the wink to the think to the ink to the pen to the page to the mic.
Pink to the sink to the wink to the think to the ink to the pen to the page to the mic.
Drink to the pink to the sink to the wink to the think to the ink to the pen to the page to the mic.
Kink to the drink to the pink to the sink to the wink to the think to the ink to the pen to the page to the mic.
Link to the kink to the drink to the pink to the sink to the wink to the think to the ink to the page to the mic.
Zinc to the link to the kink to the drink to the pink to the sink to the wink to the think to the ink to the page to the mic.
Jink to the zinc to the kink to the drink to the pink to the sink to the wink to the think to the ink to the page to the mic.

Gasp.

Jonathan removed my antlers and said, ‘Not in here, the clientele are mostly Dutch’.

Yay! The show diaries (2.2.21-6.3.21)

This is what I’ve been up to for the last month or so with the show, if anyone’s interested!

(For progress up to this point see https://professorofwhimsy.com/2021/02/02/yay-the-search-for-happiness-diaries/ )

2.2.21

Line learning Sunrise.

3.2.21

Line learning linking material.

5.2.21

Line learning linking material. Also worked on the ‘poetry workshop’ scene and explored options of hearing or showcasing the poems. Thought about an audio section much like the ‘You Dunked Your Muffin . .’ Section where I say that I recorded the fishermen on my mobile phone. Decided to write the poems on paper and keep them folded in my pocket, (cleverly with the before and after lines written on the paper too!), thereby whizzing through a whole page of the script.

8.2.21

Rehearsed and went over last third of the show. Did a ‘table read’ of the final piece of long linking material, then re-wrote to shift the focus away from the Robert character ‘coming out’, and more to a confession of his love in keeping with the tone of the show. Tidied up and tightened the rest of the linking material which comes after the Sunrise poem.

9.2.21

Line learning linking material.

10.2.21

Chatted to film director John Tomkins about performing the show in Paignton to a select socially-distanced audience and him filming it and editing it professionally for streaming services and online fringe festivals. Also, line learning linking material.

11.2.21

Went out this morning in freezing wind with Mark to try and take some publicity photos for the show. Edited them. Spent the afternoon rehearsing and line learning. Just a couple of paragraphs to go!

12.2.21

Line learning linking material.

13.2.21

Line learning linking material.

14.2.21

Ran through almost the entire show from memory, with the exception of the last couple of minutes. Running time 55 minutes. Decided on a couple of ‘light’ rewrites.

15.2.21

Rewrote the last paragraph of linking material and more line learning.

16.2.21

Contacted Emily Appleton about taking some publicity photos for the show poster and to publicise the show and the book. Arranged for Sunday morning, weather permitting. Rewrote the last paragraph of linking material yet again! Line learning linking material.

17.2.21

Line learning Happy.

19.2.21

Line learning Happy.

20.2.21

Line learning Happy.

21.2.21

Looked at the end of the show, rewrote the last paragraph of linking material again. PThen looked at the last poem, wrote a new poem, ‘I Don’t Know Why I’m Happy’, and decided to make a medley with ‘Happy’ for the last words of the show, more fitting with the tone. The idea being I might put this poem on a postcard as an extra / bookmark for anyone who buys the book. Ran through sections of the show. Then off to Victoria Park skateboard ramps for a photo shoot with Emily Appleton for the show promotional material. Home, and re-worked the ‘You Dumped a Muffin in your Cuppa’ song, making it almost a minute shorter. Long day!

22.2.21

Line learning I Don’t Know Why I’m Happy.

23.2.21

Full show run through from memory, for the first time! 54 minutes. Decided to end the show after the final linking material but then carry on with I Don’t Know Why I’m So Happy / Happy afterwards. This gives the option of substituting another poem.

25.2.21

More subtle rewrites to the end of the final linking material to make it sound more like an ending.

27.2.21

Line learning I Don’t Know Why I’m So Happy.

28.2.21

Practising random parts of the show.

1.3.21

Full show run through, 53 minutes.

2.3.21

First real rehearsal session rather than line learning, played around with using a chair as a prop, marked up the scripts at moments where the chair will feature.

3.3.21

Exchanged emails with Paignton Palace Theatre about the possibility of using their black box space to film the Yay show without an audience for online fringe purposes. They emailed back to say yes, and free of charge!! (Well, they want some work off me in exchange).

4.3.21

Chatted to filmmaker John Tomkins about arrangements to film the show without an audience at the Palace Theatre and agreed terms, then chatted about the logistics. Next got in touch with the Palace Theatre and they said they could offer the actual theatre auditorium for filming purposes and let us use their sound / lighting engineer.

5.3.21

Worked on the publicity images sent by Emily Appleton to choose two or three as possible poster images for the show and images to send out with press releases. Then chatted to John Tomkins about the film version before listening to various bits of music as opening and closing music for the film version of the show. Had another rehearsal with the chair as a prop and also tried some choreography for the last poem, I Don’t Know Why I’m So Happy / Happy. Finally pondered on the idea of signing the ‘Becky’ poem myself and ran through it a couple of times.

6.3.21

Full run-through of the show singing the You Dunked a Muffin in your Cuppa song rather than playing the audio, and doing the whole show with movement, choreography and using the chair as a prop. Also chatted to Bryce Dumont about the possibility of using Croydon Tourist Office music for the start and end of the filmed version.

Moon Simon – The story behind the poem

Around 2011 and 2012 I used to travel up to London every month or so and go to either Bang Said the Gun or Jawdance, two of the biggest spoken word nights around at the time. (Indeed, Jawdance is still going). Not only would I get on the open mic and perform, but also I’d see what was happening at the cutting edge of spoken word.

At the time I’d been working on a new poem about the moon, which had lots of different verses which independently made sense, but when you put them together, there was no logic to it. I was really worried about this. One month I went to London and I was booked in for a slot at Bang Said the Gun, but also decided on a whim to go to Poetry Unplugged at the Poetry Cafe. While I was there I saw a performer called Christopher Lawrence, who was fairly new, and for some reason he was introduced as ‘Christopher Lyons’. We’d been sitting together and I suggested to him that Christopher Lyons might make a very good stage name. Anyway, he did a poem – which I must admit I can’t remember much about, but the structure of it was very similar to my moon poem, plus it had a lot of word play and playing around with sound.

Something sparkled within me and I realised that I needn’t be worried that my poem made no sense. I came back to Devon and worked on the poem, and Moon Simon was born.

I next decided that it needed a prop. At the time I was heavily into props, so I gathered together a big pot of yellow paint, a very large piece of cardboard, and I wrote ‘MOON’ on one side and ‘SIMON’ on the other, and at various points during the poem I would twirl this around so that the audience saw either the word ‘MOON’ or the word ‘SIMON’. I then rehearsed a few times and found myself getting muddled and displaying the wrong side of the sign at wrong moments of the poem. This was most annoying.

I got to a stage where I was happy with the rehearsals. In those days I didn’t think I could memorise poems, and the poem itself was printed in a big notebook, so I knew I’d be holding this big cardboard sign with one hand and the notebook with the other.

My next gig was due to be in Ashburton, and it was the launch event of Lucy Lepchani’s new collection, Ladygardens. I didn’t know much about her publisher, but I went along into the Devon countryside with my giant cardboard moon, feeling incredibly nervous and wondering what these Proper Poetry People would think about me turning up with this weird prop. As it happened, it went far better than I could ever imagine. Not only did my set go well, but the laughter during Moon Simon – especially when I started getting mixed up with which side of the cardboard moon I should be showing at any point during the poem – was most hearty indeed. And when I finished my set the weirdest thing happened – I was asked to get back up and do another poem!

This wasn’t the only amazing thing about that night. It turned out that Lucy’s publisher was in the audience, a chap called Clive Birnie, and he came over and told me how much he liked what I’d done with the cardboard moon, and why didn’t I think about sending him some poems? Needless to say, without me realising it at the time, this was one of those moments in my spoken word career took a very definite path. It led to my first book with Burning Eye, ‘Nice’, and all sorts of opportunities thereafter.

I must admit I haven’t performed Moon Simon for a while, and maybe I should. It’s incredibly silly. The reason is very silly, too – I’ve stopped using the notebook it’s printed in. Part of the fun of performing it was that I’d be fumbling with the notebook and getting mixed up with the giant moon prop. And once I was conscious that this is what people were laughing at, then my confidence that I could do these on purpose and make it funny took a bit of a dive. Because now people were expecting me to get muddled!

I’ve been taking clowning lessons lately, so maybe I might be able to ‘fake’ this, and I’ll start lugging that giant cardboard moon around with me again!

As a side note, a couple of years ago Burning Eye brought out an anthology featuring their published poets, and guess which poem was chosen as my entry? That’s right. Moon Simon!

Beyond the whimsy – some serious poems

I’ve had huge amounts of fun the last twelve years or so performing whimsical comedy poems at various poetry nights and comedy nights, festivals, fringes, theatres and whatnot. And while this is where I get my kicks, it’s often been pointed out that there’s something serious beneath the surface. For me as a performer, there’s nothing better than the reaction of an audience when you’ve said something funny, and it’s like a drug, it really does keep you going.

However, not everything I’ve done over the years has been totally comedic, and I have written and performed several poems which aim for something beyond mere comedy. And while I do like the dynamic of adding a serious poem in the middle of a set of comedy poems, they’re probably not as well known as what I would term to be my usual ‘bangers’.

A recent example would be ‘Nathan went for a walk in the rain’, a poem which deals with mental health issues and suicidal thoughts. This is not an autobiographical poem, though it is based on a real person. It also talks about issues of masculinity and social expectations. You can see the poem here:

https://youtu.be/YsNvr3irwuk

Another poem which I’m proud of is ‘The doors’, which was written quite a few years ago now when I performed at Gay Pride in London. I realised that the event needed something serious from me. The poem came about when I read a Time Magazine article about gay rights in parts of the world like Nigeria and Russia, and how people felt living as LGBTQ in those places. The poem came to me in one amazing sitting, drawing on words and themes from that article. Here’s the video:

https://youtu.be/ij7FOx7kmZk

The next poem is both serious and autobiographical. I was asked to write a poem with the theme and title ‘a queer body’, which got me thinking about all kinds of things: body issues, illness, appearance. Naturally, for such a serious subject I felt I had to inject some humour, but it talks about health scares, Covid and other things. You can watch the video here:

https://youtu.be/g-JaoTEFHSg

The following poem is based on a real event, so I suppose this is autobiographical too, though it wanders off into an imaginary land. It’s about homophobic abuse shouted at me from a passing car while I was in Edinburgh a couple of years ago. I was just about to cross the road to go to the book festival when it occurred, and I didn’t think much of it at the time, but then afterwards you always get to thinking. Again. I injected some humour into this. The video is an early version of the poem.

https://youtu.be/O1AcvaSzyw0

This next poem was part of my Squidbox project from last year. The project dealt with the Brixham fishing industry and what it means both to the town and the people who worked in that industry.

https://youtu.be/i4EeKGWdmGw

And finally, this too is an autobiographical poem. In 2020, aged 46, I discovered that I was dyslexic, though I’d suspected so for some time. The world had always seemed ever so slightly off-kilter! One night I sat down intent on explaining how this felt, and I’m really quite pleased with the outcome. You can read the poem here.

https://professorofwhimsy.com/2021/01/09/on-a-poet-discovering-hes-dyslexic-just-before-his-47th-birthday/

There are more poems, of course, which deal with serious issues or have an intent beyond comedy. Most of these I’ve never performed, though they may eventually see the light of day, when I’m brave enough!

Gravity of the situation

Gravity of the situation

Thunder roar and dancing flames,
Gravity regained.
Cosmonaut Major Pavel,
Youthful,
hero of the
Red age
Braces in his helmet
For the crush of atmosphere . . .

Another frosty morning on the Steppes. The flat landscape is a faded sepia nothing. Her cottage is nowhere near a main road, little more than a wooden shack surrounded by a wooden fence which demarcated her territory from the endless nothing. A few flowers in pots had not yet had the chance to bloom, though they had shown green roots and signs of growth. She hung out the washing. Her breath turned to vapour, but she was used to the cold. Her scarf, her shawl, her dress, bright primary colours against the dull landscape, the dark wood panelling, the peeling paint, the overcast sky.
She hears a whistling sound. She pauses for a while, her lips clamped on clothes pegs as she hangs a pair of flowery bloomers. The whistling spins gets loud, pronounced, sustained, and she looks up just in time to see a parachute open, and suspended beneath it a Soyuz re-entry capsule. The whistling stops, and the capsule, grey and defined against the overcast sky, swings back and forth, then lands with a heavy thud in the field next to her cottage.
‘Not again’, she whispers.
She finishes hanging up her bloomers, spits out the remaining pegs into her laundry basket, then ambles over to the gate, just in time to see the hatch of the capsule open.
‘Another couple of metres and you’d have crushed my bluebells!’, she yells.
Major Pavel squeezes himself out of the capsule. Like toothpaste from a tube.
‘Olga?’, he says.
‘Pavel!’
The gravity is too much. He’s been on the International Space Station for almost a year. He kind of slumps down on to the side of the capsule.
‘How are the kids?’, he asks, as he takes off his helmet.
‘Fine, no thanks to you’.
‘I had to make sacrifices. For the good of the space programme, and for Mother Russia’.
‘Don’t give me none of that’.
‘How I’ve longed for your supple arms, capturing me, plucking my Sputnik from the sky, my sexy Soyuz so charred and beaten . . .’.
‘You just left me one morning. Gone . . ‘.
He seems dazed. He looks over at her cottage.
‘What . . . What are the chances?!’
Her dainty touch, skin so soft as new year snow.
‘Hugging my metal machine to your chest . . . You dainty flower . . ‘.
‘Don’t you go on about dainty flowers. Another five feet and you’d have crushed my dainty flowers with your fancy spacecraft. Bluebells are just coming up . . .’.
‘Did you miss me?’
‘I’m certainly glad you missed me!’
‘But did you . . Miss me?’
Her features relax, somewhat.
‘Yes’, she whispers.
‘They’ll be here soon’, he says. ‘To pick me up. Begin the debrief. Add my knowledge to the needs of the Motherland ‘. He looks at her and smiles.
‘They might not be’.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Social distancing’.
‘Olga!’
He takes a step forwards. She takes a step back.
‘Two metres!’, she says.
They stare at each other across her bluebells.
The night before he’d seen lightning over the Brazilian rainforest. He’d never felt further from home.
‘The sky’, she whispers, ‘is the same as it’s always been. But we’re all cosmonauts, now’.