A Day in the Life of a Spoken Word Artist

So yesterday I decided to have a creative day and just see if I could get some bits done without being bogged down with admin and emails and things. In fact it was a day I’d been looking forward to because there was a poem I’d been working on which wasn’t yet quite right. The poem was a hypothetical account of being astounded by a young spoken word artist , but it didn’t seem to have the rhythm or the ability to hold my attention as performer. I was looking forward to having a good old poke around on it. Here’s how the day went.

6-8AM: It’s my day off. Why am I up so early? What am I doing today? Oh god, the poem. Where is it? Here, let’s upload it on to the September Poem a Day site and see what people think. It’s not perfect, but people might give some constructive criticism.

8-9AM: Go to a coffee shop and stare at the poem. Decide that it’s best to put it away for a short while and concentrate on other things. Decide to use headphones and the coffee shop wifi to watch performance poets and spoken word artists on YouTube. It will be good research. Get sidetracked by watching videos of aircraft taking off and landing.

9-12AM: Go to the Quiet Study Room at the library. And just in case it’s not quiet enough, I use earplugs. Get out several poetry books and the poem that I’ve been meaning to work on. Can’t get the enthusiasm. Spend the first hour reading other poets, Salena Godden, Laurie Bolger, Vanessa Kisuule. Spend the next hour staring at a blank sheet of paper because I’m not as good as Salena Godden, Laurie Bolger or Vanessa Kisuule. Start work on the poem. Completely remove the last three verses and replace them with silly one-liners and jokes. It seems to work. Spent the last hour getting very excited because this now looks like the best poem there’s ever been. It’s amazing. It’s astounding. It’s far better than Salena Godden, Laurie Bolger or Vanessa Kisuule. Treat myself to a trip to the toilet. Come back and look at the poem. What was I thinking? It’s nothing like Salena Godden, Laurie Bolger, Vanessa Kisuule.

12-2: Go to the gym and ride the bicycle for half an hour. As I’m riding I keep thinking of the poem and lines that are so, so good that I will always remember them and jot them down when I get back to the changing room. Go on the treadmill too and watch MTV on the screen, following the lyrics on subtitles as I exercise all the time thinking, hah, my poem has much better lines than these lyrics. Get back to the changing room. I’ve completely forgotten the new lines. Go to the sauna and take a notebook with me to try and remember the lines. Nothing. I sweat all over the notebook and the pen dries up in the heat and becomes unbearably hot to touch.

2-4: Decide to rehearse. Decide that it should be a dress rehearsal with the new costume I bought which I want to use for the Edinburgh show next year. It feels a bit weird rehearsing in the costume and anyone walking past can just look in the window and see me. Decide to add a Venetian mask to the ensemble but it needs repairing. I superglue the feathers back on, then get my hand attached to the Venetian mask. Manage to free myself but feel lucky that I did not put it on with the superglue still wet. Try and put on some guyliner but I can’t see without my glasses to do it and it looks awful. Pop out to Superdrug to buy some really bright liptstick to finish the ensemble. Decide on bright pink. The lady on the checkout is very chatty and points out that I’ve picked up the tester. Do you know, she said, how many germs are on the tester?

5-7: Type up the revisions to the poem. It looks ok. Send it to Melanie Branton and she says it’s ok. She asks who it’s about and I tell her. In a mad moment I send it to the young poet that it’s based on and then immediately regret doing so. Spend the next hour with my data turned off so that I cannot see his response.

7-9: Prepare my set for the gig in Exeter tomorrow. Plan it right down to the second with opening remarks, costume, poem, linking material, spontaneous remarks. Fret that I haven’t rehearsed enough and rehearse the opening remarks a couple of times. Check my diary. The gig is actually next week.

9-10: I get a message from the poet. He likes the poem. I then go on to the September Poem a Day website and the old version of the poem is widely liked and someone even suggests that it’s one of my best ever poems. I look in the mirror and see that I’ve still got one eye half guylinered.

Do you have a personal philosophy?, I asked. 

Last night I interviewed Ian Beech live on Soundart FM, the Dartington-based community radio station. It was the first time I’d ever interviewed someone and I was really worried before that I would sound more like the boss of a company asking questions without having any back up questions. But Ian is a good friend and an engaging person and the whole hour zipped past, apart from an uncomfortable moment when I asked him about his personal philosophy and he said that he hadn’t got one.
Twenty years ago I wanted to be a writer of worth, a serious heavy hitting literary figure, and while these days I’m only one of those things, (heavy), I now find myself in a position where I can interview people and engage with artistic types on a regular basis. Twenty years ago, I would daydream about being interviewed because I was so famous, and one of the questions I’d practice an answer for was, ‘what is your personal philosophy?’
And I’d say, ‘live to live each day without regret, and teach the world how to love’.
Ok, so it was a crap answer, and so far, nobody has ever asked this question.
I’ve been at a loose end since coming back from the Edinburgh Fringe. The Juicy show took up a lot of time and thinking and now that Edinburgh is done and dusted, I’ve had a lot of free time to faff around with other projects. The trouble is now that I’ve started so many new projects that I’m kind of swamped. A book, a novel, a play, some new poems, a lot of new material and an art project all within the space of a week. So really I don’t know what’s going on.
As I wrote this in a coffee shop in Paignton, a friend has just come in and she’s told me about a project she’s involved in, a multi sensory multimedia performance happening ever half hour right here in town, and I didn’t even know about it. It seems amazing that art can squeeze itself into every day life. Paignton has never been the cultural capital of the world, although it did have a spate of yarn bombing a couple of years back which has fizzled out, the yarn bombed lamp posts now looking decidedly mouldy, but it gives me hope that art will always prosper in spite of geography and economic climate.
I wanted to ask her about her personal philosophy but she didn’t have time.
So life post fringe has been slowly returning to normal and the whole adventure now seems like something that happens to other people.

I told a joke.

So I was in the Edinburgh fringe for a week and while it all started in a naff kind of way, with my luggage and flyers not arriving, things ended up going pretty well. In fact something weird happened which I’d never even considered before I left. I actually had five minutes of fame! OK, I may not have had big audiences, but I did have five minutes of fame.
A couple of months ago I wrote a joke, a silly one-liner. I normally have a process for writing jokes, which is to come up with the punchline first, but this one arrived fully formed. I was sitting down on my bed when I thought of it. Yes, I can even remember what I was doing when the joke arrived!
I incorporated it into my regular set and tried it in a few places, married as it was to a ‘bit’ that I do with a poem supposedly written the night before and stapled to a crisp packet. (That’s how weird my life is . .). It got good laughs but I didn’t think much more of it. As a matter of course, or rather, as an aside, I added it to my Edinburgh show.
The first day I was there a call went out to submit jokes from shows to a newspaper reviewer, which I duly did with a very apologetic email, which I ended with the words, ‘I can hear you laughing from here’, which I’d meant to be a sarcastic sign off. I then completely forgot that I’d done this and I tried to get through a tough first day with no costume, technology, flyers or posters.
The second day went well and I had a great audience. I was so happy with the audience that I went and had a celebratory Scottish breakfast. I wasn’t happy with my performance that day, though, and I texted my friend Melanie Branton to say that I would go back to my flat and rehearse all afternoon. I had to tech Dan Simpson ‘s show that night, so I needed all the rehearsal time I could grab.
A few minutes into rehearsing, I got a message from Jo Mortimer to say that I’d been mentioned on the Guardian website. And indeed, there it was. The joke! Oh, that’s nice, I thought. I also felt guilty as I’d forgotten to do the joke in the show that day.
And then things went manic. Over a thousand people looked at my website over the next two hours. Twitter went into meltdown as people quoted the joke and tagged me. I left to tech Dans show and when I got back there were hundreds of social media notifications. Oh good, I thought. Maybe I won’t have to do much flyering tomorrow!
The only trouble was, the article did not link to my show, there was no way that people could find Juicy through the article. The next day was crazier still. The print copy of the Guardian came out, and the joke was read out on Radio Two during the breakfast show. Other websites began quoting the joke. I’d just gone out to start flyering when I was contacted by Radio Five Live. Would I go live on air and chat about the joke? Sure, I said. So instead of flyering, I was back at my university flat talking on the radio to researchers and then the host herself. And again, they did not mention the show.
The show that day was not well attended. I’d done hardly any flyering, though two people were there who’d done a bit of detective work and wanted to see what all the fuss was about. The tag line I used on social media while publicising the show was ‘come for the joke, stay for the poetry’.
By the end of that day the joke had been mentioned on the Daily Telegraph website, and then the next day it was printed in The Mirror along with Tim Vine’s joke, as well as the Western Morning News and god knows where else, I couldn’t keep track. My own website had more visitors over three days than it normally gets in a year.
And then . . .
and then it all kind of calmed down. Visits to the website dropped away, and by the Saturday, the joke was more or less forgotten. My five minutes of fame had gone.
I’m so glad it happened, though. Not least that I can use this in publicity on flyers and things. When I got back to Devon my parents gave me a joke book, because apparently this might help with my ‘stage act’ and that I might be able to ‘read them out to the audience’. And friends and work colleagues keep telling me jokes and funny anecdotes and end by saying, ‘you can use that in your act if you like’. But apart from that, everything is fairly normal now and it’s like it never happened at all!

Thoughts from the fringe 2 

Well what a week this has been. I arrived in Edinburgh with no luggage and no ability to put on a show. The only clothes I had were the tshirt and shorts I’d worn on the airplane. Not even Amy spare pants. I booked into my student flat feeling totally dejected. Last year I’d arrived and lost my passport and I was so sure that things would be better this year.
By the middle of the week I’d been in The Guardian, mentioned on Radio Two, and interviewed on Radio Five Live! The show had gone very well and I’d won the Hammer and Tongue slam one evening.
It’s all so different to last year. I wrote a blog earlier this year about last year. I felt so dejected that I’d even considered giving up spoken word entirely, and when I’d featured at Boomerang Club on the last day of the fringe last year, I’d gone into it convinced that this would be my last ever performance anywhere.
I also had no money. By which I mean, I have a seperate account for spoken word things, and it was completely empty. The night I went to see Dandy Darkly was the night I withdrew the last reserves. I made nine quid from the audience of my final show, though. 
A year later I’ve headlined in New York, appeared on a tv advert, done a lot of corporate work, and other private gigs which have allowed me to come to Edinburgh this year better prepared. I’ve also had a lot of help from people. One of the top fringe performers from last year was generous with his time and spent a couple of hours taking me through everything about putting on shows, so long as I didn’t reveal who he was. I’ve also had technical help from Bryce Dumont with the music, directorial advice from Ziggy, and fantastic sound clips from Jackie Juno and Margoh Channing. However, the biggest support has come from Melanie Branton, perhaps my closest friend on the spoken word scene, who has been there at every step of the way showing me how to do absolutely everything, from flyering and chatting to strangers, to how to structure a show. Melanie has been a huge inspiration this last year, and it’s such a comfort in a city of strangers to see her.
Which makes tonight somewhat awkward, as I’m going head to head with her in a poetry competition!
My last shows are today and tomorrow and I’ve got loads of ideas for next year. I just need to get over my hatred of flyering!

Thoughts from the fringe 

The question arises: am I the least ambitious Edinburgh fringe performer in history? It’s Monday morning and I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Scotland’s capital, about to go out flyering, yet I’ve already achieved everything I wanted from the fringe. I have performed Juicy. If I have a week of no shows and missing audiences, I have already hit my target, which was admittedly not very adventurous. I’ve performed Juicy at the fringe.
Just getting here has been an adventure. I arrived on Saturday afternoon, but my luggage didn’t. And in my luggage were all of my flyers, posters, technical equipment, costumes, music stand, everything I needed for the show. As luck would have it, the luggage turned up on the Sunday afternoon, waiting for me at my student accommodation, but I had to do the first show with no props or music or costume. These sorts of things are character building.
The thing is, I really hate flyering. I’m awful at it. I hate speaking to people at the best of times. I hate doing linking material in between poems and it’s taken years of practise just to do the very small amount of material I now have. Talking to people, making eye contact, all that kind of thing, goes against the my Surrey suburban upbringing of being ever so polite and never being an inconvenience.
Yesterday I had two valuable lessons. The first was from Melanie Branton, my closest friend in the spoken word world and one of my inspirations as a performer. She showed me how to flyer successfully, where to stand, how to stand. How to do it. She even helped me for a short while and I was ever so grateful. I go in to Today now knowing more than I did. The second lesson came from Dan Simpson, whose show I am tech-inn for the next few days. He told me his method of getting as many guest spots as possible at poetry, comedy and cabaret nights, anywhere where people might see you.
So I’m hoping for bigger audiences for the rest of the week but I have already reached my target, so anything is a bonus from now on. I’ve got thousands of flyers to give out, so my inspiration at the moment is not having to lug them back to Devon!
And meanwhile, I’m having the most amazing time!

I’m really looking forward to Edinburgh!

Last year I went to the Edinburgh fringe with my show, Static, and lots of things happened simultaneously. I lost my passport on the first day, (I was due to fly to New York just a few weeks later), didn’t know where my accommodation was, and I had a show that depended on a lot of mime and movement and moments of silence, that was put in the corner of a noisy bar. I became very philosophical while I was there, but by the end of the run I was questioning everything and I was ready to consider giving up on spoken word. The usual fringe madness, then.
Last year was a learning experience. I went in softly with Static, an autobiographical piece which I’m still proud of. Indeed I performed the show one last time earlier this year. But on the whole the experience had been a negative one, and I wrote about it in a blog. 
This year, I feel completely different. I have a brand new show, Juicy, which is a completely different beast. Rather than set out with a story and an idea, I just opened up my mind and threw everything at it. The result is a show which has the potential to be different every day, with different poems and different linking material. It’s adaptable, loud and doesn’t rely so much on props and long quiet set pieces. It’s also, I hope, very funny.
But the other thing that’s different this year is that I know more. I know exactly where my accommodation is, I know how it works, I have the travel all sorted out, and I’m pretty sure that I’m not going to lose my passport. The other difference is that my venue is more suited to the kind of show I’ve written, and I’m really looking forward to performing at Banshees Labyrinth every day. Last year, I didn’t know what my venue was like until I arrived, late, breathless, straight off the plane. This year, I know everything about the venue, and I shall be there a day before.
A lot of people helped me over he last year get the new show together, too. At the end of the fringe last year I had a breakfast meeting with one of the top fringe performers, who was good enough to impart all of his wisdom, which I have used to make this show. In particular he told me the importance of music, and this is where my long time colleague Bryce Dumont comes in. He’s helped create a soundscape for me to perform against, and made me familiar with the technology to do this. There has also been support from Melanie Branton, Jackie Juno, Margoh Channing and the mysterious fringe performer, all of whom have offered advice and their own voices for the soundscape of the show.
But the biggest difference this year is that I will know more people there. More friends than ever will be up there with their shows and I aim to see all of them, perhaps several times!
So I’m looking forward to Edinburgh this year!

On new material 

So here I am in Exeter, and I’m early for a gig at the Phoenix Arts Centre, and I’m sitting outside with a Coca Cola while going through my set and practising everything in my head. The event is Taking the Mic, and I’ve been coming here for seven years or so. When I first started coming, Liv Torc was the host, and I was crap. Things have improved since, to the extent that i feel comfortable enough to try out new material at this monthly event.
But I’ve been spoiled, over the years, by good audiences. I’ve had fantastic audiences at different ends of the country, and there have been nights where the audience was so good that I just could not get to sleep afterwards, pumped up and enthused. The downside of this is that I have now become very choosy when preparing for monthly gigs where people have seen me countless times before.
I write a lot and I try to write new material every day. It varies in quality, of course. And the pressure to come up with a good set, and good material at nights such as this, is almost all-consuming. The memory of all those wonderful gigs means that I’m eager to maintain the quality, and feed off of the audience reaction. And if it doesn’t work, or if it doesn’t feel right, then that can be quite depressing indeed.
As a result of this ruthlessness I now have countless poems and pieces which have never made the grade. They sit in my poetry book and I just know that some of them will never get performed. Some of them have been worked over several times, such as the one I’ve been prodding today about a doomed relationship, or the one about having a sofa phobia, which I’ve been working on, on and off, for about six years. I have no idea what I’m going to do with these poems.
I know I should take a risk. I know I should do some of the material that I’m not totally at ease with, the audience will show me whether I should continue hiding such works away, but a part of me doesn’t want to take risks. So as I sit here underneath an umbrella in the rain at the arts centre, I’m going through the set again, just making sure that I’m totally at ease with it. I spent last night rehearsing the new poem and I’m pretty sure it’s ready to roll. But there’s only one way to find out. I shall know the answer in a couple of hours time!

On having a ‘costume’ when performing 

I’m a spoken word artist. I’m a performance poet. But right at this moment, as I write this, I’m just Robert Garnham. And the reason I’m just Robert Garnham at the moment is that I’m not wearing my performance clothes. I’m not in my uniform, I’m not in my costume.
When I first started performing I made a conscious effort to wear a kind of uniform for the purposes of standing on stage being whimsical. I have no idea why. I should really have taken the time to create a character, perhaps give myself a different name while on stage, too. But it’s too late now. I’m still Robert Garnham whether I’m on stage or not.
I thought that every spoken word artist had a uniform, a certain look to which they adhered. And perhaps they do, but it seems that my self-imposed uniform is more blatant than most. Every gig now begins with he ceremony of putting on the shirt, tie, jacket, chinos, converse all stars and glasses, then spiking up the old Barnet. And then I travel out to wherever the gig might be.
These are not my everyday clothes. I’m much more casual in ‘real life’, and I’m starting to wish I’d left room for a bit more flexibility when performing. This weekend, for example, I’m at a festival with two performance slots, and it’s going to be outdoors and hot, and yet I feel obliged to wear the usual uniform. The young, trendier poets will be in tshirts and shorts and they’ll quickly jump from non performance to performance with nary a blink of the eye. It takes me about fifteen minutes to get into character as Robert Garnham, Poet.
So. Would it make any difference if I didn’t dress up? Probably not. The word I’m looking for here is authenticity. I’ve seen so many wonderful poets wearing their everyday clothes, being absolutely marvellous at the Mic, an impression heightened by the authenticity of their words and their look. They don’t need to pretend to be someone else.
Which leads me to wonder if everything I’ve done has lacked authenticity because it’s been done from the perspective of an invented persona. Possibly. But as a performance artist, I’ve always attached a lot of importance to the visual as well as the audible. Or perhaps I’m at my most authentic when I’m wearing my performance clothes, and that I’d be strangely inauthentic if I were to start slowing around in what I wear on a normal day. Tshirt, shorts, hoodie, hair all over the place, different glasses. Or maybe still, those who like my work – Robheads, as I call them – wouldn’t accept anything delivered without a certain touch of aesthetic effort.
Or maybe none of this is particularly important at all.
So I’m doing this music festival tomorrow, and you know what? I’m just going to wear something sensible.

Fun at the Barnstaple TheatreFest Fringe

It’s been a couple of years since I was last at the Barnstaple Fringe and I’d always had good memories of it, in particular it’s manageable nature and the camaraderie of the other performers. Coming back this year, I can see that it has grown, and this just adds to its excitement and the variety of shows on offer. 
This is my first time here with my own show. I don’t mind admitting that the whole process has been nerve wracking and I was incredibly jittery on the train here the other day, that crazy single line track between Exeter and Barnstaple which seems more like a throwback to the 1950s. This is the first show that I’ve invested a lot in, from rehearsing almost every night to having friends and professionals help out with voice, music and movement. Yet I still had no idea how it would go.
The technicians and the people running the fringe have been very helpful indeed and my mind was put to rest after the technical rehearsal in which it appeared that the technology I was using actually worked! Indeed, the technicians were also pleased because they said that i was, and I quote, ‘low maintenance ‘.
And then the fringe craziness kicks in, the familiar faces you see around town and at other gigs, performers and friends from the local and national circuit all coming together in this small town, this Devonian Edinburgh. And my shows had an audience! Last nights was a classic, for example. On the spur of the moment the technicians suggested using the smoke machine, which certainly added a layer of mystique to the performance and perhaps further adding to the ridiculousness of it.
Bizarrely, the show was reviewed and the reviewer praised my dancing!
Last night I stayed in a venue. By which I mean, Bryony Chave Cox had been performing a production in a hotel room, which she then hired out to me for the night. It was certainly a very strange sensation, having an audience in your hotel room and having to wait for them to leave before getting a good night’s sleep. 
So I’ve got one more show to do, and I’m going to try and get out and see as much as possible. I’d really like to thank the organisers of this whole festival, it’s been homely and artistic and everything that a fringe should be. I really hope they let me come back again next year!

What is Juicy? An interview with Robert Garnham

What’s the theme of your show?: Juicy is a scatalogical mishmash of comedy poetry, spoken word shenanigans, serious and deep explorations of loneliness, LGBT rights, songs and a comedy monologue about lust at an airport departure lounge. I suppose if it has a theme, then that would be finding love. Different characters throughout the show find love, or dream of finding love.

What’s new or unique about the show?: Juicy is a free form entity, different every night, with no definitive order. It’s upbeat and funny one moment, contemplative the next. It looks at some serious issues, too, behind the fun and the hilarity, such as gay rights in places such as Uganda and Russia, loneliness, isolation, longing.
How did the show come into being?: the show just kind of evolved outwards from several different places simultaneously, somehow, in a kind of spoken word osmosis, meeting in the middle. It started with a few ideas, which were improvised, then these ideas led to other ideas.
Describe one of your rehearsals.: The show is in three parts so rehearsals were conducted in fifteen minute sessions in a shed at the back of my parents garage in Brixham, Devon. This is real home grown stuff! There’s a big mirror along one wall where I can watch myself practising. I play around a lot with word order and tone and movement and hey presto, the show started to come into being.
How is the show developing?: One of the important aspects was the adoption of music. I worked with some talented musicians and sound artists, which really helps with the tone and the delivery. And then I was privileged enough to work with Margoh Channing, one of the funniest cabaret drag artists of the New York scene, and she recorded some words for the end. I just knew that the end would have to fit in with her words!
How has the writer been involved?: The writer has been involved since the start. I’m the writer. I’ve been there for every rehearsal.
How have you experimented?: As I say, the music was the key to the show. I’ve performed all over the UK and New York for years, but never used music before. Most of my experimentations were actually with the technology necessary to get the music backing just right. I’ve also never done a long monologue before, so this was kind of scary. I was influenced by another New York friend of mine, the storyteller Dandy Darkly.
Where do your ideas come from?: I wish I knew! They just seem to arrive. Like being hit in the face by a kipper. You can be in a sauna or swimming pool or on a bus about to get off and suddenly, oh yeah! A badger that wants to be in EastEnders!
How do your challenge yourself or yourselves?: I watch other performers and see how they do it. And then I try to be as good as them. I’m really influenced by cabaret artists, even though I’m a spoken word artist. The sense of fun and naughtiness is irresistible. 
What are your future plans for the show ?: Juicy will be going to GlasDenbury Festival near Newton Abbot, the Guildford Fringe, and then the Edinburgh Fringe, where I’ll be at Banshees Lanyrinth.
What are your favourite shows, and why?: Margoh Channing’s Tipsy, for the humour and the pathos. Dandy Darkly’s Myth Mouth. Paul Cree, Ken Do. All these people invent characters and invest them with humour, and take you to new places almost effortlessly. I’ve seen them all at various fringes. Also Melanie Branton’s new Edinburgh Show, she’s such a good writer and performer.
Show dates, times and booking info: 29 June at 5pm, 1st June at 650pm, 2nd June at 330pm, all at the Golden Lion in Barnstaple, tickets available on the Barnstaple TheatreFest website.
Then the Keep pub, 9 July at 730pm, Guildford Free Fringe, tickets available, again, from their website.
And finally at Banshees Labyritnth, every day at 1230pm, 13th to the 19th August, at the Edinburgh Fringe.