‘Poetry is not as important as Hollyoaks’. An interview with Robert Garnham

Last month I was interviewed by Exepose Magazine by Nickie Shobeiry. Below you will find the full, unedited version in all it’s glory. The original interview can be found here: http://exepose.com/poets-corner-robert-garnham/

And yes, the title is deliberately provocative. I don’t mean it really!

Interview – Robert Garnham
 • What inspired you to begin writing poetry? Do you remember the first poem you ever wrote?

Hello! I started writing poetry by accident. I’d always written short stories, more for my own amusement. I also wrote a play, ‘Fuselage’, which was rehearsed read at the Northcott Theatre in 2009, but it was all just as a hobby. I went to a night of performance poetry in Torquay run by Chris Brooks and I was inspired to give it a go.
My first poem was about my family, and it’s a little embarrassing to read it now! It had some good rhymes in it. I don’t usually use rhyme much now. Anyway, I made my debut at Poetry Island with the family poem, and people loved it! Chris asked me to come again, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
• Do you have a specific place you go to for writing? Any particular habits?
Yes, weirdly, I do. I always write at my desk every morning and every night, but on my day off I go to the Quiet Room at Paignton Library. There are no distractions here, unless someone comes in with a packet of crisps. Also, I spend weekends at my parent’s house and they have a room at the back of their garage which, like the Quiet Room, has no distractions. It’s my own private place!
I’ve used the same pen for every single thing I’ve written since 1995, so I suppose that’s a habit of sorts. I write everything in long hand first, then type it up.
• Where does most of your inspiration come from?
I have no idea! Poems are usually when two or three concepts seem to merge together. One of my poems, ‘Poem’, is about an ostrich queuing at a buffet on a train to buy some crisps, but he’s slowly metamorphosing into a wheelbarrow. I have no idea where the idea for it came from!
Often, though, people say funny things and the words come back to me when I sit down to write. None of my friends like poetry. Not one single one of them! So they don’t come and watch me perform, which means I can use the silly things they’ve said freely without repercussion. It also helps that most of my friends, in their own little ways, are incredibly eccentric. I’m fairly normal.
• Your performance at the Bike Shed Theatre’s Slam Poetry event last year had everyone in stitches, hanging onto your every word. How would you describe your own writing?
Thanks! I work hard at every single line and once a poem is written, I put it aside, then come back to it and pretend to be the audience. Some times I look at a poem and I think, ‘This has to be 33% funnier’. Often the best time to write is when you’re feeling relaxed, but the mind kind of has to be almost half disinterested in the outcome. This is when the silly stuff kicks in, or the unusual connections. If I concentrated on being funny, It would probably end up sounding forced. So the mood to write is hard to conjur up.
• You work as the host of Poetry Island in Torquay – can you talk a little about your experience there, and some of your favourite performances?
I was host for three years or so. I took over from Chris Brooks, who’s now off being a comedy genius, and if had a great time booking acts from the national scene and nurturing new talent locally. We had some great performers come down to Torquay, such as Ash Dickinson, Matt Harvey, Byron Vincent, (a hero of mine), Liv Torc. I think Chris Redmond was one of my favourites. (Am I allowed to have favourites? I suppose now that I’m no longer host, I can admit to this!). 
The best nights were when you see someone who you’ve helped and encouraged go up and be amazing. I gave  headline slots to Joanna Hatfull and Tom Austin, who are huge local talents. I don’t think either had had paid gigs before, so it was a nice feeling.
I’ve handed Poetry Island over now to Ian Beech, and he’s doing a much better job than I ever managed!
• You perform a lot of spoken word poetry – is this your favourite mode? Can you share some of your most memorable performances?
I’d like to have another crack at writing a theatre script, and I’d love to have a book published. I have a novel which I finished recently, if anyone’s interested! But I can’t act or sing or dance or do comedy, so I suppose it’s spoken word all the way for me.
As for memorable performances. Well! There’s loads. My first paid gig was at Jawdance, a regular night in London, and it was amazing because a London friend came to watch and then I was recognized on a tube station platform a couple of hours later! And London again, supporting the wonderful John Hegley at Gongoozled, will also be a cherished memory. I got lost on the way to the venue and panicked that they’d be angry, I got there, and Mr Hegley had also got lost on the way!
Any night that goes well is cherished. Performing to my sister for the first time in Guildford at Pop Up Poetry was great. She’d never seen me do my thing before. And the Edinburgh Fringe was a fantastic experience. Performing to one person on a wet Monday afternoon. Oh, the romance!
• Could you talk a little about the inspiration behind your poems beginning ‘a friend of mine thinks he might be straight’ and ‘people think your beard is weird’?
The ‘straight’ poem is based on a composite of several friends and it was just a chance to explore some cliches about straight men and what they get up to, like building sheds and watching Top Gear. It was just a chance to turn the whole thing around and make it feel as if straight people were the minority, something weird that has to be studied so that we can understand their ways. As for the Beard poem, well. There are so many people around with beards at the moment and I always think, ‘He’d be quite good looking if it wasn’t for that beard’.

• I recently saw you perform at the Phoenix’s Taking The Mic event. Your poem – hilarious as always – was about a bald man, and you had a lit-up box to boot. Could you share the story behind the poem? Do you often use props on stage, and what do you think it brings to the performance?
Funny you should ask about the bald man poem, because the whole thing just came to me, at almost midnight when I was in bed. Completely from nowhere! I suddenly thought that it might be quite funny to write a poem about something entirely meaningless and small, something everyday and commonplace, and what more commonplace thing can there be than seeing a bald man walking in the street? I’ve also written poems about unrolling a new bin liner, vacuuming a carpet and losing a pen in the lining of a coat. I think this is my minimalist phase.
I used to use props all the time, at every performance. Over the years I’ve built a theremin from two Wellington boots and a feather duster, and a large hadron collider out of garden hose and a custard cream biscuit. Indeed, I was known for quite some time just as a prop poet. But then, when you start getting invitations to perform all over the county, you have to lug these props on buses and trains and the joke kind of wears off, especially when someone sits on your theremin. But I like props, generally. One of my favourite poets, Rachel Pantechnicon, uses props to hilarious effect, and if she’s ever performing in your neighborhood, then I urge you to go along.
• Do you have a favourite of your own poems?
I like performing ‘Poem’, because of the energy that I put into it. ‘Poem’ is also good, I wrote it when I was on holiday in Australia and it kind of stayed with me, it always conjurs up a specific time and place. But I suppose it has to be ‘Poem’, even though I’ve performed it countless times. It’s still one of my favourites even after all of these years!
• What was the last poem you wrote about?
Losing a pen in the lining of my jacket (see above).
• Why do you think poetry is important?
I’m not sure that poetry is important. It’s not as important as the news, or Hollyoaks. But that’s because it’s now more of a niche interest. Often, though, poetry gives people a chance to take the audience somewhere. Dean Atta writes about his experience of being a black gay man in contemporary London, for example, and AJ McKenna writes about being a transgender poet. Poetry has also been used as a form of political release, airing views and grievances. I’m thinking of such people as Atilla the Stockbroker and Pete the Temp, Bob Hill and Exeter’s very own Tim King. Poetry is the medium by which they raise political concerns and encourage debate about certain issues. Tim’s poem about FGM is amazingly powerful.
• Who are your favourite writers? If you had to pick your top three favourite poems, what would you pick and why?
My favourite poet is Frank O’Hara. He was active in the 1950s and early 1960s and wrote poems about city life and the experiences of being a gay man in 1950s USA. Yet there was nothing political about him, his poems had a matter or fact ness about them, almost a flippancy about big issues. He demonstrated that you can mix high and low culture and hold either in high esteem so long as you are earnest in your beliefs. He’s the poet whose ethos I’m closest room though I’ve now outlived him. He died aged 40 after being run over by a beach buggy. He was drunk at the time.
I also like poets who use humour and language in unexpected ways. I absolutely adore Byron Vincent and Rob Auton, both of whom I’ve met and worked with. They never cease to amaze me with their output. Also Rachel Pantechnicon, hilarious and life affirming. She’s a big influence on me and was one of the people who were instrumental in getting me going.
Favourite poems? I suppose Frank O’Hara’s ‘Getting Up Ahead of Someone’, Byron Vincent’s ‘Hold the Pickle’, and ‘Spherical Man’, by Mighty Mike McGee. These poems are inventive, funny, with great use of language and incredible humanity. Every time I read them I get something different from them.
• What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received as a poet, that you think is relevant to people from all walks of life?
Well, there’s ‘never be a prop poet’, which is the advice Rachel Pantechnicon gave me. This can’t really be translated into everyday life, unless you think on terms of doing away with the baggage that we always carry around with us. 
My closest colleagues and friends in the world of poetry are Tim King, Chris Brooks, Ian Beech and Dan Haynes. I see the way they commit themselves to poetry and performance and to being moral people and I try to apply this to my own life. It’s not advice, as such. 
So I suppose the biggest piece of advice has to come from Frank O’Hara, who said the one must act with ‘grace to be born and live as variously as possible’.  Which I suppose means, cram in as much as possible!
• What can the world expected next from Robert Garnham?
I’ve got a book coming out some time towards the end of this year with Burning Eye, who are the biggest publisher of spoken word poets in the country. It’s a huge honour! In the mean time I’m working on a second novel, which is about retail management, and I’m planning a one person show, the provisional title of which is ‘Static’. I’m also poeting all over the place, I’ve recently been doing shows with a comedy group called Jocular Spectacular and we have a show coming up in Exeter during the LOL festival supporting Arthur Smith, and I’m also off to Manchester in a couple of weeks to do a gig up there. So it’s all go at the moment! 
 

I get nervous. I used to get nervous. I don’t get nervous.

I’ve been performing poetry now for about five years up and down the country. I’ve been to parts of Britain that I wouldn’t normally go to, like Wolverhampton and Swindon, Salisbury and Cheltenham. And I’ve met some great people who have become friends. But there’s one constant which won’t ever go away, and that’s the state if nervousness I get before a poetry night.

It’s been there since the start. I thought it would go away with practice, but it doesn’t. It starts as a dull ache in the chest and a funny feeling in my stomach, and then as the day goes on it increases.

I don’t think this is necessarily about the performance, either. Yes,it is scary to stand in front of strangers and do poems about ostriches and goats, and to tell jokes which they might not laugh at. But the nervousness which I get usually comes from realizing the logistical details of getting somewhere, finding the venue, arriving at the right time, performing, then spending the night somewhere.

Because I’ve got one of those minds which always thinks of the things that can go wrong. And while I try to plan in as many escape routes and procedures as possible to negate the effects of Something Going Wrong, there’s always the chance that Things Might Go Terribly Wrong.

I remember taking part in the Wolverhampton Love Slam in 2014. By chance it was the same day that the railway fell into the sea at Dawlish. It took almost twelve hours to get to Wolverhampton from Paignton. The first person I bumped into was Jonny Fluffypunk. That’s when I knew that everything would be okay. But the whole day up till that point had just been one huge nervousorama.

I used to be the host of Poetry Island. I loved the nights themselves, there was so much energy, it was the poetry equivalent of being in a tornado. But there was so much organizing to do, and so much worrying about all the minor details, that in the end it wasn’t worth doing. I would spend the hour before going to the venue lying on my back on the floor and staring at the ceiling, trying to calm myself and run through everything in my head. That can’t be normal behaviour, now, can it?

I’m sure it’s the same for other performers. But the results far outweigh the nervousness. I’ve been to such wonderful gigs this year already, and I’ve got loads planned for later in the year, that I’m not even thinking about the nervousness.

Lately, I’ve been pursuing a new tactic. It’s called Operation DontThinkAboutIt. The day before a gig, I just carry on as normal. And even when I’m changing into my poetry outfit, I’m not thinking about what it is I’m about to do. And then I lie on the bed and I listen to pop music on my iPod. Loud, disco beat kind of stuff. The upshot of this is that it all makes the act of going to the gig and performing almost natural, and it seems to work. I’ve been having much more fun when I get there, less nervousness, and I reckon I’ve been performing better, too. If I stress too much over the minor details, then the actual reason for being there gets left behind. But now I don’t stress so much at all and it’s cleared my mind, made me focused on what it is I am meant to be doing.

Having said that, I’ve got some gigs coming up further up the country. So I shall see how it goes! And as long as the railway line doesn’t fall into the sea at Dawlish again, things should be okay.

Anyway, for no reason whatsoever, here’s a poem I wrote late summer while staying in Brixham.

Poem

Too hot out
For serious contemplation.
I sit in the cool of my room
At my parent’s
Bunga
Low.

Window open,
Net curtains twitching on the slightest breeze,
Car tyres on the concrete road surface,
Apolo
Getic.

The stipples ceiling has cracks.
Little roads through a mountain landscape.
But instead of being round the world is
Rectangular
( Except for a slight recess in the east).
The capital city is the light fixture.
The explorers are ever so brave
Who reach as far as the
Archi
Trave.

Outside in the summer heat,
The plaintive honking
Of something that honks.
I’m a city boy so I don’t really know
What kind of animal honks.
But I wish it wouldn’t.
It gives me the willies.

I imagine the room filled with
Albino
Ocelot
Octopuses
Cool
Coral
A
Drinks
Vending
Machine
PepsiCo

It’s so hot
I try to visualise somewhere cool
Like an airport air conditioned coffee shop.

Actually the honking is probably
Just the shed door
Creaking in the breeze.

Why I Am Not A Surrealist

When I was younger some of my favourite artists and musicians were surrealists. Salvador Dali and The Beatles, for example. Semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower. That sort of thing. The imagery and the language of these were exciting and daring and I couldn’t get enough of the thinking behind such overtly provocative works. But as my adventures in art and music progressed, I started to realise that while the effects of these were immediate on the first viewing, they quickly wore off.

I don’t want to see another damn melting clock.

It took a while, but I began to realise that surrealism in small doses is okay, but there always has to be some kind of grounding in the familiar, in real life. It has to be relatable. Maybe it’s just the way I look at the world, but I’ve got to a stage in my life where surrealism is deeply unsatisfactory to see or read, particularly in poetry.

Let’s make a hypothetical poem. It’s going to be a surreal one, so we’re going to look at imagery. I see a plum. The plum has a moustache for some reason. The plum has a moustache, that’s the first line of this poem. Okay, so if this poem was a Robert Garnham poem, I’d then go on to follow the plum around for a few stanzas to see what life is like being a plum with a moustache. In such a way I ground the poem in the every day, in the humdrum. The plum has a problem eating soup because of the moustache. The plum can’t get a date because every plum he meets doesn’t like moustaches. You know, run of the mill kind of stuff.

But if I were a surrealist, then in the next verse, I’d move on from the plum with the moustache. I see a tap dancing horse called Mona, and the King of South Dakota is there, waving a cricket bat. And yes, this is all rather whimsical at the moment and a little but humorous, but if I read this again tomorrow I’d think: yeah, whatever.

I have, therefore, identified the moment, the junction, where a poem can go either way. On the left, full blown surrealism, all sunny and stupid and a bit dizzy. And on the right, the kind of tempered down-to-earth surrealism that people can relate to. This Point of Realist Return (PRR) is immediately divisible by the interest of the reader (I) and responds well to Repeating Reading (RR). I divided by PRR times RR equals a Satisfying Read (SR). A surrealist poem may also have a PRR but there the I is, unfortunately, not equal to the RR, and therefore the SR is of a lower outcome than the less surrealistic piece.

I hope that this has cleared things up.

What I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that the poems which work best for me are those which have some kind of bearing on my life. My hero, Frank O’Hara, wrote poems based on his own life, his famous ‘I Do This I Do That’ poems. Yet he, too, dabbled in surrealism earlier in his career, and these poems are stodgy and hard work to read. You could tell that he was having a lot of fun writing them, but as a reader, well, there’s ironing to be getting on with.

I’m not against other poets being surreal. The performance poetry community is wide and varied and this is what makes it so vibrant. If every poet was the same, then we’d be better off not turning up. And who knows, perhaps someone might come along and surprise me with a set of sheer surrealist excellence.

Or perhaps my life is just so strange that I can’t possibly deal with any more of it!fun front

An Interview with AJ McKenna

Hello, AJ. You’ve had a busy couple of years, it looks like. What have been the highlights, both in terms of your poetry, and personally?

I think the two biggest highlights professionally have been my film, ‘Letter to a Minnesota Prison’, about the case of CeCe McDonald, which was shown at the Royal Festival Hall as part of ‘Architects of Our Republic’, an Apples and Snakes project – and, more recently, working as Deputy Editor at the online LGBT magazine So So Gay, which I did from last spring until I stepped down at the start of this year to concentrate on my own writing. The great thing about that role was the opportunity it gave me to amplify other trans voices, by commissioning work from people like J Mase III, Elaine O’Neill and Jude Enroljas.

– You’re a wonderfully outspoken person, fighting intolerance in all its forms. Do all poets have a duty to highlight the things that make them angry?

We live in very angry times: the news reports over the past week have been enough to confirm that. But equally, they’ve been very interesting in giving us space in which to consider what kinds of expression of anger are artistically worth it. If you look at the stuff that Charlie Hebdo was publishing, there is undoubtedly an anger behind it, but it’s a kind of spluttering, obvious, one-dimensional anger. No-one deserves to die for producing cartoons like that, but equally, they aren’t worth dying for either. If you think about some of the great free speech cases, stuff like the suppression of Ulysses, or the Lady Chatterley trial, or the Howl case, it absolutely would have been worth dying to have produced works like those. They were all to some extent motivated by anger, but it seems to me that they made something out of their anger which is beautiful and arresting and three-dimensional. So I think the question you have to ask is – can I make something worthwhile of my anger? Can I turn it into something which has space in it? That’s what you should ask yourself.

– Can you tell us a little bit about transphobia?

Well, it’s obviously the main thing I get angry about! Transphobia is the irrational prejudice people have against trans people – I don’t want to say it’s ‘the same as’ homophobia is for cisgender (non-trans) gay people, but obviously there are differences. Transphobia is still a lot more casually tolerated in this society than homophobia, for one. For another, you often encounter cis gay people who can be horribly transphobic, which really makes me angry, because you’d think if you understand what it’s like to be a minority you would hope people wouldn’t inflict the same hurt on other people.

– I see you are putting together a one hour show for the Edinburgh Fringe. Can you tell us anything about it?

The original idea for the show was to do an extended version of one of my 20-minute sets, a set which focuses on performing pieces which are inspired by the worst things people have said to me. It’s still based on that initial premise, but gradually other themes are emerging – politics (gender politics particularly), family, my years as a teenage anorexic, and a large helping of what I can only refer to as sex and violence. Hopefully people will find that a heady enough combination!

– Which poems do you consider to be your ‘greatest hits’?

The two poems people ask for most at gigs are ‘You’re fucking dead lol j/k’, which is my anti-banter poem, and ‘My revelation will not be trivialised’, which is a poem I wrote in response to transphobic labels. And the video of mine which has had the most hits on YouTube is ‘The Bathroom Thing’, my poem about anti-trans bathroom panic. So yes, I see your point about being outspoken…

– What aims do you have when you sit down to write a poem?

I tend to write in one of two ways – either something will make me very immediately angry, in which case I’ll write something as a kind of rapid response. Usually with these I don’t really have an idea of where the piece will end up – I’ll start with a line and then riff on it from there and see where it gets me. ‘My revelation’ was written in that way – I’d been annoyed by being referred to as a ‘TV’ and so I started riffing on the phrase ‘I am not a TV’, coming up with ways in which I’m not, which of course led me to think about Gil Scott-Heron and ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ and so I thought I’d carry on in that fashion and…eventually the poem was pretty much written, and only needed a few tweaks thereafter.

The other way I tend to write is that I’ll have an idea in my head which worries away at me for ages, unconsciously, then eventually I’ll find a way into it and come up with something. ‘Letter to a Minnesota Prison’ went like that: I’d wanted to write a poem about CeCe McDonald for a while – indeed I’d made numerous attempts and none of them had really came off. I’d heard about her being wrongly imprisoned for defending herself against a transphobic, racist attack, and I’d initially tried to write a poem about it in the style of that Bob Dylan song, ‘The Ballad of the Hurricane’, but…well, it worked out about as well as you can expect.

Then I was commissioned to do a poem for ‘Architects of Our Republic’, an Apples and Snakes event commemorating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. I had no idea how to proceed with it – in fact I found the commission quite daunting. So I decided to start by reading over the speech – the whole speech, not just the peroration, the ‘I have a dream’ bit, which everyone remembers. One of the interesting moments in the earlier part of the speech is a point when he compares the Declaration of Independence to a bad cheque. The interesting thing about this in the context of the CeCe McDonald case was that one of the key pieces of evidence used against her in her pre-trial hearing was that she’d written a cheque that bounced. So this gave me a way in. I began with ‘Your cheque bounced, CeCe…’ and the poem flowed from there. Then it was just a matter of editing.

– Who are your heroes, both in literature, and more widely?

In contemporary poetry my heroes are, in no particular order, Joelle Taylor, Sophia Walker and Angela Readman. More widely I adore the work of Alison Bechdel, the cartoonist who wrote Fun Home, which was a key influence on my decision to come out; Laverne Cox, who’s used her fame from appearing in Orange is the New Black to help advance trans rights; Fallon Fox, who’s done similar work in a much more dangerous environment as the world’s first out trans mixed martial arts fighter…and I’ve always been a massive, massive Tori Amos fan. I don’t think I’d actually write poetry if it hadn’t been for Tori!

– And who are your villains?

Now that is a much longer list! But you could probably sum it up as Tories, transphobes, and Ukip supporters.

– There seems to be a thriving performance poetry scene in Newcastle. Who are the other notable poets who perform regularly there?

That’d be another long list then! But we are blessed to have some amazing poetry and spoken word artists in the region. There’s Jenni Pascoe, who runs Jibba Jabba, Kirsten Luckins, whose show ‘The Moon Cannot Be Stolen’ is an amazing blend of poetry and music…Rowan McCabe is a massive rising star too, who’s also done an amazing show called ‘North East Rising’. Degna Stone, winner of the Verb new voices award…Amy Mackelden, who…her shows are not pure poetry but as spoken word they’re amazing. I remember seeing a performance of her show the ‘Seven Fatal Mistakes of Online Dating’ which finished with her performing a poem to a random guy on Chatroulette, after which the entire audience gave him a big wave. Such an amazing, risk-taking moment. And so nice, too! There’s Ira Lightman, as well, who I consider Britain’s most avant-garde poet, though he doubtless knows 18 different people doing even more experimental stuff than him. Ask him about the clown t-shirts. There’s Asa J Maddison, whose performance poem, ‘Boom’, is one of the most powerful things I saw last year; Sky Hawkins, Chris Harland…there are loads of us. Just move up here already! All of you!

– What are your plans as a poet for the next couple of years?

There is no plan!

AJ is performing at Stirred in Manchester on Monday 23rd February, Talking Heids in Leith on Tuesday 22nd, and at ‘Do Us Proud’, a special event to mark the end of LGBT History Month in York, on Thursday 25th

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On saying ‘Thanks’ at the end of a poetry performance

Hello, today I thought I’d talk about what it is we say when a poem has finished.

I’ve been to many gigs all over the place and it’s true that the nature of these events is defined by the sort of poetry thats performed there. It’s not uncommon, at a page poetry event where poems are ‘read’ rather than performed, that there should be no clapping at the end. People sit there in a respectful silence. And that’s ok. That’s the culture that these events have created for themselves. And in any case, the poems are usually about the seasons or wildflowers or ennui.

Performance poetry nights are a different beast entirely. They are hipper, more energetic, more like entertainment than poems about agriculture and hedges, and the audience becomes a part of the whole performance. That’s why it’s often somewhat disconcerting when a poet finishes a poem and says absolutely nothing. The audience doesn’t know what to do.

We’ve probably all seen it. The poet stands there, having finished their poem, and there’s no acknowledgement whatsoever from the audience. And then they say something awkward like, ‘That’s it’. Or ‘That’s the end’. And then there’s a bit of muted clapping.

The vast majority of performance poets build up a rhythm as they go along and the final words, usually, ‘Thanks’, or sometimes ‘Cheers’, if the poet is a bit blokey, signals to the audience that their wait is over and that they are free to cheer, clap, whoop or should ‘Yeah!’. It becomes a part of the performance. And it helps the evening flow along.

But are there alternatives? Do people get tired of the same old ‘Thanks’? The wonderful local poet Simon Blades built a whole routine around this and would signal that a poem had finished wins lavish arm gesture which was both funny and a humorous aspect of his act. Every now and then I do something similar. Perhaps I might blow on a harmonica or whistle or something. But the essence is just the same. I’m telling the audience that the poem has finished and,if they’re not clapping already, the audience should damn well clap now.

Another aspect is the comedic acknowledgement that the poem has finished and that the next one is starting already. I’ve done this a few times. I’ve signaled that the poem had ended by announcing that ‘This next poem is called . . .’. In such cases I’m sacrificing potential applause for a comedic response. Hopefully laughter. It doesn’t always work but it’s very nice when it does.

So that’s what I’ve been thinking about, anyway. The acknowledgement that a poem has finished is part of the act. Unless the poet doesn’t want applause, and that’s fine. They might purposefully build themselves a reputation as a serious page poet, and the audience might be glad of an opportunity not to clap. Deadly silence at the end of a poem is a response in itself. It’s just a little embarrassing when the poet has read something that they hoped would elicit applause. The audience probably still likes them just the same, it’s just that they never got the chance to show it.

Anyway. That’s the end of today’s lecture. Next week we shall be discussing clearing throats on stage.

http://youtu.be/EkMmsv4OjqM

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My hero: Professor Zazzo Thiim

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I’ve been writing poetry now for the best part of ten years. Yet my foray into the world of ‘comic’ verse did not come completely by accident.

There is one man who came before who showed me that performance poetry was a real art form and worthy of investigation. Indeed, when people ask who my influences are, (which, come to think of it, has only ever happened once), I often reply ‘Frank O’Hara, but to a greater extent, Professor Zazzo Thiim’.
Who is Professor Zazzo Thiim? Notwithstanding several attempts by many in the Californian poetry community to attribute the invention of performance poetry to their particular clique, or the claims of those within the British poetic movement to assign invention of this genre to those from various diverse backgrounds both cultural and symbolic, there remains a theory within the English departments of some major university establishments that the invention of ‘performance’ poetry can be traved to the moment in June 1953 when Professor Zazzo Thiim accidentally sat on a harpsichord while reciting the works of Tennyson. Indeed, it was seen as the most whimsical and amusing moment of the Basingstoke literary season, mainly on account of the audience reaction – (sheer disbelief mixed with a fair amount of loathing) – and the apparent embarrassment not only of Thiim himself, but also the Mayor, and Arthur Miller, to whom the harpsichored belonged.

There were immediate appeals for a repetition of Thiim’s groundbreaking (and harpsichord-breaking) work. Indeed, he was asked to perform it on the radio (to general acclaim), and before the Ambassador to the United States, (who turned out to be just a man in a hat who was passing by). Performance poetry was born. Thiim was astounded by the fact that he had invented an entire new genre. He began writing his own verse, which he would perform either sitting on a harpsichord, astride a harpsichord, while playing a harpsichord, while lying on a harpsichord, and finally, while lying underneath a harpsichord. This lasted for six years, until a colleague is said to have inquired of him, ‘What is it with you and all these bleeding harpsichords, anyway?’ He turned up at the next poetry event with a mouth organ.

Throughout this time, not only did Thiim write poems to fit in with his harpsichord smashing regime, but he also began to dissemble and play around with the poetic form. Working in unison with the University of Staines, he looked at poems in more detail than any other literary practitioner until he acquired a reputation as a literary and poetic experimenter. Poems were shot from cannons. Poems were jumped up and down on. One poem was whispered to the Queen, who was asked to ‘pass it on’. (She didn’t). One poem, entitled ‘Frank (23 ½ Seconds of Silence)’ was performed as twenty three and a half seconds of silence. And another, ‘Frank (23 ½ Seconds of Silence with a Brief Interlude)’, was an extended version of the first but with a slight clearing of the throat in the middle. ‘Frank’ was a poem performed with a tambourine with the eminent professor repeating the word ‘scones’ over and over, finally ending the consuming of a whole scone live on stage, while ‘Frank’ consisted of the Professor shouting out the words ‘I do not believe in Aberystwith’ while pouring yoghurt over his head. One of his most famous poems, ‘Frank’, received some notoriety when it was discovered that it had been the last work read by Tony Blackburn before his debut on Radio One. And of course, who can forget the stirring moment when one of his better known poems, ‘Frank’, was included in the first space probe sent out by the Belgians?

There has been of course some question as to why the Professor should have entitled all of his poems ‘Frank’. But as the good professor has pointed out on numerous occasions, all titles are essentially meaningless and spoil the anticipation of a poem or a work of art. Just look at ‘Last of the Summer Wine’. ‘Frank seemed as good a name as any. Do we enoy the Professor’s poems today? Naturally. As the performance poetry scene goes from strength to strength, the work of Professor Zazzo Thiim has been cited by many, including myself, as their main inspiration for taking to the stage. In areas where performance poetry is popular, there has also been a marked increase in sales of harpsichords, and there can be no other reason why this is so than the enduring legacy of Professor Zazzo Thiim.

Performance Poetry : performing from the page or from memory

There’s been some debate of late about the merits of reading from a book verses performing from memory, and whether one has any advantage over the other.

The easy answer is that both methods are performative, though performing while using a book can easily be construed as reading from a book. This in itself could be a performance so long as there is some audience engagement.

I always read from a book. Indeed, the book has become a part of my whole persona. It is a character who comes with me on stage. It also suits the character that I’m trying to give myself while performing. There’s something old fashioned and comforting about having the book there, and it helps that the book has been around a bit. It’s been there at every poetry gig I’ve performed at for the last three years.

But there are poets who perform from memory. This is a liberating experience and allows them to concentrate on their delivery and on their performance. I have only been able to memorise two of my poems, Somerset and Plop, while The Straight Poem, Fozzie and The First Time are very nearly memorised. (I can do them in my sleep. Just not on stage). Having the words locked in allows the poet to move around and inhabit the words.

Perhaps this is something I could work on. However, there are several factors mitigating against this approach, for me personally. The first is that my poems do not rhyme, mostly. Therefore learning them is harder. There’s no rhythm either, just a line followed by another line. Secondly, my work rate is such that there are too many new poems coming through to memorise. I try to write one performable poem or piece a week, except during April and September, when this goes up to one a day. The best I can do is rehearse, rehearse, rehearse until I know not only the poem, but the piece of paper it’s written on, the font, and the way it sits on the page.

As you can see from the picture, I have notes and ideas written next to the poem which I have taken in during the rehearsal period. (The picture is of a poem I have performed frequently, and also in Germany, hence the scribbled German translations next to the text!)

I have spoken to many poets about reading verses memorising and most have a similar approach. Matt Harvey, Jackie Juno and Johnny Flufffypunk all use a book as a back-up and as a part of their performance, with the added bonus of having a permanent on-stage advertisement for their latest publications. People see the book and they want their own copy!

But there’s something mystical about memorised poems. Perhaps it goes back to the days of the shamen, the travelling storytellers of old, the odd man ranting in the street, speaking in tongues, the very origins of poetry itself. It gives the performance that extra kick. It puts them up there with rock stars and preachers, politicians and orators, conjuring words as if from within. One just has to watch Pam Ayres to see how effectively this can be done.

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