A funny thing happened on the way to the poetry recital.

One of the strangest things about being a performance poet is that I am, obviously, not a performance poet all the time. In fact, when you think about it, I’m probably only a performance poet at those moments when I’m on the stage or behind a mic, performing poetry. The rest of the time, I’m just an anonymous bloke.

Because I have an anonymous job and I live in an anonymous town, and the clothes I wear when I’m at work or at home or going round the town are nothing like the clothes I wear when I’m performing poetry. And while it’s true that most of my spare time is taken up with admin, emails, research, watching video clips of other performance poets, and of course, the actual writing and rehearsing of performance poems, I still have the mindset of being just an ordinary person, until the moment,of course, that I arrive at the gig.
Last week I had a gig in Exeter at the Apples and Snakes Spokes Amaze evening. It’s always a wonderful night of energy and poetic brilliance and I like it especially that I can just pop up on the train. So I got into costume and I got out my set list to do some last minute adjustments when, at the next station, a group of drunk lads got on.
They were hammered. Posh, hammered drunk lads in shirts, all called Tarquin and Maurice. And as the train carried on into the early evening I kind of sunk down in my seat a little bit, hoping that their loud joshing to each other would make me somehow anonymous. But I was wearing my poetry costume. The tweed jacket,the glasses, the spiky hair, and worse still, I had my briefcase and my large sparkly hat decorated with fairy lights. I wasn’t exactly inconspicuous.
Eventually one of them asked me where I was going and I had to tell him, hoping that they would leave me alone. But they were most interested indeed. Drunk, loud and interested. What kind of poetry? Comedy poetry? Do you like Michael McIntyre? Do you like The Pub Landlord? Make us laugh, then.
I knew that I could probably have said anything at this point and they would have laughed. They wanted me to get up and put the hat on, and then do some poetry. A part of me wanted to get off as soon as possible, but another part of me realized that this was a golden opportunity not only to perform in front of a brand new audience and bring poetry to a place where it had never been before, but also, I could use it as a practice for my forthcoming set.
So I got up and went through a couple of poems, right there at the front of the carriage. And they loved it. And the conductor loved it. And the other passengers, some of whom were watching, seemed to tolerate it. And when I finished, they all cheered and clapped. They took turns wearing the hat. Tarquin went and sat in the luggage rack and recited one of my poems from the notebook. It was a strange, yet ultimately fulfilling start to the evening.
As luck would have it, a lad got on at the next stop who looked just like Ed Sheeran, and to top it all off, he was a singer too. So they made him perform and I was able to concentrate again on my set for the gig.
Only afterwards did I think how weird the whole experience was. The lads weren’t louts, but they were certainly loud. They weren’t violent or silly, but they’re still not the sort of people I’d hang around with, even though they shall wanted to go for a drink with me.
I have, of course, been in touch with Apples and Snakes to see if they can throw some extra cash my way for bringing poetry to carriage two of the Paignton to Exmouth train. They have yet to respond.
Anyway, here’s a new poem.

LUMINOUS SUPER FUN TOKYO MASSIVE BODY SURPRISE


I’m becoming Tokyo.

I used to be a human being.

But now I’m becoming Tokyo.

My fingers are now motorway bridges. 

My face is the Roppongi district.

My teeth are now neon.

My chin is the metro system.

Instead of living in a house 

I now surround a bay.


I used to have an armpit.

Now I have an airport.

I used to have two armpits.

Now I have two airports.


People didn’t use

To be able to find me

In my cosy little house

But now they look at a map

Of Japan and they say,

There he is!


I went to a bar

And I asked for a beer

And the barman said,

I’m sorry, but you are a whole

City and there’s no room

For you in here

Unless the laws of physics were to be

Somehow contravened.

So I had a cola and sat outside.


You should see my Mount Fuji.

It’s huge.

The doctor has given me a cream

For it.


Arms length out like

Supple bullet train

Shinkansen just far enough

To tickle Kyoto

Ha ha ha rumble rumble

Is that an earthquake?

No, I just told you,

I tickled Kyoto

Super bouncy fun happy.


I look through a magnifying glass

At my own arm

See Ginza shopping district shoppers

Shopping in the shops with their shopping

When I sneeze they

Put up umbrellas

And they carry on shopping

Posing for selfies next

To my wristwatch.


Skyscraper head antennas

Winking like eyes blinking

Spikey-haired towers voluminous

Suspended roadway ninja hung clinging

Motorbike sounds karaoke rhythmic feet

From subway constant noise

No wonder my friends stay away from me

And the Tshirt I bought last week

Just doesn’t fit

Since I started my metropolitan

Metamorphosis

And this poem has got now

Far too many syllables

To be a haiku.

  

Poem titles. Are they really necessary in a performance?

Last time I met up with some poetry friends we had a big old debate about whether or not, before reading or performing a poem, you should tell the audience what the title is.

We have all been to readings and performances where the poem spends about half a minute explaining what the title is, where he got the idea for the title from, and what other titles he might have used. Then he might compare it to titles by more famous poets. Or he might say that this poem is a homage to a certain theme. ‘This poem is called ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Brian’.
It’s true that the title is important and a mini work of art in it’s own right, with certain strictures and rules of grammar. Titles are pure concentrated literature. But they’re not always necessary.
The way I see it, there are several schools of thought. With some poems, the poem is an integral part of the whole performance and understanding of the poem. It might be called something like, ‘How to Tickle a Badger’, in which case the content of the poem would be meaningless without the poem.
Some poems have titles which are also the first line of the poem. ‘This poem is called, ‘I Went to Basingstoke, 
And there were a lot of people there.
And most of them had hair’.

  

And so on.
I’ve seen plenty of poets fretting because they have bad titles for their work, or they are not happy with the titles they have chosen, or they can’t think of a title. When I first started performing, I was hopeless at titles, so I called all of my poems ‘Frank’. This seemed a clever strategy, until so many people kept asking who Frank was that I changed all of my poems to ‘Poem’. And this has kind of stuck now, even though the poems have titles which I keep to myself. ‘Beard envy’. ‘Camp cat’.
Professor Zazzo Thiim once opined that the point of going to a poetry night was to luxuriate in the titles and then get rat arsed in the bar. He explained that the titles are the only thing he can remember when he gets home. This is not terribly helpful advice and merely adds pressure to those who fret over titles.
Some of the most convincing performances are those where no title is given. The poet just launches straight into the poem. It’s not as if people will cheer when they hear what poem is going to be read out. Poetry crowds aren’t like that, although I did once almost cause a riot at a Pam Ayres performance.
So the thing is, it’s not compulsory to read out the title. It’s too much like a school essay reading competition if everyone does it. It’s great to have some variety. And of one or two here and there don’t do it, we can all get home a couple of minutes sooner.
Poem


I never knew, he said,

You’re not flamboyant, or anything.

In fact you look like a normal bloke,

Jeans and a Tshirt,

That’s what normal blokes wear isn’t it?

Jeans and a Tshirt.

Maybe not a Gloria Gaynor Tshirt.

I thought your proper ones were in the wash.


So we’re still going to be friends, right?

You’re not going to start fancying me,

Are you?

So you’re still going to like

Cheeseburgers?

And action films?

You’re not going to start fancying me,

Are you?

You’re not going to start dancing to

Kylie, and wearing foundation,

Are you?

You’re not going to start baking quiches,

Are you?

You’re not going to start

Wearing scarves

And buying cushions

And calling people ‘darling’,

Are you?

You’re not going to start fancying me,

Are you?

Are you?

You’re not going to start fancying me,

Are you?

I mean that’s disgusting.


Isn’t it?


I always suspected it.

I could tell by the way you eat sausages.

I could tell by the way you fondle tangerines.

I could tell by the way you would stop talking

Whenever Adrian Chiles came on the tv.

I could tell by the way you knew instinctively

What colour lampshade to buy.

That can’t be taught.

It’s genetic.

I could tell by the way you would

Dance like a camp dinosaur

Flappy handed

Floppy fringed camp dinosaur

Side step shuffle floppy floppy

Camp camp dinosaur

That’s how I could tell.

Hello, I’d say to myself,

Hello,

What’s going on here, then?

Camp camp dinosaur.

I could tell by the Gloria Gaynor Tshirt.

Have I already mentioned that?


I don’t know why you told me, though.

Things were fine the way they were.

It explains why you weren’t so keen

On that film last week.

That excellent film.

That excellent lesbian porn film.

That excellent classic of it’s genre,

Hot Girls Gagging For It

During which you did the crossword.

I couldn’t understand why

You didn’t like the lesbian porn film.


I understand now, though.


But I’ll still be your friend,

Your buddy, your mate.

We’ll still do the things

That normal lads do.

All the usual japes and hi jinks,

The usual mucking around,

The usual rough and tumble,

The same old playfulness and manly

Shenanigans, the same old

Roister-doistering, the same old

Mock-serious play fighting,

Rolling and tumbling,

Hand to hand physical matey

Bonding that we always did,

The same old faux-serious

Slap and tickle and giggling

Like exhausted schoolgirls floppy tired

Little puppies slumbering together

On your bed semi naked

Because it’s so hot


Why couldn’t you tell me?

You’re not flamboyant, or anything.

How was I to know?

‘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.

Evidently

I felt incredibly privileged, yesterday, to sample the fantastic array of poetry in Manchester, and to perform a feature slot at Evidently.

I’ve been to a few vibrant poetry nights up and down the country, and Evidently is definitely one of the best. The show is hosted by Kieran King with such energy and gusto as to be wholly infectious. His enthusiasm for every single performer radiates out and ripples across the audience like a Mexican wave. Every open mic poet is greeted with cheers and clapping and whoops, which must be especially exciting for a first-timer. How wonderful it is to see fresh talent being encouraged in such a way!

The venue is amazing. Google Maps sent me to a light industrial estate somewhere in Salford. I wondered if there had been an error, and as the mist began to roll in from the moors, (or wherever the mist rolls in from in these parts, as I’ve virtually no knowledge of Manchester or it’s geography), a strange magic overtook the night. Neon became blurred, the tower blocks loomed like tombstones, late night garages glared fluorescent light out into the gloom, and then, all of a sudden, the Eagle Inn appeared.

A beautiful old pub, preserved against the neighborhood, with brown tiled walls and architectural flourishes, fireplaces and flagstone floors, the place seemed perfect to evoke a Manchester of the past. As if to reinforce the image, a jukebox was playing The Smiths, and a young man at the bar was singing along, every now and then apologizing to me by saying, ‘They’re just wonderful, the Smiths, and this is my favourite song’.

Evidently is held in the back room of the pub. The back room has a stage and a balcony. The magic is reinforced by the subtle lighting of the room and the way it fills with souls coming in from the dark to spill their words to an appreciative audience. You could smell winter clinging on to their overcoats as the room filled to the brim. Others went upstairs and watched from the balcony.

My own set was a typical blend of Surrey whimsy and pink puppet shenanigans, the audience seemed to enjoy it very much. And then the open micers came on.

One thing that always strikes me about my own local scene in South Devon is the sheer variety. I’ve been to other towns, and each one seems to have its own style, but little variety. In London there’s rap, and it’s good rap, but after eight or nine rappers you begin to tire a little. In Bristol there’s the three-rhymes-per-line lets-all-be-nice-to-each-other style which is also very good and very effective but a little wearing after a while. But Evidently last night was different. It had variety, it had energy, it had humour and it had serious poems.

I wish I’d taken some names down. A poet did a wonderfully effecting piece about civil rights and police brutality which almost made me want to video it and show it to everyone. A young lady of 17 made her debut and recited a fantastic poem about what it means to be 17 and finding your place in the world. There was a chap called Alabaster (I believe), funny and engaging. Jamie Harry Scrutton was hilarious and energetic and I just wanted to take him home with me. Indeed,there were too many to mention here, and then to top it all off, Tony Walsh did a quick set about empowering women and women’s rights. Fantastic stuff!

Rose Condo did a brilliant set, too. Geography, the human spirit, bus stops, Winnipeg. She was hypnotic, truthful, she made me see the world through different eyes. In fact, everyone did.

So my first experience of Manchester was certainly positive and I feel that I should spend more time there. And yes, there was much derision over the fact that I flew up, further demonstrating that this poetry malarkey is just a glorified hobby for me rather than a business, but it only added to the sense afterwards of having had a very perculiar and very pleasant dream.

Here’s a poem I wrote while I was there.

Poem

I’m writing this poem in Manchester.
I’ve never been here before.
I didn’t know what to expect
But I wanted to find,
While I was here,
The real Manchester,
Something tangible and local that I
Can build on
As definitive proof,
(Apart from this poem), that
I have been to Manchester.

I found a Starbucks.
I found a Waterstones.
I saw on Google Maps
That there’s a Weatherspoons.

A man on the train said he was
‘going down tut pub’.
I saw another man
And he was wearing a flat cap.
I saw an advert for Yorkshire puddings.

Everyone sounds like
Daphne’s mum, from Frasier.
I feel like I’m
A long way from Guildford.

Ps, bit late now, but I’ve only just worked out why the night was called Evidently.

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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An Interview with Tim King

Tim King

One of my best friends in the world of performance poetry is Tim King. He is a man of integrity and innovation, art and language, with a real sense of justice and an understanding of what it is which keeps us all going. His poetry is by turns personal and universal, exploring themes of loss, addiction and living. Some of his work is playful, with rules and strictures which he imposes on himself for the purposes of their composition. Some of his poems, also, are incredibly funny.

I first met Tim at a performance poetry workshop almost five years ago. Since then we have worked closely at venues all over the south west of England, appearing together at the Rest Festival in Salisbury, slams in Bristol and Cheltenham, and as part of a larger ensemble at festivals in both Barnstaple and Denbury.

We have also shared some crazy adventures getting to these events, most of which have been shared on this blog in months past.

Tim is a first class poet and performer and a wonderful human being. There’s also something very reassuring about his beard.

1. Hi Tim. It’s a simple question, but how did you get in to ‘performance poetry’?

Hello Robert. Thanks for breaking me in gently. I think it’s all to do with feeling I have stuff to say. I’m trying to discover what that stuff is and how best to say it, but of course it keeps changing. In the past I wrote songs and sung in bands, although I always deferred to the musicians in those situations so often the focus would slip. I had this idealistic notion that if we all worked together a certain synergy would occur and the end product would become more than the sum of it’s parts. In reality I found my ideas were routinely diluted. At that time I lacked the confidence, musicianship and persuasiveness to articulate myself adequately or the authority to impose my half-baked ideas on people who could do things I couldn’t do. Performance poetry seemed like a way to achieve roughly the same thing without having to worry about all the musical nonsense. Liv Torc got me started.

2. Your themes touch on issues which ought to concern everyone such as environmental matters and FGM. Should all poets or performers draw attention to such matters? Is it ok to be political?

I think it’s definitely okay to be political with a small ‘p’ – we’re social creatures and essentially society and politics are the same thing. That said, engaging from an explicitly party political perspective seems counter-productive. I don’t see the point in alienating folk before you’ve even started. I wouldn’t presume to say what other poets and performers should do, although I do think making work which reflects one’s own interests and enthusiasms is probably a good start. I feel passionately about the environment and the sexual abuse of children, so I make some of my work about those subjects. For me the whole point of performing is to connect in such a way that the audience realises I’m a person, just like them. Of course, everybody already knows this, it’s obvious… but there are levels of knowing. It’s about getting under the skin, exchanging a spark or doing whatever it takes to truly communicate the shared nature of our humanity – our oneness – if you will. To that extent, I think so long as it emanates from a real place all art is automatically political. It’s ultimately subversive, because accepting that all people are essentially the same makes it harder to countenance authoritarianism, inequity and cruelty.

3. Will you be doing more musical works in the future?

Yes and no. I’ll definitely be incorporating more musical ideas into my ‘act’ over the coming period but I’m not planning to do anything exclusively musical (e.g. a musical).

4. Who are your influences, both within poetry, and outside?

As a child I loved Spike Milligan, Edward Lear and Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol. I also grew up entranced by 60’s pop music: the Beatles, the Kinks, the Small Faces, etcetera. I really like intimate, cosy, domestic seeming stuff that somehow speaks of underlying profundity. I like nonsense too.

As a teenager I was greatly influenced by gender-bending glam-rock minstrels Bolan and Bowie, although probably the biggest single impetus to my creativity came from the discovery of Kate Bush in the late 70’s.

I loved the way her work was so different from anything I’d encountered before. It opened the door to the possibility of not following the herd, not trying to be true to anything other than the little voice inside. She gave me the kick I needed to stop worrying about whether or not I was good enough and just get on with it. She touched me deeply and I love her to bits.

John Cooper-Clarke, John Hegley and Neil Innes all featured quite heavily in my adolescence and early adulthood, but it wasn’t until I went along to Taking the Mic in Exeter and saw Liv Torc host and perform in 2010 that I began to think seriously about doing something similar myself. Liv is great – totally outspoken, a brilliantly funny and original poet and very encouraging. She’s helped a lot of excellent poets in Devon on their way and now she’s doing similarly inspirational things in Somerset with Take Art and further afield with the Hip Yak Poetry Shack. I love Liv too – not to quite as many bits as Kate though. Kate gets the lion’s share of the bits and Liv gets more hugs. To be honest, I guess that’s more a matter of opportunity than anything else. I hope that doesn’t look bad? What was the question again?

5. Your work is unique and no two poems seem to adopt the same rules or format. Is constant reinvention important in any art form?

That’s an extremely kind thing to say. Thank you. With regard to rules and format, I’ve frequently read that, in design ‘form should follow function’. In art, I think form is much more an integral part of function. For me, working to rules is a really good way of tying up the analytical part of my mind just enough to let the subconscious stuff through. Left to free-run, I’d probably write pretty much in strict ballad form (I blame Wilde and 60’s pop music) which could quickly become quite boring. I’ve always enjoyed setting up alternative strictures and structures to avoid this. More recently I’ve found myself using more fractured forms – re-mixing predictable forms in unlikely ways, mashing poems together, shouting “CUT” periodically, that sort of thing. It’s pathetic really.

So far as re-invention goes, lots of great artists constantly repeat themselves: Monet’s lily ponds, Shakespeare’s interminable iambic pentameter, James Turner’s brilliant sonnets. I think it’s horses for courses. I’m more of a flighty filly – but hopefully I can still run the race.

6. You have maintained the same performance image since I first met you, wearing the same type of shirt at each event. In such a way, you have a trademark style. How important is this to your performance?

I’m not sure it affects my performance at all. It is useful when I go places and people recognise me from the clothes. I may have to change the shirts soon, as the elbows are wearing a bit thin. I’m considering a complete change of style. When I can be bothered to find a ‘new look’ I’ll probably stick with it for a while. Recognisability is definitely helpful.

7. What are your plans for the following year?

I have a couple of one-man shows I’m working towards: one about growing up, called Significant Childhood Sexual Trauma and another about climate change (as part of the research I’m doing a two-month online climate-science course with Exeter Uni starting in January) – I guess these shows will be ready when they’re ready. I don’t really think in terms of years. In the more immediate future I’m planning to get out and about a lot more during the coming months, hopefully putting together a small nationwide tour of Open Mics for the Spring and Summer. I’m also going to anthologise my chap-books into one mega-chap-book so I have something to sell on the tour which hasn’t been booked yet and I need to sort out my online presence. There may be some musical collaborations in the offing too. It’s possible I’ll need a life coach.

8. As a co-host of a performance night, what advice would you give to anyone who would like to get started as a performance poet?

Do what you want. Don’t try to second-guess the audience and do what you think they want you to do. They want you to do what you want to do. They want to see your passion. They need to see your passion. Don’t be a tribute act. Be you. You rock! That’s my advice – by all means, feel free to ignore it.

9. Which work of yours are you proudest of?

Back in 2013 I put together a show with a brilliant singer/songwriter called Rebecca Maze and fellow poets James Turner and Morwenna Griffiths. We did three performances of Returning the Dark Stare in three separate venues in Torquay and Exeter. People cried and laughed and felt transformed and said wonderful, wonderful things about the evening. Could that be my single proudest achievement to date? I don’t know. I’m not terribly susceptible to pride. Being one of the performers chosen for the first WOMAD Poetry stage in 2013 was pretty cool (as was being invited back for more in 2014) and working closely with Chris Redmond and client’s of MIND as part of Take Art’s ”The Thing Is…’ workshop project was another highlight. Running Taking the Mic with Morwenna for the past three years has been a joy. Watching people develop. Making friends. I dunno. For now I’m just having a ball. Mainly I feel gratitude. I know I haven’t really answered the question, but I promise I’ll be sure to let you know when I feel properly proud of something! http://iamnotasilentpoet.wordpress.com/tag/tim-king/

Thanks so much, Tim!

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An Interview with Saskia Tomlinson

Saskia Tomlinson is one of my favourite Devon-based performance poets. Such is the breadth of her subject matter, the beauty and virtuosity of her writing, the ease of her performance style and her engaging personality, she could well become one of the most accomplished performance poets in the country.

I have only known Saskia for a couple of years, having first seen her at the Exeter Poetry Slam, and then booking her to perform at Poetry Island which I used to host at the time. Since then she has gone on to win slams and appear at festivals, while her art and animations go from strength to strength.

At the same time I detect a certain eccentricity beneath the surface, which only endears me to her, and her to her audiences, even more. Who else would give away free organic vegetables at a poetry slam? Who else would walk all the way across Barnstaple to make sure that a restaurant had recycled a plastic bottle? And most touchingly of all, who else would give me a present of a pink zebra-patterned roll of gaffer tape? I treasure it to this day.

As a result, Saskia gives the impression of being a fully rounded individual with a sly sense of humour and a clear sense of who she is and her place in the world.

A couple of months ago I decided to try and interview some of the local performers who make the South Devon scene so exciting, and who better to start with than the performer who might well become one of the finest on the national circuit?

– Hello Saskia. You recently performed a poem that you’d written at an early age. When, and why did you start writing and performing poetry?

“Yes I have been writing from an early age. At school I always loved the creative writing we had to do, and would happily stand up in front of the class to speak them. It’s amazing how children have so much confidence. I started preforming in front of people by singing songs I had written. Then I realised that I couldn’t really sing or play the guitar so speaking my words came much easier to me.”

– Who or what are your influences as a poet / performer?

“I used to be obsessed with TS Elliott’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, even thought I really had no idea what it was about. The imagery really stood out to me. I used to completely nick lines from the poem and put them into mine. But over the last few years I have been going to spoken word events and been inspired by so many performers, and started the find my own voice in that crowd I think.

-Do you rehearse? And if so, how long does it take to become familiar with a poem?
“No I don’t really rehearse, sometimes I don’t know what I’m going to do until I get to the venue. I find it terrifying to read a poem on stage. So I memories my poems by going over them before I fall asleep at night.”

– As well as performance poetry, you also excel in art, animation and film making. Which of these interests you the most? Which are you most proud of?
“I do want to be an animator. I have found that animation and poetry go perfectly well together because they both work with images that are constantly evolving, and this can be really interesting”.

– Do you get nervous before a performance?
“Yes I get very nervous, and sometimes waffle on a bit when I am introducing a poem.”

– Your performance style seems closely related to your personality. Do you adopt or exaggerate certain aspects of your personality in performance? Do you perform a ‘version’ of yourself?
“I think everybody does that when they preform. Don’t they? It is important to stay true to your personality. I think in South Devon we have such a range of personalities in the performance poetry world, and thats why its such a vibrent scene.

Thank you very much, Saskia Tomlinson!

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Which Performance Poet Are You? Take this quiz! You just have to look at what happens next!

OK, the title of this post was misleading. I just thought I’d mess with ya. It’s just my blog. That’s all it is.

So it’s been a mammoth of a week full of exciting things. The highs and lows of performance poetry. On Tuesday I performed in Exeter at the Bike Shed with All Of Our Poets Are Musos. I really enjoyed the variety and mix of music and spoken word, even if I did have to look up what a ‘muso’ was. The highlight of the night for me was the wonderful Chee, who makes me laugh somewhat uncontrollably with her excellent and funny songs. She’s amazing and I think I’m developing a non-sexual crush on her. My own set was accepted with laughter and hilarity, which is kind of what I wanted. And afterwards, she leaned across to me while the next person was performing, and she whispered, ‘You had sex with an octopus’.

 

On Thursday I hosted my last ever Poetry Island. It’s been an amazing three years, but I knew that I couldn’t do it forever. The nights are fun and brilliant and euphoric, but there’s so much organisation goes in to the promoting and administrative side, and then I get incredibly nervous before hosting. I have to lie down on the floor of my flat and stare at the ceiling. I’ve never really told anyone about this nervous side of me before, but it becomes almost crippling. Ian Beech will be taking over, he’s a great chap and has an encyclopedic knowledge of performance poetry, as well as many contacts. The nights will be amazing under his control.

It was an emotional night, full of good humour. I did the dance for the last ever time. We put the poets in the cinema because there were so many people wanting to come in and watch, and it was great to listen to their reactions from the other room! I will certainly miss hosting, but I wont miss all the other things that go around being a host and promoter.

On Friday night, Tim King and I drove out to Salisbury to appear on the main stage at the Rest Festival. We got lost. Then we hit a kerb. Then we almost hit a rock. Then we got stuck in a traffic jam. Then we got stopped by the police. We finally arrived with about ten minutes to spare, to find the act before us was an amazing band, and when it was announced that the music had stopped for the night and that next up were two poets, the crowd kind of drifted away. Quite quickly. Nevertheless, we performed very well, even if we did scamper away as quick as we could! Got back to Tim’s house in Exeter at three in the morning. We had cheese on toast and red wine.

So that’s been my week. Oh yes, and I did that dreaded ice bucket challenge thing. The results were too embarrassing to broadcast, but if you want the video I can always send it. It was cold. Obviously. And I was not very manly.

 

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