Why identity is powerful and necessary in spoken word.

Whenever I do any sort of work promoting myself in the spoken word community, invariably, I plough through photos and pictures that I’ve had taken specifically for the purposes of giving the audience a flavour of who I am. In such a way I hope to create a definite identity. Yet the more I do this, the more the created stage character who stands as an avatar for the real me moves further away from who I actually am.

For years now I have worn the same types of clothing and glasses when performing. These are not the sort of clothes I wear on a daily basis. They create an image, a kind of slightly less fussy Alan Bennett, except with thick frame glasses and perhaps a sequinned hat. And perhaps even, if you’re lucky, a feather boa.

Identity is a very important aspect of the spoken word community. Through words and images, poets assert themselves, their beliefs, their backgrounds and characters. Their promotional photos tell potential audiences the kind of thing they might expect from their work. Performance poetry and spoken word are the vessels many poets use in telling their stories, or asserting their right to be individual, different to whatever the norm might be.

This was something that I’d never encountered before I got into writing and performing. As a young gay man living first in suburban Surrey, and now the south of Devon, I was always aware that I was not an average person and did not fit into the heteronormative definition. Yet a part of me wanted to quell whatever difference there might be, hide it behind layers of what I assumed were respectability. Just because I was a gay man, I did not necessarily want the world to know this, an odd hang up from a childhood lived in the 1980s, before a time of gay pride, when Section 28 was legislation, and homophobia was both normal and expressed often.

The world has changed since then, or at least, British society has changed. Things are still not perfect, but it’s much easier now to assert a certain divergence from the norm. Or perhaps the norm itself has been exposed as a lie.

The last few months I’ve been having several conversations with myself about gay content in my poetry, and gay imagery in my presentation of it. Every now and then I have a tendency to write a poem in which I purposefully hide my sexuality, and I have no idea why this is. Naturally, there are a lot of poems I’ve written and performed in which LGBT issues are not the main focus, or even touched on. But then I tell myself off, and remind myself that it is my duty as an LGBT poet to help normalise a marginalised community, and that I owe it not only to my LGBT heroes who came before and did so much to help us get in to this situation, but also to the many other poets, performers and writers who assert their identity and do so with pride.

So there’s this social editor at the back of my mind which intrudes often, and the best material invariably comes when he is banished or ignored. So yes, I’ve been censoring myself, but from who? I tell myself off, and remind myself that the fight is not over, and that there are places in the world where the freedoms I enjoy are not taken for granted, or even permissible. In spite of everything, I, and many of my spoken word colleagues, am still an outsider. Identity is a powerful thing.

On not being in it for the money.

The moment I go on stage, I know what the audience are thinking. They’re thinking. now theres a man with a smug demeanour. There’s a man who’s not in it for the money.

There’s a man who forsakes the capitalist system and does not perform poetry for personal monetary gain.

Well let me tell you, I got books for sale.

I tried to write a poem about an old photocopier last night. It just wouldn’t scan.

I don’t need contraception. Poetry is my contraception. My poetry has helped me not sleep with more people than you can imagine.

So, what is poetry? Percy Bysshe Shelley said that poets are the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’. I suppose the ‘acknowledged legislators ‘ would be governments and town councils.

To be honest, I don’t think it would work. Have you ever seen a group of poets trying to solve a planning dispute?

I suppose it depends if they work in rhyme or blank verse.

Well, I think we’ll put the school next to the pool. And perhaps also the church hall.

The shopping centre. Hmmm, can’t think of where to put the shopping centre. I know! Let’s call it a mall, and then it can go with the school and the pool and the church hall!

The library. Hmm, has this town got an aviary?

The food waste refuse anaerobic digestion chamber . . . What the hell?

Mind you, judging by the high street in Swindon, it looks like the surrealists have already been at work.

So I’m a poet, and I get all kinds of weird commissions. Sometimes I think that my career is going nowhere. Sometimes I don’t.

I’ve recently been working as a Poet in Residence at a paper clip factory. It really is stationery.

I was supposed to do a workshop for a fear of commitment support group, but nobody put their name down.

The other night I was double booked, I was also meant to be at a gig for a group of amnesiacs. So what I’ll do is I’ll go along next week and remind them how good I was.

I’m actually looking for ways out into other lines of work and I think I’ve come up with a winner. I’ve decided to start up assertiveness training courses.

Because if it doesn’t work, nobody’s going to ask for a refund. They won’t be brave enough.

And if anyone does ask for a refund . . .

I can just say, well. There you go.

But poetry for me is a lot like sex. When it’s good, it’s very, very good and you wish it would never stop.

And when it’s bad, it’s just plain embarrassing. Although I do get roughly the same number of laughs.

The thing I like best about poetry is that it’s not all about profit and personal gain, it’s not a hugely capitalist enterprise, people aren’t in it to make a quick buck. And by the way, I’ve got books for sale.

I really like my nipples.

Poem

I really like my nipples.
They’re kind of parallel.
The man who delivered the pizza last night
Said he liked them as well.

I stare at them in the mirror
For hours and hours in end
Singing, look at them there
All nipply nipply ever so tripply
Skippitty dippity doo
Which is how I got banned
From Primark.

The distance between
Male nipples
Equates to the size of their you know what
Equates to the size of their you know what
Dean used to say to me,
Boy, yours are so close
They’re making me cross eyed.

Crumbs from my crusty cheese roll
Get flaked in the forest of my chest hair.
As I brush them off
I accidentally touch a nipple.
Oh yes, I shout,
I forgot I had those!
Hubba hubba.
It’s how I lost my job
As a primary school teacher.

The box full of penguin nipple tassels
I sent to the Antarctic
Was sadly returned unused
I just thought
They would brighten up the place.

I dipped my nipples in paint
And tried to use them to draw
A map of the London Underground.
The Swedish tourist said,
It’s ok, I’ve got a leaflet somewhere.

I call my left one ‘Wayne’.
The right one doesn’t really
Have a name
They both look the same
And what really is a shame
Is that I can’t bend down
And lick them.

Darts players have got them.
The man in the newsagents has got them.
My friend Pete says he’s got six.
The train conductor this morning said,
Show me your ticket,
And I said,
Show me your nipples
And he said
There’s only one tit on this train.

My left one is pierced.
It’s where I keep my keys.
I come and go with ease.
They jangle when I sneeze.

He asked me out!
He asked me out!
The man of my dreams
Asked me out!
I put my hand down my tshirt
And had a good fondle and thought
You know what?
I don’t really need him.
Lol.

A progress report on In the Glare of the Neon Yak and how it’s going.

Or, ‘On being a submarine commander.’

Not long ago I watched a TV documentary about the making of the sitcom Seinfeld, during which Jerry Seinfeld, who was writing, producing and starring in the show, said that a season of it was like being a ‘submarine commander’, in that everything else became excluded from his life and he just concentrated on the show for months on end. It was an interesting description, and I’m starting to see what he means with my new one hour show, In the Glare of the Neon Yak.

I started writing it a few days after returning from the Edinburgh fringe last year. I came up with the title first, and then I bought a circus ringmaster costume, and I tried to think of a way of combining the two. In October I had a week off from work and I sat down and wrote the whole show in five days. This surprised even me, but I was really happy with the outcome and eager to get started on rehearsing it. However, at the time I was still working on Juicy, as it had a couple of dates left.

At the end of the year I did something either brave, or stupid. I reduced the number of hours I do in my day job, in retail management. This meant there was less money coming in, of course, but it also meant I had more time to spend on Yak, and making a career out of spoken word. Little did I know that the show was about to take over my life.

Now, it must be admitted that I have always had trouble learning anything from memory. Previous to the end of the year, I couldn’t even memorise a simple three minute poem. I was asked to appear at a theatre event in Hackney and they stipulated that I had to perform a five minute poem from memory. I set about learning it and, I must say, did a damn fine job doing so. This gave me the confidence to learn something slightly longer. So what did I do? I decided to learn the whole hour show from memory!

So since the end of January, when I did my last performance of Juicy, I have been solidly lining the script for Yak. I do it every day. I do it before work, and after work. I do it on my day off, I do it at the gym while on the exercise bike, and in the sauna. I do it whenever I’m on the bus, the train, or just walking. The whole show has been completely taking up my mind all the time except for when I’m at work. And when I’m not memorising the play, I’m designing the poster, dealing with photographers for the poster, speaking to venues, filling in fringe application forms, writing blurbs, buying props and costumes, rewriting sections, working on the backing music, it really is neverending. When it snowed and I got snowed in while visiting my parents, I rehearsed while looking out the window at the snow falling. When my work colleagues left and I was alone, I rehearsed in the store room of the shop. Every spare moment has been spent on the show.

Has my normal spoken word work suffered? Possibly. I have still been writing, but not rehearsing new material with quite the same zest. I’m still promoting two spoken word nights. I’m doing feature sets around the country.

Soon I’ll be working with a director for the next couple of months. It’s an exciting chance to get someone else involved and I’m looking forward to hearing what she thinks. She’s very enthusiastic about the project.

So now I know exactly what Jerry Seinfeld meant. Today, for example, I rehearsed for an hour, got the train to work while running over lines in my head, then again at lunch time, then on the train home. This evening I’ve been working on publicity material for the show, and prewriting some Tweets for a venue.

I’m having an amazing time, and I can’t wait for people to see what I’ve been up to. It’s a departure from my normal style. According to my diary, however, my first free week off from Yak will be in early September. And that’s when the submarine will be docking for the next time!

The lad on the bus watching porn on his phone. A true story.

Poem

The lad on the bus watched porn on his phone.
He thought he was alone.
He was probably going home.
Sitting at the front upstairs on a midnight bus
Between sleepy Devon villages, he’s
Not realised I’m sitting there,
Four rows back, trying not to look.

His phone screen lights his little corner,
The attended windows reflecting on two sides
Lots of limbs and flesh and to be honest
I really can’t tell what’s happening and I’m
Trying to distract myself by memorising a
Pam Ayres poem.

He’s wearing a hoodie with the hood up and a
Baseball cap and a thick coat and trackie bottoms
And the poor lad must be hot under all those layers,
Unlike the man and the woman on his phone who
Aren’t really wearing much at all, though even I
Can tell that she’s faking it,
And the man for some reason is wearing a
Deliveroo cyclists uniform and one of those big boxes.
Straight people are weird.

The bus seat head eats form a valley of
Stagecoach orange plastic at the end of which
His quivering mobile held in landscape mode
Acts like a cinema screen at a drive-in.
I ask myself, what would Pam Ayres do?
She’d wonder what kind of plan he was on.
Some of these videos use up a lot of mobile data.
Apparently.

I try not to make a sound.
The 5p carrier bag from Poundstretcher is going
To get me in all sorts of trouble.
I kind of shift down in my seat a little bit.
Part of me is jealous, not only for the impetuosity of youth,
The readily available content and
His healthy spirit of sexual experimentation,
But also because he managed to grab
The seat right at the very front.

Hoodie boy lowers his hood.
He’s got a tattoo behind his ear in Chinese script
Which I momentarily mistake for the Lidls corporate logo.
The bus slows for a stop in a nowhere town,
He puts down his phone and cups his hands against the window,
Sighs deeply, as if suddenly conscious of
All the pain in the world, ennui, inconsequentialities,
The finite nature of human existence, environmental disaster,
The meaningless of life itself, and all the wrongs
Of society.
Seeing my reflection, he jumps, then says,
I hope this bus gets home quickly,
There’s . . . Something I need to do.

Jason Disley’s new book

Jason Disley’s new book Songs of Benevolence and Rage will be released very soon and I was very chuffed indeed to write the introduction for it.

I first came across Jason Disley over twenty years ago. His book, The New Beat Generation, was full of exciting poetry which spoke to me, as a young man interested in literature and the power of words. I shared his enthusiasm for jazz and the beat poets and I must have read the book about ten times, cover to cover. His was one of the first poetry books I ever read for pleasure.

Fast forward twenty years and for reasons which I’m still not quite sure about, I’d become a comedy spoken word artist and my work was invariably described as ‘poetry’. One day I received an email from someone, asking if they could perform at a night that I was organising at an art gallery, and I thought, hmmm, that name sound familiar. Jason Disley. Jason. Disley. And then it struck me, Jason Disley! The Jason Disley!

Meeting him was an absolute joy, and the years slipped away hearing him perform. Here he was, jazz poet, beat poet, doyen of the new Beat Generation. Did that mean that I, too, was now a part of the new beat generation? Was he Kerouac, was I Burroughs? I felt cool just replying to his email. Hey you kool kat, I wrote. And then I deleted it and wrote, Hello Jason Disley.

I’ve got to know Jason over the last couple of years and I was completely blown away when he asked me to write a foreword for his new collection. The poems are exactly as it says on the cover. Jason is a laid back performer, a lover of jazz, but these poems have an anger seething beneath, a social conscience and a deep concern for our world and its people. ‘Oh, pressure!’, he writes, ‘Explosions, anarchy in the ether’, in a poem titled ‘It Rajns When It Pours’. These are poems against tyranny, poems which howl, poems, indeed, of rage.

Jason’s love of jazz is evident in the ‘Poems of Benevolence’ section. ‘Its benevolence’, he writes, ‘Enveloping you in a sphere of hope that is like an overwhelming validation ‘. In this section he states that it is music that heals us me helps us, music that can set us fee, and a belief in the goodness of words and deeds.

This is a fantastic collection of heart and feeling, which leaves the reader genuinely uplifted. Jason finds joy in the world in spite of his rage, and, as he writes, ‘I do not look to the future, nor back in anger, I breathe the now’, which is as good a philosophy as any. It’s great to know that the spirit of the Beat poets, the jazz mystics, the dreamers and the believers, is still going strong in the work of Jason Disley. Luxuriate, dear reader, in this book, and let him take you to ethereal places.
IMG_5356

‘Hearth’, by Rose Cook, A Review.

One of my favourite performers of poetry is Rose Cook. Listening to her perform her poems – for indeed, she performs, rather than reads – one is lulled almost to a state of trance, her mesmerising delivery soft, insistent, almost plaintive. Every single syllable becomes a perfect moment, each word carefully chosen, I have seen rooms filled with people silent in rapt attention.

Rose has a new book out. Hearth is published by Cultured Llama, who also published one of her previous collections, Notes from a Bright Field. As ever the themes range from nature to the family to those everyday matters which affect us all, living, breathing, and indeed, dying. Yet they are done so with assuredly and often with humour. In one poem she muses on the steep incline of the local high street, pondering on whether to get a donkey, ‘She can have the shed . .’. Another poem, ‘A Situation Arising from a Complete Inability to Master Any Language but her Own’, hilariously works on the scenario of the title.

The family is at the core of this collection. Many of the poems are meditations on her relationship with her mother, or the shock of a life-threatening injury to her own son. At such points there is real emotion, though never overblown or overwrought. Rose has the most deft of touches and can, with a very simple or honest phrase, provoke real emotion and universal sentiments.

‘When I was a child, my mother would say,
if you get lost, don’t go looking for me.
Stay put. Stay there and I will find you.
She’s gone now.’

There are also remarkable descriptions of nature and the natural environment, from opening a pomegranate, to meditations on elephants and whales. Rose is an astute and inventive observer of the world around her, a talent used in those poems which describe paintings and photographs, or listening to a conversation on a train about an injured crow and imagining it in a cardboard box.

The world is a better place with Rose in it, from the turns which bring truth to the fore throughout her poems, to the humour she brings to the everyday. And if, like me, you’ve been lucky enough to hear her perform, her voice will stay with you throughout this wonderful collection.

My novel ‘Reception’, a brief excerpt

Hello.

Here’s the first few pages of my novel, Reception.
If you’d like to read the rest of it, it can be purchased here:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Robert-Garnham/e/B005WVXA1I/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_6?qid=1505720519&sr=1-6

One

The hotel towers. It gleams and it glowers, and it shimmers in multicoloured neon thrown up from the shops in the street below. Cars on the raised overpass roar unseen, the sounds of their engines amplified, funnelled by the concrete, while the skyway itself shudders on its precariously spindly legs. Spirit cars. Ghost engines. Oblivious to the hotel with its thirty-seven storeys of imagined corporate opulence. And those obligatory red flashing beacons, flashing, flashing, one on each corner on the very top floor of the building. Here I am. Try not to collide with me.

Two

I pull my suitcase through the revolving door and into the foyer. It is a vast space, purposefully mesmerising and almost laughably opulent. Gold fittings, leather sofas and granite walls subsume all feeling beneath a level of numbness which must surely have been the intention of the architect. There is a waterfall in the middle of the room, a real waterfall with rocks and running water and a plunge pool, and plants and trees and goldfish. The floor is so polished as to appear like glass and it reflects back the light from crystal chandeliers which hang at an equal distance, like jellyfish suspended in the sea. I recognise immediately that certain needs and ideals have been mistranslated, designed into something quite advanced from any conception of comfort, or perhaps it is the aim of the hotel to be snooty enough to acknowledge those who might be put off by its overbearing demeanour. Or maybe I am too tired to take the place seriously.
Yukio smiles, politely. She hovers behind the reception desk, a desk so vast as to cover an entire wall. It dwarfs her. Her business suit also dwarfs her. And the night, and the city both seem to obliterate her entirely. She smiles as I approach and she seems to frown ever so slightly at my clothing before correcting herself. I have been travelling through the night and my trousers and shirt have not fared well either from a grabbed aircraft sleep or from mealtime turbulence. I give her my name and my passport and my booking confirmation details, at which point she taps the details into her computer, then frowns and apologises in broken English.
‘Perhaps’, she suggests, ‘You are on the other system’.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Sorry. But you must be on the other system. I will try the other system’.
I sense a problem, but I am tired and I can feel the night stretching out its hands towards me. Flying east has robbed me of a whole day’s sunlight and the resulting darkness when I landed had been unexpected as if I had been cheated by geography. She consults her computer again.
‘Am I on the other system?’
‘Sorry. You are not on the other system. Maybe I should try the first system again’.
‘How many systems have you got?’
‘We have one system’.
She apologises once again.
‘I check the first system a third time and now I check the second system. Sorry. But I must check’.
She does so. I step back from the reception desk. I recognise the song being played over the tannoy in the foyer, a rare pop ballad from the nineteen eighties that I have not heard for a very long time. Either the group is more popular in this country, I tell myself, or it is the most incredible coincidence that a song I once cherished and then forgot should be played at this moment, this exact, strange, odd moment.
‘You are not on the first system or the second system’, Yukio announces.
A sinking sensation deep inside. The singer of the pop ballad laments city weather in a mournful, slow voice which hints at something other than the usual decrepitude. The sparkle and the rain, eternal disappointment, the idea that things are never what they seem to be.
‘Are you saying that you have no record of my booking?’
‘Sorry. We will find your details. We will give you room now, you can pay for it when you book out’.
‘But I have already paid. That’s why I brought these papers with me, to show you that I have a booking’.
‘Maybe it is with another hotel’.
‘But this is the address of your hotel, yes?’
‘Yes’.
‘Then why would I be in another hotel?’
‘Sorry. There has been. Mistake. Perhaps we make mistake. Perhaps you make mistake’.
‘How many hotels in this city are called ‘Castle Hills’?’
‘Only this one. But sorry, perhaps there is mistake’.
‘Why would I fly to the other side of the world and come to this hotel if I were not staying here?’
‘I. Maybe. Check the system’.
Yukio seems to shrink even further inside her uniform. The onerous roar of the reception area fountain seems to echo television static, a technological breakdown, a heightened sense of alert where comfort should have been.
‘Maybe’, she says, ‘Maybe I let you stay here. But we sort out problem. We sort it out, and then perhaps you will pay for the room. That is the best decision. That you stay now and then pay in the morning if the problem is not sorted out. And perhaps doing this will sort out the problem’.
‘But I’ve already paid for the room’.
‘Our records. I’m sorry. The system is adamant’.
‘Why would I pay a second time?’
I start to feel a little bit angry. And yet I know that it is not her fault. It is quite possible that a mistake has occurred.
‘Our system seldom fails’.
‘Can you keep trying?’
She does so. She taps away on the computer for a very long time. I wonder if she is only doing it to satisfy me. I try to crane my neck to her side of the desk in case I am somehow able to aid her. Every now and then she stops typing and looks at the screen, her hand poised above the mouse as if unsure of what to do next.
‘Have you found me yet?’
‘No’.
‘On either of the systems?’
‘I have checked both systems. Two systems. And also the back-up system. No. You are not here’.
‘Pardon?’
‘You are not here’.
‘So you have three systems?’
‘No, we have only the one system’.
‘What can I do?’
‘You can stay’, she says.
She taps again at the computer. The same song is still playing from the reception area speakers. I’d never realised how long it was.
‘I can stay?’
‘Yes. You stay. But you must pay. Because you are not here’.
It has been a long day and I feel tired. Yukio looks up from her keyboard, nervous, hardly able to look me in the eye. But then she steals herself, reaches down to a drawer underneath the counter and passes me a form.
‘Fill this in, Sir. And credit card details. Because you must pay for the room. You are not here at the moment. Fill in the form and then you will be here’.
I let out a sigh.
‘Fine’.
I fill out the form. It requires all kinds of information. Passport number, credit card details, information for which I have to fumble in my luggage to find. At last I hand them back to her. The song is still playing in the background. It must be an extended edition, I tell myself.
She taps into her computer.
‘You are here now. You are on the system. Maybe this is why you were not on the system. Because of the forms’.
‘But you will look for me, wont you? You’ll look for my original booking?’
‘Yes, I look, Sir’.
‘And if you don’t find it?’
‘Whatever happens, you are here. But if you are here twice, then you will not pay again’.
‘You will check all of the systems?’
‘There is only the one system’.
I sense a hard edge lurking beneath Yukio. Obstinately, she effects the will of the Castle Hills Hotel. She is a product of its methods, a functioning part of its mechanism and yet, faced with an error, she cannot help but resort to its baser corporate instincts, the procurement of cash. The city wants to spit her out. The city closes itself off, with its light and its dark and its motorway flyovers. Yukio is its only interface.
I am too tired to argue further. She issues me with a card key and asks if I might need a porter to help me with my luggage to a room on the twenty second floor. I sense that she is dealing with me, mechanically, logically, ridding herself of one part of the problem before dealing with whatever mistranslation has eradicated all of my booking details.

I’m really looking forward to Edinburgh!

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