Why I do what I do! (On comedy performance poetry being as valid as any other type, and that kick I get when people actually laugh!)

Why I do what I do

Slain McGough Davey asked earlier this week why certain people feel compelled to make art and gave some reasons of his own, and this got me thinking about what I do and the reasons why. And then a couple of days later an article appeared in The Guardian which suggested that comedy is not seen as artistic or as worthy as more serious fare, and pointed out that it should be held in the same esteem, as the effort gone into making funny comedy is just as strenuous and as hard as so-called ‘high’ culture.

My one aim whenever I sit at a desk or stand in a rehearsal space is to make something that will make people laugh and enjoy themselves, and take them away from their normal daily concerns. Indeed, there can be no more rewarding sound than that of an audience laughing along with a poem or some humorous linking material or on-stage buffoonery.

I remember my first ever gig, in 2009. I was incredibly nervous, and I had spent the month before writing a couple of ‘humorous’ poems, which I’d typed out on big sheets of paper. I remember my hands shaking as I read the poems out, but the nervousness seemed to disappear once it became apparent that the audience was laughing at all the parts of the poems that I had thought were funny. It was a life-changing moment, because it meant that the sense of humour which I’d thought was unique to myself could be translated into laughs from an audience.

I look at the poems now and cringe, because they weren’t as fully formed or as realised as the ones that I now perform. In other words, parts of them went on and on for a bit. They were badly in need of editing, but those nuggets, those golden lines and phrases which had the audience laughing, still exist.

These days I work on poems for weeks, months at a time, before they are unleashed on an audience. In a way there’s more pressure now, because the audience expects to laugh and I have to live up to that expectation. I have a phrase I use whenever I’m writing, ‘This poem needs to be 33 percent funnier’. I don’t know where I got the figure of ’33 percent’ from, but it’s a good mantra to have at the back of my mind whenever I’m writing.

The poem really comes alive during the rehearsal process. It is at this time that I have a pen on hand, going over lines and refining them, making them funnier, adding attitude and tags to maintain the laughter, or build up the suspense only to pop it.

Regular attendees of my gigs will know that there’s always a serious undercurrent to a lot of my poetry. Indeed, comedy performance poet is the ideal manner in which to address certain subjects such as gender representation, heteronormativity and, in my most recent new slam poem, homophobic abuse. Taking the audience by the hand and guiding them through tough subject matter while making jokes, (and not punching down or being mean or unkind), and then getting a laugh or two along the way, as an immensely satisfying feeling.

It’s true that I’ve been told, only by a couple of people over the last few years, that comedy performance poetry isn’t as worthy or as well-crafted as the more serious end of the spoken word spectrum. And this is a shame, as one of those comments came from a poet who I really admire. In the context of a gig or even a slam, a poem which encourages a laugh from the audience is somehow seen as ‘cheating’, while comedy performance poems are just slung together with no artistic merit. The truth is, as any comedy performer will tell you, a lot of work goes into placing the words in the exact order to elicit that response, and a lot of work also goes into the rehearsal of those words, movement, facial expression, emphasis. If art is judged by the amount of hours that goes into its creation, then comedy performance poetry is right up there with anything else.

And because of this, I only ever perform a tiny amount of what I actually write. When it comes to being performed, my poems probably have a one in ten chance of ever making it in front of an audience. Those that don’t are prodded, poked, re-worked, or sometimes simply torn apart, the juicy, funny lines being extracted and popped into other poems.

So, why do I do what I do? For a start, it’s probably the only thing I’m halfway decent at. I can’t cook a quiche to save my life, or put a fuse in a plug, or even catch a bus on a good day without causing absolute bloody mayhem. But I can write and perform comedy poems that make an audience laugh.

And secondly, there’s no greater feeling than getting off a stage with an audience clapping and cheering because you’ve just made their evening. I remember Bristol last year, performing at the Arnolfini Theatre and then, rock and roll monster that I am, I found a late night twenty four hour Tesco and did my shopping. In the bread aisle I came across a couple of people who had been in the audience and they thanked me for making them laugh and cheering them up. And that, oh, that was probably the highlight of my year!

Feel free to support the work I’m doing by leaving something in my tip jar or buying me a coffee right here https://ko-fi.com/robertgarnham

I’ve always had a thing for Deliveroo men

I’ve always had a thing for Deliveroo men

It’s a feeling I get every now and then
But I really love Deliveroo men
Like bees my hopes begin to swarm
There’s nothing like a man in uniform.

Come in I say, as I unbolt the locks,
Keep your uniform on and also that big box
Now let’s get to it and I’ll tell you what I like
Imagine you’ve an order and I am now your bike.

Whenever I see one I start to act all coy
Thinking of the vast possibilities of joy
That could be gained if he’s into that sort of thing
It’s why I’ve been hanging out around Burger King.

Speeding through the city streets he’s something of a blur
And every time I see one I wonder if they were
Open to suggestions, I hope that you don’t mind
Being partial to a delivery of quite another kind

I know I’m getting on in years and some might find me old
I’m like a pizza in a box that’s started getting cold
But just like your motto and your satisfaction guarantee
If I take more than an hour then the whole transaction’s free.

I can’t remember which arrondisement it was

Here’s a silly poem about going to Paris and having a miserable time and trying to break up with someone but you can’t because the metro is too noisy, and by the way, I’m using a salad spinner to mimic the sound of the metro. Apart from that, normal poem.

Yay!

‘Yay’ is the title of my new book, to be published by Burning Eye, and my new solo show, both of which are due to come out in the Spring of 2021. I’ve been working on both of these projects for a couple of years and I thought I would explain what I’ve been up to.

‘Yay’ will be a collection of upbeat poems, most of which tell a story or deal with a very specific place. Some of them are a little bit silly, some of them are somewhat life affirming, some of them are downright weird! And all of them are comedic in tone. The whole collection has been designed to make you laugh or smile.

The collection was devised a couple of years ago when it seemed that the world couldn’t get any more depressing. Naturally, after I started working on the project, it then suddenly did! The book contains poems from In the Glare of the Neon Yak, and Spout, my two solo shows, as well as material from my new upcoming show which will accompany the book.

The show will be called ‘Yay! : The Search for Happiness’. It was written in the first few months of this year and I have begun the process of trying to learn the thing. Indeed, I have been working with a director, the wonderful Dr Maggie Irving, with some funding from Torbay Culture, and she has been instructing me in the art of mime, movement and body expression. Unlike my previous shows, ‘Yay! : The Search for Happiness’ will have no props at all, just myself and a microphone. So in other words, I need all the help I can get! The reason for this is simply that I wont have to lug bags and boxes of props all over the country.

I’m still working on the collection. At the moment I’m in the process of deciding which poems will definitely be included. And of course, new ones keep arriving. It’s a very exciting time at the moment!

I’m looking forward to getting the book and the show out there into the world. Fingers crossed, of course, that there will be a fringe circuit next year. But if not, I’ll find a way to bring Yay! to your town.

Solo skipper

As a part of the ongoing Squidbox project, I spent an enjoyable half hour or so on a trawler in the harbour owned by a wonderful chap called Tristan, who told me all about his job as a solo skipper on the smallest boat in the Brixham fleet.

Solo skipper

Just for a moment, when you’re out there
With the sun and the gulls and the sea,
If you have time, you let out a sigh
And think,
‘I am my own boss, master of my destiny.
I have grabbed the day and made it mine!’

I may be a solo skipper,
A crew of one on the smallest boat in the fleet,
But I’m part of something larger,
A passion that is in my blood and in the souls
Of everyone in this town whose livelihoods
And dreams are at one with the tides.

It doesn’t really matter what I catch
So long as it’s got eyes and an arsehole,
It’s caught by me, from sea to shore and sold by me,
A lonely dot on the wild wide sea,
From net to quay,
Yes, master of my destiny!

Through winter squalls and the squawk of gulls
To the slap of waves on the bow and the hull,
Through summer sun and autumn fogs
To the warm embrace of this rock-clung port,
This sixty year-old sturdy machine
Purrs and throbs like a living thing.

When tides are rough and times are tough
And the day is an ache and you’ve had enough,
Tomorrow will be different,
The sea less belligerent,
And though I’m always vigilant I’ll feel that sweetness
Deep inside enmeshed in belief
And the usual, eternal pride.

In the Glare of the Neon Yak

In the Glare of the Neon Yak was written between 2016 and 2017 having gone through several incarnations, starting as a show called Vestibule Dreams, about people standing at the end of a packed train and sharing their stories.

The story of the Yak is based on that of Herne the Hunter, the mythical ghost who used to haunt several places including Windsor Great Park, near where I grew up.

I took the show all over the UK to various fringes and festivals culminating in a run at Edinburgh. And in 2019 I did a live version with the Totnes jazz band Shadow Factory.

Burnsville

A poem about a small town in West Virginia where I spent the night as a teenager.

Poem (Burnsville)

The car is big, brash and American,
As American as a baseball game,
And just like a baseball game,
It seems to go on forever.
The size of a frigate, this thing,
Burns enough fuel to power a small city.
You be navigator, my uncle says,
Which is easy as there’s only one road
Here in the mountains of West Virginia,
Even I can’t muck this up.
I catch my reflection in the rear view mirror.
You’re a long way from Basingstoke, sonny jim.

We’re on a road trip through America.
The scenery and grandeur are simply stunning
But I haven’t had a sausage roll in ages.
A teenage lad,
Overcompensating his obvious campiness
By wearing an Arsenal football shirt,
(I have no idea who Arsenal are,
I just like the fact they’ve got
Arse in their name),
And my uncle looks like Leslie Neilsen.
No wonder that diner back there
Went very quiet the moment we walked in.

And jeez, I’ve become so terribly English.
The Americans really seem to like it,
A waitress made me read from the TV Guide
And she couldn’t stop laughing.
And no, I’ve never met Benny Hill.
Why is everyone here obsessed with Benny Hill?

A muggy, huggy, humid day.
The moment I step from the car,
Everything goes Moist.
The constant heat has led to some serious chafing.
As the sun sets the highway announces
A small town called Burnsville,
We stop for the night,
Leslie Neilsen swings the frigate off the freeway
And we book into a small motel.

The adjacent highway sighs
As if it’s all too much.
The hillsides loom,
The Neon buzzes.
Passing trucks growl and
The world smells of diesel,
Melting tarmac and decomposing weasel.
It’s gritty,
But not in a Harold Pinter sort of way,
But in the way that grit is gritty.
There’s something sticky and
Unsettling in the heat of the night,
A bit Like finding half of a frog
In a packet of Quavers.
Restless dreams in wooden homes,
This covered fold, this
Hidden valley, and I,
Jolted up from hours of driving
And awash with hormones and teenage desires,
Suddenly turned on by absolutely everything,
Which I can only quell by singing
The refrain of a tv advert for Bran Flakes.
‘They’re tasty, tasty,
Very very tasty!
They’re very tasty!’

My room is hot.
I’ve seen these places
In so many films.
A bed, a bathroom, a bible.
I open the window and the moths fly in,
Thousands of the fluttering bastards,
Moths on the Tv screen, moths
Circling the lights, moths on the window frame,
And even the bastard moths are turning me on.
I try to bat them with the bible
But the bible turns me on.
I try to shoo them out the door
But the door handle turns me on,
And the door frame,
And the door turns me on,
And I turn off the light and then
Turn it on
But even turning it on turns me on,
And I realise that I have to get away,
Oh yes,
I have to get away.
I place my hands on my head and through
Gritted teeth I sing,
‘They’re tasty, tasty,
Very very tasty!
They’re very tasty!’

It’s warmer outside, and dark, so dark.
I walk down to a dried up stream
Behind the motel,
Turn and look at the wooded valley slopes,
It’s all so quiet and ethereal but bloody hell,
After a while it starts to turn me on.
I tell myself there must be monsters here,
Gun toting wild men,
World hating survivalists,
Angry war veterans, how masculine,
How beautifully masculine,
Sensuous and masculine,
How it turns me on!
I try to look for some natural splendour,
But all I can see is a Coca Cola machine,
Humming and electric and brash
And vibrating ever so softly, like a lover,
Which turns me on.
So I walk, I walk up to the main road,
The highway, long grass crickets chirruping,
Like the springs of a bed, (impersonate),
oh god!, back to the motel,
The motel where so many slumbering naked people
Have tossed and turned,
Oh dearie me,
How dreadfully even this motel turns me on,
And just as I’m thinking I should really
Get a grip,
I see the open door to the motel laundry room.

Bright lit fluorescent glaring in the sultry night,
And two shining hot shirtless lads operating
The machines, nonchalant, slyly sexual, the
Glistening sweat causing their lithe bodies to writhe
And contort with an ethereal glow,
They’re tasty, they’re tasty,
Oh my, they’re very, very tasty,
They’re very tasty indeed.
And all of a sudden the motel is just a motel,
The moths, the crickets, the Coca Cola machine,
The doorway and the light switch,
They are what they are,
And I am what I am,
And the lads, oh mumma!
We all know what they are.
I go back to my room,
Boy oh boy,
Do I go back to my room!

Whooo!

The next morning we load
Our luggage into the frigate
And Leslie Neilsen asks me
What I’d like for breakfast.
For some reason I have
Sudden hankering for Bran Flakes.

A queer body

A Queer Body

I’ve always been passably handsome
When viewed through frosted glass,
(Frosted glass slightly concave
Acting the same as ‘skinny mirrors’
In fashion boutiques,
Or are they just an urban myth?).
Anyway, passably handsome
At a quick glance.

Though this queer body,
Structured as it is like the
Centre Pompidou with all of its
Accoutrements and pipes on the outside,
Has, on drunken nights,
Momentarily convinced a member
Of the same gender that it might be right
For voracious osculation, you know,
Ironically, the night not a total waste.
There’s no accounting, my mother
Would say, for taste.

But last year it started to
Stand up for itself, (excuse the pun),
And developed a lump that had to be
Swiftly removed, like an edited comma,
Erroneous punctuation,
And then this year decided on a whim
To do the obvious thing and
Get that trendy flu that everyone’s been
Raving about, you know, like a hat,
Or that winter eight years ago when
All the trendy kids wore jumpers that said ‘Geek’
When they obviously weren’t.

Ay, ’tis a queer body, wrapped
Around a queer man who has the lusts of a
Queer man and the abs of a panda.
I know, I thought, let’s shave of all of my
Body hair (I was bored) and look beach ready,
Ended up looking like a chicken, oven-ready,
A butterball plucked and my chest hair
Itched like a bastard for weeks.

I’ve been nicking items from various Trevelodges and making my own hotel room

A poem about purloining various equipment from a certain brand of affordable hotel.

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Most of the Ikebana club has been taking performance-enhancing steroids

Most of the Ikebana club has been taking performance-enhancing steroids

Careful with those secateurs, Enid!
Shove the bastard in the pot,
All nuance has gone, hasn’t it?

Can someone help me pick up this
Heavy bad of Grow-More compost, oh,
It’s OK, Molly’s got it.

The judges in Biddeford last week
Thought something was amiss.
The winning creation looked more like
It had been threatened with a severe beating
And had assumed those convoluted shapes
Of its own free will.

When asked to provide a urine sample,
Ethel went berserk with a trowel.
She’s already got a two-year ban from all
Officially sanctioned ikebana competitions.

Maud was seen in the chemists
Collecting a suspicious package from a
Pharmacist who gave a knowing wink.
She’s in contention for a sixth title this year.
She also got my brother’s Fiat Punto out of a ditch.

Harold did something creative with some cherry blossom
But was too interested in
Showing everyone his glistening abs.
He’d oiled them up, apparently, with Bonjela.

Trevor’s suddenly built like a brick shithouse.
He’s got the branch of an oak tree
Rammed in a water butt and he ain’t leaving
Until he’s had it out with the committee.