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.

Stuck in a sleeper service corridor with some other people

Stuck in a sleeper service corridor with some other people

The corridors of the sleeper train were very narrow and I kept getting wedged.
‘The doors to the cabins are all numbered’, the attendant pointed out.
He was wearing a cap, just like he was a policeman.
‘I spilled coffee on my ticket’, I explained. ‘Right on the part where my cabin number was printed’.
‘Can I just get past?’
‘I’m trying’.
‘Just turn to the left a bit’.
‘OK’.
‘No, my left’.
‘Damn’.
He tried to squeeze through the very small gap.
‘Are you wearing CK One?’, I asked.
‘What?’
‘Nothing’.
I didn’t really need such a big backpack. The only reason I was wearing such a big backpack was because my sister had asked if I could bring over her big backpack.
‘I’ve never seen such a big backpack’, the attendant said.
The train began to move out from the grand city terminus. It did so with something of a jolt. I fell sideways and my cheek rubbed against the abrasive carpeted wall of the narrow corridor.
‘For god’s sake!’, I said.
‘What?’
‘Nothing’.
Halfway along the corridor of the next carriage we came across another attendant leading another man in a big backpack.
‘We’re going to have to back up’, my attendant said.
‘Is there anyone behind me?’
‘I can’t see, your big backpack is in the way’.
I started walking backwards.
‘Hey! Watch it!’, a young lady said.
‘Sorry, I’m a little . . .’.
‘You’re not a little anything, buster!’
‘Can you back up?’, the attendant asked.
‘I’m trying!’
‘There’s someone behind me, now’, the young lady said. The young lady who had called me ‘buster’.
‘Why can’t the other guy back up?’, I asked.
‘We’re almost at his cabin’, the other attendant pointed out. ‘He’s got his ticket but he had spilled tea on the part where his room number was printed. So he came to me and asked if I could help him find his cabin’.
‘Hey!’, the other man said, ‘I’m right here, you know?’
‘Tea, eh?’ I asked.
‘Yeah’.
‘It was coffee on mine’.
‘What?’
‘Never mind’.
‘If everyone could just back up five metres . . .’.
‘What’s that in feet?’, the young lady asked.
‘Haven’t you gone metric, yet?’, I asked.
‘What’s that?’
We back up.
‘Hey! Watch it with that backpack!’
‘It’s a big backpack’
‘I can see that! You almost took my nose off! Why has it got so many pockets and sticky-out bits? I’ve never seen a backpack with so many protuberances’.
‘Well, I don’t really . . .’.
‘And what’s happened to your cheek?’
‘It’s carpet burn’.
‘Ohhhh-kayyyy’.
We all back up a bit.
‘You know what? It’s my mistake’, the other attendant says. ‘Sorry about that’.
He and the other man with the big backpack try to turn around in the narrow confines of the corridor but now they have someone behind them, a man and a lady.
‘Hey, are we going in the right direction for the buffet car?”
‘We just need to back up a bit’.
‘Do we still need to back up, here?’ the young lady behind me asks.
‘I don’t know at the moment’.
‘The website said there would be bacon baps’, the man behind the other man with the big backpack says.
‘The website makes all kinds of promises’, the young lady behind me calls out.
‘Oh yeah? Like what?’
‘I took this train last year and went to the buffet, which they said would be open all night. And I fancied a sausage roll. The only thing they had left was lemon drizzle cake’.
‘I could just go some lemon drizzle cake right now’, the lady with the man the other side of the other man with the other big backpack says.
‘And it was expensive, too’ the young lady behind me says.
‘How much?’
‘I didn’t get much change from six quid’.g
‘You know, you’re talking right over the top of us!’, I say. It’s true to say that I was getting slightly peeved at this moment.
‘How far away is the buffet?’, the other lady asked,
‘It’s a long train. It’s about half a kilometre’.
‘Oh, so all of a sudden you’ve gone metric?’ I ask.
‘Butt out of it, buster!’
‘What’s the hold up, here?’ the man with the other lady asks.
‘Backpackers’, the young lady replies.
‘I’m not a backpacker!” I say, by way of protest. ‘I’m just delivering a backpack’.
‘But you’re wearing a backpack’.
‘Yes’.
‘So you’re a backpacker’.
‘A backpacker implies someone who travels a lot with a backpack, so much so that it becomes an intrinsic part of their identity. I’m merely travelling with a backpack . . But it’s just . . You know . . A one off’.
‘Don’t get all semantic with me!’
‘I’m a backpacker’, the other man with a backpack says.
‘Oh, where have you been?’, the young lady asks.
‘All over. The Far East. Australia. Jungle. Desert. You name it’.
‘Right’, the attendant says. ‘Are we backing up, or not?”
At this point, the door next to me opened and a young lady looked out into the corridor.
‘What’s all the fuss about?’ she asked.
‘Just a traffic jam’.
‘Oo, how exciting! Mind if I film it?’
‘What for?’
‘I make YouTube videos of my travel adventures’.
‘I’d rather you didnt’, I explained.
‘I wouldn’t mind’, the other man the other side of the other man with the backpack said.
‘Me neither’, the young day behind me added.
‘Let me get my camera’.
‘I’m making a YouTube travel documentary too!’, the other man with the backpack said. ‘How crazy is that!’
‘Boom!’, the young lady in the cabin said.
‘Boom indeed’, the other man with the backpack said. ‘And I must say . . Have I seen you somewhere before?’
‘Yes, I think I’ve seen some of your videos, aren’t you Tim Travels Light?’
‘That’s me!’
‘Travels light? With that huge backpack?’ I say.
‘You’re a fine one to talk!’
‘I’m just delivering this to my sister’.
‘So you keep saying. I reckon you’re a closet backpacker’.
‘Is that a euphemism?’ the young lady behind me said.
‘Listen, can everyone just back up to the end of this carriage, where there’s a vestibule?’, the attendant asked. ‘This is becoming a health and safety issue’.
‘I’ll see you later, Tim’, the lady in the cabin says.
‘You too’.
‘We’ll meet in the buffet tonight, they’ve got a cracking array of lemon drizzle cakes’.
She slides her door closed. We all shuffle a bit backwards and it is at this moment that I realise that one of the many toggles dangling down from my big backpack has got shut in her door.
‘Can we all just move?’, the attendant says.
‘I can’t!’
‘Just take three steps . . ‘.
‘I can’t! I’m trapped in her door’.
‘Did someone mention the buffet?’ the woman with the man the other side of the man with the other backpack says.
The train rattles over some points and wobbles a bit. I stumble sideways, which puts extra strain on the toggle caught in the cabin door. The toggle suddenly pings out and, on its elasticated string, whacks me straight in the nose.
‘Bloody hell!”
‘What?’
‘My nose!’
‘Carpet burn?’, the lady behind me asked.
‘It just pinged out!’
‘What’s going on here?’ the attendant asked.
‘Hi viewers! One of the many downsides of travelling by sleeper train is the fact that you occasionally get traffic jams in the narrow corridors’, the other man with the backpack says.
He’s filming himself with his camera.
‘But what I’m absolutely stoked about – Boom! – is that World Weary Wendy is also on this very train! Catch up with us tonight in the buffet where we shall be live streaming a midnight drink. Meanwhile . . . Just look at this!”
He turns the camera around and then begins filming the rest of us.
‘For goodness sake!’ I say, putting a hand over my face.
‘This really is one of the drawbacks of travel. But at least you meet such wonderful people . . ‘.
‘Hi!’, the lady behind me says, poking her head in the gap between me and the wall. ‘It’s such an honour to meet Tim Travels Lightly!’
At this moment a chef in a white uniform carrying a dish arrives behind the lady behind me.
‘Can everyone please move up to the far end of the corridor! I’ve got a beef stew and dumplings to deliver to the next carriage!’
Everyone groans and we all begin shuffling in the opposite direction. The other man in the backpack has to walk backwards because he can’t see where he’s going.
‘I don’t see why we should have to move just because someone’s ordered their dinner!’, the other man is saying,
But at least I’m now moving in a direction that suits the way that I’m facing. I look down at my ticket one last time to see if I can make out which cabin I am meant to be in.
‘Hang on’, I say to the attendant, ‘this is the 2145, isn’t it’.

I delivered a Ted Talk! (Poem)

Ted Talk

Welcome to my Ted Talk
(My clicker isn’t working)
Welcome to my Ted Talk
(My clicker isn’t working)

How are we going to solve
Various big big things?
Three golden rules!
(Shame about my clicker)

Coming in to the coffee shop
I’m the bastard looking for
A power socket
Charging up my laptop
Charging up my laptop
Charging power to power my
Power point presentation
I have the power!

If I do this
(:::::::::::::;;;:;;)
You’ve just witnessed me doing it
And that’s an example of
POSITIVE THINKING!
Three golden rules!

1. Achieve the continuous
2. Apply it like a haberdasher
3. Can be split into twenty four subheadings

(This clicker is not working!)

If I put my hand in my pocket
And wander around
It makes me look more relaxed!!!

You’ve got to understand
That people
Always make
The wrong decisions.

Welcome to my Ted Talk!
Smug!
Life hacks!
(Fourteen different subheadings)

You can usually work out EXACTLY where
The bus will stop
And this will save you
TIME and ENERGY

There are eight different things I learned
SMUG BASTARD
When I lost my luggage while backpacking
(This clicker is just not working)

If I do this
(;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;)
It’s an example of sonic dissonance.

Madam, when did you last knowingly
Have spaghetti?

MY BOAT SANK!
And I didn’t even get slightly wet
My life is charged with a new purpose
I learned twelve new things!
Twelve new LIFE HACKS
LIFE HACKS
LIFE HACKS
LIFE SUCKS!

(This clicker is getting on my tits)

1. Technology
2. Murdering people is generally frowned on.
3. The power of positive thinking!
4. This clicker this clicker this clicker this clicker
5. I know six people called Ted and they all talk

Power point presentation validate it
Power point presentation validate jr
Let’s just validate if shall we?
This is an aha moment

Take on me!

You!
You fiend!
You bastard!

It’s a unifies mental model, Mrs McGough
It’s visual interaction.
It’s.
The.
Same.
As.
Every.
Damn.
Ted.
Talk.

This clicker
Definitely
Is not working.

Thank you.

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.

Squidbox

In 1996 I moved with my parents from Surrey to Brixham. My parents had come down to Brixham during the 1960s for various holidays and they had always loved the place and its people. They had always said that they wanted to retire there. I came with them, and the whole place felt like a different world. I immediately fell in love with the history of the fishing industry and the traditions of those families who had a long association with the sea.

I moved away from Brixham in the year 2000, but I have continued to visit every single weekend, using the room at the back of my parent’s garage as a makeshift rehearsal room as my career as a comedy performance poet grew. When the chance came to write some poems on a themed idea, funded by Torbay Culture through the Arts Council, I jumped at the chance to learn more about the Brixham fishing industry and the people who work within it.

With the help of Clare Parker, my producer, I was able to infiltrate this world. I spent a little bit of time on a trawler, (in the harbour, though; we didn’t go anywhere!), and I interviewed trawlermen and people associated with the industry, as well as locals to get their view on what the fishing industry meant to them. I was also able to go behind the scenes at Brixham Museum and chat with Anna Kisby Compton, the curator, about the role that women played in the history of the fishing industry. I was also deeply inspired by Samantha Little’s book, ‘Battling Onwards : The Brixham Fishing Fleet 1914-1918’, published by Brixham Museum. I also spent some preparation time chatting with John Hegley, a much more accomplished comedy performance poet, who gave me some ideas on how to approach the project, and who suggested poems I might read or listen to by way of inspiration. Finally, I chatted with Maggie Duffy, Brixham-based singer and songwriter, whose extensive knowledge and understanding of the town and its people were invaluable.

I have recently published these poems in the form of a pamphlet which, for now, you can order from Amazon. The whole project has been an incredible learning experience for me and has left me with an increased understanding and affection for the town of Brixham.

The pamphlet can be ordered here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B08KR2M649/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=Robert+Garnham+Squidbox&qid=1602320577&sr=8-1

The Fish Hawkers

From the 1840s onwards, the wives and daughters of Brixham fishermen would buy fish at the auctions and sell them from door to door. They were the backbone of the fishing industry, fierce, feisty and protective.

The Fish Hawkers

Here we are, the fish hawkers,
Raised on brown sail soil,
We wives and daughters
Of endless toil, we,
Who cut and gut and pack the catch
Or in auction crowd we who aim to match
The hollored voices, we stand our ground!
Neither demure nor afraid to make a sound,
We, feisty fighty fishy folk
Hoist our barrels and foist fresh fish
From door to door to earn our keep.

We net menders, basket weavers
With tongues as sharp as butcher’s cleavers,
Well-versed in lip, a comeback or three,
We speak our minds with liberty,
Let no-one doubt us, independent and free,
Strong willed and tough,
Does that scare you?

We fought for recognition,
More than cleaners or gossip gleaner,
We, who are slated for occasional misdemeanours,
The chance to match our wits over fish-packed barrels,
No strangers to fist-fights and neighbourhood quarrels
Stand our ground proud as any can.

Here we are, the fish hawkers,
Mothers of this town, keepers of the light,
Our voices echoing through cobbled streets
As we hawk our creels
For honest folk, for dinnertime meals,
Can you hear our ghosts amid the modern day trawlers?
We spirited types, we frequent brawlers,
Never silent, never ignore us.
Here we are, the Fish Hawkers.

The Trawler Basin

The Trawler Basin

That tangle of beams and nets and ropes
Might well be mistaken for a metal arboretum but
There are no robot squirrels here.
You!, caged whales in a concrete dock,
Shackled together as slaves on a swell,
You’re nodding your bows as if each
An adventurer’s remembrance of
Channel fog, white horses, force six storms,
The biggest, toughest load you ever hauled

As callous hands winch and yank, at one
With the rolling seas, you, with your
Portholes perhaps pining for the quay’s embrace,
Where gathered your beams tower and peer
Like giraffes from their zoo enclosure, you,
Named for wives, girlfriends, daughters, fathers,
Ungainly, cormorants with wings folded, oh,
I think I’ve run out of metaphors now.

A morning’s diesel throb cast off you’ll seek
Invisible bounty by sonar glow, hands numbed
By cold clutching metal cups at the wheel,
How many souls have stroked your innards and
Uttered a silent trawlerman’s prayer?
Keep us safe, return us once more, I have a
Life and a bank account and Davy Jones is no friend of mine,
And that, up there in the lines, is that a winch,
Or a robot squirrel? The cold, the dark,
The long hours, they do strange things to a soul.

The Sea Monster

This story is absolutely one hundred percent true.

The Sea Monster

Playing cards below deck.
Jack’s got a good hand,
You can see it in his eyes.
Freddie’s in the galley and he’s
Clanging pots, the radio’s playing.

And all the time the engine’s throbbing,
Skipper Steve is in the wheelhouse,
He’s been doing this longer
Than anyone can remember.
The new guy looks a bit green.

It’s a squally night, said on a sea which heaves
Like the belly of a monk with trapped wind.
Our lonely vessel, the Unsinkable 2,
Was being tossed a-hither as if Mother Nature was
A bored teenager, and we were nought but a
Can of Pepsi
Idly thrown from hand to hand.

Of a sudden there came a crash and a splash and the
Slimy scaly suckered limb
Of a giant octopus
Smashed through the starboard porthole
And flailed around inside the bunks and sleeping quarters
Of the Unsinkable 2,
As tough Trawlermen gasped and flung themselves around,
Another scaly tentacle crashed through the door
And prodded and probed some more.
We were doomed!

At that moment our fearless captain, brave and courageous
Steve,
Clambered down from the wheelhouse,
Cried
Take off your shirts, lads! And line tight in a row!
That this briney beast may feel you with its accursed tentacles
And assume it to be the teeth of its natural predator,
The giant whale!
A natural reflex will cause it to retreat
Back to its ocean lair!

So we did as he bidded, each one of us
Bare chested and quivering as the tentacles slithered
Along our sweat soaked chests,
Then watched aghast as it let out a shiver
And just like Captain Steve had said,

Retreated back to the deep through the door and the porthole,
That we remained undefeated.

And jubilant cries rang out, never before did trawlermen
Jibber and tremble, their eyes lit with a sudden intensity,
That life may so quickly be plucked from them.
At that moment there came a ferocious knock on the starboard
Porthole
And with dread we saw the octopus there once more,
Watched dumbfounded as it
Reached in and left
The biggest toothbrush you’ve ever seen.

The Skipper’s Decision

The Skipper’s decision

In the old days
They’d come aboard
Worse for wear,
I suppose you could say.

Nothing worse
Than a hungover crew,
Mardy from the offset,
So I said,
Lads,
No drinking on board.

Which makes the first
Day or so
Particularly uncomfortable,
But they sober up.
They go through that zone.

Early in the morning,
Gliding past the stone breakwater,
They’re very quiet.
And I am too, I suppose.
Coffee is OK.
Whatever else they’d need
To put a layer between themselves
And the world.