How it all began . . .

While sorting through my drawers the other day, I chanced across the first performance poem I ever wrote.

A long time ago, ohhhh, it must be late 2008, I went along to Poetry Island at the Blue Walnut and watched a bunch of poets. Chris Brooks was the host at the time, and he was endlessly enthusiastic and very funny. (He still is, of course). Apart from Ellie Davies, who I’ve know since the year dot through the Paignton Writers’ Circle, I didn’t know anybody there. Clive Pig, Jeff Sleeman and Tom Austin were all there, and I remember getting them all confused during the interval, because they were all slap heads and I couldn’t remember who had done what, but I’d enjoyed their sets. Bryce Dumont was also there, I remembered seeing him in a local bookshop.

I went home and I thought, I’d like to try this. So I emailed Chris and, amazingly, he offered me a slot at the next Poetry Island.

The only trouble was, I’d never seen performance poetry before, and I had nothing to perform. I set to work immediately, writing a poem which seemed humorous, and the idea of it came with its own logic. I felt rather happy with it, and when I performed it at the next Poetry Island, people seemed to enjoy it. Indeed, Chris asked me back the next month.

And I’ve been every month since, except for two occasions.

So what of the poem? I’m a little embarrassed of it now, but I re-read it today and I thought, Hmmm, not too bad. I remember a couple of months later somebody said to me, ‘I liked your earlier, funnier stuff’. Which was this poem, seeing as though there was nothing else! And I performed it again when I had my very first paid headliner a year or so later, just to remind myself how it had all begun.

So here it is. And it’s never really had a title, so I shall just call it ‘Poem’.

Poem

There is no hint of madness in my family.
We are all quite sane, incapable of oddness.
We are all most sober
And delightfully plain.

Except for Aunt Jane.
She once went to Spain
Bought a hat with a wide brim,
Balanced candles around the edge,
Impersonated a chicken
Balanced precariously on a handrail,
Tap danced, her formal, clumpy shoes
Beating out rhythms
And all within seconds of getting off the plane.

She was deported.
Whiskey was to blame.
And since the court case, she’s never been the same.

Or great Uncle Cecil, the solitary type
Won a stage of the Tour de France on a toddlers trike
Later stripped of his win by the clerk of the course,
Spends his days now writing haiku in ancient Norse.

Or cousin Freddie, a zoologist by trade
Insists to all who meet him that he invented muesli.
And the greenhouse. And the corkscrew. And the beret.
And the 50p coin. And the handlebar moustache. And the question mark.
He keeps the blueprints in a biscuit tin.

Or Uncle Russ, who once made a fuss
Because he missed the last bus
And wrote a letter to the Queen, who told him he must
Stop writing to her or she’d call the police.

My sister Felicity
Watches Dynasty
On box set DVDs
I get to my knees and say to her, please
At least watch something else for a change.
She’s now addicted to Family Fortunes.

Uncle Jeff is suing scalectrix
Because he fell over his son’s racing car set

Uncle James wrote his name on a rice grain
He sneezed and lost it and he’s never been the same.

Cousin Jed pretended to be dead
As a joke to play on his best friend Ted.
Teds friend Fred told Ted that Jed was dead
And to prove to Ted thumped Jed in the head.
Jed rose from his bed and said to Ted, ‘I am the undead’.
But the joke was on Jed. Ted died of shock instead.

My mad aunt Delores decided
To memorise the dictionary.
She got as far as the letter B.
When I asked her why she gave up she said
She’d worked her way back from the letter Z.

A very dear Uncle once bought a big van.
He drove it into a very large tree.
On being asked why he’d performed such a move
He said he was making a statement.
The local council also made a statement
And made him pay for the tree.

My cousin Kate
Once baked a cake
And included hake.
I said, for goodness sake!
What more can I take?
What else will you mix in due course?
You’re right, she said,
I should have included tartar sauce.

The madness that resides, continually
Is not endemic in myself.
I’ve lived a life of wilful sanity
And never once needed a cry for help.
But in my darkest moments it dawns on me
That a hole exists where something else should be.
It’s cold in the dark. And awfully quiet, lonely,
Bereft of all but that which scares me.
Every night, with the words creeping in,
Take on hands with outstretched fingers
I feel death as the meaning if life.
I fear existence. I fear myself.
The world gapes in like a chasm of my own invention.
I have no madness save that which is born
Where eccentricity is seen as the norm.

Great Aunt Sally
Once said to me
She had a penguin in her rucksack.
We knew she was punning
And laughed at her cunning
Until the zoo phoned and asked for it back.

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