Who are we and why do we do it? (Perform poems, I mean).

This week I was asked by someone who the ‘persona’ was that I adopt when I’m performing. The person asked this because whenever I perform I tend to wear the same shirt and trousers and I told them that this was my ‘costume’. The person I told this to is in the theatre so they took this to mean that I became a character whenever I performed.

Ah, I said.

And then I got to thinking that maybe she was correct, and that the person who stands up and does things into a microphone is not the same sort of person who does everything else that I do. The Robert Garnham who gets trains and goes to work and eats a flapjack and goes to the supermarket is not the same Robert Garnham who performs poems about orgasms and trousers.

The question then came up again during rehearsals for a show that I’m involved in. ‘Who is the narrator of this poem?’, I was asked. And to be honest, it’s not something I’d even thought about. (The poem is about orgasms).

Anyone who does anything performative it always a different person in front of other people. And yet this persona is bound to have qualities of the person underneath. Whether or not this is an unexplored side of that person, or an exaggeration, depends, I suppose, on the act itself. I’d always thought that my ‘character’ of ‘Robert Garnham’ was a bit of an academic buffoon whose poetry aims for the deep while accidentally provoking much sniggering and laughter. Which, I suppose, is a pretty fair summation of what I do, but also of who I am underneath.

I’m always saying the wrong thing.

I looked at all of my favourite poets and performers. John Hegley becomes somewhat school-teacher-ish when he does his thing. On the one occasion that I worked with him, he was a completely normal chap before he went on stage. (Mind you, we’d both got to the venue late because we’d both got hopelessly lost on the way). Rachel Pantechnicon is very clearly a constructed character who bares very little resemblance to the person who plays her. Yet there is still a slight resemblance of sorts. Both have taken aspects of their normal character and infused them into their stage presence.

But there’s also a form of wish-fulfilment. In the case of Robert Garnham, there’s a sense that he becomes the sort of person on stage that he wants to be in real life. He doesn’t usually get everyone’s attention in any situation apart from when he’s behind the mic.  He’s always the one who gets spoken over during staff meetings at work. Yet he’s always the one who’s proved right. He hates staff meetings.

So why does he do this strange performance every now and then? Because he can? Because there are underlying issues? Because he just wants to entertain? Because he’s always been incredibly jealous of Pam Ayres? It’s probably a combination of all of this. Plus, it’s really good when people laugh.

I told the theatre director that the persona I adopt himself has a persona which changes with every poem. There are many meta-layers and semantic possibilities within this. Robert Garnham becomes ‘Robert Garnham’ who then becomes “Robert Garnham”.  This explanation seemed to satisfy her and then she asked the same question to another poet.Image

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Swindon Poetry Slam

Robert Garnham

ImageI arrived at the town of Swindon in a manner perhaps unbecoming of a poet, by hanging out of the window of the Intercity train as we pulled into the station. The church bells were ringing, which was weird. I remember thinking, hmm, that’s got to be some sort of omen. I kept looking around to make sure that nobody could see me hanging out of the window. I took my glasses off in case they fell on to the track. Nothing bad happened. Indeed, it was Quite Fun.

I booked into the Travelodge.

The reason for my visit was the Swindon Poetry Slam. For some reason I had signed up for it the moment I heard about it. There’s always something slightly comical about Swindon – and this is from a man who used to live within miles of Staines and Slough.

I arrived at the venue and was…

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Swindon Poetry Slam

ImageI arrived at the town of Swindon in a manner perhaps unbecoming of a poet, by hanging out of the window of the Intercity train as we pulled into the station. The church bells were ringing, which was weird. I remember thinking, hmm, that’s got to be some sort of omen. I kept looking around to make sure that nobody could see me hanging out of the window. I took my glasses off in case they fell on to the track. Nothing bad happened. Indeed, it was Quite Fun.

I booked into the Travelodge.

The reason for my visit was the Swindon Poetry Slam. For some reason I had signed up for it the moment I heard about it. There’s always something slightly comical about Swindon – and this is from a man who used to live within miles of Staines and Slough.

I arrived at the venue and was immediately comforted to see a framed photograph of Pam Ayres on the wall. Or Pam Ayres MBE, as the plaque so proudly declared. Yes, I thought. I already know what the audience will be like. They will be Ayresites. I should have rehearsed a poem about a cat.

The slam, as ever, was incredibly well run by Sara-Jane Arbury and A Man Who Wasn’t Marcus Moore. Spoz was energetic and funny and infectious and I immediately took to his shenanigans as he danced to the 1970s disco classics which were played every now and then between the rounds.

The first person to be picked from the hat was Nick Lovell, a friend of mine and a poet who I really admire, so it was a little sad to see him have to go first. Sure enough, the judges, not yet warmed up perhaps, gave the first three performers low scores, which in the case of Nick, I think, was totally unwarranted. He performed excellently and the audience loved his poem, and afterwards someone told me that it had been their favourite of the night.

I got picked to go up in the third batch and I let loose with The Straight Poem (which goes by the title of ‘Poem’). The audience seemed to like it a lot and I was selected from my group to go through to the semi final. There was a local poet, whose name, I believe, was Miles who had a considerable contingent of local supporters. He got a very good score indeed in his round, performing a poem about doing DIY while het up on caffeine, which I thought was the funniest thing of the night. However, amazingly, he did not get the highest score of his group.

Other highlights were a young lady by the name of Tina, who did a poem about poets and poetry and the whole meaning of it all, and a lady of advanced years and eccentric dress, who eschewed the microphone and performed to dead, purposeful and rapt silence. She was amazing.

Round two, then. And I started to panic a little bit. The audience seemed a tad conservative, and worse still, there was a small child in the row in front of me. I’d hoped to do the poem about sex. You know the one. With lots of references to rumpy pumpy and foreplay and things. And there was a small child in the audience.

I then remembered the poem I’d written during the April Poem a Day challenge about Swindon, which I’d re-written just a couple of days before. While everyone else went to the interval, I sat in the auditorium and hastily rewrote it, and used Wikipedia to check up on a couple of facts. It was the most frantic moment of the night!

For the next round, I was called up to go on third, and I did the Fozzie poem, known also as ‘Poem’. Oh yes, that old chestnut. My signature piece. By now I felt more relaxed and the audience loved it. Miles went next, to rapturous applause from his fans, and he did a poem which I thought was amazing. Then the Quiet Lady. Then Tina. And when they added up the scores, it was me and Tina in the final.

Oh my.

This was the worst part of the evening. I had no strategy. I could have done Beard Envy, but I didn’t want people to think it was a derogatory comment about the Austrian entry to the Eurovision Song Contest. (Seriously! That’s why I didn’t do it). Then I thought about ‘Camp Cat’, but the audience did seem rather conservative. The sex poem was out because there was a child there. So I decided to do the Swindon poem, which I’d only just written and never once performed.

I performed it well, I think, seeing as though I had no practice. The audience loved it. I think Tina thought it was some sort of cheap trick to ensure victory by reciting a tongue in cheek poem about how much I love Swindon. But then, perhaps it was. I was pleased with the way it went.

Tina won.

It was an excellent evening and I was very pleased with the way I’d performed. The highlight, though, was when a lady told me that the Straight Poem was the best one she’d ever heard, and another was when a young man told me that he’d cried with laughter during Fozzie. Such things made the whole train journey and the night in a Travelodge worthwhile!

I met the festival organiser afterwards. And in my usual jumbled manner I could only garble some nonsense about how nice it was that Nathan Filer would be there the next day.

And then I was interviewed by Radio Swindon. ‘What brought you to Swindon?’, the interviewer asked. ‘The train’, I replied, in a kind of Chris-Lowe-from-the-Pet-Shop-Boys manner.

It was a fantastic day. I rushed back to the Travelodge to watch the end of Eurovision.

Performance poetry needs a new name!

Performance poetry. Spoken word. Slam poetry. Comedy poetry. Or just plain ‘poetry’.

It seems there’s so much variety in what we do yet I’m still not sure what to call myself when people ask. A poet? That doesn’t seem to explain the performative nature. Performance poet? Then I have to describe what performance poetry is. ‘Its poetry, but it’s also performed’. People quite rightly point out that all poetry is written with the intent of performance. Proper poets don’t call themselves page poets, now, do they?

It was late last night and I was thinking that perhaps there should be some overall term that might be applied to this strange art form.

If you go along to any spoken word night, you will see so much variety that it’s almost hard to classify what you’ll find. There will be:

Heartfelt rhythmic soul-searching poetry
Hip hop influenced white boy rap-a-like
Three rhymes per line just fine slam stuff
Dead pan whimsy
Comedy comedy comedy just a hint of rhythm
Droning ever so slow deep deep poetry
John Hegleyisms
Innovative experimental wordplay
Surrealism by the bucketful
Sodding haiku
Smarmy sincerity
Political rants
Theatrical monologues with elaborate hand gestures
Odes
Poems about cats
Californian beat-style plus optional beard
Shouty shouty
Pam Ayres
Memorised honesty

In fact the list could go on.

So, what term could be applied to all of the above? Is it worth even having an umbrella term for something so magnificently various? The average man in the street (actually I’m writing this in Paignton, where I have yet to meet anyone average), would probably class all of the above as ‘poetry’.

That’s why I suggest he term POPETRY.

This suggests elements both of poetry and pop. Because the majority of poets I meet aim to entertain and to spread a message in perhaps the same way as pop music or pop art. POPETRY is the way forward, ladies and gentlemen! Now that POPETRY has been identified as an art form all of its own, it can go from strength to strength and suck in new influences and divorce itself from the tyranny of poetry.

(Tyranny of poetry. There’s a sentence I didn’t think I’d write when I woke up this morning).

POPETRY it is then.

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