‘Poetry is not as important as Hollyoaks’. An interview with Robert Garnham

Last month I was interviewed by Exepose Magazine by Nickie Shobeiry. Below you will find the full, unedited version in all it’s glory. The original interview can be found here: http://exepose.com/poets-corner-robert-garnham/

And yes, the title is deliberately provocative. I don’t mean it really!

Interview – Robert Garnham

 • What inspired you to begin writing poetry? Do you remember the first poem you ever wrote?

Hello! I started writing poetry by accident. I’d always written short stories, more for my own amusement. I also wrote a play, ‘Fuselage’, which was rehearsed read at the Northcott Theatre in 2009, but it was all just as a hobby. I went to a night of performance poetry in Torquay run by Chris Brooks and I was inspired to give it a go.

My first poem was about my family, and it’s a little embarrassing to read it now! It had some good rhymes in it. I don’t usually use rhyme much now. Anyway, I made my debut at Poetry Island with the family poem, and people loved it! Chris asked me to come again, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

• Do you have a specific place you go to for writing? Any particular habits?

Yes, weirdly, I do. I always write at my desk every morning and every night, but on my day off I go to the Quiet Room at Paignton Library. There are no distractions here, unless someone comes in with a packet of crisps. Also, I spend weekends at my parent’s house and they have a room at the back of their garage which, like the Quiet Room, has no distractions. It’s my own private place!

I’ve used the same pen for every single thing I’ve written since 1995, so I suppose that’s a habit of sorts. I write everything in long hand first, then type it up.

• Where does most of your inspiration come from?

I have no idea! Poems are usually when two or three concepts seem to merge together. One of my poems, ‘Poem’, is about an ostrich queuing at a buffet on a train to buy some crisps, but he’s slowly metamorphosing into a wheelbarrow. I have no idea where the idea for it came from!

Often, though, people say funny things and the words come back to me when I sit down to write. None of my friends like poetry. Not one single one of them! So they don’t come and watch me perform, which means I can use the silly things they’ve said freely without repercussion. It also helps that most of my friends, in their own little ways, are incredibly eccentric. I’m fairly normal.

• Your performance at the Bike Shed Theatre’s Slam Poetry event last year had everyone in stitches, hanging onto your every word. How would you describe your own writing?

Thanks! I work hard at every single line and once a poem is written, I put it aside, then come back to it and pretend to be the audience. Some times I look at a poem and I think, ‘This has to be 33% funnier’. Often the best time to write is when you’re feeling relaxed, but the mind kind of has to be almost half disinterested in the outcome. This is when the silly stuff kicks in, or the unusual connections. If I concentrated on being funny, It would probably end up sounding forced. So the mood to write is hard to conjur up.

• You work as the host of Poetry Island in Torquay – can you talk a little about your experience there, and some of your favourite performances?

I was host for three years or so. I took over from Chris Brooks, who’s now off being a comedy genius, and if had a great time booking acts from the national scene and nurturing new talent locally. We had some great performers come down to Torquay, such as Ash Dickinson, Matt Harvey, Byron Vincent, (a hero of mine), Liv Torc. I think Chris Redmond was one of my favourites. (Am I allowed to have favourites? I suppose now that I’m no longer host, I can admit to this!). 

The best nights were when you see someone who you’ve helped and encouraged go up and be amazing. I gave  headline slots to Joanna Hatfull and Tom Austin, who are huge local talents. I don’t think either had had paid gigs before, so it was a nice feeling.

I’ve handed Poetry Island over now to Ian Beech, and he’s doing a much better job than I ever managed!

• You perform a lot of spoken word poetry – is this your favourite mode? Can you share some of your most memorable performances?

I’d like to have another crack at writing a theatre script, and I’d love to have a book published. I have a novel which I finished recently, if anyone’s interested! But I can’t act or sing or dance or do comedy, so I suppose it’s spoken word all the way for me.

As for memorable performances. Well! There’s loads. My first paid gig was at Jawdance, a regular night in London, and it was amazing because a London friend came to watch and then I was recognized on a tube station platform a couple of hours later! And London again, supporting the wonderful John Hegley at Gongoozled, will also be a cherished memory. I got lost on the way to the venue and panicked that they’d be angry, I got there, and Mr Hegley had also got lost on the way!

Any night that goes well is cherished. Performing to my sister for the first time in Guildford at Pop Up Poetry was great. She’d never seen me do my thing before. And the Edinburgh Fringe was a fantastic experience. Performing to one person on a wet Monday afternoon. Oh, the romance!

• Could you talk a little about the inspiration behind your poems beginning ‘a friend of mine thinks he might be straight’ and ‘people think your beard is weird’?

The ‘straight’ poem is based on a composite of several friends and it was just a chance to explore some cliches about straight men and what they get up to, like building sheds and watching Top Gear. It was just a chance to turn the whole thing around and make it feel as if straight people were the minority, something weird that has to be studied so that we can understand their ways. As for the Beard poem, well. There are so many people around with beards at the moment and I always think, ‘He’d be quite good looking if it wasn’t for that beard’.


• I recently saw you perform at the Phoenix’s Taking The Mic event. Your poem – hilarious as always – was about a bald man, and you had a lit-up box to boot. Could you share the story behind the poem? Do you often use props on stage, and what do you think it brings to the performance?

Funny you should ask about the bald man poem, because the whole thing just came to me, at almost midnight when I was in bed. Completely from nowhere! I suddenly thought that it might be quite funny to write a poem about something entirely meaningless and small, something everyday and commonplace, and what more commonplace thing can there be than seeing a bald man walking in the street? I’ve also written poems about unrolling a new bin liner, vacuuming a carpet and losing a pen in the lining of a coat. I think this is my minimalist phase.

I used to use props all the time, at every performance. Over the years I’ve built a theremin from two Wellington boots and a feather duster, and a large hadron collider out of garden hose and a custard cream biscuit. Indeed, I was known for quite some time just as a prop poet. But then, when you start getting invitations to perform all over the county, you have to lug these props on buses and trains and the joke kind of wears off, especially when someone sits on your theremin. But I like props, generally. One of my favourite poets, Rachel Pantechnicon, uses props to hilarious effect, and if she’s ever performing in your neighborhood, then I urge you to go along.

• Do you have a favourite of your own poems?

I like performing ‘Poem’, because of the energy that I put into it. ‘Poem’ is also good, I wrote it when I was on holiday in Australia and it kind of stayed with me, it always conjurs up a specific time and place. But I suppose it has to be ‘Poem’, even though I’ve performed it countless times. It’s still one of my favourites even after all of these years!

• What was the last poem you wrote about?

Losing a pen in the lining of my jacket (see above).

• Why do you think poetry is important?

I’m not sure that poetry is important. It’s not as important as the news, or Hollyoaks. But that’s because it’s now more of a niche interest. Often, though, poetry gives people a chance to take the audience somewhere. Dean Atta writes about his experience of being a black gay man in contemporary London, for example, and AJ McKenna writes about being a transgender poet. Poetry has also been used as a form of political release, airing views and grievances. I’m thinking of such people as Atilla the Stockbroker and Pete the Temp, Bob Hill and Exeter’s very own Tim King. Poetry is the medium by which they raise political concerns and encourage debate about certain issues. Tim’s poem about FGM is amazingly powerful.

• Who are your favourite writers? If you had to pick your top three favourite poems, what would you pick and why?

My favourite poet is Frank O’Hara. He was active in the 1950s and early 1960s and wrote poems about city life and the experiences of being a gay man in 1950s USA. Yet there was nothing political about him, his poems had a matter or fact ness about them, almost a flippancy about big issues. He demonstrated that you can mix high and low culture and hold either in high esteem so long as you are earnest in your beliefs. He’s the poet whose ethos I’m closest room though I’ve now outlived him. He died aged 40 after being run over by a beach buggy. He was drunk at the time.

I also like poets who use humour and language in unexpected ways. I absolutely adore Byron Vincent and Rob Auton, both of whom I’ve met and worked with. They never cease to amaze me with their output. Also Rachel Pantechnicon, hilarious and life affirming. She’s a big influence on me and was one of the people who were instrumental in getting me going.

Favourite poems? I suppose Frank O’Hara’s ‘Getting Up Ahead of Someone’, Byron Vincent’s ‘Hold the Pickle’, and ‘Spherical Man’, by Mighty Mike McGee. These poems are inventive, funny, with great use of language and incredible humanity. Every time I read them I get something different from them.

• What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received as a poet, that you think is relevant to people from all walks of life?

Well, there’s ‘never be a prop poet’, which is the advice Rachel Pantechnicon gave me. This can’t really be translated into everyday life, unless you think on terms of doing away with the baggage that we always carry around with us. 

My closest colleagues and friends in the world of poetry are Tim King, Chris Brooks, Ian Beech and Dan Haynes. I see the way they commit themselves to poetry and performance and to being moral people and I try to apply this to my own life. It’s not advice, as such. 

So I suppose the biggest piece of advice has to come from Frank O’Hara, who said the one must act with ‘grace to be born and live as variously as possible’.  Which I suppose means, cram in as much as possible!

• What can the world expected next from Robert Garnham?



I’ve got a book coming out some time towards the end of this year with Burning Eye, who are the biggest publisher of spoken word poets in the country. It’s a huge honour! In the mean time I’m working on a second novel, which is about retail management, and I’m planning a one person show, the provisional title of which is ‘Static’. I’m also poeting all over the place, I’ve recently been doing shows with a comedy group called Jocular Spectacular and we have a show coming up in Exeter during the LOL festival supporting Arthur Smith, and I’m also off to Manchester in a couple of weeks to do a gig up there. So it’s all go at the moment! 

 

I took two weeks off from performing. You’d never guess what happened! 

I had two weeks off from performing. You’d never guessed what happened!

It seemed I’d been performing every week since Christmas. Indeed, the last three months have been my busiest yet, what with the usual poetry nights and also performing with the Jocular Spectacular Roving Comedy show. I had a flying visit to Manchester, and I performed in packed theatre venues supporting Arthur Smith, Iszi Lawrence and Mitch Benn.

At the same time I was working on the proofs of my forthcoming collection, and busy writing my new novel.

Indeed, the camaraderie and jovial nature of the comedians I’ve been working with almost, almost tempted me to take that step into comedy which some performance poets have done in times past. But when the music stopped, and I had those two weeks off, I was able to take stock.

I became me again. Away with the spikey hair and the nerd chic glasses! Away with the tweed jacket and Converse All Stars! Hello to early nights and regular meals and sensible clothes.

I began to think about performance and what the finer points meant. I was able to take a step back and remind myself what performance poetry is. Words, expression, rhymes, audience reaction. And after a few days, my brain began to clear and new ideas formed. Thus began a kind if mental spring cleaning. All those ideas and half poems found their way to the page and I was able to work on them uninterrupted, without concerning myself about the next show, the next set.

I also got tonnes of admin done. Forms filled, emails sent, novel and play sent off to agents, publishers and theaters. I’ve got so much done.

But something else happened. Something weird. And that was that I completely forgot that I was a performance poet. Caught up in the minutae of my regular job, and then with the detail of living an ordinary life, doing the cooking, washing, dusting etc, the idea of performance and the prospect of doing so didn’t once cross my mind on some days. Which might be perfectly normal, except that when I finally sat down and thought about what I do, and what have done, it all came as a rather pleasant surprise!

Indeed, I felt a little proud of myself. It’s like I had a secret. It’s  like I’m a nighttime superhero, fighting crime. Well, fighting rhymes. And nobody suspects a thing! Even to this day, most of my friends and colleagues are completely oblivious.

Last night was my first gig for two and a half weeks, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I relished every moment I spent performing and I had a great time. I have an amazing clarity of mind right now and I don’t want it to end!

So what’s the lesson here? Simple. It’s good to have a break, even if it’s from something you love doing. And it’s great to lead a secret second life! 



“So Much More Than The Professor of Whimsy: Turbulence by Robert Garnham”. (A review by Ian Beech). 

Last year I wrote a collection of serious poems all based around one theme. It was great to get away from my usual whimsical style. Some of the poems had been running through my mind for years.

I decided I would only ever print twenty copies of the resulting book, Turbulence. And even now I consider it my masterpiece.

Every now and then I reread bits of it. Some of the poems have deep and meaningful content, they’re more like riddles than poems and their meaning is known only to me.

Ian Beech, poet and promoter, had this to say about Turbulence:

“So Much More Than The Professor of Whimsy:

Turbulence by Robert Garnham

 There may be those of you who know and love the hilarious Professor of Whimsy who will be surprised by his latest poetry collection, Turbulence.  Some of us have glimpsed his more serious side in the past and noted that he is far more than just Paignton’s Funniest Man. True, his comic poems often harbour hidden depths butTurbulence provides further evidence of his ability to write powerfully in a more serious vein.

 There are still wonderful, whimsical, surrealistic moments, as in the opening poem Ms. Lucy Wellington, but even that ends with the line ‘What goes up must come down’, hinting at the hidden subtext that permeates the book.  The book title, front and back cover photographs all relate to an event that occurred before the author was born but which has fascinated him for much of his life. He interweaves powerful, moving poems, detailing various aspects of the incident, with enchanting, revealing glimpses of his childhood and adolescence.  In West London Rain we see the fledgling author ‘safe and cosy with/My writing pad’, his ‘Dad with motorbikes/And Mum with her incessant gardening’ but also learn that ‘once/They saw something in the murk.’

 Nowhere does Garnham clearly identify the event he describes and draws on so eloquently. If you don’t recognise it from the poems, a little internet research should make things much clearer.  Indeed, a second reading having perused the Wikipedia article (shame on a trained librarian for heading there for speedy convenience) allowed me to fully appreciate the many detailed references the book contains.  Alongside those serious topics, and the deep reflections they induce, it is a delight to travel back to Garnham’s early days. Cuckoo spit  brings to life so vividly a moment of childhood shared with his sister, full of customary Garnham charm and humour. In defence beautifully explores his awakening sexuality, and, sadly in my humble opinion, his disinterest in football and his total inability to play the game.

 There is so much more to enjoy in Turbulence but be warned, Garnham is hardly a hard-bitten capitalist poetry entrepreneur. He has only printed twenty copies of this marvellous book and claims that there will be no more, holding to some typically bizarre notion that he wants the book to gain mythical, legendary cult status: people will have heard of it but never seen a copy, being left to question its very existence. Well believe me it does exist. My copy is under lock and key and I suggest if you cannot buy one of the other nineteen, you demand he drops this preposterous limitation on spreading his wonderful words.  Turbulence is not to be missed.

Ian Beech

Host of Poetry Island

at The Blue Walnut Café, Torquay



I get nervous. I used to get nervous. I don’t get nervous.

I’ve been performing poetry now for about five years up and down the country. I’ve been to parts of Britain that I wouldn’t normally go to, like Wolverhampton and Swindon, Salisbury and Cheltenham. And I’ve met some great people who have become friends. But there’s one constant which won’t ever go away, and that’s the state if nervousness I get before a poetry night.

It’s been there since the start. I thought it would go away with practice, but it doesn’t. It starts as a dull ache in the chest and a funny feeling in my stomach, and then as the day goes on it increases.

I don’t think this is necessarily about the performance, either. Yes,it is scary to stand in front of strangers and do poems about ostriches and goats, and to tell jokes which they might not laugh at. But the nervousness which I get usually comes from realizing the logistical details of getting somewhere, finding the venue, arriving at the right time, performing, then spending the night somewhere.

Because I’ve got one of those minds which always thinks of the things that can go wrong. And while I try to plan in as many escape routes and procedures as possible to negate the effects of Something Going Wrong, there’s always the chance that Things Might Go Terribly Wrong.

I remember taking part in the Wolverhampton Love Slam in 2014. By chance it was the same day that the railway fell into the sea at Dawlish. It took almost twelve hours to get to Wolverhampton from Paignton. The first person I bumped into was Jonny Fluffypunk. That’s when I knew that everything would be okay. But the whole day up till that point had just been one huge nervousorama.

I used to be the host of Poetry Island. I loved the nights themselves, there was so much energy, it was the poetry equivalent of being in a tornado. But there was so much organizing to do, and so much worrying about all the minor details, that in the end it wasn’t worth doing. I would spend the hour before going to the venue lying on my back on the floor and staring at the ceiling, trying to calm myself and run through everything in my head. That can’t be normal behaviour, now, can it?

I’m sure it’s the same for other performers. But the results far outweigh the nervousness. I’ve been to such wonderful gigs this year already, and I’ve got loads planned for later in the year, that I’m not even thinking about the nervousness.

Lately, I’ve been pursuing a new tactic. It’s called Operation DontThinkAboutIt. The day before a gig, I just carry on as normal. And even when I’m changing into my poetry outfit, I’m not thinking about what it is I’m about to do. And then I lie on the bed and I listen to pop music on my iPod. Loud, disco beat kind of stuff. The upshot of this is that it all makes the act of going to the gig and performing almost natural, and it seems to work. I’ve been having much more fun when I get there, less nervousness, and I reckon I’ve been performing better, too. If I stress too much over the minor details, then the actual reason for being there gets left behind. But now I don’t stress so much at all and it’s cleared my mind, made me focused on what it is I am meant to be doing.

Having said that, I’ve got some gigs coming up further up the country. So I shall see how it goes! And as long as the railway line doesn’t fall into the sea at Dawlish again, things should be okay.

Anyway, for no reason whatsoever, here’s a poem I wrote late summer while staying in Brixham.

Poem

Too hot out
For serious contemplation.
I sit in the cool of my room
At my parent’s
Bunga
Low.

Window open,
Net curtains twitching on the slightest breeze,
Car tyres on the concrete road surface,
Apolo
Getic.

The stipples ceiling has cracks.
Little roads through a mountain landscape.
But instead of being round the world is
Rectangular
( Except for a slight recess in the east).
The capital city is the light fixture.
The explorers are ever so brave
Who reach as far as the
Archi
Trave.

Outside in the summer heat,
The plaintive honking
Of something that honks.
I’m a city boy so I don’t really know
What kind of animal honks.
But I wish it wouldn’t.
It gives me the willies.

I imagine the room filled with
Albino
Ocelot
Octopuses
Cool
Coral
A
Drinks
Vending
Machine
PepsiCo

It’s so hot
I try to visualise somewhere cool
Like an airport air conditioned coffee shop.

Actually the honking is probably
Just the shed door
Creaking in the breeze.