‘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! 
 

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