On being a poet at Womad. An ode to Wellington boots!

The Maori log drummers kept me awake last night. I mean, they might not have been Maori log drummers, but that’s what they sounded like. Womad does strange things to you. Yesterday, as I was walking through the campsite, I thought I heard a new Tibetan wind instrument made from yak’s horns and twigs belting out some kind of rhythmic shamanic hymn to life itself. Only it turned out to be some bloke pumping up his inflatable bed.
I think I’ve gone native. This morning, I almost went to tai chi. Instead I went to a tea shack. The pelting rain hammered on the canvas roof. I was surrounded by tea lights, lanterns, rugs, shabby chic tables and chairs. The radio was playing Leonard Cohen. I pondered on what a death trap the place might be if the tea lights got too close to the Mongolian fabrics draped in each corner.
I knew nothing of Womad before I came, except they it sounded like Gonad. And how incredibly grateful I was to be asked. For the last three days I’ve spent time with some of the finest performance poets in the country. Vanessa Kisuule, Matt Harvey, Scott Tyrrell, Chris Redmond, Jonny Fluffypunk. I arrived with Lucy Lepchani and we immediately ran into difficulty trying to erect her tent. Mr Fluffypunk came over, took one look, hammered a few tent pegs, and the whole thing looked much better. That’s the spirit of camaraderie in the poetry camp.
The poetry tent is listed last in some of the Womad promotional material. And my name is listed last in the poetry tent promotional material. Every morning, when it walk into the main arena area of the festival and see the massive stages and the tents and the flags and the stalls I think to myself, ‘I am the lowest ranking performer here. And it feels great!’ There’s probably far less pressure than being the headliner.
Yesterday’s poetry headliner was MC Dizraeli. He’s someone I wanted to see for a long time since listening to him on a cd about ten years ago. And the highlight of my festival so far has to be that he performed his hour long set in front of a crowd of about three hundred people while sitting on MY camping chair. In fact, as I type this, I’m sitting in it right now. It’s a story to tell my grandchildren. If I hadn’t brought the camping chair with me, then MC Dizraeli would have had to stand.
I’ve spent every day so far in the poetry tent, watching the performers. My own sets have been well acclaimed, and I’ve been stopped by several people who have seen me perform and liked it. That’s what makes a difference to a performer, the knowledge that someone has been touched, no matter how briefly. It was sunny yesterday and we performed outside in the ‘arboretum’. They laughed in all the right places and I felt that I could have taken on the world!
It’s raining again today. I’m not going to be wearing a jacket and tie, like the last couple of days. I shouldn’t have worn cream colored trousers, that mud is just not going to come out. The Wellington boots are just about the best thing ive bought in ages. I was watching Bellowhead the other day, they were performing on the main stage, but all I could think was, ‘I’m so glad I bought these Wellington boots’. When I get back to the real world later on, I probably won’t wear them until the next festival. But right now they are everything. Mainly because my sneakers are buggered after all that rain the day before yesterday.

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Set construction and the importance of narrative (while the poet is wittering on).

Many performance poets and spoken word types see an open mic slot or poetry night appearance as an opportunity, rightly so, to show the world how good they are. There’s minimal banter, a bit of a hello, and then they launch into their work. Which is excellent, of course. Until recently, this is exactly what I’d do. Hello everyone. Here’s my first poem. It’s about ironing boards.
One of the drawbacks of this is that once the audience has got used to you and your oeuvre, there’s no real change or sense of resolution or ‘journey’. A good set has to have a good narrative, just like a book. I suppose with me the problem was that I was influenced by music more than comedy. ‘Heres our latest single . . . and here’s an old hit’.
Over the last year I’ve been working more in comedy venues and with comedians as well as poets. Comedy audiences expect to laugh, but they also expect to be taken somewhere. And the same is true of a really good poetry set. Thinking back to all of the poets and performances that have struck me as good, there has always been this carefully constructed variance and journey, linking the poems and stringing them along with extra material, comedic asides, truisms and chit chat.
I think of people like Nathan Filer, Liv Torc and Byron Vincent. They understand that the poetry should take the audience on a journey from the heights of comedy and bliss to the darkest depths. The in-between linking material adds to the whole effect. The audience is there to see more than just the poetry. They also want to see the poet.
At the weekend I performed at Glas-Denbury music festival. Tim Vosper was on the bill, and he was amazing. His poetry is fast paced, comedic, funny and clever, but it’s all extenuated by the excellent linking material which makes use of such comedic devices as the afterthought and the callback. It was all very cleverly done, and the audience loved every minute. As did I. 
Therefore I’ve been thinking more than ever of the necessity of narrative, even in the most hurried environment. Last week, I was called in to a comedy venue with forty minutes notice, not enough time to create a proper set with linking material, and while it went okay, I think it would have gone much, much better had I had time to sit and write.
This may all appear to be basic stuff, to the seasoned professional, but the results are amazing. Good set construction makes everyone feel better, and this is an area where I shall be concentrating in future. I cringe to think how many times I’ve just stood there and said, ‘Here’s my new poem . . . here’s my famous poem’. 

A town called Burnsville, West Virginia.

I’ve been very fortunate to have travelled all over the world from an early age, and since I started work I’ve travelled on my own to some fantastic places. Also, as a part time performance comedy poet, I’ve travelled all around the UK, too. I’ve seen some nice place and visited some wonderful cities, and I’ve seen some downright grotty places too. Yet wherever I’ve been, the thrill of travel has been half the fun, and it usually only kicks in once I’m back at home.
It would be a bit naff right now to list all my favorite places, or those in which I have – (and I hate this phrase) – found myself. Tokyo and New York, for example. The rain forests of Australia. A four day train journey I took from one side of Canada to the other in the middle of winter. (I said I wouldn’t make a list, but now look at what I’ve gone and done).
I live in Devon, now. It’s a long way from the suburbs of Surrey where I grew up, and it feels like another world. Yet when I was barely eighteen years old, I took a journey out to Canada to see my Uncle and we ended up visiting a place that has stayed with me ever since. And I have no idea why.
In 1992, I was an enthusiastic traveller, diarist and amateur writer who saw the whole world as a source of adventure. Raised in the dull suburbs, yet defiantly liberal in outlook and, it has to be said, possibly a little camp, I wasn’t totally sure of who I was yet but I know what I liked, and I knew that I was different to everyone else. A holiday with my Uncle in Canada would be a chance to feel slightly independent, yet still under someone else’s care for a couple of weeks.
During my stay my uncle decided we would drive down into the US and just keep going, with the vague idea of going to Roanoke, because it sounded nice. We hired a white van and duly set off, driving all day and then stopping at motels, meandering across the southern states. And one night, when my uncle was too tired to drive, we stopped at a small town called Burnsville, West Virginia.
It was hot. Humidly hot. I’d never felt a heat like it. The moment I stepped from the air conditioned van, the humidity would cause me to sweat, instantly. We pulled up at a motel called the 79 and booked in. I remember thinking that it was the hottest I’d ever been.
I couldn’t sleep that night. The noise of insects kept me up and the small town had a rather unsettling feel to it, with valley sides and hills and forests, bleached white grass, hot car parks, and a deep starry night. Soaked in sweat, I decided to go for a walk.
The town was so quiet, except for the sound of traffic on the highway. I didn’t see a single person as I walked, in a kind of zig zag pattern. There was a bit of a valley behind the hotel with a stream in it which seemed to have dried up, and a bridge over the stream, and the sound of insects was quite loud. I think my allergies were possibly playing up. I saw a cat and I wanted to say hello to it, but my uncle had warned about diseases, and when I got closer to the cat I could see that it was badly injured as if it had fallen off of something. I felt really bad.

  
Kind of feeling that I should get help, I wandered around the side of the motel and saw light streaming out from a room beneath, in the basement. There seemed to be a laundry there, whether it was the laundry for the motel or a town facility, I did not know, but there were two young men in there of my age, shirtless, doing the washing. The moisture and the sweat made them appear to glisten in the fluorescent light and, well, you know me, I just had to stand and look at them for a while. It was the first time I’d thought about sexual matters for weeks, and this combined with the heat and the injured cat and the incredibly long day to make me feel strangely dissociated from everything.
I went away, sat for a while next to the road, which was mostly traffic free, looking at the woods on the slopes around the town feeling like a very small person in a very bit universe. Away from my family and from the comforting blanket of suburban Surrey, I suddenly realized that the person I was would stay with me for the rest of my life, no matter where I happened to be. Yes, I was in a strange new place, and there was the horror of the injured cat, but the glimpse of the sexy young men in the launderette reminded me that I had a culture and a life of my own.
I think we left fairly early the next morning.
As I grew up, and as I’ve travelled to other places, the town of Burnsville has stayed with me, always there at the back of my mind. Every time I feel hot or humid, like today, I’ve thought of Burnsville. Every time I’ve doubted myself I’ve remembered the motel and the launderette.
Lately, I found a Facebook page for the township of Burnsville and I’ve befriended a couple of people from there. They do not share the same beliefs as me and some of their Facebook posts can be quite infuriating for a suburban city liberal performance poet, but I can’t get angry, because this is their culture and this was the town where I realized something rather big about myself. It’s better to change the world slowly by example. And if I can’t sleep tonight, I know where my imagination will take me once again. 

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