Some thoughts on performance poetry.

I was contacted by a student at Exeter University to answer some questions for her dissertation. Anyway, here are my responses. I hope they make good reading.

1. What is your impetus to write? When and why do you write and perform?

I suppose with me the impetus is just to make people laugh. I’ve always been a fan of comedy and humour but never found the vehicle to do this myself until I discovered performance poetry about five years ago. And once I started I realised I could tackle subjects such as gender, sexuality, human rights, loneliness and my own personal failures as a lover but using humour to mask these themes and make them more accessible for the audience.

Oh, and lust. Lust is a great impetus to write! Saying the things that you never could say in real life, knowing that the object of your affections will never know!
I write every day for at least an hour, and on my day off I try and write all day, with gaps for swimming etc. Exercise makes my brain work! The actual physical act of writing feels kind of like a little ceremony and that’s the only time when I feel like a real poet

2. Do you use YouTube/social media to promote your work? What are the advantages and disadvantages of using online platforms?
Yes indeed. In fact I don’t think I’d be getting half the gigs I do get without social media. For a start it’s a great way to keep in touch with what’s going on in the spoken word world. But it also gives you an accessible platform for promoters and other poets to see your work. I can go to a gig in Wolverhampton or Basingstoke and people know about my work because they’ve seen me on YouTube or Facebook.

You do tend to feel more like an avatar at times. I always wear the same sorts of clothes for performing because this is my trademark and people recognise me from photos. I’ve not had many drawbacks from using social media, no stalkers or online abuse or anything, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time! And sometimes I wonder if I’m online too much and that people will get sick and tired of seeing yet another spikey haired selfie. I think you do have to be a bit shameless at times!

3. Do you try to cultivate a relationship with the audience? If so, how do you go about it?
Yes, it is always good to connect with the audience. I’ve actually read about this in performance books and acting manuals because I do not come from a performance background. I try to be warm on stage, I try to look at everyone in the room and look up from the page as I write. I try to smile a lot.

If I go to a gig in a new place, I’m usually very accommodating beforehand, being pleasant and saying hello, because these are the people who will be the audience once the gig starts. I also try to react to the previous performer. It’s hard to go on stage and do a poem about (for example) getting envious about beards, when the previous poet has just done a stirring emotional piece about her dead grandmother. So I try to warm everyone up perhaps with some audience participation. Everybody say yeah!
I also try to react to things that happen. Every now and then one audience member will make some funny sort of laughing noise at a place during a poem where it’s never happened before, so I will stop performing and look over at them. That always gets a laugh. And luckily, you don’t get heckled much during poetry. (See below).

4. Do you care what an audience thinks of your work? 
It would be nice not to, but sometimes you do. If it all goes right and people laugh at the funny poems or clap enthusiastically, it’s a magnificent feeling. But every now and then you’ll get someone who disagrees.

There have been a couple of notable heckles. The first was sheer comedy, because I have a poem which starts with the words ‘isn’t it annoying when you turn the page’. I got as far as ‘isn’t it annoying . . ‘ when someone shouted, ‘Yes!’
And recently out in the sticks I did a gig in a church and I performed my Jeremy Clarkson poem, which usually gets a fantastic reaction in the city urban centres where I normally perform, Bristol, London, Exeter. But out in the sticks it was evident that everyone was a big Clarkson fan, and after the poem someone shouted, ‘At least Jeremy Clarkson makes me laugh’. And afterwards I thought, wow, if only they’d liked that poem! I shouldn’t have cared too much, but I did, and I thought of an amazing comeback to zap him with. Trouble was, it was six hours later, as I cried myself to sleep. 

5. Would you alter your style to cater toward an audience? you were being paid and were asked to edit a poem (ex for swears), would you do it? If you weren’t being paid, would you do it?

Yes, absolutely. I’ve done this on numerous occasions. My poetry isn’t rude or heavy on expletives, but every now and then I do radio, or street poetry, or family fun days. (What the hell are they doing booking me for a family fun day?!). So I’ve excised verses and taken out rude bits, certainly. I’m very aware that he promoter is the person in charge and I don’t want to upset them.
I’d love to be more passionate about this and say things like, ‘I don’t want to compromise my artistic integrity’. But then I always think, ‘There’s a time and a place for everything . .’. Last summer I did a family fun day on Paignton Green to a beach full of families and kids in the hot August sun, and before I performed they played that ‘What does the fox say?’ song, and I remembered chuckling to myself before I went on thinking, ‘I’d love to do the poem about Orgasms right now’. But I was very professional.

6. What do you think an audience is looking for when they attend a performance poetry night or slam?
I think if it’s performance poetry, the audience just wants to be entertained. Poets like Pam Ayres and John Cooper Clarke have revolutionised the way that performance poetry is perceived. The audience will always be different to the more weighty, beard-stroking patrons of page poetry ‘readings’. In this, there are links to stand up comedy. Performance poetry is a wide church which embraces poetry, ranting, comedy, rhyming, rapping, and every night is different, so audiences love the mix and the variety. A well run night will have a bit of everything.

Slam audiences are up for the same but with the added bonus of a competitive element. Slams have a reputation for being youthful and raucous with lots of whooping and stamping of feet. Getting whooped is always a bonus. I’m always glad to be whoop-worthy, even if I’ve just crashed out of last place in a slam.

7. What is new about spoken word? Is spoken word poetry even new?
As you know, there’s always been a tradition of spoken word, and someone once told me that all poetry was originally intended for word of mouth. 

I think lately spoken word has enjoyed a renaissance because of social media. A three minute poem makes a great YouTube video. A politician can say something stupid on the nine o clock news and by six o clock there are poems uploaded getting millions of hits. Social media allows politically aware poets with a good ear for a rhyme to react quickly.
Lately, performance poetry has been adapting to other media and using the language of stand up comedy, rap, chanting, pop music, even computing. (I’m currently working on a batch of poems which are written as if they’ve been produced by a computer programme that’s ever so slightly faulty). I know of performance poets who incorporate magic and juggling. And Cat Brogan performs which hula hooping!
In this regard I think performance poetry is the most postmodern of crafts. But it’s not new. My hero, Frank O’Hara, was influenced by movies, theatre and abstract expressionist art, and he was writing in the 1950s. And thanks to YouTube, Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame is now down to three minutes. 

8. Do you use multimedia, props, or technology in your work (videos projected while you perform, music, loop pedals, etc) and why? 
Personally, I’m rubbish at technology. But over the years I have (take a deep breath) performed a duet with a videoed version of myself on an iPad, built a large hadron collider on stage out of garden hose and custard cream biscuits, built a robot version of myself on stage out of cardboard boxes, a hair brush and a fishing rod, played a theremin on stage made from two French loaves and a pair of Wellington boots, and I regularly perform with a pink bird puppet called Mister Pinkerton.
9. What has spoken word poetry done for you in terms of shaping an identity? What has it done for you in general? Has performing poetry improved your confidence?
Yes, indeed. I’d been in a play before I discovered performance poetry, but I was terribly shy and unsure of the world right up until about 2011. When I started performing I discovered that there really isn’t that much to be scared about, particularly with performing, and better still, that everyone has a right to a voice and views and can be treated equally because of these. Coming from an LGBT background and being a teenager in the 1990s meant that I always saw myself as Not Being Right compared to the rest of society, but thankfully now things are a little more equal, and the fact that I can be judged – or better still, not judged at all – has come about purely through performance poetry and Being Myself. If that makes any kind of sense!
10. Do you feel that as a spoken word poet you’ve become part of a community? What is that community like and what does it do for you/what do you do for it?
Yes, there’s a wonderful community particularly down here in the south west, because there are so many different voices and styles of performance. There’s also a very strange crossover between page and performance here that you don’t tend to get in other areas. There’s no snobbishness! We are also very welcoming to newcomers, such as students from the university. Ian Beech, Tim King, Morwenna Aldiss and I all run different poetry nights and we are all keen on giving new people a platform to perform and to advance their abilities. I often get emails for advice. And also, over the last few years I’ve begun to realise that my best friends are all now spoken word poets. We hang out and drink and talk about our lives and that, I suppose, is a community!

Going back to the LGBT thing, I grew up seeing the LGBT community as being something to aspire to but also something that didn’t seem very interested in me. Last year I performed at London gay pride and afterwards I got this sense of my poetry helping me affirm who I am. It told me that i was already a member of this particular community!

11. Do you think you can “find yourself?” Does spoken word allow you to do this, and if so, how?

I’ve probably answered that already, actually. It’s helped me discover my identity and it’s given me friendship with similarly minded people.
And the writing process itself is somewhat like therapy. Being insecure about love and relationships and sex and the state of the world is a horrible state, but the moment you start to write about it, or make fun of (for example) having really bad sex, then it somehow makes you feel much better. So now I know how those ranty poets feel! It’s such a good therapy!

12. How would you characterize “yourself” on stage? What do you turn into? ex do you have a persona you fall into?

Absolutely.
It took a while to find this character. I used to perform in tshirt and jeans. Then one day I came from work in a shirt and tie and I just kind of kept that up. I don’t think many performance poets wear shirts and ties, because they’re all so trendy and they’ve got interesting hair. So my stage persona began to adapt to the clothes that I was wearing. Next I added a jacket, and then a jumper, and now the quintessential Robert Garnham look is complete! (And the tie is a little nod to Ron Mael, one of my favourite musicians).
My stage persona is an exaggerated version of myself. I always think of myself as being super confident on stage, but someone’s mother said that she really liked my slightly nervous manner. I became terribly self aware after this, which probably made me even more nervous! But I think if I go in with a clear idea of what to do and what to say, and then add this layer of nervousness, then that’s probably what’s working.
I try to sound like a very deep, meaningful poet who just happens to be saying very weird things. Slightly academic, a bit old fashioned. That’s my persona, I suppose.
It’s hard, then, slipping out of this persona. I usually need to wear different clothes and have a shower to get rid of the gel, and change my glasses, before I feel like the version of myself that I’ve always been. When poets see me in ‘real life’, in a hoodie and shorts for example, they always say, ‘I didn’t recognise you’.

13. Do you think a certain type of person does spoken word? If so, what is that person like?

I’m not sure. There are so many different types of poet and performer. I think more people would do it if it had the media coverage that comedy gets. I mean, if I can do it, then others can, because it felt like it was ready made for me before I’d even performed a poem!
If I look at the backgrounds of my closest poet friends, there’s an amazing array of routes into performance. Chris White comes from a theatrical trained background, Tim King was in music, Chris Brooks was a comedian. Yet there also seems to be a lot of librarians: Ian Beech, James Turner, Alaisdair Paterson. What’s that all about? And come to think of it, my background is in museum management!
Slam poets and performance poets often come from minority backgrounds. They act as powerful voices for their communities, such as Vanessa Kisuule, Chanje Kunda, Dean Atta and your good self. They have something to say, which needs saying, and performance poetry is as good a vehicle, and as accepting a vehicle, as any. Often there seems to be a gender bias towards men, which makes programming events difficult when you realise that you’ve got 10 men and 2 women appLying for slots at a poetry night, which is where curating comes into effect. (That’s my museum training coming out again!)

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