One of my best friends in the world of spoken word is Melanie Branton. Best friends in that we chat about things that aren’t to do with poetry or spoken word. She’s a wonderful person who I really admire, and I also think she’s one of the funniest people I know. Her poetry mixes page and performance, and is widely acclaimed. She has been published by some of the top publications and has headlined at some of the top nights in the country. Not only was she the Hammer and Tongue regional winner last year, but she came second at the Bristol Poetry Slam the year before. Only the best spoken word artists come second at the Bristol Poetry Slam. The really, really good ones who everyone loves and admire come second at the Bristol Poetry Slam.
I was so glad when Melanie agreed to be interviewed because I wanted to get to the root of what it is that makes her such a distinctive, funny and heartfelt performer.
1. Your poetry is distinctive, funny and heartfelt. How important is it to draw on personal experience in your work?
Very. It’s been both very therapeutic for me in dealing with dark moments of my life that were still casting a shadow and a way of engaging with audiences in a deeper way. If you have the courage to expose something private about yourself, if you make yourself vulnerable before an audience, they will usually connect with you.
I didn’t always write like this. I started writing traditional light verse about “funny ideas” that were very far removed from me. But, 9 times out of 10, “funny ideas” are clichés, aren’t funny, and entrench dodgy, discriminatory world views (Mothers-in-law are dragons! Menopausal women are kooky and hysterical!) and it was a way of avoiding saying anything meaningful that might expose my own personality and history to scrutiny. Spoken word forced me to open up about myself more, take greater risks and made my poetry much better.
But that’s just me – not everyone has to write like this. Ultimately poetry has to be judged on its emotional impact and the quality of the writing, not its truth: I can’t be doing with all these “scandals” where slam audiences feel “cheated” when they find out that the poet they gave 10s to for his/her heartrending personal story doesn’t really have inoperable cancer/a dead twin brother/a history of childhood abuse (delete as applicable). Judge on the quality of the work, not on who’s got the biggest sob story, then maybe people won’t feel compelled to make stuff up.
2. You have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the modern poetry scene. In terms of page poets, who are your influences, and who do you admire?
Well, it’s more of a Dummy’s Guide-ic knowledge, actually.
There are some writers I admire and would love to write like, but know I never will (e.g. Emily Dickinson, Seamus Heaney). Then there are some writers that I used to read a lot of when I was a teenager. I’m not so into their work anymore, it’s not where my taste is now, but I can still see their influence in what I write (e.g. John Betjeman, Roger McGough).But there are some writers I love whose influence on my work is obvious – Selima Hill (who’s probably my favourite living poet) being a particular case in point.
Writers I’ve been reading a lot of lately include Miriam Gamble, James Lasdun, Clare Pollard, Katherine Pierpoint, Penelope Shuttle, Philip Gross, but I have no idea if they’ve influenced me.
I lived in Poland for 4 years and I think I’m also influenced by Polish poets, from the stark attempts of Tadeusz Różewicz to construct a new poetics, after a Holocaust that had debased all that had gone before, to the playful, rather Dr Seuss-like absurdist, Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński
If this has not already become obvious, I am totally obsessed by poetry
3. And what about performance poets?
One of the first spoken word artists I ever saw was Stacy Makishi and I am in awe of people like her, who are multidisciplinary performance artists, not just poets. Chanje Kunda has massively impressed me, in that total performance way.
It’s unfashionable to say so, but I like the traditional, rhymey-rhymey, almost music hall performance poets, like John Cooper Clarke and Pam Ayres. And people like Luke Wright, who I suppose are keeping this tradition alive.
I very much admire both Anna Freeman and Harry Baker. I think Harry’s breathtaking, ostentatious technical skill is a welcome corrective in a scene where the content cart is often put before the form-and-language horse. And I like the fact that he writes about nerdy things that no-one else does, like the vagaries of the German language and the joys of Maths.
I also very much admire you.
4. You’ve had success both in slams and in publication. What plans do you have for the immediate future?
I never have plans – I bumble along in a permanent state of vagueness. But I have a hazy aim to get a collection published in the next year or so and to get enough bookings to at least be able to convincingly pretend my job is poet on my passport. I’d also like to have a go at putting a one-hour show together, possibly on the subject of language, which seems to be a recurrent theme in what I’m writing at the moment.
5. A lot of your poems are very, very funny. How important is being funny in a performative context?
Thank you! I rarely set out to be funny (and when I do, I’m invariably not). Because I have a reputation mostly as a comic poet, audiences often want to find me funny and will laugh at poems I actually intended to be serious.
Then again, I think most really funny poetry has a serious core. I see that a lot with your stuff – the reason it’s so funny is because it touches on profound human truths and fears. Most of your poems have very serious ideas about loneliness, being afraid of not being good enough or not fitting in, or gay politics lurking somewhere behind them. Real belly laughs come, not from a clever pun or rhyme, but from people recognising something about themselves in what you’ve said.
I’ve been to some events where funny poems were clearly looked down on as being trite, unworthy, so last century, which annoys me. I think you can often make a serious point more subtly and effectively through comedy than you can through being all earnest about it. And even if it is just fluff, what’s so terrible about that? Writing effective fluff still takes a lot of skill and it makes people happy.
The poems of mine that get the biggest laughs are usually ones where I’m emotionally offloading. Like “Everything Reminds Me Of You”, which is barely a poem at all – it’s just random stream-of-consciousness. I was long-term unemployed when I wrote it, had just had a really harsh rejection letter for about the 50,000th job I’d applied for and was trying to take solace in a creepily intense, one-sided crush on a man I slightly knew and had friended on social media. It’s ostensibly about a crush, but it’s really about the thousand and one desperate, delusional ways we try to create some happiness for ourselves in a world where nothing good ever happens.
Both the best and the worst thing about funny poems is that it’s easier to gauge how well you’ve gone down. If the audience laughs very loudly, you know your poem hit the spot. If they receive it in stony silence, you know you’ve failed miserably. Whereas, with serious poems, it’s all a lot more mysterious. Is that silence the pregnant silence of an enraptured audience hanging on your every word? Or is it the silence of 200 bored people simultaneously letting their minds drift onto whether they left the gas on and whether Tesco Express will still be open when they leave the venue and if there’ll still be any cat food left?
One thing I like to do is to switch to a serious poem after a string of comic ones. Audiences usually hate this. They start off laughing, because they assume I’m still trying to be funny, then as the penny drops, the laughs start to dry up and they look deeply, deeply uncomfortable, because they can’t work out what I expect of them and they feel stupid for having laughed in the first place. And this is exactly how I want them to feel. Because if I’m doing a poem about my mental illness or having been raped, I damn well want the audience to feel uncomfortable – I don’t want them to be sitting there having a feelgood moment, smugly congratulating themselves on how right-on and compassionate they are, which I feel happens way too much in spoken word.
6. How do you rehearse and memorise your work?
I don’t rehearse enough – I spend a lot of time on trains and much of my rehearsal consists of running through lines in my head while on the Taunton to Bristol Parkway line. Or pacing around mouthing the lines sotto voce on a draughty platform.
Fortunately, I have always had a near-photographic memory, so memorisation has rarely been a major challenge (although I have dried on poems I knew well when nervous and the first outing for any poem is often a hit-and-miss affair). It helps if the poem is a narrative one, especially if it’s in chronological order, because it’s pretty obvious that C comes after B. Rhyme ought to help, but it’s also much more obvious when you get wrong.
7. What would you say was your best gig?
That’s a hard one to answer, as every gig is special in its own way (unless it goes badly, in which case it’s hideous).
The Bristol Slam in 2014, where I came second, has a special place in my heart, though, because it was about six months after I had taken up spoken word and was the first event where I felt I got taken seriously as a poet. I’d done a few slams before then and even won one of them, but I’d never felt I’d had more than a lukewarm reaction from the audience and the last couple had gone very badly (as in, I got given 6s when everybody else was getting 9s). I was on the verge of accepting that I just didn’t have what it takes and giving up. And then I turned up for one last hoorah, expecting to come last and totally humiliate myself again, and it was like a fairy tale (or, at least, a cheesy made-for-TV movie) – the audience treated me like a rock star, the expert judges gave me incredibly flattering scores and people seemed to assume I was a pro who knew what I was doing. It was the first time I really believed I might be somewhat good at this. I was so overwhelmed, I kept trying to hug the woman sitting next to me, in the emotion of the moment completely forgetting she was a total stranger.
Both times I’ve appeared at Raise The Bar have also been amazing. Danny always manages to attract an enormous audience. It’s also a very young audience – I felt a bit like Ronald McDonald – but an insanely enthusiastic one and one which really listens and thinks about what it’s heard and is open to all kinds of poetry. It’s definitely my favourite night in Bristol at the moment.
8. What would be the overriding theme of your poetry, if there is one?
I’m probably best known for my poems moaning about my epically rubbish lovelife. I do write poems about other things, but those seem to be the ones that are the most popular.
9. How do you write? Do you have a specific time and place and set of procedures, or do you wait for inspiration to strike?
No, I don’t have any kind of system. I usually just wait for inspiration to strike, but I do sometimes give it a helping hand – I attend a brilliant poetry group where we’re given a set theme every month; if I know there’s a write-in at a café near me, I’ll try to go along; and I find that nothing coaxes the muse out of hiding like a deadline, so I will look up calls for submissions and force myself to produce something by the cut-off date.
Some of my poems come very easily, others take months of agonised tinkering.
10. One of your poems is a hilarious critique of slam poetry styles. Do you see a certain dominant style at such events? Does it help to be distinctive?
People often interpret that poem as a damning critique of slam poetry, but I actually wrote it when I was preparing for a major slam and was putting myself under enormous pressure to come up with the perfect poem, that would tick all the right boxes. Of course, I produced nothing but shit during this period, as I wasn’t being myself – I was trying to manufacture poetry with cynical, mercenary intentions, and be who other people wanted me to be. That never works. It’s not so much a critique of slam poetry as a critique of my own Machiavellian ambition and cackhanded slam tactics.
That said, there are things in slam poetry that piss me off and it does come out in that poem. In particular, I hate the amount of virtue-signalling that goes on at slams – people writing safe, anodyne poetry that preaches to the converted and doesn’t attempt to tell people anything they don’t already know. Yes, there are too many racists and homophobes in the world, but by and large they don’t attend spoken word events, so if you’ve come to tell people racism and homophobia is bad, you’re probably in the wrong venue.
Going back to your question, I think it helps to be distinctive with expert judges and with promoters and publishers, who are heartily sick of seeing Tesco Value versions of Kate Tempest and Shane Koyczan and want to see people who have their own things to say.
Some slam audiences, though, really don’t want you to be distinctive. If you don’t sound like a carbon copy of every other slam poet they’ve ever heard, they think you’re doing it wrong. That’s something that frustrates me. Fortunately, though, those audiences are in the minority – most spoken word audiences are very embracing and eclectic.