Why spoken word needs a bigger audience.

What does spoken word actually do? What is it’s purpose?

There have been grumblings on various social media platforms that the issues raised in spoken word go no further than the echo chamber of like minded audiences. A prime example of this would be slam competition in which the winning performer is they who the audience most agrees with, or judges to be the most worthy winner, based solely on the issues addressed by the poet. And while it is good that such issues and themes are brought to public attention or at least reaffirmed within the minds of the audience, there is also the suspicion that this, and this alone, is as far as the message will get.

I am an optimistic person and I see every performance or poem as an opportunity to change the world, for the better. Yet it seems to me that beyond the lucky few whose poems become viral social media hits, few ever really reach in to the wider public consciousness. Partly this may be a fault of the set up of the current spoken word community, in that most spoken word performers are performing to other spoken word performers, and are reacting and being driven on by other spoken word performers, or indeed, writing poems specifically to raise issues not that they care about the issues terribly deeply, but rather more that in so doing they hope to win slam competitions.

As a consequence of this, I believe that spoken word really needs to break out into the mainstream. There are certainly more performance nights now than there was when I first started, and certainly more performers, too. The Nationwide tv advert campaigns have certainly helped bring performance poetry to a wider audience, but it really still is a niche art form.

I am a spoken word performer. I am a comedy spoken word performer. I tell people that this is what I do and they look at me kind of blankly. They’ve never heard of it. The vast majority of my friends are not artists or poets, nor do they care for art or poetry. Most of them like comedy, and I know that if they could get a sense of what it is that I and others do, they would really enjoy it. But there’s nothing for them to grasp as an example of spoken word.

We need a regular mass audience platform. It’s Ok being tucked away on Radio Four just before midnight, or on the occasional advert, but there needs to be a showcase both for established performers and up and coming poets. The success of Kate Tempest shows that there is an interest in what we do, and the best selling live poetry act in the country is Pam Ayres, but how many people would link these act, or consider the variety which falls between these two fine examples?

We need exposure. We need to be broadcast and for the top names of our art to be as acclaimed as those in other art forms. There need to be stories and articles, television programmes, radio interviews. Spoken word needs to appear in the mainstream, constantly. The three minute form of a poem is perfect for social media and YouTube, but there needs to be something with prestige and acclaim. A Top of the Pops for spoken word. A Live at the Apollo for performance poetry.

Only then will spoken word become truly viable, truly a voice for issues which need to be raised and discussed. We are part of a wonderful community of enthusiastic writers and performers, and only when our voices are magnified and broadcast further, can we do our bit to change the world and change people’s minds.

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Notes to the Producer – A Poem

Notes to the Producer

I am the firm-jawed space captain
And this is my show.
I’m the randy tough shirt-ripping hero
You know the way it goes.
I’m the brown-haired stubbled morally-upright
Captain of this ship
I’m the father figure hunky macho man
Who never loses his grip.

Each week the show ends
With the threat of evil lessened.
I’m the laser shooting alien bating guy
Who teaches everyone a lesson.
My assistant this whole time has been
An affable old curmudgeon
Who dispenses words of wisdom and sanity
With every alien that i bludgeon.

The producers met last year
And while they were pleased gosh I’m so heroic
In my body hugging one piece spacesuit
Making me be both ridiculous and stoic
Decided to give me a new assistant,
A scientist, with test tubes and litmus .
But from the first moment of our first rehearsal
He turned out to be as camp as Christmas.

Viewer figures started to go up.

First day on set he seemed upset and
Insisted on rewriting his script
Pretending to get just a little aroused
At the sight of my shirt getting ripped.
And when we were held captive by then
Evil King Empreror of the Gargantuan Lizard Men he asked, could he
Remark that the Gargantuan Lizard Men were Gargantuan
In every place but the one that they really should be.

To the maniacal plotting demon wizard,
While supposedly undercover
He remarked to him, oh, you’re so butch!
You must get it from your mother.
While running away on Forbius Seven
Pursued by the furious Forbius Sevenese,
He adlibbed the line, ooo, a pair of handcuffs,
Now what shall we do with these?

Viewer figures went through the roof.

To the giant snake like Mega Octopus
Who wouldn’t let us pass,
Presumably unaffected by it’s mind altering powers he said,
Ooo, you’ve got a face like a slapped arse.
And my catchphrase I loved, as I jump into action,
‘Power it up and hit the switch!’
Was replaced by his own insistence by the phrase,
‘Brace yourself, bitch!’

And all those corny jokes about my ray gun.
Don’t point that thing at me.
Gosh, that’s a big one.
Does it shoot as well as it looks?
My my, you’ve polished that one up nicely.
Look at the shaft on that.
Big ones are so much harder to conceal.
Is it difficult to get a good aim with one that size?
I’ve never seen one that shape before.
Keep that thing covered up, I’ve just had a sausage.

I wanted such fame and tough guy acclaim
But my dreams have all been torpedoed.
It’s hard to have dignity when captured by robots
He says, ooo, were going to get probed!
The scripts for next year
I really do fear
Have just been released by the studio.
And while my name is still in the frame
I’ve been reduced to just a brief cameo.
I was the firm jawed space captain
And this used to be my show.

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The Unbearable Lightness of Robert Garnham

I’ve been busy writing a lot during the last twelve months and the upshot of this is that I have a lot of material which doesn’t fit in with the any of the projects I’ve been working on. The idea came after a conversation with film maker John Tomkins to make a short mini web series.

The hardest part was coming up with a title, and after exhausting Plop, Whimsy, or just Series, and every other one word idea, I came up with the Unbearable Lightness of Brian. Humorous as this was, the main problem was that my name is not Brian. So I settled on the rather less colourful, but rather more meaningful, The Unbearable Lightness of Robert Garnham.

It was a joy to make the series and we’ve optimistically called it Season One.

And here’s the first one! There’ll be one a week now for the next seven weeks.

https://youtu.be/b4fTPDC4vwU
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Englefield Green Blues

Between 1994 and 1996 I worked at a small village shop in the village of Englefield Green in Surrey. I was twenty years old and it felt like the best job in the world, because I got to know all the local characters. The drunks, the ne’erdowells, the good people, the bad people. A local author who was published to great acclaim came in every day after the school run. A member of the House of Lords.the local vicar and the local priest, who would buy the Holy Water and take it away to be blessed. Oh, such good times.

While I was there I wrote a comedy novel called Englefield Green Blues, about a trainee guardian angel who was not very good at his job. The novel was a turning point for me because it was the first time that I employed, throughout the narrative, funny poetry. The other day I sat down and looked at the poems again. They may not be classics, but they take me right back to 1995.

1.
Englefield Green Blues
(A song for the ukulele)

Plang plang plang plang pla-la-lang plang plang
Plang plang plang plang pla-la-lang plang plang

I told my wife
I says to her
What you looking
At me for?
And she says back
To me that is
This cola’s lost its fizz

Plang plang plang plang pla-la-lang plang plang
Plang plang plang plang pla-la-lang plang plang

I took it back
To the corner shop
He says to me
What’s this for?
I says to him
You know what it is
This cola’s lost its fizz

Plang plang plang plang pla-la-lang plang plang
Plang plang plang plang pla-la-lang plang plang

You take a gulp
It’s stale and flat
I says to him
Well fancy that
Just get me a refund
No need for a tizz
This cola’s lost its fizz

Plang plang plang plang pla-la-lang plang plang
Change of key
Plang plang plang plang pla-la-lang plang plang
First key again
Plang plang plang plang pla-la-lang plang plang

This cola’s lost its fizz
This cola’s lost its fizz
Oh yeah this cola’s lost its fizz
No its hasn’t
Yes it has
No it hasn’t
Yes it has
This cola’s lost its fizz

2. Fairground

It’s a fairground, it’s a fairground
Adults full price children free
Merry go round, merry go round,
Will you take a ride with me?

Tunnel of love, dodge the dogems,
Life is but a chamber of horrors
When it’s midnight at the funfair
You don’t care about tomorrow.

Roll up
Roll down
Fall down
Roll over
Tell me when
This feelings over.
Fairground
Fairground
Fairground people
We’re all just visitors
We’re all just sampling
life.

Funfair funfair
Why the hell should you care?
You know where you’re going
You know you can’t get there
Merry go round, miserable go round
Candy floss yes please
Eat it quick, kiss me quick,
I’m begging on my knees!

Roll up
Roll down
Fall down
Roll over
Tell me when
This feelings over.
Fairground
Fairground
Fairground people
We’re all just visitors
We’re all just sampling
life.

Win a goldfish, win a horse
You can take it home, of course.
Life’s so happy, life’s so fab
I’m going to explode with mirth.
Throw your balls at aunt Sally,
She won’t throw them back.
Ha ha ha
Ha ha ha
Ha ha ha ha ha ha haaaa.

Roll up
Roll down
Fall down
Roll over
Tell me when
This feelings over.
Fairground
Fairground
Fairground people
We’re all just visitors
We’re all just sampling
life.

3. Flute

I played my flute
Till the cows came home.
Tum de tum de tum de de
Tum de tum de tum de de
I played my flute like a woman possessed
Toodle toodle toodle all day.

I played my flute
I played my flute
And then I stopped
For the cows had come home.

4. I Am A Genius

There is a fine line
Between genius and prat.
Like:
This poem is either brilliant
Or
Rubbish.
Ooga ooga ooga ooga ooga
As the sun sets over
Englefield Green
And the vampires walk the aisles
I ponder
I ponder life through poetry.
Ooga.

5. Silly hat.

Do not wear
A silly hat.
People will say
‘What is that?’
You will have
To take it off
We will then
Suppress a cough
That is really
A raucous laugh
Cos its sensible
By half
To wear a hat
That suits your head
Wear that hat?
I’d rather be dead!

6. Strong wind pot tragedy.

Flower pot
On the wall
In the gale
Defying all.

Flower pot.
On the ground.
Potting compost
All around.

7. Untitled (Although Now It’s Called That It Has a Title,
Therefore No Longer Untitled)

The cosmos is so big
And I am so small
You should never get the two confused.
Lord knows, I don’t!
It would be embarrassing
To book into an hotel
Under the name ‘Existence’
Or look up at the night sky
And say
‘Doesn’t George look lovely tonight?’

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Jason Disley’s new book

Jason Disley’s new book Songs of Benevolence and Rage will be released very soon and I was very chuffed indeed to write the introduction for it.

I first came across Jason Disley over twenty years ago. His book, The New Beat Generation, was full of exciting poetry which spoke to me, as a young man interested in literature and the power of words. I shared his enthusiasm for jazz and the beat poets and I must have read the book about ten times, cover to cover. His was one of the first poetry books I ever read for pleasure.

Fast forward twenty years and for reasons which I’m still not quite sure about, I’d become a comedy spoken word artist and my work was invariably described as ‘poetry’. One day I received an email from someone, asking if they could perform at a night that I was organising at an art gallery, and I thought, hmmm, that name sound familiar. Jason Disley. Jason. Disley. And then it struck me, Jason Disley! The Jason Disley!

Meeting him was an absolute joy, and the years slipped away hearing him perform. Here he was, jazz poet, beat poet, doyen of the new Beat Generation. Did that mean that I, too, was now a part of the new beat generation? Was he Kerouac, was I Burroughs? I felt cool just replying to his email. Hey you kool kat, I wrote. And then I deleted it and wrote, Hello Jason Disley.

I’ve got to know Jason over the last couple of years and I was completely blown away when he asked me to write a foreword for his new collection. The poems are exactly as it says on the cover. Jason is a laid back performer, a lover of jazz, but these poems have an anger seething beneath, a social conscience and a deep concern for our world and its people. ‘Oh, pressure!’, he writes, ‘Explosions, anarchy in the ether’, in a poem titled ‘It Rajns When It Pours’. These are poems against tyranny, poems which howl, poems, indeed, of rage.

Jason’s love of jazz is evident in the ‘Poems of Benevolence’ section. ‘Its benevolence’, he writes, ‘Enveloping you in a sphere of hope that is like an overwhelming validation ‘. In this section he states that it is music that heals us me helps us, music that can set us fee, and a belief in the goodness of words and deeds.

This is a fantastic collection of heart and feeling, which leaves the reader genuinely uplifted. Jason finds joy in the world in spite of his rage, and, as he writes, ‘I do not look to the future, nor back in anger, I breathe the now’, which is as good a philosophy as any. It’s great to know that the spirit of the Beat poets, the jazz mystics, the dreamers and the believers, is still going strong in the work of Jason Disley. Luxuriate, dear reader, in this book, and let him take you to ethereal places.
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On having a larf.

For goodness sake, anything makes me laugh these days. I don’t know what it is but if it’s funny, then I’m in to it. Over the last week I’ve listened to Steve Martin, watched a Judd Apatow Netflix special, several episodes of the Larry Saunders show, I’ve listened to Gecko’s wonderful album, Ivor Cutler, watched an Arnold Brown DVD, Flight of the Conchords, and, believe if or not, Hinge and Brackett. Oh, and I’ve just started rereading Hunter S Thompson.

Why this sudden need to immerse myself in comedy? And also the sort of comedy that I don’t normally watch or listen to or read?

For some reason I’m remarkably receptive at the moment to anything which makes people laugh. I start each day with web comedy shows of snippets, such as Portlandia, to which I’ve become addicted, or Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee. I’ve also watched hundreds of hours of random sketches and web broadcasts from comedians and Youtubers, some of which is particularly cringe worthy or not really funny. And that’s now I spend my breakfast, a bowl of coco pops and squinting at my iPad.

Life by its very nature is serious, and because it’s so serious, it’s also inherently funny. We go to work and we work and we come home from work. To my mind the funniest places in the world are the city of New York and the whole of Britain. These are places where life is taken seriously yet, at the same time, not that seriously. Where humour exists to alleviate awkwardness or to get a point across, where sarcasm dances with parody to create something truly special.

Watching all these funny people, I noticed something funny, and that’s the Funny Muscle. Being funny and spontaneous is a skill which can be developed. I’m using mine right now as I write this sentence and I’m wondering where the next time during this sentence will be where I might be funny. Ok, so it didn’t happen during that sentence, and it’s probably not happening during this sentence either.

The weird thing is, immersing myself in such a way has helped me to see the world differently. I have a day job, which is filled with the usual petty annoyances and temporary hardships, but I look at it now more as a sitcom. Admittedly, not a very interesting sitcoms, but the situations which arise certainly have comedy in retrospect. I get home and I laugh, honestly, I do. Likewise, if you’re afraid of a person, or have a certain aversion to a person because of the way that they make you feel, then look at them as a character in a sitcom. They begin to conform to their own stereotypes and this makes them funny, even if they’re not funny people.

Perhaps that’s why I’m watching so much comedy, and so much diverse comedy. The warbling and innuendo of Hinge and Brackett are a long way from the stand up of, say, Trevor Noah, but they are a diversion from my every day life which I feel that I need right now, to take my mind off the normal crushing loneliness of existence. And in not restricting myself to a certain genre or type of comedy, I’m hoping to give my comedy muscle a huge work out. Though obviously, not enough to end this blog with a joke. IMG_0348

On reading novels again.

I think it was Oscar Wilde who first said, ‘If you go to the supermarket when you’re hungry, you’ll end up buying more’. As ever, Wilde cuts right to the truth of the matter, and its always been the same for me, particularly with books. I go weeks without buying any books, and then have a sudden splurdge.

When I buy a book I’m buying in to the idea of reading it in the most heavenly circumstances. Bright summer light streaming in through the window, a feeling of absolute contentment, and the book being so well written and engaging that life itself becomes a transcendental bliss, a quiet hum for the senses.

When I was studying for university and then postgrad, I read because I had to read, and I read an awful lot, and a lot of that was awful. I still have a library of academic tomes on how to run museums and the correct procedures for hanging a painting. By the time I finished my degree and my dissertation, I felt that I didn’t want to read, ever again. Reading became a chore, and I would read for three hours a day, before work, after work, and at spare moments while I was at work.

It’s taken a good four or five years to realise that reading can be done for fun. I didn’t realise I needed glasses until just as my degree was finishing, reading was giving me headaches and I went to the doctor and he sent me to the opticians. The words would dance and move around on the page, the letters would cram themselves up to the letters next to them, and it would take me three attempts to read a sentence, sometimes. And then I’d no longer comprehend the sentence because I was too busy working out what the words and letters were. This was particularly evident during the time that I read Finnegan’s Wake.

I’m reading now for pleasure. There are certain books which I’ve been reading for research, mostly books by spoken word artists and comedians, or books about poetic theory or comedy theory, but now I’m reading for pleasure. I luxuriate in sentences and I take my time to read a book in complete relaxation. In such a way I have began to really appreciate again the form of the novel. I have also been rediscovering books I’d previously read, such as those by Haruki Murakami, Graham Greene, Edmund White, the short stories of Dorothy Parker. I’m just about to start rereading Angela Carter.

Because of this, I’ve started getting excitable around bookshops again. How lovingly do I run my fingers over the covers of random paperbacks, imagining taking them home and reading them. I have fondled many a bestseller. Naturally, a hectic life ensures that the actual act of reading can never live up to this ideal, but it’s like buying a dream. Some time over the next day or so I shall be finishing Graham Greene’s Our Man In Havana, a book I have enjoyed even if one does turn a blind eye to the casual 1950s racism. His spare sentences and use of dialogue are among the best.

So the point of this blog is to reaffirm that I have reaffirmed my love of the literary novel and reading as a pastime.