In the Glare of the Neon Yak- A progress report

I’m writing this in a shelter on the platform at Whimple Station in Devon. It’s not raining. In fact, it’s a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon. I’m here because I’m waiting for the next train home, having spent the large part of the day working on my new one hour show with my director.

What’s that, I hear you ask? Director? Show? Indeed. The diagnosis is positive. Things are getting serious. I now have a show. It has tour dates. It has a poster for which I went on a photo shoot. It has a script and the script has a start, a middle and an end. Things are getting very real.

The show is called In the Glare of the Neon Yak. I wanted to have a title that would make it stand out from other shows. My last two were called Static and Juicy, but this time I didn’t want any frame of reference and thought that a title which wasn’t one word would be the ideal way to go. The title has had some very good feedback from some of the places where the show will be staged. It seems that fringes, festivals and theatres like quirky titles.

So this is all new for me, this professionalism. My last two shows were intended to showcase my poems but this is a more immersive beast, a performance from start to finish. And that’s what gives me the willies. Every single component of this show is brand new and untested, and I have no idea what the audience reaction will be. My director is very keen on maximising every opportunity for audiences to respond which should make that less scary. Unless the audiences don’t respond!

So here I am at Whimple, thinking, wow, from this tiny Devon village shall grow a piece that will take me right round the UK. My head is full of enthusiasm, but more than anything, the joy of knowing, for the first time in my performance career, that someone else other than me is raking what I do seriously. And that is an amazing feeling!

I can’t wait for people to see this thing.

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On being a poetry fake.

I am a poetry fake.

Sure, they call me a poet. Oh, him, he’s a poet. He’s Robert Garnham, the poet. But whenever they use the word ‘poet’, they always put those little things around it. You know the ones. “”

Of all the wonderful and amazing things that a poet can do with literature and language to make them sing and dance on the page, I cannot do any of them.

My sonnets are too long.
My haiku have too many syllables.
Any internal rhyme scheme is purely accidental.
I’ve never worried, overtly, about enjambement.

I once wrote an ode to a rhododendron and a nun threw up.

I am a poetry fake.

My poetry is so bad that even the rhyming couplets have split up.

My poetry is so bad that nobody has stuck around long enough to tell me what the rhyme scheme is.

My poetry is so bad that even my found poems were hidden for a reason.

I look like a poet.
I wear the coat of a poet.
I smell like a poet – mothballs and polo mints, Parker ink and dandruff.

But a Venn diagram of my interests and those of the average poet would probably resemble the number eight.

But I’m ok with this. Poetry has been the perfect career for me, for two reasons.

One.
I have an irrational fear of success and of being a high achiever.

Two
The average poetry audience is the only demographic where I feel I’m not going to get my lights punched out.

For these reasons, and these only, I am proud to be a poetry fake.

And to prove it, here’s a ‘poem’ for you.

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The lad on the bus watched porn on his phone.
He thought he was alone.
He was probably going home.
Sitting at the front upstairs on a midnight bus
Between sleepy Devon villages, he’s
Not realised I’m sitting there,
Four rows back, trying not to look.

His phone screen lights his little corner,
The attended windows reflecting on two sides
Lots of limbs and flesh and to be honest
I really can’t tell what’s happening and I’m
Trying to distract myself by memorising a
Pam Ayres poem.

He’s wearing a hoodie with the hood up and a
Baseball cap and a thick coat and trackie bottoms
And the poor lad must be hot under all those layers,
Unlike the man and the woman on his phone who
Aren’t really wearing much at all, though even I
Can tell that she’s faking it,
And the man for some reason is wearing a
Deliveroo cyclists uniform and one of those big boxes.
Straight people are weird.

The bus seat head rests form a valley of
Stagecoach orange plastic at the end of which
His quivering mobile held in landscape mode
Acts like a cinema screen at a drive-in.
I ask myself, what would Pam Ayres do?
She’d wonder what kind of plan he was on.
Some of these videos use up a lot of mobile data.
Apparently.

I try not to make a sound.
The 5p carrier bag from Poundstretcher is going
To get me in all sorts of trouble.
I kind of shift down in my seat a little bit.
Part of me is jealous, not only for the impetuosity of youth,
The readily available content and
His healthy spirit of sexual experimentation,
But also because he managed to grab
The seat right at the very front.

Hoodie boy lowers his hood.
He’s got a tattoo behind his ear in Chinese script
Which I momentarily mistake for the Lidls corporate logo.
The bus slows for a stop in a nowhere town,
He puts down his phone and cups his hands against the window,
Sighs deeply, as if suddenly conscious of
All the pain in the world, ennui, inconsequentialities,
The finite nature of human existence, environmental disaster,
The meaningless of life itself, and all the wrongs
Of society.
Seeing my reflection, he jumps, then says,
I hope this bus gets home quickly,
There’s . . . Something I need to do.

Filming ‘Beard Envy’ with John Tomkins.

In 2013 I wrote a poem about being envious of beards. It soon became a staple of my spoken word set and I have performed it hundreds of times around the U.K. and even in New York. It might even be considered the poem I am most well known for, such is it’s reception.

Last year I made a short film with filmmaker John Tomkins based on my poem Professor in the Bathroom and we had a great deal of fun filming if over one day in the cramped confines of his actual bathroom. I was even given a bit of a cameo at the end. John suggested that we do another poem, and I didn’t really think anything more of it until he contacted me with the idea of filming Beard Envy.

But this would be a much more ambitious project. The first stage was for me to come around and record the poem as a basis for the film shoot. As I did this, amusingly, the microphone started falling down, and the actual take that we used was the one where I was crouching down, desperately trying to follow the mic as it slid to the floor.

He then employed a script writer to take my poem and turn it into a proper shooting script. Tom Eastwood is a very talented professional with a BA in Television, and he took my faithful old poem and turned it into a workable script that John might use. The next stage was for John to draw up a rough outline of the camera angles and locations that he would employ. It was at this stage, as we had one of our meetings, that I saw how ambitious his vision would be for Beard Envy.

My part in the production was now done, just as things were starting to get interesting. First of all John went to Exeter to film a Lee Rawlings, who’d previously starred as the Professor in Professor in the Bathroom, this time as the Beard Tamer. For this, Lee borrowed the ringmaster outfit that will be my costume for my new Edinburgh show, In The Glare of the Neon Yak.

John next hired a lead actor for the role of the man who is envious of beards, and for this he found a young actor from Plymouth university, Jack Allum. John was very excited when he told me about Jack who, he assured me, looked very much like a younger version of myself! Naturally I can see no resemblance, though I’m worried that if Jack reads this, he will look at me and see a chilling warning of things to come.

John let me come along to the next day of filming, and this was one of the most bizarre days of my spoken word career. In the confines of a cabaret club in my home town of Paignton, John, Jack, cameramen, sound people and photographers mingled with members of the South West Beard Association to film the key Beard Competition scenes. And what a wonderful group of people they Were! Cheerful and accommodating, we shared stories of beard shenanigans and they all enjoyed themselves immensely. Jack, too, was excellent, professional and enthusiastic for what is, by all accounts, his first film role. And me? I hung around, likening myself to Larry David on the set of Seinfeld, lurking the other side of the camera and somehow responsible for all this madness.

I hate to use the cliche ‘surreal’, but that’s the only word I can find to describe seeing a whole project born out of my own imagination come to life. I really kept having to remind myself that I was responsible, and I kept telling people, ‘All I did was write a poem!’

It was an amazing day and I’ve never had so much fun on a Sunday afternoon in Paignton before.

Two more filming days followed, and John showed me the rushes, the film looks absolutely amazing and the performances spot on. John did film me doing a very brief cameo to go at the start of the film, as a silent era movie star.

I really must thank John Tomkins for his skill not only in realising his artistic vision, but also in drawing together diverse people and artists to create something truly special. The finished product will look amazing, and having seen a lot of the scenes, albeit in the wrong order, I really cannot wait for other people to see it too!

Find out about the film here

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