On ten years as a performance poet 2009-2019

This Sunday afternoon I did a radio interview with Jeff Sleeman. During the interview we talked about the fact that this was my ten year anniversary as a performer and indeed, Jeff had been at the very first gig I’d been to. It seems inconceivable that ten years have passed, for I remember the night in question in precise detail. I remember that three of the performers had been bald and that I mistook one from another, and congratulating them on a poem that they hadn’t performed. And I remember seeing Bryce Dumont a couple of days later doing his shopping and becoming very nervous, having seen a local celebrity out of his stage environment. It all seemed so new and fresh.

Ten years, though.

I asked the host, Chris Brooks, whether I could have a slot at the next event and he said yes. Great! But now a serious problem arose, in that I didn’t have any poems. Not one. I had no material whatsoever. I’d only come along to the night the previous month because I was bored. So I hurriedly wrote two poems, one called My Family, the other called I Don’t Want To Be A Performance Poet. Both of them relied heavily on rhyme. And the latter was somewhat prophetic. So I stood there, hands shaking holding sheets of A4 paper, and amazingly people laughed in all the places where I thought I was saying something funny. In fact, I couldn’t quite believe it. For years I’d written short stories alone and nobody laughed. In one moment I had doubled, tripled, quadrupled the normal audience for my output.

It’s probably fair to say that performance poetry has changed my life. When I look back at everything that I’ve done over the last ten years, I can hardly believe it myself. Ten years ago I was a shy individual who would do anything rather than speak to strangers or hold a conversation. And now I leap on to stages in far flung places and Spout the most meaningless whimsy, and people laugh. I came from a background in which such exuberance was seen as the sort of thing reserved for those from different upbringings, that those who, like me, were raised on the mean streets of Englefield Green’s notorious Forest estate, could not possibly aspire to a life in the performing arts. Culture was out of touch. I didn’t have the right to perform.

Yet I did have one thing going for me, and that’s my homosexuality. Growing up and feeling different to everyone around me, during a time of Section 28 and the AIDS crisis, a time in which homophobia was the natural response and the default setting of organisations and even those in authority around me, I kind of knew that the world wasn’t quite as settled as people assumed. My childhood love of comedy and writing could be more than just a hopeless dream. My voice could be just as legitimate as those who I looked up to, even if I felt that I was not entitled due to my upbringing, my education, my background.

It’s just a shame that it took twenty years for this entitlement to become apparent. We now live in a culture in which we are told that we are all entitled to a voice, and that’s great. By the time I started performing, I was thirty five. The spoken word scene is now filled with young people who leap on the stage from an early age with an imbued sense of entitlement and freedom. It was never this easy!

Regular Robheads will have noticed that I try not to be too autobiographical. Attendance at a poetry night these days, particularly in cities such as London and Bristol, is to be immersed in autobiographies and the dance of the self, explorations of emotion, lessons learned from life and hopes for the future. And yes, I have one or two poems of my own in which I explore my own life and things that have happened, but in the most part, I prefer to keep these away from public exposure. For a start, my own problems and misfortunes are very minor indeed and I have been very fortunate to live a life of contentedness. Secondly, I’m very aware that the persona of Robert Garnham, Professor of Whimsy, who appears on stage, is a complete fabrication. Anything that I say on stage will never have a ring of truth about it. The truth is seldom so convenient as to fit in with a rhyme scheme, and just because something rhymes, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s true.

So what I’m saying in this blog is that I am very happy with the person that I am now, and the progress that I’ve made during the last ten years. Each day as a performance poet is a learning process. I see those around me, those I look up to and admire who are way above me in the spoken word pecking order, and I try to see what they do and the way they achieve it. Jonny Fluffypunk, Rachel Pantechnicon, Byron Vincent, Melanie Branton, Liv Torc, people whose success and acclaim I one day hope to emulate, and that’s what drives me on as an artist and as a human being.

And that’s the last thing I thought I’d mention, here. In honour of my ten years, I’ve started calling myself a performance poet again. The biggest change in the scene that I’ve noticed, and one that has been pointed out by people such as Pete Bearder in his excellent book, is that the community has moved away from the performance poetry of the late 2000s, in which variety was the keyword, and comedy, and props, and general silliness and the willingness to shock, to become a kind of homogenised slam-influenced autobiographical entity known as spoken word. And while I’ve been pleased to acknowledge the ‘art’ part of the phrase ‘spoken word artist’, it’s taken about eight years to realise that this is not who I am. I am a performance poet, and more specifically, a comedy performance poet. And just by carrying on with what I was doing in 2009, (and what other people were doing too), I’ve somehow become a bit unique. And you know what? I’m really comfortable with that!

So, then, ten years! I’ve had the most amazing time. To celebrate, I’ve undertaken a little mini tour and the lovely interview with Jeff can be found below. My part of the show starts just after the hour mark.

https://m.mixcloud.com/jeff-sleeman/happy-sundays-03-11-19/

Author: Robert Garnham

Performance and spoken word artist.

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