I Know what People Are Thinking When They See Me

I know what people are thinking when they see me. I know what theyre thinking, they’re thinking, now then a man with a smug demeanour. There’s a man who’s not in it for the money.

There’s a man who forsakes the capitalist system and does not perform poetry for personal monetary gain.

Well let me tell you, I got books for sale.

I tried to write a poem about an old photocopier last night. It just wouldn’t scan.

I don’t need contraception. Poetry is my contraception. My poetry has helped me not sleep with more people than you can imagine.

People tend to know instinctively that I am a poet. How so they know this? Is it the jacket? Is it the book of poetry? Or is it that I arrive at gigs alone?

Yet I don’t feel like a poet. My rhyming couplets have all split up. My found poems were hidden for a reason. Nobody has hung around long enough to tell me what my rhyme scheme is.

So, what is poetry? Percy Bysshe Shelley said that poets are the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’. I suppose the ‘acknowledged legislators ‘ would be governments and town councils.

To be honest, I don’t think it would work. Have you ever seen a group of poets trying to solve a planning dispute?

I suppose it depends if they work in rhyme or blank verse.

Well, I think we’ll put the school next to the pool. And perhaps also the church hall.

The shopping centre. Hmmm, can’t think of where to put the shopping centre. I know! Let’s call it a mall, and then it can go with the school and the pool and the church hall!

The library. Hmm, has this town got an aviary?

The food waste refuse anaerobic digestion chamber . . . What the hell?

Mind you, judging by the high street in Swindon, it looks like the surrealists have already been at work.

So I’m a poet, and I get all kinds of weird commissions. Sometimes I think that my career is going nowhere. Sometimes I don’t.

I’ve recently been working as a Poet in Residence at a paper clip factory. It really is stationery.

I was supposed to do a workshop for a fear of commitment support group, but nobody put their name down.

The other night I was double booked, I was also meant to be at a gig for a group of amnesiacs. So what I’ll do is I’ll go along next week and remind them how good I was.

I’m actually looking for ways out into other lines of work and I think I’ve come up with a winner. I’ve decided to start up assertiveness training courses.

Because if it doesn’t work, nobody’s going to ask for a refund. They won’t be brave enough.

And if anyone does ask for a refund . . .
I can just say, well. There you go.

But poetry for me is a lot like sex. When it’s good, it’s very, very good and you wish it would never stop.

And when it’s bad, it’s just plain embarrassing. Although I do get roughly the same number of laughs.

The thing I like best about poetry is that it’s not all about profit and personal gain, it’s not a hugely capitalist enterprise, people aren’t in it to make a quick buck. And by the way, I’ve got books for sale.

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On one of my greatest comedy influences.

My father, David Garnham, passed away twenty four hours ago. It’s probably too early to process this just yet, but there is a strange urge within me to explain what he meant to me and now he influenced my work as a comedic spoken word artist.

Dad was a man overwhelmingly of immense humour. He could always see the funny side of any situation and had a great knack of summing up a situation or a person in a very short sentence. His humour was gentle and never cruel. He would always comment on the people we saw whenever driving. Indeed, he could have made a career as a driving seat comedian, if such an art form ever existed. If we were passing a bus stop and someone put out their arm for the bus behind us, he would say, ‘Put your glasses on, does this look like a bus?’ Whenever the traffic lights were changing he would put down his foot and shout, ‘I’m going!’, which were Donald Campbell’s last words before he lost control of the Bluebird speedboat.

The thing with Dad was that he was a great raconteur. He would find the humour in all kinds of situations and craft stories about things that had happened to him or that he had seen with all the skill of a storyteller or a comedian. He would tell us stories about the time he used to work in the Australian outback, where everyone lived in cabins which had their names stencilled on the outside, but whoever had done it had misread the piece of paper and stencilled his name as Doctor Gamban, mistaking his initials for Dr and completely misreading his surname. He would talk about working in the frozen wilds of Canada, driving an army truck and accidentally driving it straight into the back of a tank. And as an older man, he would describe the various clack trips he went on with Mum with the National Trust, or as he called them, the Twin Set And Pearls Brigrade. In fact, any time he went anywhere, even if it was just a trip to the supermarket, he would come back and describe something funny that he had seen.

My friend Anne says that this is a trait I’ve inherited. She says that weird things always happen around me, but I think it’s just that I see them with a comedian’s eyes, something that my Dad taught me from an early age. Without my Dad realising it, he was using the methods and skills of observational comedy, (which, ironically, he was never a fan of), and this is one of the reasons which I’ve always loved Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Dad was often a bizarre mix of Larry David and Victor Meldrew. And the world he lived in was like an endless episode of Last of the Summer Wine, a programme he loved.

So my dad’s method of dealing with people was simple. Distill a person down to their immediate characteristics, turn them into a character and then deal with them as such. Then everything that they do just adds to the narrative of who they are. In such a way, for example, all of his neighbours had nicknames that he gave them. Some of these were quite rude, some of them were downright funny. Musical Cars, for example, because they kept moving their cars around in their drive way. Ay Op, who lived across the road, was from up north and said Ay Op a lot. Dogs Head Stuck In Gate Woman, because she stopped to chat once and her dog got its head stuck in the gate. Backpack Man, because he wore a backpack. The fun just never ended.

I can’t imagine my Dad ever hating someone. By turning people into affectionate caricatures, it was impossible to take them seriously enough to hate them. He would describe a person he knew who ran a hotel with an iron fist, who he nicknamed Wiggy, for obvious reasons. And then describe Wiggy’s attempts to put on a community coffee morning, in which people were only allowed a coffee once they had a biscuit, and if you ate your biscuit before the coffee arrived, then you didn’t get a coffee. Only he would tell this story in such a funny way that I’d be laughing about it days afterwards and telling everyone I met. In fact there are so many of these stories, I’ll have to write them down.

Naturally, my humour is different, and the things I find funny are every so slightly different, but there’s always a sense whenever I write something humorous that this might be the sort of thing that Dad would like. He also loved music, aircraft and motor racing, two things which I also love, and he was a very, very clever man with a mind that could solve all kinds of logical, spatial or engineering problems. One of the biggest things I learned from him was that there’s always a solution to every problem.

I shall miss him greatly, of course, but I’m immensely thankful for the humour. He was not a fan of mawkish sentimentality and for this reason I probably won’t be writing a slew of dead dad poems. He always wanted people to be happy, or at the very least, contented, and for obvious reasons right now I’m not exactly happy, but I am very grateful.

On haiku.

You know, I was thinking the other day. Why does the word monosyllabic have so many syllables?

And naturally, this got me thinking about haiku. You know, the short from Japanese poems.

Do you know what makes me really annoyed? It’s when you go to a poetry recital, and a poet announces that They’re going to perform a haiku, but first they remind us What the rules of a haiku are. And the explanation of what a haiku is Takes longer than the haiku they read out, All that build up, and it’s over.

It’s just like sex. Except it’s something I can do, too.

I wrote one the other day which I was Really proud of.

The man with no arms,

Fighting in the local pub.

He was kicking off.

So shall we bask in its glory?

Note the syllables. Five, seven. Five, It’s a work of art.

I was so pleased with the haiku that I put it on Facebook as a status update. And I got the following comments.

Edna – Nice haiku

Steven – Great haiku.

Gary – Your limerick is missing two lines.

Mike – Like it, mate. Smiley face.

Paul – Love it, lol.

Greg – Great stuff, lol.

Paul – Hey Greg, how’s it going? Lol.

Greg- Not bad, Paul, lol.

Paul – You out tonight? Lol.

Greg – Staying in tonight, lol.

Paul- Saving up for your holidays? Lol.

Greg – Yeah, lol.

Paul – Minehead again this year? Lol.

Greg- Yeah, lol.

Paul – Camping of hotel? Lol.

Greg- To be honest we thought about taking a tent but after last time with Dawn’s bad back I thought we’d better not risk it what with that and it being allergy season, you know she does suffer, the poor thing, so we’ve booked in to a nice hotel for the week, lol.

Paul – Lol.

Greg- Hey Robert Garnham, did you write this on an aircraft? Lol.

Me- Yes, as a matter of fact.

Greg – Then you’re a member of the mile haiku club.

Lol.

Robert Garnham Live at Brixham Theatre

Here’s a video of a gig I did at Brixham Theatre in September 2018. I hope that you enjoy it.

On discovering my audience demographic

I’ve often written that my ideal demographic seems to be people above the age of seventy. This is an unusual position for a spoken word artist to be in. Most of my contemporaries are edgy and youthful and perform poems about social issues with anger and verve and bravery. And as a result they are feted by audiences and social media, and their videos go viral, and they are surrounded by youthful acolytes and admirers. This is fantastic, of course, and I would do anything to have a similar audience. However, the gigs where I have gone down the best have generally been to those of . . Well . . Octogenarians.

The good thing about this is that these are usually people who have disposable income and want to buy books as a result. They have the money to buy the books and the time to read them. The bad thing about this is, most of them aren’t on social media. So this means that they are not exactly likely to go searching for me on the web after a gig. As a result I rely on word of mouth.

I also tackle social issues, of course, using the medium of comedy poetry. I was chatting to a comedian on Monday night and he laughed when I told him that I saw myself as a safe LGBT poet for a straight audience. But I wasn’t joking. I’ve done LGBT gigs and while they’ve gone ok, the biggest reaction always comes from straight audiences. It’s rather satisfying to be quietly subversive, slyly introducing concepts such as gay rights and representation of minorities through the medium of comedy poetry to an audience who one would assume to be more conservative in outlook. But not necessarily. I believe that most of the audiences I’ve performed to are open minded and not the stereotypical Daily Mail readers that one might imagine. Except in Tiverton.

So last week I did a variety show at a theatre in Brixham. It was great to have a big stage to play around with, greater still to have a huge audience who laughed in all the right places. They loved what I did, and I loved performing to them on a rainy night at a Devon fishing port. The demographic, again, was somewhat mature, which I didn’t realise until I left, as the stage lights were so bright. But it went down a dream and I enjoyed every minute.

This doesn’t mean that I’ve given up performing to young people. I love young audiences, as they do weird things like whooping and clicking their fingers, which when I first heard I thought was an attempt to summon a waiter. And then afterwards they come up and say things like, wow, that was totes amazeballs. But lately I’ve grown to accept and then love the fact that people over a certain age are still up for a laugh and a bit of naughtiness.

Here’s a video of what I got up to

https://youtu.be/CyVrd7Z-X_8

Spoken word as fun : The peculiar Torbay spoken word micro climate

Spoken word as fun : The peculiar Torbay spoken word micro climate

I don’t know what’s happening with spoken word in Torbay at the moment, but there seems to be a remarkable increase in energy and interest which is quite thrilling to see. This last month, both Stanza Extravaganza and Big Poetry, the two spoken word nights in Torquay, were standing room only and sold out. Both had audiences that were bigger than the actual venues, which is certainly a nice problem to have.

I was chatting with Brenda Hutchings as she gave me a lift home, and she was of the opinion that spoken word audiences in Torbay now see it as normal that they should come to such a night and expect comedy poetry. I believe she’s right, and that this is a local thing, a peculiar speciality just of the Torbay scene. Audience members in Bristol, London, even Exeter, do not automatically expect that what they are about to see will necessarily make them laugh, and that if this happens, then it’s just a bonus. However, Torbay’s audiences expect to be entertained and to have a laugh. This is not to say that serious poetry and serious issues are not tolerated. Indeed, serious content is magnified by such expectations. Witness, for example, the rapturous response to Melanie Crump’s poem about women’s rights and empowerment.

Not only do there seem to be a lot of comedic poets in Torbay, but they are diverse and funny in their own unique way. Melanie Crump and Brenda Hutchings can both be hilariously funny and also deeply serious and emotional. Steve O uses props for incredible effect, Tom Austin uses props and costumes, Joanna Hatfull uses rhyme and storytelling, Shelley Szender explores her material in a relaxed and relatable manner. Both myself and Samantha Boarer, my co host at Big Poetry, look at life and relationships and erotic issues within our work juxtaposing the everyday with the downright filthy.

Part of the success of the local comedy poetry scene is the curating policy of Big Poetry. Each night is put together with one eye on the holistic effect of so many diverse performers, but a big philosophy of the night is to include comedy poets. As well as the local Torbay performers, we invite the funniest poets from Exeter and Plymouth, Totnes and further afield, such as Julie Mullen, Ross Bryant and Jackie Juno, and they become as much a part of Big Poetry as the venue itself. Each has their own loyal following.

I’ve written before of the perculiar nature of the local scene. The poetry nights at the Blue Walnut started almost ten years ago and the emphasis was always on experimentation and comedy, thanks to performers such as Chris Brooks, Bryce Dumont, and the previously mentioned Tom Austin, who would push the performance envelope and be as downright weird as they possibly could be. It was this atmosphere that attracted me to performance and it was with these people that I crafted my own act and stage persona. I can think of nowhere else in the country where these elements hold sway in such a tight geographical location.

We are also very lucky to have some fine poets whose styles are so different and diverse as to add a singular touch to any evening, such as Becky Nuttall, who does an enormous amount for the local art and spoken word scene, and Jason Disley, whose jazz influenced beat poetry is utterly unique. Jason has just started running a new night in Paignton called Speaky Blinders, which is also going from strength to strength and is imbued with the whole Torbay ethos of spoken word as fun. Becky is working hard on various projects bringing art and poetry together, while also running the Stanza Extravaganza poetry nights at the Artizan Gallery.

It’s a thriving scene down here in Torbay, and I feel incredibly privileged to be a part of it. Our audiences are amazing and without them and their encouragement, the scene would not be quite as vibrant as it is.

Incite, LGBT poetry in London, the city as a beacon

Last night I performed a set at Incite, the LGBT poetry night in London run by Trudy Howson. And what a brilliant night it was, a happy and positive showcase of LGBT voices and concerns.

Trudy makes everyone welcome, greeting every audience member and matching up people who are sitting alone. She encouraged several people to sit together and they spent the night chatting and enjoying the poetry. This led to a very friendly atmosphere in the room, of acceptance and bonhomie.

The gig took place at the Phoenix Artists Club on Charing Cross Road, a fantastic venue in the heart of Londons west end surrounded by theatres, with Old Compton Street, itself the heart of gay London, just across the way. A friend of mine, New York drag act Margoh Channing, performed here a couple of years back and has fond memories of doing so, so I was particularly looking forward to following in her high heel footsteps.

I was also a little bit nervous, as I’d been to this night before as a spectator, and the headline acts were earnest and passionate supporters of LGBT rights and their work tinged with a deep seriousness. And while I’m an LGBT artist myself, I am aware that LGBT rights is just a small part of what I do. I’ve always seen myself as an entertainer rather than a poet, and I wasn’t sure if the audience would get my act at all.

As it happens, it all went rather well. The first couple of minutes were a bit tentative, you could tell that the audience really didn’t know what to think, but halfway through the first poem there was a change and people began laughing along with it. This was helped by the fact that the table at the front of the stage was a trio of lovely more mature ladies who laughed in all the right places, and afterwards thanked me for bringing some comedy to the night.

The other acts were amazing and life affirming, and I found their poetry incredibly inspiring, to hear about so many lives and diverse backgrounds and communities but all with the same motivations, the same problems, the same concerns. Trudy herself spoke of moving to London to find love and acceptance, and it seemed that most of the room had also done the same. There was a glorious cohesiveness to the audience, brought together at the Phoenix Artists Club for the same reason. It’s a shame that the gig was only a couple of hours long.

I left to get my train back to Woking. Walking from Charing Cross Road to Waterloo station, I crossed the bridge and saw London itself, its iconic skyline and skyscrapers lit up, and I thought of all those lost souls who drift into the capital in search of love and fulfilment.