Last week, I spoke to Dockers MC. This week, it's the turn of the prodigiously talented Polarbear.
How did you get into performance poetry?
My best mate told me it was just rhyming without a beat and that I should get on stage at a poetry night in Birmingham. He had no idea what it was really and neither did I. I was first to perform that night and if I hadn’t been I probably wouldn’t have got up.
It definitely wasn’t a bunch a rhymers spitting to no beat.
How would you describe your work?
Stories about people and things with a nod of the cap to my first cultural love.
Do you think there's a difference between 'page' and 'performance' poetry? If so, what?
There are people who write very well, whose work loses something in performance and there are people who perform well who seem weak on the page. I’m a big believer in the adage ‘good is good’ and that the best can cut it either way.
None of that is an answer to the question really. Yes, I think there is a difference. I think that when you are speaking your work on stage there are demands in terms of immediacy, delivery and personality that are not present in the same way for page poems. On the page, words work without the packaging of a stranger and must stand on their own. The goal of both is connection and imagery plays a big part.
For me it becomes clear early on in the writing whether a piece is meant to be spoken or read.
Why should someone come to a performance poetry gig?
To remember that words and their use can actually be fun, powerful and important.
What do you think your best poem is, and why?
I’m selfish. I don’t share anything until I’m happy with it and when that point comes I think it’s good. Once something is finished and I’ve shared it how I wanted to I move on. I think this is the main reason why I’m probably not cut out to be a performance poet because I get no real pleasure from performing the same pieces again and again.
I think that the best piece I have written is called ‘Fingers’. It was the first and only time I have attempted to sum up a direct personal sentiment and the fact that I’ve never felt to return to the subject matter directly speaks for itself. ‘If I Cover My Nose You Can’t See Me’ was pretty satisfying as it was something that I hadn’t seen done in the realms of spoken word and I’m very proud of the story. The new piece I’m writing currently is looking like it could be alright too.
If you could nick one other person's poem and claim it as your own, which poem would it be, and why?
For me so much of the enjoyment, disgust or indifference I have towards performed pieces is down to my own reactionary thoughts as to an artist's motivations and personality. I genuinely believe there are people who I wouldn’t enjoy no matter what they did and others find interesting regardless. With that in mind anything I do like a lot feels intrinsically linked to the person I witnessed speaking it and couldn’t imagine myself speaking. That’s a shit diplomatic answer which although true is really boring.
Kim Trusty wrote a piece called ‘A Quiet Heart’ and I’d steal that from her sleeping fingers.
What typifies bad performance poetry to you?
A self-satisfied rant in a desperate need for applause.
What do you think of the state of the UK performance poetry scene at the moment? Is it okay to talk about a 'scene', or is that a bit unhelpful?
To be honest I’m not sure. I get asked this a lot and give pretty much the same answer every time. I don’t really go to nights and watch stuff. I don’t really feel part of any scene. I actually perform pretty rarely and so the only thing I can say is that due to the opportunities that have a risen since I started doing this in 2005 I now earn a living from writing, performing and teaching about writing and performing so something must be ok.
Oh, and there’s too many frustrated comedians and crap rappers.
Tell us about a particularly memorable reaction you've had to your work.
I genuinely am constantly surprised by reactions. I’ve not really had a stinker of an experience so it’ll have to be positive ones. The most vocal are usually from people who were either a) not expecting to enjoy something called ‘poetry’ or b) not even expecting to see a stranger just talking on stage.
I love the sink or swim nature of what we do. The raw immediacy of a setting where attention is not guaranteed is something that I think a lot of artists shy away from and hide behind the idea that their work has moved on.
I believe I'm right in saying you're just finishing a run of your debut full-length solo show, If I Cover My Nose You Can't See Me. Can you just say a little bit on what the show was about and how the experience was for you? You had Goonism producing visuals live for the show - how did you come to include that element and how did you feel it worked out?
The story is about how we create things to fill gaps left by other things and what happens to what we used to want. It revolves around the lives of two characters who live in a tower block and have something they're trying to do.
I'm really proud of the piece. It was a story that I'd been thinking about for a while and I knew what i wanted it to be and what i wanted to say so i just started and it sorted itself out. I'm happy that it is entertaining enough for people to enjoy live, but also the nerd in me is smiling at the detail that is there both in terms of content and form. If I go on I'm gonna sound like a knob.
The best part of the experience was working with Yael Shavit, who both directed and developed the piece with me. It was so important for me for it to exist in it's own right rather than serve or be served by my Polarbear persona and we achieved that. To be in a story when you tell it and hold people for an hour but also let them leave with questions was a goal I think we achieved.
Once the story had been written I wanted to play with what we could do regarding the experience of seeing it live. I'm not big on cross art collaborations sharing a stage (for my own work anyway) and knew Goonism from seeing Secret Wars (live artwork battling event that tours all over the world). I loved his work. the emotive simplicity and basic moodiness of his characters felt perfect for the story. i approached him and he liked the story and was interested in exploring narrative in his work so we started playing around. he likes drawing live for an audience and it's magical to watch a white wall get turned into what is in effect a huge movie still. So when you come to see the show, we take over the venue. Goonism artwork all around the space and foyer, him drawing live outside while i speak the story in the space so when you come out after the story you get to watch him create a scene from the film you just listened to. It's pretty exciting and really feels like you're stepping into the world of the characters and that's Goonism's doing as much as mine. We have begun developing a graphic Novel of the story but it's such a long process it'll be ages. proper ages.
So yeah. I'm pleased. As we say in Brum, it's not shit.