Wednesday, 18 March 2009
The Performance Poet Interviews - #5: Nathan Jones
How did you get into performance poetry?
There were some important men in my life early on. Mainly Ginsberg, then Gershwin lyrics, then the terrible Thomases (Dylan and R.S)… and Eliot! Where am I going with this?
Through certain half deserted streets, probably. So anyway reading Eliot really gave me a kick up the arse – the time when we were taught Prufrock by Matt Jordan in John Moores University, and he was giving up fags and marching up and down the room going DO I DARE! And DO I DARE! That was a big turning point, when I started to find a voice that wasn't 'beat'.
Anyway, I was writing poems about the drinking booze in the neon city and suchlike all the way through university. But they didn't give us much idea about what you actually do with poems once you've written them, aside from the fact that you send them to poetry periodicals. I didn't really see why you would want to do that. So after university I started writing kind of Odes for Mercy magazine, which seemed to be the only real outlet that wasn't just for other poets, and I had a pseudonym so I felt I didn't have to be all lofty or serious. My first Odes were for The Grapes, a pub that wound up being called the Sick Lizard for a while, which I lived in sitting at the bar and eventually we drank all the liquor, paying for it by standing behind the bar and pouring it for ourselves, and I remember that every afternoon we would have to go to the off-licence and buy more cans of beer – ostensibly to sell, but seeing as there was no heating or running water in there you couldn't blame anyone for not coming in and eventually we drank the cans of beer and went to sleep on the seats there. It was like being the barman out of Quantum Leap, in a way. Then the pub went out of business for some reason and I had to go up the road. They were dreadful times, and the poem reflected that with a certain amount of pathos I think. And it wasn't about Me, so you could call that a bit of a watershed. That should be in those top tips you were going through. Don't write about yourself all the time. It's boring.
So eventually I got round to producing stuff quite regularly, most of it about myself, and I bought a tweed suit that in retrospect made me look like Compo out of Last Of The Summer Wine, and I started reading my poems out then. Selfish, not funny poems with no shouting or music. Roll up in one hand, whiskey in the other.
Then I started working in a café at FACT and Ross Sutherland came in. Your friend and mine. I was going bald, although now I have a fine head/face of hair. Then we started Fiction @ FACT, poetry events with tunes and drinking and that. I definitely had in mind the sort of 'happening' vibe that you associate with the first readings of Ginsberg's Howl poem, which I still think was the last poem to actually change the world. And anyway I would perform there every month and see Ross perform his stuff which was much better than mine and every month I would try to top him by doing a pastiche of a different 'school' of writing… surrealism and imagism and that… Once a keyboard player fell off the back of the stage. That was great. And Nick wore a colander. And Ross would carry on being better than everyone just being himself and getting all the girls. And then I developed a faux-welsh accent, which worked kind of like the pseudonym, I guess. Then I was a performance poet for a while, because I had a poem called 'Too Hot For Love', which people could remember afterwards. Catchphrases are good. Refrains, so people know what you're on about even if they have started thinking about their mole for a minute. And a silly accent.
Although I've always thought that my links aren't really good enough for me to call myself a performance poet.
So yes, I blame it on Ross Sutherland. Great poet, great performer, bad gait. Awful gait. And all the Fiction poets really, Nick Holloway, Dave Bamford, Olly Grunner, and now you and Joe and the two Lukes [Kennard and Wright], who push you and make you feel part of something. Nick ran a performance night too, called Someone Is Watching, which in a way was a spooky premonition of our current nights Wave If You're Really There, perhaps we are religious poets! Anyway, yes, Nick's nights were every Sunday so that was a regular thing you had to write for too. That was a good way to learn, and 'be'.
How would you describe your work?
Sometimes it is lengthy and discursive, sort of bouncy and friendly, like someone who is having an excellent conversation with a good friend not letting them get a word in edgeways and really trying to get to the bottom of a subject I suppose. Although that is just my lastest poem.
Visceral realism, I do. Or what I would call visceral anyway, with some real raw feeling thrown in for good measure. 'Shit, I'm angry.' Or 'He was angry and sad. What is sadness anyway...' A poem by me might start. And it would probably end 'Washing chips up in a tree'.
Nina wrote that actually, skitting one of Ross's automatic poems. It's good isn't it? She writes songs too: www.myspace.com/ninajonesmusic. My poems are actually usually remarkably similar to whoever I'm reading at the time, but with more Me in them, and a bit of Nina.
Do you think there's a difference between 'page' and 'performance' poetry? If so, what?
I suppose performance poetry is funny. That's almost a guarantee, that if it isn't funny at all then it is a flop. Like all rules, this is a pretty rubbish one. Forget it. And you can take your idea of the fact that they have to be three minutes long, or even under five and shove it up your arse too. David Jay is the best performance poet I've ever seen, and he isn't really funny and he goes on for yonks. So there you go! Or do you?
I don't know. I suppose we all like to think that people will enjoy our poems written down, but actually we know that no-one would really actually ever read them. What are they going to do? Buy a book of poems and then read it?
I doubt it, Tim. At least not with the intensity and in the numbers you can achieve with performance. If you want people to know your poetry, you have to go out and read it to them, and then I think that out of this comes all the stylistic and quirky and dynamic things that are basically to do with audience development. You learn to work with crowds so that they will like you/your poems more and maybe more people will come and listen harder next time. And maybe one day someone will say 'I liked this bit' instead of asking you how you remembered the whole thing. No-one ever knows what to say to you after you have just been on stage, especially if you are still learning.
I am saying 'you' 'you' all the time here, but I mean 'me', 'I'. It has been fucking painful, sitting there and watching Ross take all the girls to his bedroom one by one.
But then I have a feeling that people like David Jay, and to a certain extent you, have performance as a medium in itself. That probably makes for a more satisfying experience. And where do people who are good and don't perform fit into my theory? Like, erm, Seamus Heaney.
What about this: the difference is the generosity of performed poetry – when it's good, it seems like such a generous thing to do for people, but when it's poo the poet just looks selfish. It's a generous risk to take, in itself. But sometimes you wish you hadn't bothered, and at those times everyone else wishes you hadn't too. Whereas page poetry is just quite good or brilliant, or it doesn't even exist.
As long as I am still allowed to think of myself as a direct artistic descendent of T.S. Eliot, I don't care.
Why should someone come to a performance poetry gig?
It's only a fiver, and we have music on too.
What do you think your best poem is, and why?
The Bell. It is nice and long and gathers in intensity. And it rhymes, so it has this quality that makes it seem like it existed before I wrote it. I have a link here to when I performed it in Tate with a load of artists, and Wave Machines…
I also love this one because it is the first one I wrote specifically for a performance with Wave Machines.
If you could nick one other person's poem and claim it as your own, which poem would it be, and why?
Kenneth Koch, 'The Art Of Love'. He is so confident and human at this point in his career, and there is none of the pretension of poetry holding him back, although poetry is the perfect way to describe what he's doing. And it's nice and long so you can settle into it. And it's funny and clever and tall and everything that you want in a man.
What typifies bad performance poetry to you?
'Middle Class Girls'.
No! I'm joking. I love that one.
Basically, it's bad if it's not funny, and with nothing to replace that humour. I'm not usually funny, but when I'm not being funny you can be sure that I'll do a big shouty shouty bit with the stary eyes pretty soon. Even then it can be really bad. You can't get away with just doing a shouty shouty when there are only about four people watching you – although I have tried. My girlfriend nearly stopped loving me that night.
Like I said, you can tell bad performance poetry when there is no generosity in it. That's not something that you can add in to a performance, like you can add it into hosting, where you just have to remember to give people things – it just comes from the work and performance being good. As an audience member you think, Thanks very much for that. There are lots of variables though.
Actually. Maybe that is it. Me and Ross used to talk about 'giving' people stuff as a performer. Bad performance poetry just doesn't give you anything. Open Mic nights are generally a bad idea to go to, unless you want to try new material.
And I HATE it when people swap words about in a sentence just so the rhyme lands on the end of the line. It's not 'To the shop I was walking' you div! And nothing good ever came from rhyming with walking anyway, what are you going to say, 'And to my fingers I was talking'?
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?
I don't know. Ask Ross. Ask Roddy Lumsden. He will know, but he might not tell you. He is the best poet, I think, and he seems to act like a bit of a dad to everyone else, even though he's not old enough to be your dad.
Tell us about a particularly memorable reaction you've had to your work.
A little girl came up after a recent performance and asked for my autograph. I nearly cried. It was this performance:
Must have been the braces.
Actually, I think that was the only time I have not gone off and gotten completely leathered after being on stage, because it was in the afternoon. So it is the most memorable reaction by default more than anything else. Maybe there have been some really great anecdotal reactions I've had, but I can't remember any of them. I can do this, because I really perform quite rarely. You guys would probably turn all yellow if you got drunk after every single gig.
I'm not sure if you would count this as a "reaction to my work", but it might be a good opportunity to state some cold hard facts:
Ross once had everyone at a packed stage at Latitude call me a cunt, because I had fallen asleep in a ditch instead of taking to the stage after Patti Smith. Patti Smith was supporting ME. In a way. Anyway, that actually was potentially the biggest moment of my whole writerly career, and I spooned it. I was asleep in a ditch. Okay? Apologies to everyone involved in that particular booboo, except Salena Godden.