Thursday, 30 April 2009

We Can't All Be Astronauts - Extract and Competition

Oooooh! Guess what space cadets?

Ugh. Okay, that made me a little bit sick in my mouth. Note to self: don't use chipper wankerisms like 'space cadets' ever, ever again.

So, in any case, hello undifferentiated morass. With just over a month to go, there's a short sneak preview from We Can't All Be Astronauts up online, using Ebury's pretty funky Flash reader gizmo. Have a peep here. You could even go ahead and preorder here.

It's up there to help promote a contest we're running in conjunction with the Bookseller. It's a writing competition with a twist - we're looking for entries from people who work in bookstores. I reckon there must be a whole host of diligent, well-read bookshop staff who are also keen writers in their spare time, and this is a great chance to recognise their talent. It's also a great chance for me to feel like some smug, philanthropic industrialist 'giving back to the community', even though my book's not even out yet. So seriously, if you work in a bookshop or you know a writer who does, get them to go here. You'll be flattering my fragile - but very real - ego, and putting them on to a nice opportunity to get some well-deserved recognition.

The Performance Poet Interviews - #10: Elvis McGonagall

Oh my goodness. What a busy bee I am this week. And yet apparently making as much impact on my workload as an actual bee. They're not even heavy enough to operate a keyboard. So, look. Why not read this week's performance poet interview, with the very witty, very tartan Elvis McGonagall?

How did you get into performance poetry?

I fell into it, in the deep end, by accident, whilst drunk - entered a slam at the Cheltenham Literature Festival in 2003. Thus Frankenstein's monster was born.

How would you describe your work?

Chop, chop, merry, merry, busy, busy, bang, bang.

The happy sound of the four-letter word that is work. Sadly, a sound that is all too sporadic round these parts. The "performance" part is essentially shouting at strangers in a dark room, usually in the evening, whilst wearing a loud and increasingly tight tartan jacket. As far as the "poetry" bit is concerned if the content had to be labelled I guess it would be "political satire and gratuitous celebrity bashing derived from a deep well of bile and anger. In verse".

Do you think there's a difference between 'page' and 'performance' poetry? If so, what?


One is better written down.

Mine isn't.

Which is probably why I've always felt a wee bit ambivalent describing myself as a "poet". Also, I don't have the fedora, the fur-coat or the cuban heels. "Wordsmith" is perhaps a more accurate description. Or "versemonger". But for want of anything else "stand-up poet" will do.

And poetry existed way before William Caxton so that's alright.

Why should someone come to a performance poetry gig?

Good question.

So that the likes of you and I are not left abandoned on a stage in a tiny empty room above a pub as tumbleweed drifts past forcing us to confront the futility of existence. And, on a good day, you might see all manner of exciting, entertaining, thought-provoking performers delivering wonderful words in defiance of the brutalisation of our glorious language by stubby-fingered neanderthal "txt" messages.

On the other hand on a bad day it might be absolute shite. But in any event it'll probably cost less than a fiver. And it would still be better than sitting on the sofa watching Piers Morgan interview Ulrika-ka for an hour. An hour. What the flying fuck is going on?

What do you think your best poem is, and why?

All my stuff is really written for my missus so I asked her and she said "This Land's Not Your Land" because "it makes her cry and want to sleep with me". That's more than good enough for me (although I do hope it's not the only piece that might assist in conjugal bliss as it's been retired from performance since Obama's election).

If you could nick one other person's poem and claim it as your own, which poem would it be, and why?

Ah - there are many and various candidates. Enough to fill a small anthology. Something very short would be ideal to nick - the equivalent of shoplifting items that easily fit up your jumper - perhaps Byron Vincent's Elton John haiku. Although that would be pointless because I can only ever remember the last five syllables despite having heard it on numerous occasions - too busy laughing to remember the other twelve. Or perhaps something that is radically different from anything I might do, such as Henry Bowers' "All Out Of Dogfood". But that would be equally pointless as I'd never be able to pass off as my own work that of a Swedish hip-hop Tom Waits-influenced bearded rapper. There are many, many others. Too many to list here.

What typifies bad performance poetry to you?

Self-indulgent bollocks that sends an audience to sleep. As the late, great Adrian Mitchell said "most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people". The litmus test is my mate Matthew's spectacles - if he's in the audience and he takes his specs off then it's really, really bad.

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?

For some reason the word "scene" throws up an image of Peter Sellars in a beret and black polo neck reciting bad beat poetry in a dingy, smoke filled cavern somewhere in Swinging London. Not sure why.

Anyway, on occasion the scene seems to be in rude health with a whole raft of fantastic performers out there and a potentially huge audience. But then again it sometimes feels like Hercules' 13th labour trying to do this for a living - particularly when I'm staring at the cows at the bottom of the garden.

And the cows stare back.

The cows usually win the staring contest.

Tell us about a particularly memorable reaction you've had to your work.

Here's a random selection:

I supported John Cooper Clarke a wee while back which was a thrill and he said "fucking fabulous" after my set - but I think he was being a gentleman.

A self-confessed lifelong Tory with a political viewpoint quite possibly more extreme than Genghis Khan heaped praise upon a piece I do called "You Can Call Me Dave" (which is none too complimentary about David Cameron's rhetoric). Nice to know that Dave unites left and right.

After my first appearance on Radio 4's "Saturday Live" Rachel Cooke, writing in the New Statesman, described me as "...someone you've never heard of whose every stanza sounds like it was written by Les Dawson on the back of a fag packet". Beautiful.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Bangor, Wales

Coming in on the train to Bangor, you get this deliciously precarious sense of teetering on the edge of the world. With the Menai Straits on one side and the looming, mist-weathed Bangor Mountain and its foothills on the other, the UK's fourth smallest city feels particularly wee, a temporary resident in a bold and ancient landscape.

It took me five and a half hours to get there, but these days train journeys like that ain't no thang. Unless my carriage is packed with brattish teens listening to trebly R n' B without headphones, or some knuckle-dragging lunk with the sort of boss-eyed glare that suggests all human faces appear to him as floating red-ringed bullseyes, then the ride offers some very pleasant me-time, where nobody can make any legitimate demands on me, and yet I don't feel guilty, because I'm heading towards a destination.

I was heading there as a featured poet for Poetica, a poetry night that takes place in the Blue Sky Café, and attracts a mixture of arty, bohemian types and chilled out hippies. If I was going to learn to be a mellower, less fearful character, surely hippies were the go-to experts.

My favourite part of the night was when the compere started the night by stepping up to the mic, then knocking out some beatbox harmonica. In ten seconds the room went from low-level chatter to rapt attention. It was one of the best opening compering gambits I've ever seen, a way of rapidly, non-aggressively asserting authority - and a blessed respite from 'so what's your name pal? And where are you from?'

Although there were invited poets, the evening began with an open mic session, and closed with one. For the second open mic, the audience were told to 'put your hands in your pockets - and write a poem about whatever you find there,' so any of the poems that got read out had been written during the evening.

Most of the open mic performers were Poetica stalwarts, but there was one guy, also called Tim, who was reading for the first time. I'd noticed him when he came in - he looked in his early twenties, had close-cropped hair, and was wearing a navy blue hoodie, and stuck out amongst the tie-dyed, dreadlocked hippies and brown-trousered retirees.

When he leant forward to speak into the mic for the first time, you could hear his panting breaths. He was shitting bricks. He read a poem called 'Mr Wrong', apparently autobiographical, about going from Welsh schoolboy boxing champion with a bright future, to a listless stoner at 21, after a series of unspecified 'misfortunes'. It was all written in metreless couplets, had a few awkward malapropisms, but was startling in its nakedness. He read the last line, 'My real name is Mr Roberts, but it seems to be Mr Wrong today,' and his voice broke as he hit the last word. The audience gave him a big round of applause, and he tugged at his hair, grinning bashfully.

'My legs are shaking,' he said.

This is a guy who has willingly, repeatedly stepped into a ring where someone else is going to try to deliberately hit him very hard in the face, yet reading his poetry to a roomful of smiling hippies left him so terrified it affected his ability to speak and stand. The pattern-creating part of my brain wants me to note that he was the second open mic ex-boxer I'd encountered in a week, though I'm not totally comfortable with introducing the obvious pugilist/performer analogy. For me, the most interesting thing to observe is that bravery and confidence in one area does not necessarily have any bearing on confidence in another. One person's routine triviality is another's gibbering nightmare. A lot of supposedly confident, together people have simply sculpted their lives so they don't have to come into contact with the things that they're afraid of. Of course, there's nothing wrong with that, so long as they admit their limitations, and don't act haughty when confronted with people who knock up against their anxieties on a regular basis.

In the end, I don't think I could be a hippy. I'm too fond of order. Also, I think crystals are just pretty rocks. And I don't think global pharmaceutical conglomerates are conspiring to give the world tumours. And you don't see many hippies playing video games. I like machine-gunning waves of enemy grunts. I'm pretty sure that kind of talk gets your hippy card permanently revoked.

Death Of An Open Mic

As I've intimated before, open mic nights are rare, transient things. Not quite a century flower, more a colleague's fart that topples a polystyrene cup.

In Shepherd's Bush, I went to the Knock 2 New night at Bar FM, a weirdly clandestine cocktail bar full of leather sofas and disco lights that rolls up its blue security shutter and emerges like the head of a tortoise every night, just after 6pm. Before it opened, I watched an overweight, bearded Danish guy plod up and down outside, apparently baffled. He wore a wide brimmed hat, khaki shorts and brown leather sandals, and he was sweating like a doughnut in hot Tupperware, his t-shirt dark with perspiration. I leant against the wall and quietly judged him, feeling superior because I was hiding my confusion beneath a facade of indifference.

At about twenty past six the blue shutter rolled up to reveal a stairway leading downwards off the street, and a sign with the bar's name on. The street was busy and, perhaps because of the fair taking place on the common, seemed to be riddled with arseholes and sketchy nutters. Some teenager was standing in the middle of the road, mates either side of him, sounding off at the top of his voice.

'Did you see that? That guy just fucking gave me two fingers! That guy in the fucking car!' He was spazzing like a Revivalist. 'He fucking disrespected me! I'll fucking kill him! I should've slung a brick through his window!' He mimed hurling something, with a motion that suggested more of a weighted sock than a brick. 'Where's he gone? I'll fucking kill him!' He was marching up and down the pavement, shrugging off mates who touched his shoulder. His volatility made me feel nervous. I was lugging my huge backpack and my ukulele. I felt suddenly vulnerable. I imagined he might turn on someone he felt was looking at him the wrong way. Already, on the way to the venue, I'd encountered a big guy in a baseball cap, stripey vest and gold chains approaching me on the pavement. I moved to the right so as not to bump into him, and he moved the same way, and when I kept moving right he kept moving, as if to intercept me, looking right at me. Just as we were about to bump into each other, I felt a whack to my backpack, and some stringy skinhead thumped past both of us, through the narrow gap between my side and the railings, and went sprinting on up the street, weaving in and out of pedestrians.

In the end, I felt so uncomfortable I binned the last third of my chicken, bacon and avacado bagel so I could go into the club early.

Now I read that sentence back it sounds like the most middle-class sentence ever. Please don't judge me as a prejudiced snob. I'm not a snob. Just - in some situations - cowardly.

It turned out that this night was to be the last Knock 2 New ever. I was present at the death of an open mic.

'We just don't get the audience,' said Alex, the evening's compere, as we sat at a table in the corner, before things kicked off. I was drinking a 16oz highball glass of pineapple juice and lemonade that had cost me three quid. 'We do another night with established acts, you know, proper big names, and it's packed.' He swept his hand across the empty room, implying a bobbing vista of enthusiastic punters.

I can understand why paying to watch a dozen or so strangers learn public speaking live on stage might not sound like a promising use of one's time, but the more stand-up open mics I go to, the more I feel like they've got something genuine to offer the more adventurous punter. Whereas professional comedy club circuit gigs usually cost well over a tenner on the door, and there's a nagging inauthenticity to the apparently spontaneous 'antics' that take place (if I have to watch one more professional compere go through ten minutes of that 'what's your name, sir? And what do you do?' flatus, well... I won't be very entertained, that's for sure), at open mics all bets are off. And I just don't mean in the sense that sometimes someone does something eye-gougingly wacky - 'There was this geezer, right, and he gets up on stage... No wait, wait... Oh mate I'm cracking up just remembering it... So this geezer gets up on stage, right... and he's only wearing a chicken costume! A fucking chicken costume! How mad is that?' - but in the sense that some of the most interesting stuff that happpens isn't comedy.

In a comedy club, a significant amount of money has changed hands, and it creates an implicit contract between the audience and the performers, and quite a strong dynamic. Tactics for 'setting up a room' get shared between comperes until they're pretty much uniform anywhere you go. At a stand-up open mic, the contract is often far more hazily defined. Often there are audience members who've come to support a friend, and who maybe have never been to a comedy night before. A lot of the audience will be other acts, who are sometimes quite nervous and preoccupied with what they're about to go up and do, sometimes very keen to be supportive and make the night feel warm and friendly, and occasionally actively hostile towards the other acts.

A lot of open mic acts don't write gags so much as mine their life for anecdotes that usually go down well with mates. Most people have got a sort of 'greatest hits' of their most awesome, surefire 'well, there was this one time...' themed stories that go down well at parties, and so their set seems to sort of branch off from those. Unfortunately, because these events really happened, people tend to forget to edit, so you get rambling odysseys absurdly frontloaded with irrelevant contextual details, leading up to a denouement, 'and, no word of a lie, my actual response to him, was: "Don't be such a silly goose!"' and then the person grins proudly to the audience, as if they've just spunked their name onto a chocolate cake.

But sometimes, although these anecdotes aren't funny, (and, presented as stand-up, 'mildly entertaining' becomes 'aggressively, grief-inducingly unfunny') they're interesting and compelling in their own right. Under the mantle of stand-up, people go up and talk about their failed relationships, their awful jobs, their loneliness, in a way I suppose they imagine will come across as hilarious and self-deprecating, but, to me at least, often comes across as bizarre and unique and really human. Sometimes the least funny comedians are the ones I enjoy the most, because they're the ones who adhere least to the reductive constraints of stand-up, and end up talking about, you know, actual stuff, rather than seeding their entire monologue with artificial 'twists' to trip the audience's laughter reflex.

The Knock 2 New audience ended up being almost entirely acts, with a large contingent of people who I assumed were friends of the landlady, (this may just be me being an ignorant racist - I assumed they were her friends because they were the same ethnicity as her. They seemed chummy, but they may, of course, have been total strangers) sat off at a table near the back, drinking, chatting amongst themselves, and totally ignoring the gig.

Alex gamely got on stage and tried to soldier through 10 minutes of the generic comedy compere's 'talking to the audience' schtick, even though, with the crowd mostly composed of other performers, he had pretty much nobody to talk to. I got the impression that he had mentally committed to doing a 'proper' compere routine before arriving at the gig, as part of an ongoing effort to develop the craft.

I was genuinely riveted, watching his expressions and body language as repeated attempts to establish a rapport fell flat.

'So what's your name fella? And where are you from? Ooh, [town x]. And how's that?' He didn't really have any material to riff off what people were saying, but also, fatally, nobody wanted to talk to him. Not just in the supposedly funny shy-reluctant way that some comperes try to exploit, but in an actively hostile 'stop fucking talking to me' contempt-filled way. A guy called Darren, who I saw do a set in Manchester back at the beginning of the month, pretended not to be an act, and rather cruelly set about stringing Alex along.

'What's that fella?' said Alex. 'You're not an act?'

'No.' Darren was sitting just behind me.

'What's your name fella?'


'And why've you come down here tonight?'

Darren clapped a hand on my shoulder. 'I'm here to give moral support to my good mate Tim.'

'Oh that's great. And where you from?'


'Manchester? So what do you make of London?'

At this point, Darren slapped his palms together and began rubbing them. 'Oh mate, it's too big. I can't get my head around it.'

Some other people in the audience, who knew Darren was a performer, started giggling. Alex started smiling too, apparently believing he'd struck gold with a gauche, talkative audience member - the platonic ideal of compere-fodder.

'You think London's very big,' Alex repeated, then shot a glance at the rest of the crowd as if to say get a load of this rube!

'Yeah, and what about the Tube, man? It's always so busy.' The other acts who were in on the joke were by now sniggering and guffawing uncontrollably.

'You don't enjoy that?'

'When I get in a tube train, I feel like I'm inside a giant metal coffin.'

'Like you're in a coffin? So... so what song would you want played at your funeral?'

'Um... probably Will Young, I Think I Better Leave Right Now.' This got the biggest laugh of the night so far. 'Actually, I'm an act, mate.'

'What?' Alex's face fell.

'I'm an act. I'm Darren, I'm on later.' The audience all laughed, at, rather than with, the compere.

Alex looked at the floor, and made a loud 'huhhhh' noise, somewhere between a sigh and an anguished groan. This would become his signature move over the next seven or so minutes. He trudged across the stage and tried to keep going, calling to someone towards the back: 'Are you an act too, mate? You're not? What song would you have played at your funeral?'

'Kill the DJ,' said a chap with little librarian specs and chin length hair in a greasy centre parting.

'Kill the DJ. Good choice,' said Alex. He nodded. 'Good choice.' There was a pause.

'Hang the DJ,' shouted someone from the other side of the room.

'What's that fella?' said Alex.

'It's "Hang the DJ".'

You could almost hear a dozen people flinch as they simultaneously thought: no it's not.

'Very well pointed out, fella. Hang the DJ, is of course the name of the song.' There were some brief, aggravated mutterings amongst the audience. 'What's that? Oh, right. Yes... also known as Panic.' A kind of stagnant indifference settled across the crowd. Alex looked down at his feet. 'Huhhhh.'

I feel I ought to point out that I didn't think Darren was very gracious, and when I went up in front of that odd, vaguely irritated audience I withered in a laughless desert too, but I found it absolutely fascinating to watch the psychology of someone struggling on stage. If that seems a bit dehumanising and sadistic, then I'd concede that there's an element of the latter, but given that I've been putting myself out there as well, and given that, ultimately, these are events of very little consequence - unpaid nights in front of vanishingly small audiences - I reckon watching people die is a fairly harmless form of entertainment and elucidation. It reveals far more facets of a stranger's character than a slick set in front of a packed, roistering comedy club audience.

I wonder, somewhat idly, if what I've been watching is a form of live reality television. It has the same advantages of thrift and spontaneity, and offers a peculiar antidote to the homogeneity of the supposed experts. Watching clips of the Gong Show from the seventies, you can practically see Variety's tattered corpse give its final twitch before disgorging the ravenous chestburster of Reality TV. Slick professionalism may work for inducing Shock and Awe, but it's the strange, uncomfortable, arresting intimacy of fear, of live failure, that wins over Hearts and Minds.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Ren's Bitter Half

There's an episode of Ren & Stimpy where Stimpy creates a formula that physically splits psychotic chihuahua Ren into the two sides of his personality - 'Evil Ren' and 'Indifferent Ren'.

As my open gigs aggregate like silt, I'm finding I'm not growing more confident, just more indifferent. At my last stand-up gig in Shepherd's Bush, I did no preparation, got on stage and was rubbish, bombed, and I didn't care. This doesn't feel like progress to me.

It's not like I'm feeling apathetic about the world in general - I'm still enjoying watching new acts, meeting people, getting to know them, etc. In fact, in some ways, I've learned to unironically enjoy acts who maybe aren't 'good' in the conventional sense. Being nosy and talking to folks has shown me just how interesting and likeable some folks can turn out to be.

But I'm not exactly feeling passionate about my own work. I seem to be getting worse, not better, and with each diminishing return my interest in mounting a fightback decreases. If heading out to such a concentrated succession of open mics was intended to accelerate me through a portion of my career I missed, I fear I've overshot, speeding past naive pluck, ambition, and mastery, straight into 'jaded hack' territory.

Was it always like this? Were my nerves the only thing distracting me from how rubbish the gigs were?

Thursday, 23 April 2009

The Performance Poet Interviews - #9: Scroobius Pip

Coo. It's all go here, isn't it? We've already heard from eight very different performance poets, spraying their opinions everywhere, making jokes, being all arty. This week, pray doff your cap and stroke your beard for Scroobius Pip.

How did you get into performance poetry?
It was a strange one really. I had been in various bands and tried to work with various musicians but musicians (and my friends) by their very nature are incredibly unreliable! I realised that, with spoken word, the only person i had to rely on was myself. If it all went tits up, only I would be to blame. Then at the same time, if it all went great, I could bask in my own glory!

How would you describe your work?

I generally just describe it as spoken word. Due to the fact it is a collection of words that i speak. I like to tackle some quite dark subjects, often within a more lighthearted surrounding to give it more impact. I did a gig for onetaste once and, both in his introduction and after the set, Jamie Woon just kept saying 'Light and Dark, Light and Dark.' I think that's a pretty accurate description of one of my sets.

Do you think there's a difference between 'page' and 'performance' poetry? If so, what?
I really do. That difference is the performer. I remember reading some Niall Spooner Harvey on recmendation and, whilst I enjoyed it, I didn't really think it was my kind of thing. Then, about a month later, i saw him live and his performance and delivery just made it all make sense. I think, particularly as a performer, when you read someone else's poetry you impose your own performance style and technique upon. If it doesnt match how you write/perform then you may not fully appreciate it.

Why should someone come to a performance poetry gig?
Variation!! I think the 'scene' at the moment is just so varied in style. People often think it will be hours of people churning out long boring pieces but it really isn't! If you get down to a good poetry night then it can surprise you with every new poem.

What do you think your best poem is, and why?
This is a really hard question! There is a poem I do called 'Unspoken Word Poetry' and, whilst it may not be my best piece, it has certainly been my favourite to perform for sometime now. This is due to the fact that is has a section of beat boxing in it that is essential to the piece so it can never be a piece of written poetry and therefore only ever exists in the moment that I am onstage performing it.

If you could nick one other person's poem and claim it as your own, which poem would it be, and why?
It would be Cooper Chimbonda by Musa Okwonga (that rhymes...). The first time I saw this performed live I was stunned. I was up against Musa (and maybe yourself from memory) in a Shortfuse poetry slam and as soon as I heard that piece I knew there was only one winner. It's a 10 minute poem that keeps your interest throughout. Beautifully written, with wit intespersed within masses of emotion and conflict.

What typifies bad performance poetry to you?
Harsh question! But I will happily answer! When I started off on the scene I went to four or five open mics and slams a week so I got a good, quick, concentrated view of the scene so it was easy to flag up what I didn't like. I found that, at many poetry shows, there would be a lot of people feeling that if they mimic Ginsberg's slow.....draaaaaaaging.....wiiiiiiiiinding delivery style then it will make anything sound good. The fact is it actually makes most things sound bad. Unless you are actually Ginsberg. Which none of them were...

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?
Well look at that! We both, kind of awkwardly, put 'scene' in little quotation marks. I think there is a scene and it's fine to talk about it that way, largely because of all the different styles and approaches with in the scene. I do a weekly poetry slot on BBC Radio One and I get different poets in each week. It frequently amazes me to see the depth and quality that is out there. Obviously there will be some slot where I think that I am maybe making up the numbers. Only every now and then! But EVERYTIME I have thought that, the poet has come in and been one of my favourites on the show.

Tell us about a particularly memorable reaction you've had to your work.
Well, I have afew pieces about suicide and self harm so I regularly get some teary emotional reactions which is always a weird mixture of being a huge compliment and hugely uncomfortable at the same time!

Since you're quite the inter-disciplinarian, what you think the worlds of music and poetry have got to teach each other?
I think the two don't necessarily have anything to teach each other. They just present each other with further options and areas in which to explore. Poetry doesn't need music added. Music doesn't need poetry added. But if you can develop the two together then the directions are almost limitless!

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

We Can't All Be Astronauts - Launch Parties

Oh look. It's me with my ridiculous pudgy face, gazing down like a proud father on my very first book. It's all downhill from here. Thirty years from now, that book will keep a tattered copy of this photo in its shirt pocket, taking it out between slugs of bourbon to stare at my face with a mixture of longing and rage. Why weren't you there for me, Dad? Why didn't you care?

So. Look, there are two launch events to celebrate the fact that We Can't All Be Astronauts hasn't been smothered in its crib, one at Borders bookshop in Norwich on Friday June 5 starting 5:30pm, and one at the Book Club Boutique in London on Monday June 8 starting 7pm. You can find details for the Norwich launch here, and details for the London launch here.

I don't want to gush like a gauche wazzock, but I'm really looking forward to both, because I've managed to cobble together an awesome support line-up out of people who appear in the book. The Norwich launch has support from John Osborne, ('Osborne is this season's hot property' - Horncastle News) whose first book, Radio Head, about British radio, is due out next month (and which you can pre-order here - go on, it's one of those rare, genuinely good reads) and also from mythic poetry godfather Yanny Mac, who you may remember from his interview here - one of the most popular I've done! Afterwards, we'll all head out to the pub and lark around as if we've forgotten we're just temporarily sentient aggregations of meat that will rot back into the soil, every memory and trace of our identities completely, irrevocably obliterated. The London launch has support from my two cohorts from the recent Found In Translation tour, poet Ross Sutherland, whose first collection is called Things To Do Before You Leave Town, and author and poet Joe Dunthorne, whose acclaimed first novel, Submarine, is out in paperback from Hamish Hamilton. Completing the line-up is Steve Aylett, prolific, award-winning author of novels such as Slaughtermatic, Lint, Shamanspace, Dummyland, and many more. I know it sounds ludicrously hyperbolic, but now I think about it, you've basically got one of the UK's best poets and two of the UK's most talented novelists there... plus me. Then afterwards there's music and DJs and drinking til midnight!

The mental thing is, both nights are free. And everyone will have books available for signing. If you're a reader of this blog, you are cordially invited. We'd love to see you there. Let's meet up and talk about hundreds of things. I only get to have a debut book launch once. The rest of my life will be a dreary anticlimax. Please - catch me on the upswing, eh?

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Knowle, Sunday

After bailing out on Dublin, the only flight I could get that didn't cost a pillion pounds was back to Bristol, so I thought hey, brill - I'll go off piste. Having fallen victim to the parlous nature of open mics, it seemed fitting to take advantage of their ad hoc nature, and find one on the fly. One phone call later, I was on my way to a pub in Knowle, Bristol.

On Facebook, I'd stumbled across a series of music open mics run by a chap called Mark Venus. He runs weekly open mics on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, with regular (but not weekly) nights on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, meaning that - sometimes - he ends up doing a full 7 day week of open mics in the West Country. Hardcore.

My brother gave me a lift to the venue, The Knowle Hotel, which, over the phone, Mark had described as 'a pig to find'. My brother's car was armed with sat nav, however, so after negotiating a short succession of residential roads, we quickly found the pub. When I went in, Mark, a big bloke with a shaved head and a beard, was setting up in a corner of the back room.

'All right, Mark?' I said.

'Tim?' he said. 'All right mate?' A little stiffly, he held out his hand for me to shake, keeping his bicep flush with his torso and extending his arm from the elbow. It turned out that Mark is an ex-boxer, who had to retire after an injury that sometimes makes it hard to play guitar as well.

As an open mic, anyone could come along and play, but, like most of the stand-up open mics I'd visited, acts had contacted Mark in advance to book a slot. One person had cancelled on him, and another wasn't answering calls, so he was a bit concerned that there wouldn't be much of a night on. The bar was about a third full of various locals, including a couple on the round table up the front; the man looked like the geezer off Allinson's bread, with huge steel-grey mutton chop sideburns and a face wearied by gravity; the lady who was presumably his wife had a shock of frizzy hair the same colour as his sideburns, and wore a black blouse drenched in silver spangles.

Propping up the bar were two guys in rollneck sweaters. While Mark unspooled cables and positioned speakers, one guy lectured his mate in a voice loud enough for the whole room to hear, putting down his cider to free up his index finger for emphatic, pedagogical thrusts.

'They say cough, you cough, right? They say jump, you jump. They say go over there, you go over there. That's the way it works, right? When the Argentinians came, there were twenty-two of us. Twenty fucking two! You know how many of them we took out? You know how many? Four-hundred and twenty six. That's discipline. That's what proved to Maggie we'd keep fighting, and that's why she did what she did.'

His friend took a sip of cider, looking dazzled. 'Yeah, but... I mean it's like all of these wars, innit? Do we really need to go to war at all?'

'You got to draw the line somewhere.' The man repeated his assertion, this time slapping the bar with each syllable. 'You - got - to - draw - the - line - some - where. You give up the Falklands, right, next you give up Bristol.' He made a sweeping gesture at the pink walls, fireplace and fruit machine. With this nifty piece of rhetoric, the debate was apparently closed.

Meanwhile, Mark had strapped on his cherry red electro acoustic guitar and stepped up to the mic.

'This evening is an open mic night,' he said. 'So the idea is, if you've got a guitar and you can play it, run home and get it. Like David Brent in The Office.'

Look, I know you'd like this blog to be leavened with a healthy dose of 'man, let me tell you about this guy Crappo McSpaztash I saw last night', but on this particular night, the standard was top notch. Mark was a great guitarist with a strong, gritty voice, and you can check his myspace if you think I'm being an arselicker. Although, to be fair, he's a big bloke who I suspect could've left me wearing the fruit machine like a zany fiesta bonnet if I'd pissed him off, so I don't think I was ever going to be criticising the guy in public. At one point he started a song, then shook his head. 'Right, I bottled that. I'll try it again in a lower key.' Then he went into a great bluesy cover of Maggie May, that had people across the room nodding their heads and tapping their feet.

After him was a quiet, nervous-seeming guy in a grey coat and scarf, called Ian. He turned out to be an extremely accomplished guitarist, pulling out lots of jazzy, chilled-out chord progressions, funky little licks and percussive slaps, rapping out a beat on the scratchplate while dropping in acappella sections, singing in a beguiling tremelo, smiling amiably all the while. I chatted to Ian later, and he was a lovely chap. He said he'd always performed in front of audiences, ever since he used to read out Bible passages and suchlike during his father's sermons. He said he'd pretty much lost his faith now, and he worked three hours a day as a cleaner for McDonalds, but that left him with time to practise, write, and go out to nights to perform.

As he played, high BPM dance bled through from the other bar, the barmaids chucking shapes and giggling. People at the bar and far tables talked over quite a lot of it, but Ian seemed unfazed, and, for all the distractions, a significant number of people, including me, spent his entire set somewhere between impressed and entranced.

'I spend hours writing songs, learning new techniques, trying to make sense of something I've felt,' he told me afterwards in his quiet, steady, reassuring voice, gesturing towards his heart. 'It'd be selfish, wouldn't it, to keep all that in?'

The last chap on, after me, was Steve, another very friendly guy who laughed a lot when I talked to him. He ended up doing a very cool bluesy set, with plenty of slide guitar and powerful vocals. After a bit of probing, he admitted to me that in his daily life, he was a lawyer. It was a bit an odd disjunction, watching a middle-aged middle-class white lawyer playing the blues with such passion and aplomb, but then the blues isn't about what social strata you're from, or what job you do - the blues is about feeling.

'It's important to me to have something more to my identity,' he said. 'Something more than just my day job. We're all waiting for those gigs where you make some kind of connection, and the rest of it all feels like it's been worthwhile.'

At the very end of the night, Mark went back up and did one more song, this time with the landlord, Paul, singing. Mark had a music stand with the chords and lyrics on, and they did a cover of some pub standard I can't quite remember. My dad later told me that the landlord was Paul Cheesley, an exceptional ex-Bristol City player whose promising career was cut short by a nasty knee injury in just the second game of City's season in the First Division. Paul and Mark seemed to have a good time, although I was a bit pissed by that stage. Afterwards, they both gave me rugged, manly handshakes.

An ex-boxer, an ex-footballer, a lawyer, a cleaner and me... a dabbler with his little ukulele. I ended up getting on really well with Mark, and hopefully, when I'm back in Bristol next month, I'll meet up for a pint with him and have a proper chat.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Dining and Cultural Diversity in Dublin

On Friday in Dublin, I was all geed up to go to another stand-up open mic, slur an adequate routine then do the rounds of the night, harvesting real human beings who I could twist and compress into grotesque caricatures before installing them in a barbarous freak gallery known only as 'The Project'. I checked my destination on a map, noted down directions, then all buoyant and purposeful, set off.

I strolled down the hill from my hotel, my ukulele on back, past lavish Georgian terraces decorated with historical plaques,

following the road until I crossed into what passes for Dublin's very small Chinatown district,

then on, down a narrowing pub-lined cobbled street hemorrhaging dark alleys, until I came to the bar I was after, wedged on a corner, its entrances obstructed by short, squinting men who took fractious tugs on their roll-ups. I said 'excuse me' in a meek, barely audible murmur, and went in.

Inside, there was no sign of a comedy night. People sat in tight clusters drinking and chatting. Multi-coloured fairy lights hung above the bar. I plodded amongst the tables, glancing about, then turned a full one-eighty, and made a show of looking lost.

'Are you looking for someone?' said the barman, stepping out from behind the bar to assist me.

'Is there a, uh... comedy night on here?' I said, thinking he might wink, throw a lever, and usher me into a hidden backroom spilling over with clandestine levity.

The barman stroked his little blond beard and looked up at the ceiling, as if he couldn't remember. Eventually, he shook his head. 'No, I'm sorry. There used to be one here a few months ago, but I don't know where it went.'


And so that was my open mic mission over for the night.

That's the thing about open mics, the thing I've been pretty fortunate with so far. I've referred to them as if they're these solid, reliable cultural events that run like clockwork and glue communities together, and given the impression that it's always been easy for me to find them, but the truth is that most open mics are fucking Brigadoon. Run by volunteers on zero budget, they live a parlous existence, phasing in and out of reality, moving location without warning. Many websites set up to tell performers and punters about open mic nights are rarely updated, meaning they end up minefields of false information, sending people to gigs that stopped happening months ago. Even my first gig, Cambridge's Upbeat Open Mic, got kicked out of its old venue at the Zebra pub less than a fortnight before I was due to visit. The (unpaid) promoter and compere Alex, managed to find the night a new home, let all the regulars know, and attract a full audience in a matter of days, almost entirely through word of mouth. I've been working every week since December to track down contacts, find out dates and locations, then arrange some kind of schedule. Even then, there have been cancellations and last minute venue changes. That's just the way it goes.

But it wasn't so bad. I was in a foreign city - one I'd never visited before - I had no commitments, and it was early on a Saturday evening. I could do anything I wanted. What a trove of edifying socio-historical delights awaited me!

So I went to McDonalds.

But it was a Dublin McDonalds! I find dining in such homogenised surroundings actually throws small cultural differences into sharper relief, offering me key insights into national ideosyncrasies. And so it was in this particular McDo's, where most of the righthand wall had been dedicated to a delightfully colourful, high energy mural celebrating Dublin's abundant cultural diversity: (click for a bigger image)

The photo here shows just a portion of the whole mural, which stretches over three times as long. One feature, however, left me puzzled. Why, amongst the frolicking youths, the spray of kites and the uplifting rainbow, has the artist seen fit to depict a furtive overcoated pervert apparently either publicly interfering with himself, or about to throw open the thin tan membrane hiding his revolting atrophied genitals from innocent passersby?

Perhaps the artist misunderstood when head office told him that somewhere in the picture they wanted 'a smiling man clutching a big mac'.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Off To A Bad Shart - Dublin

I am a good man. A good, clean, nice man. I deserve your respect just like anyone else. Please remember that as you read on.

I sat on a metal bench on the platform in Cambridge, waiting for my train to Stansted. With my huge rucksack strapped to my back, there was barely any room left for me, so I perched on the edge. I was still a bit sniffly, but I was determined not to miss any more gigs. I wanted to get back on the open mic road. Next on my schedule: Dublin.

But my resolve was still a bit shaken. I hadn’t impressed myself thus far. A journey of discovery is great if you discover that you’re really, really awesome and actually, look, you can shoot particle beams from your palms, but in my case I’d discovered that I’m prone to mood swings, needy, whining, and I brattishly take advantage of other people's good natures to make my life easier.

What I was looking for was a sign; a good augury to lift my spirits and steel my resolve. With four minutes to go before my train arrived, I stood, took several purposeful strides towards the platform edge, and shat my pants.

This was unintentional.

Sure, I had engaged my sphincter muscles in the business of discharging what I believed to be a modest volume of methane, and was preparing myself for the resultant improvement in bowel comfort. But this was not what I had signed up for. Obviously, I was still a little ill.

Miring oneself is a strangely intimate experience, at once personal and very, very public. Your face goes through a variety of contortions as you rapidly pass through something akin to the five stages of grief: firstly there’s the period where you focus all your attention on the nerve endings surrounding your anus, ascertaining that it wasn’t just a particularly damp and fulsome fart, and bona fide fecal liquids and/or solids have been deposited in your undergarments. The hope of a false alarm falls away, and at this point the gravity of the situation stridently asserts itself – you are standing in a public place, and your trousers are sodden with arse gravy. Your expression becomes a study in false indifference as you struggle not to telegraph the bad news to your fellow human beings. It’s as if a voice has just whispered into your ear: ‘This is God. I’m real, but only you can hear Me. And you are the messiah. Congrats.’ You have been possessed of new and urgent knowledge, but nobody around you will understand. Your face ends up defaulting on a look of distant, twitching confusion.

The next stage is planning. This is real, this is happening, now what are you going to do about it? My train was not there. I looked up and down the platform. I could not see a sign for toilets. I knew they had to be somewhere, but I doubted I would be able to waddle all the way there undetected, carrying my massive backpack, ukulele, and my stash of contraband brown freight, affect emergency repairs, then get back in time to catch my train to the airport.

I would have to wait for my train, then. But what if it didn't have a toilet? Plenty of short-distance two-carriage services don't. Would I stand there for over half an hour, squashed amongst my fellow human beings, while the odour gradually insinuated its way into their affronted olfactory canals? Would I have to pantomime revulsion to avoid suspicion? Would we begin casting accusatory glares at one another, as if playing some twisted game of Bum Poker, where the only prize is not having a large group of strangers think that you're incontinent?

A little girl with long curly brown hair walked past holding a balloon and trundling a mini pink wheelie suitcase behind her. She looked back over he shoulder at me, gazing up with bright, inquisitive eyes. I instinctively looked away, convinced that my very gaze was tainted. It just didn't seem right to stare at someone's sweet young daughter with my briefs drenched in bumwater.

I stared up at the big digital clock. 12:07 said the display. Three more minutes of waiting, three more minutes of guarding my dreadful secret. All around me, people chatted on cellphones, noshed crimped steaming pasties, fussed over their scarves, kissed goodbye or, beaming, hugged hello. A few metres down the platform, the little girl stood beside her mother, performing a elaborate, silent jig on the spot. They were getting on the same train as me.

Nobody knew. They were all so close, but none of them guessed the truth. Was this how it felt to be a suicide bomber? Intense loneliness in a shining slo-mo hyper reality, as you gaze upon the shifting mass of humanity with a kind of pity: poor unseeing fools - you've got no idea of the payload lurking beneath my clothes. And maybe you spot that one little girl, frolicking so innocently as she waits to board the same train as you, and you feel a pang of terrible regret, but it's too late now - the genie is out of the bottle. Or bott-hole.

I stared and stared at the clock, my expression taking on a manic intensity as I tried to accelerate time through sheer force of will. Time retaliated by dragging its heels. Whereas the happiest, most exhilarating experiences of my life had shot by between heartbeats to be forgotten forever, this one was expanding like a pulled accordion while Old Father Time himself stooped, chisel in hand, to engrave every last sensory detail into the granite cliffs of my memory.

Eventually, a train appeared in the distance. As it pulled up to the platform, my chest tightened. It was packed. People stood, clutching purses and holdalls, jostling up against one another. Amongst the vexed, squashed passengers, I saw no evidence of a toilet. Oh bottoms.

Then the doors slid open, and everyone got off. I realised that this was where the train turned around, and soon, it was empty. When I got in, I shoved my rucksack into the overhead compartment, gave it a whack to make sure it was secure, then waddled towards the middle of the carriage, where - joy of joys! - I discovered a large, vacant toilet cubicle.

I'd spare you the details but I've sharted so I'll finish. As the train began to move I kicked off my shoes and pulled off my trousers. I'd estimate there was only about a dessertspoonful of combined solids and liquids - well under the 100ml I could legally take on the plane as hand-luggage, but combined with my boxer shorts they constituted an offensive weapon that I could have held to a steward's mouth in a bid to take the aircraft hostage. It was at this point that I wished I'd brought my rucksack into the cubicle with me, so I could have retrieved some unblemished pants, but as it was I just counted myself lucky to have found a toilet at all, and, tugging off my boxers, resolved to go commando.

The toilet was one of those disabled ones with the large semi-circular sliding door secured by a 'Lock' button. They always leave me feeling a bit vulnerable, as if at any moment the door might trundle aside to expose me in all my dropped-trou ignominy to a couple of gawping coffin-dodgers. It was at that moment that I checked the two little buttons next to the sink, and realised that I was naked from the waist down, bent over clutching a pair of soiled undergarments, with the door unlocked. If anyone outside had pressed the 'Open' button, the first thing they would have been presented with was my pale and pimpled poo-dappled backside. I pressed the 'Lock' button.

I tell you all this not to repulse you, but to remind you of how lucky we all are. I said I'd work on being more positive and remembering to be grateful for small things, and I can say with some sincerity I am very grateful that, since I graduated from nappies up until that moment in Cambridge station, my bowels have operated a largely 'on-demand' service. Now, when I'm waiting for public transport and I've got a bit of a headache, I can think 'at least my pants aren't decorated with excrement' and genuinely feel a rush of gratitude.

Going commando was largely anticlimactic, save for the brief frisson I experienced while getting frisked by airport security. Once I'd checked into my hotel in Dublin, I had a shower, replenished my underwear, and headed out to the gig. Marching into the city centre with the confidence that can only come from having a lemon-fresh ringpiece, I became rapidly lost.

After crossing the Liffey twice, wandering farther and farther, I gave up and hailed a taxi. The cabbie looked like an Irish Heston Blumenthal - I told him the venue and he swung the cab through 180 degrees, to take us in the opposite direction to the one I'd been staggering. We went back across the river, away from the centre until we came to a bar on a corner.

The cabbie lifted his trendy specs to squint at the sign. 'Well there's a letter missing there but I think that's your pub,' he said. I peeled him off a note from the sheaf of bizarre European play money they use as currency over there. 'Good man,' he said, as if my decision to pay him was particularly generous.

When I pushed open the door and went in, the bar appeared deserted. Man City were playing Hamburg on the big screen, which hung over a raised bit of plywood covered in red carpet that I assumed was the stage.

The barman entered from a door behind the bar. 'Can I help you?' He had a black biro tucked behind one ear, and looked to be in his thirties, with a shaved head, a mischievous twinkle is his big eyes, and the stubble shadow of a blacksmith's tash.

'Err... is there a comedy gig on here tonight?'

'Yeah, but we're going to have it downstairs because of the darts.' He nodded towards a bare portion of wall behind me. 'Are you one of the comedians?'

'Yeah. Well... sort of.'

'Are you from England?'


'How long are you here for? A couple of weeks?'

I shrugged. 'A bit less than that, I expect.'

'Ah well, have you tried our Guinness?'

'No, I haven't.'

'Well you should.'

'Okay.' I cleared my throat. For some reason I'd come over all shy. 'One pint of Guinness please!'

The barman beamed his approval. I couldn't help feeling I'm this was a schtick reserved for tourists, but I drink Guinness normally and would have ordered it anyway, so I was happy to play along.

'We normally have it up here,' he said as he poured my pint, nodding to the stage to the left of the bar, currently obscured by Hamburg taking a free kick. 'It's a difficult space.'

He wasn't kidding. The whole of the room to the performer's right was obscured by a huge supporting pillar about a metre wide, leaving a blind spot big enough to hold 20 or more bored, rambunctious drinkers. Looking right, the first thing a stand-up would be able to see would be the stained glass in the two doors to the pub toilets.

'All the regulars sit in the other room,' said the barman, pointing to his left, towards a partitioned section of bar where various grizzled grey haired men guzzled Guinness and chatted, 'but they have to walk through here to get to the toilets, and as they go past, they heckle.' He shook his head and chuckled to himself. 'Oh, do they heckle.' He finished pouring the first part of my Guinness and eased the tap closed. 'People call this the hardest gig in Dublin. If you can do here, you can do anywhere.'

'Oh crumbs.'

He fixed me with what seemed like a fiendish grin. 'So you know it's a competition tonight? Lots of local lads down, bringing their mates to laugh and vote for them. So it'll be tough for ya.'

'Um, yeah, I'd heard that. I'm not taking part though.'

He rolled his eyes. 'Oh right. Above all that, are ya?'

'No, no! I just... to be honest with you, I'm not even a comedian.' I took a breath. 'I'm a poet.'

His face fell. 'Oh Christ. Well... good luck to ya.' He finished my Guinness off and handed it to me. 'There ya go. A nice creamy pint for ya.' As I reached for it, he added: 'Leave it to settle.'

I felt like an oik who'd just attempted to piss in the fingerbowl. I retracted my hand and waited.

A lot more happened, I met some cool people, but this blog isn't a place for me to spell out all the juicy details. As some of you know, I've been talking notes, getting audio and video recordings of gigs, chatting to people, taking (bad) pictures, and, you know, remembering stuff with my magical head, and, once I'm done, I'm going to find the best way of presenting it all so that other people can find out about it too, meet some of the fascinating characters that I did, cringe as I cringed, hear some performers' stories, and work out what it all means.

Like I said before I set off, for now this blog is a bit 'what I did on my holidays', because I'm busy doing rather than archiving. Also, I'm meeting new people every day, and I'll feel like a bit of a git if they wake up the next morning to find themselves as characters in a poorly thought-out first draft, no matter how nice I am about them. I want some distance so I can do it all justice, and also, so I can be honest. So yeah. Just to underline - this isn't it. It's just notes on the notes.

In any case, the evening went on very late, and ended with a very pissed debate round the bar about the essence of stand-up, and the philosophy of comedy, and what it means to be a jobbing comic. Eric Shantz is a lanky baseball cap wearing stand-up from Pittsburg who is a regular at the night, and who we'd watched do about 20-25 minutes of material to a tired, drunk, reluctant room. I'd genuinely admired his pugilist's spirit - even though there was never going to be some cigar-chomping Mr Big sitting in a corner waiting to talent spot him, he went in and kept fighting for his whole set, showing craft and determination and balls. Eventually he'd started getting heckled by his own girlfriend, who was wasted, but he ploughed on and saw the gig out.

That, to me, was the epitome of professionalism, but a long time and many pints later, we'd got snarled up in a convoluted drunken debate about who was and wasn't funny, and what audiences would and wouldn't accept. 'Shantz' - as he was known on stage - seemed to take a more absolutist stance, arguing that 'funny is funny' and that real masters of the craft could take their routine anywhere and kill. I was coming back with what I suppose was more of a contextualist position, saying that I thought expectation sets have a massive influence on an audience's reaction, priming them for a certain style of humour depending on their prior knowledge of the act or the venue. At least, I think those were the two ideologies we were trying to advance, but I was so wasted we might have just been bellowing random vowel sounds.

Basically, we were both advancing the truths it was more palatable for us to believe. I'd taken some lickings on the stand-up circuit with poems that usually did well at cabaret and poetry gigs, and so it was pleasant to imagine that this was the fault of the neanderthal audience and not representative of some deficit in my range and performance choices. Shantz, on the other hand, had been gigging for 11 years, working the LA circuit till it squeaked, and so I imagine the idea that, no matter what you did, you might still be at the mercy of a range of external factors sounded defeatist, even depressing.

'No, you're not listening to me,' said Shantz.

'I'm just trying to-'

'Goddammit!' He slammed down his beer so he could gesture with both hands. 'Woody Allen.' He delivered the four syllables like a general ordering his troops to prepare the Doom Machine. 'Woody fucking Allen. Are you trying to tell me that Woody Allen couldn't-'

'What I was saying was that Woody Allen-'

'See? See?' He got up from his stool in exasperation, slapped his brow. 'You're not even fucking listening to me!'

Geo, the other guy running the night, and Steve, as I'd discovered the barman was called, were staring at us. Shantz took off his cap and ran a hand through his short, dark hair. I sensed a tension had built up in the room. I needed some way of puncturing it.

'I shat myself this morning,' I said.

Geo, Steve and Shantz exchanged glances.

Steve gave me a pitying smile, as if he'd guessed the truth right from the moment I'd walked in the door. 'Right, I think that's time to drink up now gents, please.'

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

The Performance Poet Interviews - #8: Salena Godden

After a week off due to me fannying about the UK feeling all whimsical and introspective, flipping off beggars then getting poorly, pray doff your hats for the triumphant return of The Performance Poet Interviews. At least it's not me having opinions for once, thank whatever interventionist deity presides over blogging (probably some sort of chimpmunk with snarls of sticky, bifurcating ganglia where its eyes should be, called P£t£r5000). Click the 'interviews' tag to see the bitter, often strangely phallic fruits of previous weeks. Today, however, we hear from Salena Godden. Her memoir, Springfield Road, is due out very soon from HarperCollins.

How did you get into performance poetry?

Like most poets I never woke up one day and chose to do this...did it choose me? I have no idea... but... It seems people start calling one a 'poet' and introducing you to their friends as a 'poet' and you roll with it and stop correcting them after a while.

There are two answers to how I got started with the performance:

(1) When i was at school I used to write and sometimes sell poems for fags and favours at school. These were often for girls to give to their boyfriends when they'd been chucked. But put it this way, I did a roaring trade at Valentines, "Steve Steve, my heart on my sleeve..." these awful poems were often read aloud around the back of the 'bike sheds'... or down the woods where we jacked off lessons and got stoned...

(2) In 1991 I left Hastings and moved to London - I got a job with Acid Jazz records - I was the A&R girl, skinny thing with wild curly hair and without apology charging about Soho like I owned it. They started the Acid Jazz Magazine and I penned the column titled 'unsung heroes'.

My first ever interview was with the legendary Jock Scot (brilliant Scottish punk poet dude who is best mates with Shane Mcgowan, Nectarine No.9 etcetera). We started hanging out in Filthy McNasty's where we were served beers by the young barman poet Peter Doherty still cutting his teeth with a band he'd started called The Libertines.

Jock first got me up on stage at West London's Paradise Bar when I drunkenly admitted I wrote stuff. I always thought I was a songwriter and it was Jock Scot that reckoned the words could stand up on their own. This was the door opening - the door they always talk about.

My early gigs then were there and also places like Filthy's in the company of Jock Scot, Tim Wells, Shane McGowan, Phil Dirtbox, Will Self, Murray Lachlan Young... and a young Peter and his band... among countless others... Good times!

How would you describe your work?

As honest as I cannot ever be to your face and as truthful as all things I wish I had said in retrospect.

Do you think there's a difference between 'page' and 'performance' poetry? If so, what?

A good poem is usually both.

Why should someone come to a performance poetry gig?

I suppose people are not used to listening. We tend to hear whilst preparing what we want to say next. A poetry gig is like listening without having to quip and reply - a poetry gig is being told it's maybe not what you thought after all - but you're not alone.

What do you think your best poem is, and why?

Always the last one I wrote, the fresh new ones just printed or published always excite me, in the most childish indulgent way, as much as they always did and i hope they always do. Gig wise though - I reckon 'Imagine If You Had To Lick It' is still the big crowd pleaser - 'Can't Be Bothered' and 'Wee Wee Hole' close seconds. Why? I guess those 3 poems are the ones that get quoted back to me most often.

Personally i love my 'Emily' poem best. Reading this at Emily Williams funeral was the most difficult thing... to control myself not to cry. That girl was sunlight, one day, aged 26 she literally dropped down dead with a rare blood condition. One day I want to grow up and be the person she believed I was/am.


I met you on the tube train and asked you
if you wanted to pole dance with me
you said you did and so you did
we swung from the bars
on the Piccadilly line
and then we took you home
and drank cocktails until dawn
I liked your face
brown sugared with freckles
eyes full of mischief and life
one hundred per cent fun
you were quick and so smart too
you had the boys eating out of the palms of your hands
your hands were small and soft to hold
and your nails short and dirty
laughing with a mouth full of teeth
you’d wipe the sleep from the corner of your eye
and say yes but of course, everything, the world,
of course why not?
with you - nothing was too far or too bold
your head was full of brilliant ideas
to get us into trouble
if they ever caught us, caught you
Now, I remember the sun rising in Islington
the pavement shone with gold
and I balled my eyes out in Angel
tears before bedtime
and some broken boy heartache
it was 7am and you suggested
we go to the postman’s pub
you got us another pair of pints
lit two fags and quietly
told me it was going be alright
you had me eating out of the palm of your hands too
and made me see the light and the funny side.

So I was going to say
I thought that I’d see you this summer
smoke all your cigarettes
laugh about boys
watch the sun rise
and bombard you with poetry
and I was going to say
a hundred things
you lovely, lovely girl
but words are not enough
I will plainly say
I will always miss you.

If you could nick one other person's poem and claim it as your own, which poem would it be, and why?

Elizabeth Smart's 'By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept'. I know it's more a book/memoir than a poem... but to me it is the most beautifully executed poetic book, a journey into falling in love and losing it, the insanity of falling in love, the loss of control, power and rationale. My favourite line: 'But he never passes anywhere near me without every drop of my blood springing to attention...'

I was inspired by this and did 'nick' the line and wrote the poem 'By The Flower Stall in Kings Cross I Sat Down And Wept'.

A poem about losing one of the great loves of my life to heroin.

By The Flower Stall In Kings Cross I Sat Down And Wept (after Elizabeth Smart)

Meet me at two thirty
by the flower stall
in Kings Cross,
I will take you to Edinburgh
where the last page
is framed.

We were drunk
with jasmine and
orange blossom
in Valencia,
where the swallows
flew into the window glass.

Where are you?
Which hospital ward
do you lay in
refusing to see me?
I didn’t mean
that we’d never speak
ever again.

You have cancer
I’m told its serious
they say its for the best
they keep your whereabouts
a secret,
they tell me that I should
just leave it.

Being taught a lesson
but I already couldn’t
unlearn you.

I forget the crimes
where we went wrong,
the messes we made,
I find it impossible
to measure darkness,
just absence of light.

You started it,
you, leaning over the bar
get your passport, you said
I’m taking you for dinner.
I asked and what will you drink?
Cider and you, you smiled,
and you in Spain.

We made sad love,
the roof leaking rain
into buckets around the bed,
in our bubble
it would be alright,
but then I woke up crying.

Now a gold June sunrise
forbids me to sleep,
swallows swoop by
but they don’t fly
into my window pane,
into reflections.

I pound and punish
these keys
in some vain attempt
to reach you,
but its a letter
I’ll never post.

By the flower stall
in Kings Cross
I sat down and wept.
Then I went to Edinburgh
where the last page
is framed,

this book I read
remembering you,
for there was a time
when you could not pass
anywhere near me
without every drop of my blood
springing to attention.

A slammed door
the last word
and goodbye.
We were stubborn,
I’m sorry
and afraid
to face you
sick and in pain
to see you
how I left you
but worse.

If I could I’d read
you these lost last lines
until the rocks melt
and the sea runs dry
my rose,
my bloody

bloodied rose.

What typifies bad performance poetry to you?

I really dislike tokenism poety and I'm not that into stiff and forced rhyming poetry. I'm mixed race, Jamaican Irish and also a female - but I never felt a need to bang on about it... Urgh! Even worse in rhyme! Being true to myself, doing what I do and standing up on stage says it all... know what I mean?

Mae West coined it better when she said something like... I am all for feminism, but it is something to be whispered into the ears of men, quietly, slowly, and just one at a time.

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 was never that sure of the 'scene' - it's very fragmented isn't it? Slam poets vs page poets vs performance poets vs rappers vs tantric sex poets vs schoolyard poets etc etc... There are people I have worked with for the last 15 years that are stronger than ever - getting published, getting nominations, winning prizes, doing good, writing and fighting the good fight.

If there is one thing I have learned it's that there are some folk that are in it for the monkey, some for the vanity and shiny lights and some for the longevity and the long haul, others for the cathartic free therapy and there's always the flash in the pan poets you just never hear about ever again... and the poets still doing the same poem from 1992 too.

Tim Wells really helped me get going in the beginning, he and i go back to the mid-90's as mates and collegues. Recently we got some old anthologies and magazines out from 10-odd years ago and it was interesting to see who is still rocking it and who's just clean disappeared. I don't know much about the 'scene' - I think it gets splintered and pedantic. Politics are so boring.

To me it's all about the good fight - and there's some great fighters and writers out there, both young guns and kick-ass old schoolers too. Here's a quote from the Bukowski poem 'Roll The Dice' I have framed on my living room wall:

Go all the way
It could mean not eating for 3 or 4 days
it could mean freezing on a park bench
it could mean jail
it could mean derision
isolation is the gift
all the others are a test of your endurance
of how much you want to do it
and you'll do it
despite rejection and the worst odds
and it will be better than anything you can imagine
do it do it do it.....

....and you will ride life straight to perfect laughter
its the only good fight there is...

Tell us about a particularly memorable reaction you've had to your work.

There was a time once - I came off stage and I couldn't stop fizzing, electrified, I could hardly breathe. Weirdest of all is I cannot remember the actual gig but I can clearly recall the backstage dressing room, the heat, white lights, hearing roaring cheers on the tannoy to do an encore, but lying on the floor of the dressing-room literally vibrating for five minutes. Where was I? Fuck knows. Tokyo? Amsterdam? Dunno... I was scared shitless it had gone so well. I was somewhere far away from home.

Best heckle I ever had was being lead by two lady cops and frog-marched to a police station in a village in Austria. The locals had been putting drinks on stage throughout my set and at one point I didn't see a shot and I slipped over in a sticky pool of pear schnapps on-stage. They were going to arrest me for 'being drunk on stage' but I thankfully got away with it. Phew! It was a Prisoner Cell Block H moment though, the lady cops were very strict with me.

Funny groupie moment: I once went to a boy's flat after a reading in NYC - maybe New Yoricans - in his flat he had posters up everywhere of Coldcut... He played the Coldcut tracks I did on 'Let Us play' & 'Let us replay'. He kissed me whilst looking at my video of 'Noah's Toilet' on the DVD and was saying 'That's you (kiss)...and (kisses TV screen)...that's you (kiss)'.

I think he was joking, having a laugh - I didn't stay long enough to find out.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Open Bleugh

So, if you've been following this blog, you may have wondered about the distinct lack of open mic related updates. Am I keeping them secret? What's going on?

The fact is, for the past few days, I've been laid up in bed, at home, with a heavy cold. My head's been pounding, I've felt groggy and shivery, I've had a hacking cough, and my sinuses have been going at it like a Mr Whippy dispenser, producing mucus of varying viscosity, from the drip-drip prepubescent runny nose stuff to great rubbery white clots like chunks of scampi.

To be honest, I can't say I'm too disappointed. I desperately, desperately wanted a break. I've been amazed and embarrassed by how much the journey has taken out of me. I've only done 9 open mic nights so far, and by the end I felt totally baffled and overwhelmed by the process. I suppose it wasn't just about the performing side of things, but all the travelling, and the unpredictability of each night and audience, and having to work across different genres, and the sensory overload of seeing all the different acts and meeting new people and finding my way around a new town every day. When I finally got back to Cambridge, flushed and half-delirious, I went straight to bed, only to dream that I was at an open mic night, with my family and some friends, in what seemed to be some kind of secondary school classroom, and my dad said he was going to do a turn, and then a 10-year-old kid stood up and started doing this really sweary stand-up routine, and at first everyone was laughing, then his material turned really racist, and rather than object I just sat there covering my face with my hands and wanting it to end. I don't know what any of that means, but if you count dream open mics as events, my total count is 10.

But I suppose I'm concerned that, at the moment, my journey round open mic nights is shaping up to be something of a pipsqueak odyssey. After a month mooching around the flat, loathing our noisy downstairs neighbours and steadily going all kinds of Rear Window crazy, I was really looking forward to spending a load of time on the road, meeting new people, stretching myself as a performer, and getting to know the country I've lived all my life in but never really explored.

Now, I'm less sure. It might just be because I'm still ill, snotty, sore-throated and tired - the postman just came with two massive parcels for my flatmate, and by the time I'd carried them up the stairs back to the flat, my skull was throbbing and I couldn't keep my balance. In the same way that I find it near-impossible to go food shopping when I've just eaten, it's hard to picture myself merrily hopping onto trains, booking accomodation, finding my way around new cities, doing gigs, and chatting to people when I'm wrapped in a blanket, shivering and snorting bogeys back up through my inflamed nostrils.

On the morning of Easter Sunday, I lay in bed, swimming in and out of a feverish daze. One thing I realised was that, if I were to attend all the open mic nights I'd put into my itinerary, I would end up doing exactly 40. Maybe it was because it was Easter, but this made me think of Jesus' 40 days in the desert. My memory of this story is that Satan appears to Jesus at the end, and tries to tempt him, first by suggesting he turn stones into bread so he can have something to eat, secondly by encouraging him to leap off the top of the temple and get caught by angels, thus proving his divinity, and thirdly by offering him all the kingdoms on Earth. Metaphorically, you might see them as the temptations of physical pleasure, looking awesome, and wielding great influence.

And as I pawed at my sweaty brow, rolling over and over in search of a comfortable spot that didn't exist, I thought - without irony - 'yeah, I look to performing to bring me those things - so that's a bit like my situation, isn't it?'

So that's the latest dispatch from the Open Mic car crash. Less than two weeks in and I think I'm Jesus.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Belfast, Friday 10th April

So, after a Facebook invite from Marcus Keeley, I flew over to Belfast to join in with the Make Yourself Heard open mic at the Safehouse Arts Centre. When I got into my taxi from the airport, the cab driver said: 'It's been a strange day. First it was sunny, then it was raining, now it's sunny again.' I looked up into the sky to the east, and it was split right down the middle, with beautiful blue sky on one side, and fulminating dark clouds on the other.

After talking in a previous post about searching for a solid place to stand, it was interesting to do an open mic where the performance spot is on a reinforced glass disc, which gives you the disconcerting feeling of hovering above a cobbled street. Everybody brought booze to the event, and, because it was Good Friday and the pubs closed early, a lot of the audience and performers ended up staying and drinking until gone 1 in the morning. I was starting to feel groggy from my emerging cold, and so I kind of shuffled awkwardly on the drinking sidelines, while the MYH stalwarts showed me how it was done. As the evening went on it got more and more raucous, but most people still showed an impressive level of courtesy and respect to the performers, listening attentively to the quiet stuff, whooping and applauding at the rowdy stuff. In the spirit of the night, when it came to my turn I tried out a new poem, which definitely needs some editing, but may be salvagable.

By the time it was all through, I was knackered. I think I'd grossly underestimated just how much energy visiting these open mic nights would take. Not just the performing to wildly different audiences with a whole host of varying expectations, but also the travelling, and the watching other acts. I reckon that in about 10 days, I've seen almost 200 different performers! And, you know, because they're all new, and so unique, I've got really vivid memories of all of them, so my sense of how much time has elapsed has expanded like an accordion.

That aside, I enjoyed getting to fly again. I haven't done it for a while, and I still spend the majority of the journey in a state of baffled amazement that I'm on a chair in the sky. On the flight over, I sat by the wing, and stared out, watching it flex and judder in the wind. Really all I need to do now is do a poo while on a plane, and I'll have completed my sense of utter superiority over all humans who lived before the twentieth century. 'Fuck you Copernicus! Fuck you Newton! I'm shitting in the sky!' Even Merlin never pulled moves that sweet.