Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Homework - NEW SEASON!

Ahh. Finally, the new season of Homework is about to kick off. Homework is Aisle16's London scratch night, a kind of loosely themed literary cabaret on the last Wednesday of every month. Each night has a main show, with support slots from the residents, and often a guest slot.

Last year, despite drifting across three venues, we managed to have a fantastic run, premiering new material and shows every single frickin' night. For a gig that consists largely of poetry, it manages to be pretty raucous fun. Back in October we debuted the full version of Infinite Lives, our show about video games and the grinding vapidity of real life, which is developing into something I'm really proud of. I think it contains the best material I've ever written, and it's on a subject I really care about. Me, Joe and Ross also debuted the full version of what would eventually become Found In Translation, our show about how we tried to infiltrate infamous French experimental literature group, the Oulipo. We're due to perform Found In Translation at the Port Eliot Literary Festival, on Sunday 26th July. Again, the show's final version is something I'm really chuffed with and proud to be a part of. My other highlights from last season include: taking part in the four person performance of Ross's Obituary poem, which cuts up four obituaries from around the same time then splices them together as if they refered to one person; hearing Kate Nash do a set at the end of Joe's Submarine reading; watching Ross, Chris, Joel and Luke perform Services To Poetry on a tiny stage in a room packed to bursting point, and remembering that they're my favourite poets; and getting to play Where Jenny Goes on my uke with glockenspiel accompaniment.

So anyway, the new season goes on until the end of October, on the last Wednesday of every month. It's upstairs at the Bethnal Green Working Men's Club, although knowing our history with venues, I wouldn't be flabbergasted if at some stage we have to make new arrangements and up sticks to somewhere else. But that's all part of the crazy make-do-and-mend ethos that makes Homework so special, so slapdash. The night's certainly one of my favourite to do, because the audience are always great. We experiment, we write lots of new material, and because of that, there's that exciting feeling that what you're watching will never happen again. It's just a really cool mix of new stuff and super-bankable classics that is loads of fun to perform and seems, from the crowd's responses, to be, err, nearly as fun to watch. Heh.

So, the new season kicks off with John Osborne's Radio Head - current Radio 4 Book of the Week. As well as John's reading there'll be a full set from Tim Key of BBC4's Cowards and Charlie Brooker's Newswipe.

I reckon Tim Key is awesomecakes.

As if that wasn't enough (well, actually it obviously isn't - you can't have a cabaret night with only two acts) me, Ross Sutherland and Chris Hicks will all be doing support slots, performing new material and generally being convivial little imps. I've actually written brand new poems, which I'll be trying out for the first time at Homework. Squeeeeeeeee!

So look, if you're reading this, you should come. Here are the details. The mental thing is, it's only £3 on the door. If you can't get there, we film each night and it sounds like an actual film crew should be turning up to the opening night too, so there'll be eager lenses a-go-go. Fingers crossed it will be giddy joy and everyone will have a great time. We've been super-jammy with our regular audience at Homework. They're lovely and the main reason we keep doing it.

Oh, and last but definitely not least, we're extremely grateful to the Arts Council, who are helping to fund this second season. They've been really, really supportive, seem to get what we're doing, and have trusted us to work hard and develop it. Hats off to them, really. Thanks to them, we're now able to put on a whole half-year of exciting, innovative, affordable live literature in East London. Hooray! It's not just good for us - it's good for all the somewhat nutty heroes who put in so much work to create a vibrant performance poetry scene. There's some fantastic stuff out there if you know where to look. Ahem. But may I suggest starting at Homework?

Monday, 25 May 2009

This Happened Because Tim Made A Mistake

'Tim is off on a search to rescue the Princess. She has been snatched by a horrible and evil monster.

This happened because Tim made a mistake.

Not just one. He made many mistakes during the time they spent together, all those years ago. Memories of their relationship have become muddled, replaced wholesale, but one remains clear: the Princess turning sharply away, her braid lashing him with contempt.'

I've just completed Braid, the critically acclaimed time-shifting platformer. I'd heard lots of great things about it, including its being the highest-rated game on Xbox Live, but I never got round to playing it until I read on the news section of Ryan North's awesome Dinosaur Comics that the artwork was done by David Hellman of truly incredible webcomic A Lesson Is Learned But The Damage Is Irreversible.

I know I'm using a whole messload of superlatives here, but it's rare that this sort of confluence takes place. A Lesson Is Learned is one of my favourite webcomics ever. It's been on semi-permanent hiatus since 2006, but the stuff up there inspired me, made me laugh, and reminded me what true storytelling is all about. There's an incredible mix of styles and lots of engaging, surreal humour. Some of my favourites are Now We Are Poor Again!, Getting Over Women, Alcoholic Rabbit Tears It Up, and Traumatic Incident No. 17. Go on, go read them. I'll wait.

Braid is a platformer where you can reverse time. As the game goes on, new elements are added and the puzzles get more complex. Glowing green things remain where they are when you reverse time. Glowing purple things leave a shadow version of themselves behind when you reverse time, a kind of ghostly echo that plays out when time begins moving forward again. Your aim is to collect the puzzle pieces scattered around each level, then reassemble the bits of the puzzle.

The graphics feel like an oil painting come to life, all flowing shapes and vibrant colours. There are lots of witty nods to games like Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros, and Elevator Action, including the obligatory 'your princess is in another castle' brush off. But although the game mechanics are innovative and very cool, Braid is more about creating an immersive, moving narrative experience. Every twist in level design is reflected in the storytelling.

I must admit I was a bit taken aback when the game started, because the protagonist is called Tim. I don't want to spoil the story for you, but Tim appears to have messed up a relationship that was really important to him, so he sets out to find the 'Princess' that he lost.

I know it sounds silly, but the game really affected me. Maybe it was partly to do with the character having my name, but Braid gripped me emotionally in a way no game ever has before. When I completed it, I felt utterly bereft. The story that unfolds is subtle, elegaic, and very sad.

I read an editorial in Edge last year that talked about how some indie games tend to get dubbed 'art' by virtue of their being unenjoyable as entertainment. I think there's a lot of truth in that. Braid is a rare example of a game that manages to be both shrewdly crafted art, and good fun. It's available as a download via Steam, for just £9.99. It was an impulse buy for me, and I'm super-glad I took the plunge. It's short, but astoundingly executed.

'Our world, with its rules of causality, has trained us to be miserly with forgiveness. By forgiving too readily, we can be badly hurt.'

We crave narratives. They can help make sense of the whirling havoc of our lives, give us goals, promise some golden reward later down the road. But there's always a trade off. Stories are blinkers, and the bigger and brighter the prize, the harder it cleaves reality.

I'm not sure Tim even understands what happened. Perhaps wilfully so. A mistake implies agency, control. Maybe the truth he can't accept is that it would have always turned out this way. There was nothing he could have done, no perfect play. So he carries the guilt for company. Better a haunted house than a lonely one. It would have always turned out this way. And I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

We Can't All Be Astronauts - Review

So, We Can't All Be Astronauts got reviewed on a blog called Geek Pie - and it sounds like they liked it.

They call it a 'brutally honest, hilarious and engaging memoir', and describe it as 'the best possible tool for any budding writer or someone wanting an insight into the creative process'. Um, I'm not sure that I'd go that far, but thanks! I'm really flattered and I'm glad that they felt they got something useful out of it. My favourite books are ones that help me to see some part of my life, large or small, in a new way, so I hope that Astronauts manages to do that for readers too.

Anyway, I'm just chuffed to get such a positive review - it even managed to make calling me 'self-obsessed, precious and arrogant' sound like a ringing endorsement! If you'd like a copy of We Can't All Be Astronauts of your very own, or if you know any aspiring writers who might enjoy laughing at misfortune, seething jealousy and self-aggrandisement, you can always pre-order a copy here. The release date is Thursday 4th June. The Norwich launch is on Friday 5th June, and the London launch is on Monday the 8th. Come along!

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Bristol Open Mic

So I finally returned to my home city, Bristol, to do some open mic poetry. I did a bit of music in April at a couple of nights put on by Mark Venus, but this was my first time coming back to do some poetry.

It was pleasant in lots of ways. I got to hang out with the redoubtable, articulate and completely non-hirsute Byron Vincent, a very talented stand-up poet who regularly excites in me pangs of narked jealousy. He did a new poem, but only after hurling out the standard welter of self-effacing chaff about how he'd probably mess it up and accidentally poison our unborn children, etc. Turned out it was very good and he performed it exceptionally well. Gah! Fooled again!

On the way to the gig, we walked from the city centre up towards Montpelier. I'd had an off-kilter sensation for a while. Suddenly, I got this weird nauseous feeling. When I looked to the left of the road, I realised we were directly opposite the flats where my first proper girlfriend used to live. It had been almost a decade since I'd gone there. The exterior had changed but I experienced powerful flashback sickness, as if my old picture of what the building looked like was constantly trying to burst through.

It was unpleasant, frankly. I felt like memories of a past life were leaking through. I remembered dropping to my knees on her doorstep in the driving rain, the day before I was due to leave to go to university. I'd wept and clutched at her. It had been clichéd and embarrassing - and utterly, utterly sincere.

In the present, I was staggering up the road, pointing weakly at things, while Byron looked on, confused and a little alarmed. We passed under the viaduct and moved onto the Gloucester Road, which sparked off a whole other set of associations from a completely different time in my life, because my mate Will used to live just off it on North Road. I pointed at the building where the Venue magazine offices used to be, and sort of wheeled and stumbled and grinned at the toy shop where me and Will once went to get Super Soakers.

The open mic itself was pretty fun. There was a set performed entirely on jaws harp, and I particularly enjoyed watching a chap called Martin John get eggy because people were talking in the crowd. He buggered off in the break without staying to see the acts in the second half, so I'm not sure he occupied any sort of moral highground when it came to respecting other performers. At the same time, the people who were noisily chatting were other performers, who I doubt would've appreciated his loudly gasbagging through their heartfelt recitals. One of the things I've found fascinating about travelling around open mics is noticing how quickly someone goes from being the meek newcomer digging their toe into the carpet to becoming a tetchy primadonna who feels entitled to an attentive, adoring crowd regardless of the quality of their material. When I've seen bashful virgins break their performance cherry, I've always been thinking 'aww... I hope you grow in confidence'. But confidence isn't always an admirable trait. Indeed, if you're decidedly lacking in the talent department, sometimes a modest comportment is your biggest ally, yet it seems to be the first thing so many people shed.

At the same time, sometimes I've been baffled by the apparent indifference poets show to the people they share a bill with, only to find out that the person on stage has been doing the same three discursive, tedious, self-indulgent poems for the last six months, and so it's only natural that regulars are bored to brackish, bitter tears by their outpourings. With poetry open mics in particular, where there's a roster of regulars, each night represents a roiling political microcosm. I'm becoming convinced that you only need three poets in a room to create three bitterly opposed factions.

Friday, 22 May 2009

The Bionic Woman

So some of you may have caught The Sun's 'story' about Heather Mills getting approached by Capcom to front the publicity campaign for the long anticipated next-gen sequel to classic platformer Bionic Commando. Appearing beneath the headline 'GREEDY MUCCA'S OUT OF LUCKA' the article frothed about how she had supposedly been asked 'because of her charity work with amputees', only to ask for ten times more money than she had been offered, and also 'that a character based on her should be the star of the project'. When passing on the story, various gaming websites have interpreted this as Mills demanding that she be made the game's protagonist. The general thrust across the board seems to be that this is just more proof - as if proof were needed - that Heather Mills is a grasping, avaricious harpy with all the self-awareness of a vacuum cleaner.

Here's my take. One, she wasn't being approached by a charity organisation asking her to help them raise money for a good cause. She was being approached by a massive video games company who wanted to exploit her celebrity to help them flog a product. Not just that, but their only interest in her was in her capacity as a famous monoped. I've noted before that the UK press seem to have got together and decided that Heather Mills' having one leg is not a disability so much as a comic misfortune, and therefore it's okay to take the piss, whilst elsewhere paying lip service to the idea that prejudice against people because of physical disabilities is a Bad Thing. She had every right to turn them down, or ask for whatever remuneration she felt fair.

Two, if I were asked to be part of an advertising campaign for Bionic Commando, I hope I'd have the chutzpah to ask to be the main character. If it's true, then all she's done there is show good taste. The original Bionic Commando is an awesome game - one of the only platformers I can think of that doesn't have a jump commmand, but it's really compact and fun and packed with cool ideas.

The purpose of the game is to infiltrate the enemy's secret base, prevent their huge missile from being launched, and then kill their General. You get to swing from roof beams, sneak past searchlights, and battle helicopters and giant robots. It's tough without being unfair, and the thrill of grapneling over a pack of soldiers' heads is rarely matched in games from the same era.

Third, I reckon the whole piece smells fishy. Would you really approach Heather Mills, practically persona non gratis in the UK press, to promote a game aimed primarily at 14-20 year old males? That's like employing Esther Rantzen as the face of Resident Evil.

Given that the story clearly wasn't put out by Mills herself, it seems likely that what you've got is a canny/cynical PR agency offering her a derisory sum to be involved in promotion, knowing that she'd ask for more, then putting the story out as a way of publicising their game, disingenuously citing it as yet another example of her 'greed' - the kind of quirky celeb piece twatty, credulous rags like The Sun gobble up unquestioningly. Look, Heather Mills might not be a very nice person, I accept that, but I don't know her so it's not my place to judge - and paper-thin promo-articles like this tell us nothing, except that during this economic downturn, attention-hungry companies can always rely on the prejudice and gullibility of the British press.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

The Performance Poet Interviews - #11: Luke Wright

So yes, here we are again. Another day, another performance poet interview. Goodness. That sounds a bit world-weary. I don't really feel that bleak. I haven't been updating with my usual high-fibre regularity for a couple of reasons, primarily because I've been busy writing actual proper articles that may wind up appearing in actual semi-esteemed organs which some people pay money for. The release date for We Can't All Be Astronauts is just a couple of weeks away now, so I suppose I'll be semi busy-busy.

Also, I've been procrastinating somewhat, because now I've definitely got enough material about open mics to begin putting pen to paper and recording what I've got up to so far. But I think it's probably wise for me to do some planning first, otherwise it's like walking up to a massive cake as big as a house, and wondering where to take the first bite from. I've been perusing my notes, and then I guess I'll just have to take the plunge, and see where it takes me. It always feels a bit nerve-wracking, because I'm not sure whether what interests me will be engaging for other people. The first time we performed Infinite Lives, literally until I got the first couple of laughs from the audience, I still wasn't sure whether all my rattling on about the ways you lose your girlfriend in video games was just something I found personally amusing, or whether other people would go, 'oh yeah - that is pretty cool'. Who knows? I think I just have to press on with it, until I've grown myself a hedge that I can start hacking into. Astronauts developed in a shambling, trial-and-error fashion, and there's something to be said for chasing what's interesting and allowing that to shape the project, rather than forcing a shape onto it before you know what's going to happen - although it's a terribly inefficient way of working.

All of which is just by way of apology. Sorry. I should have been posting more. I missed you. I so want you to be happy. So, as a kind of peace offering, here's an interview with professional word-sayer and quite tall raconteur, Luke Wright:

How did you get into performance poetry?

I went on a lyric writing course by Martin Newell and he talked about John Cooper Clarke and Attila The Stockbroker. A few months later I went to go and see Martin and John perform at Colchester Arts Centre. It was probably one of the most important nights of my life. I loved it. I was most struck by a young guy called Ross Sutherland who did the opening slot. Ross was talking about things I was taking about in my songs, but here he was able to fully explore his ideas and not just allude to them in scant 4 line verses. Performance poetry seemed like the perfect form for me to work in: there was room to maneuver, you could be funny AND serious and there's was plenty of the old instant gratification (I grew up living next door to a sweet shop). Within a month I had made Ross me friends with me and we were doing gigs together - this informal arrangement became Aisle16 a couple of years after that.

How would you describe your work?

Difficult to do without wanking on... but... I'm really interested in form; I set myself rhyme and metre related constraints. I also like telling stories. Much of my work is humorous (or attempts to me) because I figure why NOT make something funny, generally my poems also try to make a serious point. Content wise I write about myself, Britain, modernity and all the nonsense those things conjure up.

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

At a very basic level yes. There are some poems that really only work well in performance. They are mini pieces of theatre really, you can read them on the page, but it is often confusing and rarely rewarding. Similarly there are pieces that rely on being seen on the page and would provide no entertainment value read aloud. And there is of course a huge grey area in the middle. I agree with what Polarbear said - 'good is good.' I'm less interested in poetry as purely an experiment in language, I like to feel poetry, to be left with a story or a character or an emotion, rather than an appreciation of how clever the poet is being. With that in mind there are many poems that I love on the page but which also work really well live. Generally speaking all my favourite poems 'work' both on page and stage.

I'm currently editing my first pamphlet - it's a daunting process and it's teaching me a lot about the distinctions of 'page' and 'stage' poetry. For example, short poems, really short poems, never work well on stage, unless perhaps delivered like one liners, but then really they're just one liners. To a less extent longer poems take more out of the reader on the page and rely on being really well ordered to work well. Most poems in an average collection are less than a page long, but if you were to take an average performance poet's set and look at it on the page most of the poems would be over a page. Much of this is down to the applause at the end of a poem. It's weird applauding after only 30 seconds or so - the poet might have earned that applause as a writer but not as performer because they've barely got started.

What I've found whilst putting together my book is that even the poems where I've nailed the syllable count and rhyme scheme, so that they 'work' on the page, lose something because they take longer to get where they're going that perhaps they would if I'd written them with the page in mind. I've taken care to get them 'right' on the page, but over laboured the point perhaps because I know that in performance I can build up momentum (and laughs) by looking at the same point from different angles.

Good writing is good writing. If you're going to write in iambs, couplets or have four feet in a line then you need to stick to it and get it right whether you're writing for page or stage, but even that good writing is sometimes not enough to make sure the piece is equally effective in both mediums. Personally I'm aiming to get the technique watertight, and the content as close to what I really want to say - if one piece works better on the page then so be it, if another on the stage then that's the way it was meant to be. Hopefully I'll have enough of a range that my work will be available in both formats.

Why should someone come to a performance poetry gig?

A good performance poetry gig is mesmerizing. I know that word is over used but it truly it. It's so clever, funny and riveting you'll want more and more and more. It's the kind of thing people really get hooked on.

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

I'm not one of these poets who constantly revisits old work, I have too short an attention span, but I've been doing a lot of editing and ordering of late. In terms of a real banker during a gig I'd have to say The Company of Men, but I think it's flawed. I'm really pleased with the aesthetic feel I created with The Rise and Fall of Dudley Livingstone and I also think it makes quite a clever (for me) point about morality and our attitudes towards it. I also like Colonel Crampon Goes Off, though I'm feeling edgy about the new edit I've done on it for the book.

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

Oh Tim, I'm going to sound like such a sycophant but one of them has to be your Heart Of Class. Again, I agree with what Polarbear said about how a poem is often so intrinsically linked to the poet that as much as you love it you couldn't feel you could nick it, but there are pieces such as that which are, I think I could get away with and that's one of them. It's a wonderful romping satire and I have thought many times about how I would perform it and make it my own. Does that give you the creeps?

As much I wish I'd written that poem, or indeed Future Dating by Joe Dunthorne, those are poems I'd like to have so I could perform them too. At the other end of the spectrum, poems that I'd like to put in my book, poems that I wish I'd written - The Old Fools by Larkin; Prayer by Carol Ann Duffy; the list could go on...

What typifies bad performance poetry to you?

Self-righteous, emotionally manipulative rants delivered like they were missives from God, that either don't rhyme, or rhyme / all the time, / where each line / is delivered like stops... time / and the final line / is whispered / like / it's / sublime.


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?

There is a scene in so much as a lot of the poets who are doing gigs round the UK know each other and keep in contact with one another. Within that scene there are different cliques and groups and other people who don't really like to be associated with other poets in that way. In music, a lot of what makes a 'scene' is the bullshit written about it by music journalists. We don't have much journalism written about performance poetry and when we do they always try and lump the youngest and most eye catching of us up and try and sell it to the public as a 'scene.' This inevitably gets people's backs up as the journalist represents us in a certain way and that's not really going to fit in with our view of ourselves, apart from perhaps the flavour of the month who's been held up as the saviour of poetry. I've had experience from both sides of this: I've been praised far beyond my worth in the press; and been completely ignored whilst other people who I don't rate are held up as the best thing since iambic pentameter. What I've learned is that it's silly to be annoyed by it, what's important is to keep your head down and go on making work that you're proud of. That said I think a 'scene' is a good thing - it's makes all this a little less lonely and it's a sign that things are going well, that there's loads of good poetry gigs going on out there - as a fan of live poetry I welcome that.

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

At the Strawberry Fair in Cambridge last year I managed to provoke a fight that had to broken up by two policemen. All I said was a poet's work is never done. On the plus side John Betjeman's daughter once hugged me and said that he dad would have loved Services To Poetry, which was pretty special.

Over your work with Aisle16 and into your solo shows, you've developed a format where the stuff you say around the poems ends up being just as important as the 'pieces' themselves. Have you got any advice for poets with regard to thinking about a poem's 'lead in'?

I wouldn't say they are 'as important' to me. I enjoy the stand-up part of what I do more on a performance level than on a writing one. I don't really sit down and write my links any more. I usually have an idea, usually a story, which may become a blog, and then I'll try it out on stage. Because a lot of it is trial and error it relies less heavily on the writing and for that reason I'll always see it as secondary to the poetry.

In terms of advice I wouldn't perhaps use that technique from the off. All of the Aisle16 stuff, and Poet Laureate was very tightly scripted and learned. It was only in Poet & Man and A Poet's Work Is Never Done I started to go 'off-piste' a bit with it. This year I'm reigning it back in again. I'm going to write a script for the stand-up stuff for the new show but the material will be fairly loose so I won't learn it word for word, more use the script as a guide.

Can you tell us a bit about how work's going on your new show?

The new show is called The Petty Concerns of Luke Wright. My wife and I are having a baby this summer and it's made me realise just how much time I spend thinking about myself and all the drivel that surrounds being a writer/performer. The show is about my quest to stop ego-surfing and get to the bottom of what really matters in life. This quest is set against a back drop of grotty Travelodges and the peculiar underworld of the London open mic circuit as I cast my thoughts back over the last ten years of my career (it's been that long!) and find out how the seemingly innocuous desire to be adored by millions turned into a horrible ego trip.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Video Game Soundtracks

I love a lot of old video game music. Sure, there's a hefty dollop of nostalgia at work, but many video game soundtracks are astounding in how they manage to squeeze sophisticated tunes out of limited sound capabilities. I think working with such heavy restrictions brought the best out of many composers, which is why their compositions stand the test of time, and still see people working on remixes today.

Here's the music for the Moon level on Ducktales on the NES (warning: music lovely, but quite loud and shrill):

Here's the 'Epic Remix', complete with screaming Kiss-esque lead guitar:

I mean, come on. If that isn't Epic I don't know what is. I listen to it blasting through my stereo headphones, and all I can think is: I'm Scrooge McDuck, and I'm on the FUCKING MOON. Rock.

And here's video games coverband The Advantage (named after the official NES joystick, I imagine) performing their version of it live:

What I love about this clip are the moments where you can hear the crowd singing along. It just shows the roaring affection gamers have for these songs. They sat with us through our childhoods. They oversaw our frustrations, our triumphs. They were the soundtrack to our blossoming imaginations.

Here's the original soundtrack from somewhat forgotten Sega arcade classic Space Harrier, followed by the driving Rave remix that accompanied the revamped PS2 version:

I've always liked the theme to Space Harrier, as well as the enthusiastic digitised speech: 'Welcome to the Fantasy Zone - get ready!' The game itself was a bit too fast and stressful for me, especially the full arcade version with the pneumatic cab that lurched and twisted as you dodged spinning laser orbs. While you're listening to the remix, to get the full experience, imagine that you're about ten metres in the air on some violently whirling carnival ride, with an announcer yelling: 'Okay - let's rock this ride!' and 'Okay! Let's go!' at various intervals.

I'll post some more of these when I find ones from games I really love.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Århus, Mon-Tues 11-12th May

(click the images for bigger versions)

So, as some of you may know, a while back one of my dozens of emails sent out to open mic organisers to check that their nights were still running, yielded one reply from somebody called Line, telling me that they had moved to Denmark, but that they'd set up a sister night over there and I was very welcome to come and take part if I wanted to. So I did.

I arrived on the early morning flight, having had no time for sleep. After a 45 minute coach ride into the city, I unfolded my Google map and trudged my way to my hotel, where I lay down for a nap.

I have to say I felt rotten. Really depressed. I'd had a fantastic weekend - on Thursday I'd got to read from We Can't All Be Astronauts for the first time ever at Bookslam, then I actually got to sign copies of my book. Wow! On Friday, I got up on stage and talked to an audience about what I'm doing now, this whole open mic journey, and - although I was really nervous and felt like I was flying blind - people seemed to like it. Then, on Saturday, it was my good mate Joel's wedding. I used to hate weddings, until they started happening to people I cared about. Joel and Fran's wedding was not just lovely, but fun, too. They didn't want to do all that 'bride and groom's first dance' nonsense, so when the band opened their set with a cover of Amy Winehouse's Valerie (you know, the one that sounds like a poor man's Town Called Malice), Paddy and Luke ran for the dancefloor and started pogoing. Right in that moment, I felt deliriously happy. I really love my friends.

So perhaps a comedown was inevitable. Also, I was knackered, and my hayfever had suddenly, aggressively kicked in, filling my sinuses with snot and making my eyes water. My lungs felt as if they were stuffed with straw. Århus airport is surrounded by field upon field of undulating yellow oilseed rape, so for a hayfever martyr like myself it was like breathing in the noxious air of an industrial smelting works. Most of all, I had some problems back in England that I felt were about to come to a head. I couldn't see any way round them, and lying in the gloom of my little room, hundreds of miles away, I felt powerless and doomed.

Then I thought, what the fuck are you doing? You're in a foreign city you've never been to before. It's a beautiful day. Get out of this room.

I suspected I'd still feel glum once outside, but I thought sod it. Feeling helpless and alone whilst exploring a new city didn't sound appreciably worse than feeling helpless and alone whilst lying in a cramped hotel room, so I might as well just give it a spin.

It turned out to be one of the loveliest cities I've ever visited. I took a walk down to the docks, which were right by my hotel, and sat on the quay, watching various groups of men pull wriggling silver fish out of the water on their lines. Århus is the largest container port in Europe - fact.

I bumbled through the streets, smiling as groups of roistering youths clobbered one another with giant inflatable hammers. I wandered up the hill and found a wooden windmill in a park. Some students were sitting next to it on a tartan rug, eating a picnic out of a wicker hamper. Next to the hamper was a plastic travel-kennel, the front door open, and a chubby lop-eared black rabbit in a red collar with silver studs, munching the grass.

Getting outside was the best thing I could have done. Sure, taking your mind off your problems doesn't solve them, but if, right at that moment, you can't solve them, taking your mind off them is the best policy. I sat in the rock garden, amongst plants from New Zealand, Africa, South America, Japan and China, felt the warmth of the sun against my back and listened to birds sing like old modems. It was really pleasant and relaxing. I spent a while picking up stones, exploring their textures with my thumb, and turning them in the light, the way I'd been taught up in Glasgow.

Later, Line, the organiser, picked me up from the station, where some people were waving Tamil Tiger flags and protesting against the continued fighting in Sri Lanka. Line drove me to the venue, a little café. The open mic was really good fun. There was a mix of music and poetry in various languages, ending with a chap playing accordion. Before he started each song, he gave out elaborate audience participation instructions that took almost twice as long as the song itself. Audience members shrugged apologetically and did their best not to comply, but he refused to take the hint. I began to feel a bit like we were in a hostage situation.

John, who had done a couple of songs earlier on, and was also from England, turned to me with a rueful smile and whispered: 'The Danish are a very patient people.' A couple wheeling a bike past the window peered in to see what was going on, and I almost mouthed: 'Help us.'

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

John Osborne's Radio Head

I've just finished reading my friend John Osborne's first book, Radio Head. It's the story of how he decided to listen to a different radio station every day, in a last ditch attempt to inject some variety into his boring data entry temp job. He ends up guiding you through an entertaining, uplifting state of the nation piece that rates as the best book I've read so far this year.

I realise I'm biased, so by all means discount my praise, but I really enjoyed it from start to finish. John has a real talent for zeroing in on funny, tender details. Over the course of the book, he builds up a really positive, patriotic picture of a diverse and modern Britain. Radio Head's subtitle could easily be: How To Love Your Country Without Being A Cunt. But then I think he might be embarrassed to show his mum.

I don't want to start listening all the brilliant anecdotes and suprising incidents, because part of the pleasure is discovering them with John as he embarks on his modest odyssey. But watching how the different stations influence his mood and change his day is really satisfying and creates a forward momentum that somehow makes it both gently entertaining and a real page-turner - Fever Pitch for radio buffs.

So yes. I strongly recommend, basically. Each time I read it, it made me feel happier and more optimistic. I should really interview John for the performance poets section. I'll get on to that. In the meantime - check out Radio Head! There's a reason why it's been picked for Radio 4's Book of the Week!

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Hammer and Tongue London Slam

Last night I was guest poet at the London final of the Hammer and Tongue Slam. Anyone who knows me knows my official position on slams is I'm not fond of 'em. This may be because I rarely do well - I'm a bit of a waffler, and I like having time to jaw with the audience, plus I've hardly got any poems under the crucial 3 minute mark. On the flipside, as an audience member, I enjoy quality poets being given enough stage time to knock out a decent set, and slams nibble everything down to slivers.

When I've got a little bit more time on my hands (ie after this week), I'm planning two fairly substantial posts on performance poetry - one on 'how to do slams', and the other on 'all the shit that isn't poetry that needs to go right for you to have a good poetry gig', about venues, promoters, audiences, all that crap. I realise that, coming from someone who has just professed not to be good at slamming, or to particularly like slams, a blog entry dishing out advice on the subject might be seen to lack a certain 'rhetorical authority'. Trust me. I've been dishing out opinions for years on shit I know fuck all about. I will make my BS sound convincing. You will link to it and say 'ooh, look at this, it is so authoritative and fragrant with merit' not guessing for a moment that you have been FOOLED. Heh.

At the H&T slam, everyone performing had previously won a heat, so - for a slam - the standard was impressive. Taking place in the back room of the Green Note Café in Camden, it was rammed. It meant the crowd was warm but restless - there were a lot of numb legs and sweaty faces and though they were pleased to have a distraction from their physical discomfort, as soon as nothing interesting was happening on the stage they became chatty and grumpy. Which is fair enough. As with a lot of slams I've seen, there was a hell of a lot of faffing between poets as judges held up tattered scorecards and attempted to add them up. When one of your feet doesn't have any blood in it and the air conditioning's switched off, you don't tend to feel very forgiving towards ropey organisation skills!

In the first round, (apologies if I get the names wrong - I've double-checked but you know how it is) Charlie Wright and Josh Niecho, one a rather lanky, spiky, hirsute character, the latter a suited, bespectacled chap, both took the unusual step of reading off the page. I say 'unusual' - I mean 'crap'. There's no excuse for reading off the page in a slam, unless it's basically a prop, and you know the poem well enough that you could finish it even if one of your nefarious rivals made it go on fire. Reading off the page negatively impacted on both their performances. Both of them had to keep glancing down at the page to get their next lines, so they'd switch between really giving it some, then breaking eye contact to check the page, then going back to the poem.

I thought Charlie Wright had some fairly dense rhyme patterns that were quite impressive, but it felt like the tail was wagging the dog - I think he'd fallen in love with the sounds of words and the result was a rather long poem that didn't really go anywhere but had lots of complicated three-syllable internal rhymes. Complex rhymes really suffer from diminishing returns unless you're advancing some kind of thesis or story along with them. Also, if you're going to do them justice, you need to know your shit back-to-front, so you can deliver it confidently, crisply, with your breathing sorted out and with feeling behind the words (by which I don't necessarily mean rage or gushing sentimentality - but if you want wry insouciance or bland indifference, it should look deliberate). Most of the poem was delivered as a supposedly 'ironic' rant, but he was too busy fumbling for the next line to actually put some balls into it. He did have one nice phrase though, some Bruce Banner reference like 'you might not like me when I'm not angry', which was a nice, sweet touch and got a laugh out of the audience, who I think had been struggling to follow him and were relived to hear something they understood.

I felt for Josh a bit. He did a poem about how he survives on not very much sleep. I think it was an abab rhyme pattern, strict metre, but although it was technically robust, it was essentially a very dull anecdote that didn't go anywhere, all gussied up and sent to the dance as a poem. There were no payoffs, no reveals that made sticking with it worthwhile, which was a shame because he's obviously got the vocabulary and the skill to put together a really good piece. Also, he'd made an effort over his appearance, looking rather dapper, which counts for more than you'd think, so thumbs up for that.

The chap who went on first, who I think they announced as Wayne Antonio, forgot his poem halfway through, which was unfortunate, but he hung in there and, after a couple of failed restarts, remembered the next line and soldiered on. It's worth noting that botching a line or even briefly forgetting your whole poem isn't necessarily fatal in a slam - indeed, if you deal with it gracefully, and show a bit of a sense of humour, it can even play in your favour. It reminds the audience that what you're doing is hard, that you're only human, and, when you rally and power back into the poem, the audience will often cheer you on, feeling as if they've just watched you wrestle a personal demon to the mat. Unfortunately, he delivered the whole poem rather quietly, in a halting way that suggested he didn't feel particularly confident about his material. If that was the case, I have to concur with his judgement - he did a piece that was basically a heap of off-the-peg clichés about how everyone should be free, not particularly well-rhymed, and, you know, not very well performed either. Saaah-ree. Keep at it!

The first round saw three out of the eight competitors eliminated, and yes, it was these three gents who said goodbye. The lesson: learn your material. In this particular slam, all that was required to get to the second round was the ability to recite a three minute poem from memory. Make sure you can walk before you try short-range teleportation, yeah?

The biggest surprise of the first round - for me, anyway - was watching André Mangeot bag the highest score. If I'm honest, I'd raised an eyebrow when I saw that he was in the slam final - I've done a couple of gigs with André before, in Norwich, and although I know he's got some great poems and is a very likable, confident reader of his work, I always thought of him as a page poet, and me as a performance poet.

But he chose his poems really well, and he learned them. When he first got on stage and began to explain the circumstances behind writing the poem he was about to perform, I could see the audience's attention beginning to sag. People turned away, began whispering to each other. I think he was perhaps the sixth poet on, and what with two of the hosts having done a poem, *and* someone getting up to be a 'sacrificial' poet, to help calibrate the judges, the cattle-truck conditions were leaving the audience keen for the first round to end, so they could pull their knickers out of their arse-cracks, stretch their legs, and have a wee and a smoke.

But when he said 'so this is my life story, in 52 seconds', they snapped to attention. Really, all the rest was filler, and, for future reference, in a slam situation, that sentence is all he really needs. Maybe a self-deprecating line about liking to think he's done quite a bit, and how disappointing it was to discover he could fit it all in one poem.

And it's a great slam poem. Confident, but not arrogant, easy for any audience to understand, but not patronising, it has some funny bits, some interesting bits, and it's really short. No wasted time! André thoroughly deserved to bag the best score that round, and I learned an important lesson in not pigeonholing fellow poets too quickly.

Richard Tyrone Jones had a great poem that was essentially a shaggy dog story constructed from silly rhymes relating to 'celery'. He knew his material well, delivered it confidently, and it was a good choice for the first round of a slam, because it was short, funny, easy to understand, and didn't tackle any controversial topics that might split the judges. Also, he was pretty down on his timing, so he gave himself a bit of space at the front of his performance just to chat a bit and drop a couple of one-liners to warm the audience up and show he was comfortable. You've got to be careful to keep your preambles short in slams, because audiences are generally less patient with waffle - it's your poem they're judging, so unless your chat is directly relevant it feels like you're keeping them waiting.

In the second round, five poets battled it out to see who'd be in the last three. I had a bit of an internal conflict before writing the words 'battled it out' there. Calling standing on stage and saying a poem 'battling' is ludicrous, really. But anyway.

Again, André chose very well and did a funny-absurd piece about getting stuck in the catflap while housesitting and having his arsecheeks painted blue. This time, his intro was short and sweet - he said something like 'Has anyone here ever had to break into their own house?' which got some nice recognition laughs, and then he went on: 'It's a bit worse when you're supposed to be housesitting for someone else, and you've lost the keys.' Then the poem. Nice, to the point, whilst whetting the audience's appetite.

Another poet in the second round was Catherine Brogan, who I met in Belfast in April, at an open mic. Her mum had handed me a tissue because she heard me sniffling. I think Catherine's got some good first-person stuff, but - if I may cack-handedly appropriate a footballing metaphor - I don't think she's got much depth in her squad. In a slam, choice is your friend, but at the moment all her stuff is a bit one-note - the same metreless tumbling rhymes, the same first-person earnest confessional mode voice. You don't necessarily have to demonstrate range over a three-round slam, but it's useful being able to switch between something funny, to something more lyrical or serious, and back again. Knob-gags and personal disclosures are similar in that, if used more than once, they start to lose their power. Also, in the second round, having finished her poem and realising she had some time left, Catherine stuck in a second short poem. The audience are never going to thank you for stretching out your slot to fill the entire time available, and she weakened the impact of her first piece by sticking another, less developed poem in after it, making it hard for the judges to remember how they'd felt.

I wasn't surprised that Catherine went out but I must admit that I'd expected André to reach the final. Such are the crapshoot vagaries of slamming.

In the final three were MC Angel, Charlie Dupre, and Richard Tyrone Jones.

Charlie Dupre billed himself as a middle-class MC. I'm not sure if that label is intended as ironic apologetic liberal handwringing, but I kind of feel that if you're going to do hip-hop flavoured stuff, you should just get on with it and let your writing and performance do the talking. There's no need to start digging your toe into the carpet.

In his piece in the first round, he demonstrated great flow and some awesome breath control. His content was a bit slight but he had some classy bits of verbal showboating that did more than enough to paper over the fact he wasn't really saying anything. He mentioned several times that he does theatre, and I get the impression that all the vocal warm-ups and delivery techniques he's learned from that have served him well. I don't think there was a poet in the room who couldn't learn something from him.

On the other hand, if I'm honest, I found the 'MC voice' he put on a bit distracting - I think it was meant to sound street, but in practice, rounding Ts down to Ds and making some of your vowels a bit breathy comes off more like Frank Spencer. He delivered a lot of lines as if he had a beat behind him, which sounds a bit forced when there's nothing but dead air. Part of the beauty of being a poet rather than an MC is you've got control over your pauses, and you can tweak the flow and respond to the audience.

As it turned out, in the first round he'd led with his best poem, a solid piece which I reckon would see him confidently through the first round of most slams in the UK. No small achievement. But his second and third poems were weaker, baggier, and delivered in exactly the same voice. Like Catherine, he still doesn't have much of a range of voices to choose from. His final piece, a poetic rendering of Webster's godawful revenge clusterfuck 'The Duchess Of Malfi', felt like an exercise in technique. There were some well-constructed lines in there, but, y'know, an xaxa rhyme scheme and a strict chronological breakdown of a play were never going to be happy bedfellows. It felt like the kind of joylessly workmanlike piece a 'creative practitioner' might take into schools to convince kids that Webster is fun and relevant, because look - somebody's written a rap about it! But anyway, bad choice for the last round - you need something with either a humorous or emotional payoff, and this, while cleverly constructed, had neither.

Richard Tyrone Jones did a so-so poem about having a verruca, which the crowd seemed largely indifferent to, then finished on a series of limericks. He claimed they were 'increasingly filthy limericks' but, for Richard, they were relatively tasteful. It was a nice decision, though, as it gave him lots of quick punchlines, and, by then, the audience were quite knackered and thankful for some short, straightforward poetry. However, his material was suffering from diminishing returns by this stage. Every poem he did in the slam was a high energy absurdist piece yelled at the audience in a mock highbrow voice. At some stage the judges are going to start seeing you - rightly or wrongly - as a one-trick pony and your scores will suffer accordingly. It's certainly not a strategy likely to earn you the killer blow in the last round.

MC Angel came on last. Angel is a good mate of mine, and I reckon she's awesome, so I had been rooting for her all the way through. In lots of ways she's well equipped to slam - she's got a strong roster of short poems, some funny, some serious, with plenty of lyrically impressive bits, she keeps her language simple so no crowd are going to be left scratching their heads (or worse - and more likely - bored), her flow and delivery are expert, and she always looks totally at home on the stage.

She was on last, which is always a good place to be in a slam. If you get to go on last in a final, then basically the judges' voting choice is simple - it's a referendum on whether they think you should win or not. It's a clean, binary decision, much more tangible than the vague numbers they've been having to assign to their aesthetic judgements all evening, and they make it fresh in the afterglow of your roistering performance. The whole crowd are amped up, because the entire contest rests on how you do. So usually, unless you stack it majorly or drop some weird-ass conceptual piece or racist screed, you'll win.

MC Angel had started with a gag poem about casual sex with exes in the first round, so in the second and third she went for her more heartfelt pieces. Sometimes that's a move that can boomerang - if the judges think you're being cheap or manipulative, there'll often be a scoring backlash, even if the crowd seemed behind you. But Angel has got a sincerity that comes across to audiences. One of the things I admire about her is her zero tolerance policy on bullshit. Honesty and genuine self-awareness carry a lot of clout on stage, because they're rare, and tough to fake.

So yeah. She won. Obviously I am hugely biased, but so what. I got really excited and banged my fists on the floor. Slams can be a bit random, but I reckon MC Angel deserved to win, and I was made up for her.

I take my hat off to all the participants though. Watching the slam, it was easy to forget what a challenge it is to stand up in front of a packed room full of strangers, and come out with something interesting and original enough that they'll not want to do anything but listen to you. Everyone who took part managed that task, and looked pretty calm while doing so. No mean feat.

So yes. In any case. Those are my humble (unsolicited) opinions. For what it's worth.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Jonathan Coulton, 1st of May

I know this is a day late, but hey. If you're not au fait with Jonathan Coulton, check out his stuff. He does mostly 'comic' songs, but that's a bit reductive. The fact is, he's got a beautiful voice, and he's a fantastic melody writer. And then he puts a bunch of cool, silly stuff over the top and it becomes really funny as well. Also, individual rhymes are frequently applause-worthy. My current faves are 'Re: Your Brains' and 'Christmas Is Interesting'. I've tried to write songs like him, but aside from all the intellectual and creative dressage necessary to construct the premise and lyrics, he's got an impressive vocal range, whereas mine's breadstick-thin. Ah well. I missed him last time he was in England, because I had a gig. I'll try not to let that happen twice.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Picadilly, Saturday 25th April

Leroy was the first to arrive in the pub’s upstairs room. He was lanky, awkward. Johnny, the compere and organiser, was busy putting out chairs. Leroy shuffled from foot to foot, and spoke in a kind of anxious mumble. ‘Uh... I was looking on the internet, and saw this, and here I am... Is this an open mic? Can I have a go?’

Johnny said: ‘Have you done this before?’

Leroy’s expression tightened. ‘No, I haven’t. But my friends say I’m funny, so... I’m just looking for closure. It’s a different thing if a roomful of strangers say so. I just want to find out, then I’ll move on.’

Johnny looked concerned. ‘You know it’s a comedy gig, right?’

For the next hour and a half, Leroy sat in the corner, his shoulders hunched, staring down into his lap as the room filled with people. He looked anxious, pinioned, as if a flash mob had arrived in his bedroom. When he finally got behind the mic, his posture didn’t change. He couldn’t seem to bring himself to look at the audience. He stammered. As he spoke, he grimaced, as if at some hidden pain. Except for nervous titters, the audience was silent.

‘So I went to a supermarket. That was a mistake. Modern supermarkets, they’re like a military concentration camp or something. They try to put the code in your brain. It’s not good... Like this.’ He flinched, then lifted his head, peering into the darkness behind the audience, looking for Johnny. ‘I’m sorry. I can’t do this. I thought I could do it but I can’t.’ Johnny didn’t answer. ‘I’m sorry. I can’t do this.’

Then came the shouting.

‘C’mon Leroy!’ yelled a guy from the back.

‘C’mon Leroy!’ yelled a girl.

Soon everyone was yelling. ‘C’mon Leroy!’ ‘Go on, mate!’

As their cheers reached a crescendo, Leroy dipped his head, took a deep breath, and balled his fists.


The room exploded with applause.

Okay, Move Inside For The Next Ride - Let's Go!

So I went to the fair last night. By day, I'd watched dozens of caravans jaw open, folding out into huge anglepoised monstronsities and structures like giant mechanical crabs barnacled with coloured bulbs. Kids on BMXs rode between dusty parked vans. Petrol generators began putt-putt-putting. Hotdog stalls rolled up the silver slat of their mouths as onions hit the hotplate, hissing and squeaking. Then the music.

It's hard to tell, but this is a picture of a man digging around inside the iPod grabber crane machine. I assume he was the owner.

Me and Ross plodded amongst the rides and games, tugging on beers and feeling well teenagery. I admired the airbrushed artwork adorning the various rides, consisting almost entirely of unlicensed movie character mash-ups. I was a bit disappointed at the low turnout of apocrypha - usually there's some kind of rollercoaster called 'Knightrider' with a picture of Frodo piloting a tank - but it was nice to see the children's 'Funhouse' depicting Winnie the Pooh and friends apparently recoiling in confusion and horror as a gang of non-canon anthropomorphised animals rushed towards them (there was a bear with librarian's spectacles and a green bowler hat, also some kind of cloth-trousered warthog). The air was filled with strangled screams, the hiss of pneumatics, and a sickly meshwork of competing choons.

'Thanks to carnivals, Rave will never die,' said Ross. Each ride had a dark little rectangular booth, from which the ride operator would launch short bursts of faux-DJ patter with clipped, very nasal aggression.

'Okay, move inside for the next ride, let's go!' This phrase seemed to be standardised, delivered at exactly the same pace with exactly the same tone by every ride operator we encountered.

Two teenage girls, maybe 13 or 14, came up to us.

'Excuse me.' The shorter of the two was carrying a little red bike on her head. It was about the size of hi-fi speaker. With the bike on her head and a handbag dangling in front of her knees, she resembled a kitsch, rather unambitious totem pole. 'Do you want to buy this? Only a quid.' We chose to pass up her offer, although she fought long and hard to change our minds. Her main selling thrust was that she was only asking a quid. Ironically, that was my central reason for turning her down. The knock-down price made me suspicious that the bike might be cursed. I don't doubt accepting it would have sparked a chain of parlous, zany events ending with a knife fight in a submarine over a cache of lost doubloons, but I didn't want to carry it round all evening.

'Okay, move inside for the next ride, let's go!'

Eventually we came upon a shooting gallery. There were rifles and crossbows. I went for a crossbow - I'd never used one before but I reckon crossbow skills will be more handy in the forthcoming apocalypse, since crossbow bolts are reuseable and therefore more economical. The gruff stall owner with grey hair and a sweat dappled navy blue t-shirt showed me how to load a bolt. On the other side of a - frankly pathetic - simulated jungle vista, was a paper target. I glanced across at the rules, and discovered I had to get a bolt inside the red star to win.

I leaned forward, bracing my elbow against the countertop, lined my eye up with the sight, aimed at the centre of the red star, then tilted the crossbow up a bit, to account for drop-off. My fingertip balanced on the rusty trigger. I squeezed.

Bullseye. First shot. For my prize, I chose a little lion. He's called Mister Braintree, after the lion Barny Juno liberates from Karloff Velocet's circus in Steve Aylett's Accomplice quartet. So.