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.

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