On the 10th August 2017 you will be performing at The Edinburgh Fringe with Rosie Garland, Hannah Raymond Cox, Andromada Mystic, Rachel Plummer, Angie Strachan, Carla Woodburn, Rebecca Monks and Taylor Swift 666 in a show called Poetry Bordello: Where Spoken Word Meets Physical Theatre. Fascinating! Tell us more…
As a visual artist, as well as a poet, I’m interested in producing and promoting poetry and spoken word shows which are more about theatre than just voice, and in the past I’ve experimented with using projections and animation in sync with live performers:
but, in this particular show, I’m combining performance artists with spoken word artists to bombard the audience with both a visual and verbal assault, plus hopefully recreate the atmosphere of the 1920s Berlin cabaret scene in a performance poetry setting. We’ve been planning this Bordello for months now and I’m really excited as we have a fantastic line-up of performers, from established performance poets like Rosie Garland, Hannah Raymond Cox and Rachel Plummer to newcomers like the amazing Rebecca Monks and Carla Woodburn, plus stunning physical artistes like the versatile and challenging Andromada Mystic, so it’s going to be a fantastic night all round…and we’re only doing one performance, so get there early!
As well as a performance poet, you are a freelance illustrator. Your client list includes Harper Collins, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, Manchester University Press, Bloodaxe Books and Naxos Audio Books. Can you walk us through your journey as an illustrator? Have you any advice for any budding illustrators?
I’ve been illustrating for nearly forty years now and I’ve been very fortunate in my career to have had a lot of clients who have been more interested in good and challenging art rather than bland happy-smiley images, so I have had the opportunity to create a lot of stunning visuals over the years. I always loved art and drawing as a child, and was obsessed with making toy theatres, so when I went to university in Glasgow in the mid 1970s and I discovered the Citizens’ Theatre and, in particular, the work of director/designer Phillip Prowse and the graphic design and illustration of the fantastic Adrian George, the rest was history and I was hooked! I decided then and there that that was what I was going to do with my life and I’ve had a fantastic time doing things like illustrating book covers for the work of people like John Ford, John Webster, Thomas Middleton etc. I also take my illustration work into the poetry shows I produce and I design all my own poster work and all the slides and graphics for our shows, plus the animations where I subject my performers to endless photo sessions so that I can transform them in mermaids and other exotic creatures on screen.
For someone starting out in illustration in today’s market I would say only do this as a career if you love it because it’s a hard life and it’s getting increasingly harder. If you’re a “painterly” artist like me you’ll get a lot of work from theatres and small literary presses, which is great fun, but doesn’t pay well. However, if you can produce glossy images of happy families eating cornflakes, advertising will embrace you and pay you well.
What is it you love about poetry?
Ah, poetry! Poetry is my passion and my life. As a teenager it was a vocalisation of all my adolescent anguish and anger (or so I thought!) and then in mid-life it became an oral photo album, recording multitudes of scenes and moments, a personal grimoire of tiny fragments of my life all carefully preserved in well-chosen words like flies in amber. Now I use it mainly to communicate with readers and audiences, mainly to make them laugh since I’m not young and angry any more, but overall to convey emotions and feelings and, dare I say it, messages.
What’s your secret to a good performance poem?
A good performance poem should be a monologue or a tiny one-act-play. It needs to be clear and preferably impassioned – the stage is not the place for tricksy metaphors and clever similes – and it needs to have either a strong message or narrative to engage the audience straight away. I’d say the more theatrical the better, but I hate poets who just jump around on stage for the sake of it. If your poem is real and genuine, that will come through in your performance, and there’s no need for histrionics.
Can you share with us a couple of your poems and the inspiration behind them?
Here are two. The first, Eulogy, is a performance poem about my Dad who I miss dreadfully; and the second is a ‘page’ poem that was inspired by a beautiful but exceptionally sad woman I once saw, who appeared to be enslaved by her husband.
They wouldn’t let me speak
At my father’s funeral,
We know you that you’re a poet and all that,
But we need someone proper,
Like a minister,
To do this job,
And, anyway, you’d probably just get nervous
And make inappropriate jokes
At all the wrong moments.
And all this would have been fine
The minister who had known him all his life
Hadn’t died the previous year
And the new man,
Who’d met him, I think,
Wasn’t on holiday
And they’d brought in a locum
Who didn’t know him from Adam.
So I had to sit on my hands and listen
To my Dad’s life condensed to a paragraph,
No mention of all those good years in India,
Forty years dominating huge mills,
Gaining the respect of his workforce
As he strode down the riverside
In his pristine whites
at half-past five each morning,
Dawn mist still damp on his hair
As he rolled his sleeves up
To face each new day.
Or the hours he spent
Teaching me how to swim,
Elegant in the water for such a portly man,
And at nights
Letting me watch him in the billiard room,
The soft click-clack of snooker balls
And a gentle descant to the soft
Evensong of crickets outside…
And, of course, no mention at all of all the shit years,
Bouncing from crap job to crap job,
Finally dumped in that
So-called care home,
So riddled with cancer
that I thought they’d swapped him
for some starving street waif,
His signature red jumper
Hanging on him
Like a kid playing dress-up.
And, when they had the cheek to say
That he had gone to a better place
It was all I could do not to shout out
That anyone who knew him
That his place was at the stand
At Dens Park,
And to this day I do not like to think
Of some season-ticket-holding
Sitting in his seat,
The groove eroded by his
is still worn into the soft wood floor
Of the patron’s area.
And I wish that I could have spent
More time with him
In the bleak years.
And I wish
That I could have been more like
The son that he’d imagined having,
Though he never,
Held that against me,
Most of all,
I wish on that steel-grey January day
I had just stood up in that church
And given him the eulogy that he deserved.
Because he wasn’t the Hero of His Own Time,
Or the Definitive Family Man
Or a Pillar of his Community,
But he was my Dad,
And surely that was enough.
The Lepidopterist’s Wife
He keeps her in the dark lest the light mar the brightness of her wings,
Her beauty pinned fluttering to a hard piece of
Beetle-black scarab board
In the heat of her killing-bottle night.
She is a plaintive melody
In scarlet and mood indigo,
Violet and burnt orange,
Viridian and sour cherry,
Her beauty the gossamer caress
Of invisible wings in the darkest night,
A silver trail of floating web
In a blossom-scented sunset,
Heady with the scents of Meadow Sweet.
But in her cellar prison she languishes in chains,
Every sigh of desire,
Meticulously catalogued and labelled
In row upon endless row of glass cases in the Lepidopterist’s museum,
Her life laid out in carefully recorded wants and indiscretions,
Misshapen specimens floating threateningly in formaldehyde,
Each wild occasion neatly annotated in his own precise hand.
Come, come, why the tears, we are not monsters,
He says as he stabs her through the heart,
Again and again and again.
Come, give us this flesh,
This lock of hair,
This bit of blood,
Her life a living autopsy
On the Lepidopterist’s vivisection table,
Pulling out her entrails in bright red ribbons
That glitter in the early dawn’s grey light
As he bandages her still-bleeding body
And closes the cellar door,
Locking her in the dark once more
Lest the light dull the brilliance of her wings.
What themes keep cropping up in your writing? What do you care about?
I write a lot of poems about my own childhood, my parents and my relationships with them, funny poems about ageing and adapting to modern life and its idiocies and frustrations, angry poems about inequality and sexism, sad poems about people I have lost, whimsical poems about things like dog shit and crying babies and annoying phone lines and computers that set out to defy me and incomprehensible governments and illogical laws and procedures, and and and…..
If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?
Can I say get rid of racism, sexism and Donald Trump? OK, just get rid of racism and sexism, that should take care of Trump anyway!
Who inspires you and why?
People who mean it. I like evocative writers who can paint word pictures like Aimee Bender and Rosie Garland. Writers who speak with true clear voice like Arelene Heyman and Edith Perlman. Magical realists like Angela Carter and Salman Rushdie. I don’t like fakes. Writers who write for the sake of it, or because they read a good book once and want to rewrite it – you can usually spot them in the first paragraph! I’m inspired by genuine authors who write with passion and conviction. People who have stories inside them so pressing that they have to get them onto the page as a matter of urgency.
What are you reading at the moment?
The Stories of Eva Luna by Isabel Allende. Breathtaking even in translation and I’m seriously contemplating learning Spanish so I can read the rest of her books in their original tongue.
What is next for you? What plans have you got?
I have a one-man-show at the Fringe this year, which is on the week after the Poetry Bordello, a collection of stories and video about my own childhood in the last days of British India – it’s called The Last Burrah Sahibs and corresponds with my autobiographical book of the same name. Full details here.
I’m also experimenting with more film work, both making my own and performing in other people’s epics, plus I’ve been doing some modelling, for god’s sake. Oh, and I’m still open to offers to fulfil my cherished dream of designing an opera sometime before I finally retire!