Click on the link above to listen to Mike’s phone interview. Towards the end, he kindly performs one of his poems.
Firstly, Mike, many congratulations on being awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Education from the MMU. You are very passionate about promoting reading to young people. What kind of things have you done to promote reading?
I was a librarian for fifteen years and I focused on young people. I believe reading is a way out for lots of young people, especially working class kids who never have a voice, and I think that once they get the bug of reading, they learn to communicate better, and ultimately, as a fourteen year old kid, your head is pretty fucked up as it is, so if you can’t communicate, it doesn’t help much, does it? The more we read, the more we learn to communicate, and also, we all know the smartest kids read. It’s a crusade to get schools, education and parents to be aware of just how important it is. It’s not about getting a sticker on a chart, it’s about their major development, and the more they read, the smarter and happier they are, and that’s why there has been a crusade about it.
So I do lots of different things. I work with about ten thousand kids a year in schools. That’s why I got a Doctorate more than anything else. I do events where I do live poetry to young people, conferences, book awards, ceremonies, and I still do bits and pieces with libraries, when I get the time. I still think libraries are probably one of the most important institutions in the UK.
Can you tell us about your journey as a performance poet? When did you first realise that you loved poetry?
I first realised I liked poetry when I started talking and I loved the rhythm of language and the feel it gave me, the sound of words in my mouth, saying weird words and being addicted to words and discovering words. This highly influenced me in music as well. I was brought up in a house with six kids. I was second youngest, so I had big brothers and sisters who were into Tamla Motown, Punk, Bowie. From a very early age I was spoon fed Bowie lyrics, a lot of Tamla Motown stuff, Billie Paul, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and the Supremes and The Stranglers. I was influenced by these people whilst reading poems from school. One of the first poems that I read that made me realise that poetry talks about the other side was ‘Timothy Winters’ by Charles Causley which is about a scruffy kid, a trampy kid, basically, and I saw a lot of myself in Timothy. I loved the simplicity of poetry, how it was laid out. It didn’t take ages to read. It looked good on the page. It sounded good. It was moving. I thought the people who were doing it were cool. Most of the stuff we read as children were poems. Most of the stuff we read as we are learning how to speak are poems. Think about Bear Hunt. Think about Michael Rosen. Think about The Tiger Who Came To Tea. All those things are incredibly poetic. I wasn’t a great fan of reading big fat books, to be honest. I’d avoid them like the plague, so I thought a poem was perfect, so I’d read poems and I’d just find it a lot easier and a lot more fulfilling. You can get as much from a haiku as much as you can from a 500 page novel. So that was the beginning, more than anything else, and I’d start writing my own lyrics and words.
There’s a bit of a bad press about poetry, sometimes, isn’t there, about it being inaccessible and snobby, but it’s not really like that, is it?
I find a lot of poetry is inaccessible. I find the most successful poets are inaccessible, but also there is a whole gamut of poets that are very accessible. So, I started reading them and I started reading more poetry, and I went for a GCSE thing doing World War stuff, and just kept poetry very close to me. Then I discovered that a lot of these artists like Ian Dury, like David Bowie, were spoken word. They were talking for a lot of the songs. Just take the music away, and it’s a poem. Then the whole Liverpool thing and the Lennon thing. Music has always been there in the background, as an influence.
Very similar with John Cooper Clarke, through music. I came across Johnny through the punk scene, and things like that, and punk was brilliant for me because it gave me an opportunity to be the upstart I was already, and justifiably. I had a label to tag it to. Then I started performing things on my own, in my bedroom, reading things. When I first became a librarian, I was qualified and set up a Homeworks centre in Manchester for really rough kids, immigrants in a lot of cases; Asian, Irish, Jamaican, African. I would get them looking at poetry. I’d use poetry for everything. So what I’d do is look at one that they were studying, then I would read one of mine, but not tell them it was mine, and they would always prefer mine. So slowly but surely I gained a confidence to start reading it out. So I actually started reading stuff out in about 1994. I started doing slams pretty quickly. I went over to America and competed in some slams. I got a bit of a reputation in New York for my performance, in the Nuyorican Poetry Café, and my confidence, slowly but surely, grew and grew. I started to do more over here. I started being asked to do my own shows. Then I started publishing. Then I stopped being a librarian, and decided to make this my job, and it has been now for fifteen years.
Did you perform with New Order, Iggy Pop and Patti Smith?
I did, yeah. That was the St. Anthony thing. I wrote a poem for Tony Wilson when he died. I didn’t realise it would take on such momentum. A classical composer called Joe D’Dell heard it, love it, wanted to put some music to it, put some music to it, New Order heard it, loved it, invited me round to his house, and said ‘listen, we’ll go to New York to do it’. A gig for Philip Glass. He said would you like to do this and come with us, and do this, I said ‘yeah!’ and he goes ‘We got a backing singer, Iggy Pop and New Order’. New Order became mates pretty quickly. Heroes to mates. That’s the thing about star quality, I’ve found. Real stars stop being stars after ten minutes. They start to become your mates. So from that, I met Philip Glass. He loved what I did and invited me round, and I’ve been mates with Philip ever since. I’ve done gigs with him, stayed over in New York with his family. Lovely man. Supposed to be over there next week, with him, to do a festival in Carmel, but the forest fires burned down in so many spots, now, it’s deserted. So, I did other stuff with Patti Smith and the National. Oh, it was unbelievable. I sit back and think about it sometimes, and I think ‘how the fuck did that happen?!’ I still work with Phillip and he still champions what I do, and loves what I do, so I just feel very honoured and very lucky.
I like Morrissey and The Smiths. What is your favourite Morrissey lyric? (Mine is the one about the double decker bus!)
Well, I was mates with Morrissey as a kid. I grew up with all The Smiths. I worked with Johnny in Stolen From Ivors in a Saturday job. My brother worked with Mike at St. Kent’s Irish club, collecting pots. I still know Mike really well. I still speak to him on a regular basis and do stuff with him. I worked with Morrissey’s Dad in a hospital. One day, he turned round to me and said ‘have a word with my fella, he’s just like you, you know. Sits in his room and reads poems all the time’. So Morrissey came in for me to have a word with him. Keep in mind I’m five years younger than him, so that’s 17-22. It was just the beginning of The Smiths, as well. So, I love Smiths’ lyrics. It was my wedding dance; There Is a Light That Never Goes Out. I also did a programme for Radio 4 called Soul Music, about that actual tune. Check it out. I think it’s still online. They take a track every week and they look closely at the track and the effect it has on people. There Is a Light That Never Goes Out is massive, isn’t it? I love the lyrics to Girlfriend in a Coma, as well. I think they’re absolutely brilliant. I can’t fail Morrissey with his lyrics. I love the fact that sometimes they are pretty shit and they don’t work, but I actually like that, because he doesn’t care. He’s not looking for the perfect rhyme. I saw Morrissey in New York a couple of years ago, which was great because they were on with The Cortinas, another Manchester outfit.
But music is still important with me, that’s why I still do a lot of work with musicians and bands. I went to Edinburgh with a musical thing I put to poetry. I’ve got my own quartet (Cassia) that I work with on a regular basis. I’m doing Cerys Matthews’ Good Life festival. We’re doing that with Max Richter, a modern classical composer. Music is still really important to me. That’s the direction in which I’m going, making music and doing poetry, side by side. I like it that way.
What is the first thing you would change about the world as it is now?
I’d make everyone vegetarian, even though I have a bit of fish every now and again. That’s only through doctor’s orders, more than anything. God. Light questions!….I’d make everyone socialist, basically. I would ban capitalism.
Go back to bartering?!
Yes, I barter poems. I’ve had tradesmen in my house, plumbers and stuff, and said ‘listen, I’m a poet; do you want to trade or…’ and one person had taken it up.
I hate money. It’s a dirty thing. It brings the nastiness out in us. Yeah, I’d turn the world socialist, I think.
You have been working with John Cooper Clarke, who is coming to our home town of Nantwich, soon, with your good self, which we all can’t wait for. Can you tell us of a funny moment that you’ve had with him, as you’ve done over 500 gigs with him, haven’t you?
Yeah, over six years now. Toured America as well. Good bits were when we arrived in New York and Noel Gallagher came out to greet us. That was good, was fun. Funny bits are daily. They really are. They happen on a daily basis.
So you have a great working relationship with him?
He’s my mate. He champions me. He’s said lots of nice things on radio stations about me. Well, he’s had me with him for six years now, so he must like me in some kind of way. He took me to America with him. Did America. I love the guy. If I stopped working with him in the morning, it wouldn’t bother me. I’ve spent an awful lot of time with him and shared a lot of personal, private things with each other. I mean, there’s things about Johnny I know that nobody knows. There’s things about me that Johnny knows that no one knows. He’s a very bright man. Very intelligent man. He’s very switched on and aware. He’s very good with young people and understands them very well. His daughter’s only 22. He’s still in touch with young people and what trends are. He’s a great reader.
You read a lot as well, Mike, don’t you?
Yeah, only because I haven’t got many friends! It’s a treat for me, reading.
It’s having the time to read, I suppose, isn’t it?
You’ve got to make the time to read.
I’ve got a question from Kev Milsom, one of the elves at Ink Pantry Towers!: The passion for your native Manchester shines through in your poetry. Could you describe how you have sought to inspire young Mancunian poets with your words – also, could you share some thoughts on the Manchester creative scene and how you would like to see it expand & develop in the future?
It comes through in my poems, a sense of deep Northern pride. It’s not just Manchester. I love Northern cities. I’m in Liverpool at the moment dropping my daughter off at university. I’m excited because the amount of times I’ve spent here as a kid. I compare Mancs to Scousers all the time. They are very similar. But the Manc lads are better looking! The poetry scene in Manchester is bustling. We’ve got a brilliant organisation called Young Identity, which runs out of Contact, which picks up all the young poets and gives them a voice, basically. We’ve got Bad Language, which is a great night run by a kid called Fat Rowland. Common Word are still in Manchester doing loads. Peter Kalu is working really hard to keep the importance of the written word and poetry. I just try and give as much opportunity for young people to work with me and gig with me. We’ve got something on for the Manchester Food and Drink’s festival, the night before National Poetry Day. We’ve got a young poet and a couple of other poets. It’s just the opportunity for them to do that sort of thing. Another thing is, I’m rarely here, though. Most of my work is away from Manchester, which is a good thing in a way, as you can become too part of a scene, I think.
…and it’s inspiring, I suppose, to be away, because you get to see different parts of life and people…
Yeah. I’m a fellow of the University of Westminster, so I’m down there a lot, doing bits in London, playing around with poems and stuff.
I’ve got a question from Inky elf Shannon Milsom: She’d like to ask who were your childhood heroes? Who or what inspired you from a young age?
I’ve got football heroes. I still love football, but reading; I started off with Roald Dahl. He was my hero. He was a massive influence. Milligan. He was jokey and funny. My Mam brought me to see him. I got into Spike Milligan really young. A lot of his stuff is about mental health and the nature of man. Charles Causley. Some of the classic poets. Then the war poets. All of them. It was great last year as the BBC did a series on them. Music. The lyrical music of The Beatles, The Smiths, Punk, The Sex Pistols, The Buzzcocks, Echo and the Bunnymen. I was reading all sorts of stuff at the time; Gerald Durell, and just enjoying it, more than anything else.
What’s next for you? What plans have you got?
I’m doing a lot of work with the quartet, so I hope to have some poems with classical music. I’ve just worked with a couple of mates on a piece called Men’s Mourning, which was featured on Radio 4 last year. I did that up in Edinburgh, which went down really well, so I’m looking at ideas to do things with that. I’m looking at work with the Stroke Association. I had a stroke about a year ago and I was working with the Stroke Association at the time, weirdly enough, but they’ve got a choir, and I wanted to see how a choir and the spoken word works, so I’m interested in doing that at the moment. Do you know, Debbie, I play. I play around and see what comes out of it, and if something good comes out of it, I like it, and if something bad, well, nothing bad comes out of playing around, does it?
You want a poem, don’t you? My son lives in New Zealand. He moved there about 18 months ago. He’s only 23. It’s great because you haven’t got the brain ache of a wayward son hanging around you all the time, but sometimes you really miss him, so this is called:
I Truly Miss My Son Today
I truly miss my son today
I need to hear his name spoken aloud
I scream till I’m raucous when I’m at home alone
I sing whisper it when I’m stood in a crowd
We’ve not fallen out
We’re just miles apart
Makes me feel lost, lonely and astray
My heart slow bleeds as my soul departs
And I truly miss my son today
I’m gonna hold that boy in these two loving arms
I’m gonna tell that boy just how his Father feels
How I’d walk across Europe and Asia in bare feet
Swim naked through the South China Sea
For a moment of his beauty
For a instance of his grace
For a second of his cheeky Northern charm
And I’ll tell him things I’ve never told him before
When I hold my boy in these two loving arms
Mike: So, what do you guys do? Have you got a webpage? Do you do publications, how does it work?
Deborah: What happened was that some fellow students were doing a creative writing course with The Open University, and we thought; how can we promote our work? So we had Berenice Smith, who was, and still is, a graphic designer from Cambridge, and then we had Alyson Duncan, from Motherwell, who is a whizz on the internet. So we set up our own publishing company. We’ve got two anthologies out there with students’ work in them. What we do is promote new writers. We put poems that people send in, on the website, and do interviews…
Mike: So some of you are coming down on the night in Nantwich (John Cooper Clarke and Mike Garry perform at the Words and Music Festival at the Civic on the 15th October)
Deborah: Yes, definitely. There are loads of us going. There’s quite a good poet scene happening in Nantwich. We are all going to enter the poetry slam at the Railway pub on the Sunday, so that should be interesting, and nerve wracking!
Mike: Yeah, I can imagine!
Deborah: Thanks ever so much for doing this, Mike. It’s a fantastic privilege, it really is.
Mike: You’re very welcome. Come over and say hello on the night.
Deborah: Definitely. We can’t wait for you both to come down. Thanks Mike. You’re a legend!