Can you please tell Ink Pantry about your journey as a performance poet?
Like a lot of poets, I started by sharing my work with a group who met in a pub near where I lived at the time. I found it terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure. Soon after, I was lucky enough to work with poet Joolz Denby, who taught me a huge amount about stagecraft and performance. Since then I’ve continued to learn from watching and listening to other poets and developed my own style on stage, my own way of delivering my work. As in any field, persistence and good fortune have definitely played their part.
Have you any tips for budding performance poets?
Watch, listen, learn. Get up and read. If it goes well, try and work out why. If it doesn’t, do the same.
You recently had great success with your excellent poem about Brexit called ‘Stabberjocky’, mixing Lewis Carroll’s verse with political satire. Love your invention of the word ‘Machiavelliadastardly’! Do you think humour helps people to engage and think about important issues? Has ‘Stabberjocky’ been set to music now?
Humour certainly helps me engage with important issues, which is why I so often take a wry, slightly offbeat approach to serious subjects. I want to engage people, and I don’t believe you do that by a) shouting at them, or b) hitting them over the head with a list of everything that’s wrong in the world. That wouldn’t spark my interest, so why would it do so for anyone else?
‘Stabberjocky’ has been set to music by the wonderful and generous Birmingham music collective Swoomptheeng, and you can listen to it here:
Are politics a recurring theme in your work? What do you care about the most?
If you’ve access to power and wealth and influence, it’s easy to take it for granted. A goodly proportion of my work looks at life from the perspective of those who don’t enjoy the privilege of that access. In an era where politicians seem more ready than ever to dismiss people who aren’t like ‘us’ as unworthy of being treated with respect, I try and offer a quiet reminder of our common humanity. I’m utterly passionate about the importance of that.
You have several poetry collections published. Can you tell us about them?
My first two collections were pamphlets I got printed up, stapled together by hand while sitting in my front room listening to music, and sold in pubs and student unions. I then had two collections published by AK Press, who saw me doing a performance spot supporting Chumbawamba and thought my work deserved a wider audience. Latterly, Island Songs was published by Ignite Books in 2012, and in Spring 2014 this was followed by More Bees Bigger Bonnets, which I think is my best work yet. (They’re both on sale via my website, btw!)
Can you tell us about the poetry scene that you are part of? Which festivals/poetry venues have you performed at? Which would you recommend?
I don’t know that I’m part of a scene – I just write my work and try to find places to read it! I believe in taking poetry out into the big wide world, sharing it with people, and hopefully overturning their preconceived ideas of just what poetry is. One of the most wonderful things about poetry is that anyone can have a go at it, say what they want to say, and find their voice. I love the moment when somebody ‘gets’ that.
I’ve performed at festivals as diverse as Beautiful Days and Rebellion, and in the upstairs rooms of pubs and poetry evenings from Brighton up to Glasgow. I still enjoy the romance of life on the road, and getting up in front of an audience to share my work, listen to other poets, and make some sort of connection. There are very few places I wouldn’t recommend, and I’ll keep those to myself!
Tell us about your creative process.
It varies a lot. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, or first thing in the morning, with a poem that’s just about fully formed and just needs me to write it down before I distract myself with the business of the day. Almost always, those will have been about subjects I’ve actively been chewing on for a while, but got nowhere with. More often, I’ll find a line or two, or an image, which provides a way to sidle up on the poem I’m trying to snare. I’m a great believer in allowing my subconscious to filter though my draft ideas while I go and do something entirely unrelated – riding my mountain bike, or going for a swim – before coming back to hew them into shape.
What’s your favourite book and why?
I have a real soft spot for detective novels and could spend days reading one after another. But if you left me on a desert island with just one book, it would have to be Beauty Douglas, the collected poems of Adrian Mitchell. A friend gave me a copy of it when I was at uni, and Mitchell’s work never fails to inspire me with its range of subject matter and style, with its joy, hope, love, and anger. It also reminds me to retain a sense of humility about my own work.
Can you share with us a couple of examples of your own poems and walk us through the ideas behind them?
I always hated English classes where you had to analyse a poem – write about the cumulative effect, sibilance, metaphor and the like. It felt like ripping a butterfly apart to see how it worked. So this question made my blood run cold. Here’s a broad outline of the motivation behind two of my poems, both from Island Songs.
In life, we all too often opt for – or are offered – simple binary choices. A thing is good or it’s bad. Something is black or it’s white. You’re with us or you’re against us. And so on. In my experience, this rarely does a subject justice. Worse than that, it encourages the belief that the world is a simple place, easily understood through these choices. It isn’t.
In my poem ‘Spring’ I wanted to unravel the complexity of my thoughts about war, to bring into play and up for discussion a host of issues: our society’s readiness for war, media spin, the bravery of troops, the realpolitik of politicians, the grief of families, and our complicity as an audience who watch the violence via our TV. I also wanted to put all that in perspective, set it in a longer time frame than the 24-7 of the rolling news. So I wove my poem against the backdrop of the turning of the seasons, the fact the world moves on, and the fragile yet inextinguishable nature of hope, symbolised here by the delicate white blossom of the hawthorn every Spring.
After throwing a complex political poem at you, here’s a love poem. I often approach my poems at a tangent, hoping to find a way in to the subject which will engage listeners or readers without triggering a here-we-go-again response from them. This is a poem about love, and hope, and about reassuring a partner whose fear is leading them to expect disappointment, who is seeing the worm but not the apple.
If you could change the world, what is the first thing you would consider?
What a question! What would I do? End the need for foodbanks? Make a hippie out of Donald Trump? Close down the Daily Mail? So many possibilities.
Who inspires you?
I don’t have many heroes – I’m aware most of us have feet of clay. But I’m genuinely inspired, every day, by people’s generosity, kindness, resilience, and fortitude, their drive, their love, and their optimism. At our best, we’re wonderful, loving little monkeys, and I take great heart from that.
Tell us about one of the best days of your life.
I can’t. We’d both blush.
What is next for you? What are your plans?
There’s some old saw about life being what happens while you’re making other plans. All things being equal, I’m hoping to put together a new volume of poetry, as well as a book of short stories, and do gigs in places I’ve never been. There’s also the likelihood of an interesting collaboration with a couple of other poets, which I’m very excited about, and the distinct possibility of a visit to Edinburgh Fringe. Oh, and some days out on the motorbike in beautiful countryside would top it off nicely. And maybe a beer.