Sunday, 11 November 2018

Utter! Lutonia - 6th December

It's been awhile, but I'm happy to announce I have another live appearance on 6th December. I'll be venturing outside my usual "metropolitan elite bubble"* and into Luton alongside the esteemed acts Swing & Son, Fran Isherwood, James McKay, Lucy Leagrave, Omer Truth and Mr Stephen Whiting.

You can expect some new material which I've been steadily working on, as well as the good old stuff that keeps me out of trouble when I'm dealing with new audiences who haven't heard me before anyway. There you go - there's a slice of pure, unblemished honesty for you on this Sunday afternoon. The gentle Jesus would be proud of me.

The gig will be taking place at The Theatre Bar in Luton Central Library, St George's Square, Luton LU1 2NG. The Facebook invite can be found here in case you need reminding nearer the date.

(*Of course, living in a converted garage space in one of the cheapest areas in London constitutes "elitism" these days. Or it does if you're especially feeble-minded and like hiding behind buzzwords in lieu of any reasonable arguments). 

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Take This Conversation And Hand It In

I often get the impression that people who have "proper" jobs (like being engineers or medical practitioners) are suspicious of writers and artists. Their lives involve getting out of bed and going out to deliver work which either succeeds or fails in absolute, indisputable terms. No middle ground, no messing about, no "Well, the patient died, but your scalpel work was beautiful, the best I've ever seen" for the surgeon on Ward 54. No room for bluffing, either. An engineer can't say "Well, the machine doesn't work, but of course it doesn't, I didn't mean it to, can't you see the statement I was trying to make about the increased mechanisation of society?"

Back when I was in the second year of my university degree, which had a creative writing segment, a friend of mine on my course confessed that he was in "deep shit". He was due to hand in an assignment the following morning, a script for a short 25 minute theatre play, but he had managed to complete nothing. He'd started on numerous ideas which had tripped him over by the second or third page, then he'd torn them up, tried to begin again, but still got nowhere.

I, on the other hand, had been working on my script for months on end, and therefore, my friend felt, didn't have anything to worry about. "It's all right for you," he kept saying, "yours is bound to be good, you've put loads of work in... what the hell am I supposed to turn around in the space of an evening?"

I suggested a course of action to him. We would wander to the bus stop, sit there until the irregular and unreliable mini-bus service came to take him back home, and just have a very self-conscious, absurd conversation, observing random bits of behaviour, rubbish and tat as we went along. "Get on the bus, then type up what you remember of our conversation, exaggerate events slightly, make an artistic justification up for the script in your submission notes, and it will probably scrape a pass. It's better than nothing," I reckoned.

We did exactly that, and my friend stayed up all evening drinking Coke and strong coffee, and pulling together a script I think was called "The Number 17" (named after the bus he took home, naturally), editing and improving on bits and inserting Pinteresque pauses until he had something resembling an absurd piece of theatre.

You obviously know where this is headed next, so I'll spare you the long, shaggy dog story and just say it - my friend got given a 2.1 whereas I was given a third for my play. My effort was apparently over-long, over-written, and "without a decent conclusion", whereas his edit of a conversation we both had on a wet February night was "in places, fascinating, and with very naturalistic dialogue".

The way the grading system worked for creative writing at my university bachelor's course was reasonably simple. A first meant the piece of work could potentially find a place in the real world, outside the university walls, as a piece of accomplished, professional work. Anything downwards from that was effectively varying degrees of juvenilia and work in progress, so nobody was claiming that my friend had accidentally spat out a work of genius - just that it was a damn sight better than something I'd wasted months on.

For a few hours I was unsurprisingly very bitter about this result. It seemed unfair. How, when I'd put the hard yards in, had I almost failed my coursework assignment when someone doing a candle-lit rush-job could keep his overall term grade buoyant? It took me a few more months to get over the stinking grade, feeling that it was harsh beyond measure, but at the end of the year I looked again and I realised that it was a pile of shit after all. Rambling, waffly, filled to the brim with unrealistic dialogue and unlikely to hold an audience's attention for more than five minutes. I'd made the fundamental mistake of getting so droolingly carried away with the fun of creating a piece of work that I'd forgotten entirely about the audience along the way. My friend, on the other hand, had taken some unlikely raw material and sculpted it in a way that made a mundane chat seem sinister and interesting. Unlike me, he'd realised he needed to impress at least one person apart from himself at the end of the exercise.

Ours was a mixed block of university lecture rooms and halls, and we shared building spaces with people on teacher training courses and nursing degrees, and some of us lived in the halls alongside Business Studies, engineering and science students. Sometimes if you went to one of the stinking public toilets, you'd see graffiti above the toilet rolls saying "Arts Degrees - take one here". There were never any variations of this joke, and as such it became very dull very quickly, the toilet wall equivalent of a family comedy show that's never off UK Gold.

Sometimes, I worried that the other students had a point. They were spending long hours learning complex skills which had practical uses, whereas we were occasionally demonstrably winging it. And not just us, either - outside in the 'real world', as my older brother called it whenever he was ridiculing my left-wing politics, bands were knocking off songs in half-an-hour flat and having huge hits, and artists were employing assistants in their studios to do the hard graft for them.

For the most part, though, all of them had taken the long road of making many mistakes to get to that point, handing in or producing work nobody liked (but they loved), dealing with the criticism, and dusting off and starting again. We were all learning in different ways. And when they finally became so accomplished at what they were doing that they could occasionally produce great (or passable) work out of unlikely material really quickly, why resent them for it?

You should only get irritated at people who produce the same punchlines over and over, who would have us live in a world of Dad's Army repeats and reproductions of Van Gogh paintings. Sometimes the good stuff, the really surprising stuff, comes quickly, and it doesn't matter what the person who produced it was paid by the hour. Sometimes the best material for a play comes out of a conversation had with someone during a moment of minor crisis.

So if you just don't have much time in your life, pick up a pen and write to that tight deadline anyway, and hand it in, or at least put it to one side to see if it ferments into something bigger. You may be pleasantly surprised by the end results. 

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Jazzman John Clarke RIP

I learned about the death of London poetry scene stalwart Jazzman John Clarke this morning, and I'm still trying to process the news. I feel slightly self-conscious about writing a blog entry about him - I'm in two minds about whether it's my place to, and it might seem distasteful to those who were closest to him rather than just a friend of his on the circuit. What I'm hoping, though, is that if I get some of my memories and thoughts down, it will help me to sleep a bit better tonight... and I can make up my mind whether I post 'publish' on this or not tomorrow morning. (update - you're reading this, so obviously I did).

First and foremost, right from the off, John was there. He was one of the first poets in London I spoke to when I moved back in 1999, and he remained a constant presence on the circuit rather than disappearing for a quiet life after a few years. That's why his death has been slightly trickier for me to process than most, I think. I'm a republican and want to see the British monarchy disbanded, but when Queen Elizabeth II passes away there's a possibility I will have my own hypocritical and confused period of low-key mourning, not because I believe in what she represents, but because her death would create a complete erasure of a figure that had dominated my life through many different means - like having an historical landmark deleted from the London skyline overnight. The London poetry circuit without John feels a bit like that, except unlike the Queen, I obviously never wanted to see his role in society diminished, though he might possibly have suited a tiara at one of his bigger gigs (he'd certainly have bloody rocked her EU flower hat).

I can't remember where I first met him (Kerouac's in Deptford? Walking The Dog? Poetry Unplugged?) but he immediately impressed with his energy, enthusiasm, the rhythm and carefree absurdity of his ideas, his beatnik image, and his excitable pre and post-gig patter which was guaranteed.

He always knew of a fantastic gig going on somewhere else in town that week, or a jazz performer you really just had to see - he was, it has to be said, good at making quite personalised recommendations to people he knew reasonably well, always on the look-out for 'your kind of thing' - and once he'd finished talking about those he'd fill you in on what he'd been up to, which would take another few minutes at least, because it was never just a few things. You had to pause whatever you were planning to do and just hear him out.

He had a few decades on me in terms of age, but his energy and determination continually shamed my own. Apparently, he had a much-hated role in a bank which he had quit early to dedicate his life to writing and performing, and it always seemed as if he was throwing himself into the practice with total zeal to make up for lost time. It was impossible to imagine him working in a bank - I sometimes probably wrongly imagined it as being like Manny's role as an accountant in "Black Books" - but he made a very convincing beat styled poet.

The first work of his I was familiar with felt, from memory, zingy and enjoyable but a little naive in places, driven largely by his energy and stage presence. He got good very quickly, though, and as his writing improved so too did his ability to improvise and speed-write in a way that had recently begun to stun me. In February this year, he attended the Mark E Smith tribute night at the Poetry Cafe purely on a whim. He had no idea the tribute night was on, and had turned up to the cafe purely on the offchance of catching up with some fellow poets, having found himself wandering in that general direction. He immediately decided he was going to take part, and quickly scribbled a poem on a sheet of paper - sometimes taking breaks for conversations with people walking through the door - before going downstairs to do his slot where he read the new piece of work.

The crowd completely lapped up what he'd written and the whole thing gelled. Moreoever, he got me thinking about the value of spontaneity, and how you don't have to chisel away and toil over every piece of work for it to have some kind of meaning or value on a particular day or night. We talked about it later on, and he made me realise that sometimes, you just have to let go of your work and have fun with it, see where it leads your feet. Both the best and worst ideas flow out of your pen when you completely relinquish control. Oddly, that conversation was one of the last decent ones I had with him, and made me re-assess some of the bad habits I'd let myself get into lately, including slowly editing my work as I wrote rather than letting something fall on to the page first.

He also had a habit of popping up in unexpected places or being uncannily accurate in predicting your interests or bizarre obsessions. While I was working for Pearson Publishing in 2003, I was stunned to leave the office one day and find him strolling past on the pavement outside. He said hello and gave me a flyer for a forthcoming gig as if it was the most natural occurrence in the world, not a remarkable coincidence at all, then went on his way to whatever his appointment was. I suspect that even in a city like London, he randomly bumped into someone he knew every day.

On another occasion, he sidled up to me at an event, pointed at a random object at the wall and quoted something (I can't quite remember what) from Robert Anton Wilson's "Illuminatus!" trilogy. I immediately got what he was on about and replied with something appropriate, to which he giggled enthusiastically and said "I knew you'd be into that!" He always enjoyed it when someone was locked on to his wavelength, though he seemed faintly disappointed I DJ'ed at Northern Soul nights  ("What's wrong with DJ'ing a bit of jazz?") The jazzman was always pushing his love of jazz.

I've been watching his Facebook page all day, and tributes have been flooding in from every corner of the London poetry circuit - because he was familiar with every corner of it. The man knew everyone, and his work seemed to translate to every audience, even outside the poetry world to places like Ronnie Scott's, where he occasionally gigged. I only really learned today that he would also subtly have words with promoters about suitable acts they could book, and try to influence the circuit for the better. I remember one occasion he did me a huge favour by performing one of my poems at "Bingo Master's Breakout", and sent members of the audience over to talk to me when they wanted to know more about who wrote it. I think people who didn't really know him sometimes got the impression he was a bit of a hustler, ever ready with his bag of books to sell and flyers to distribute, but he was a writer trying to sell his work, doing what writers without other jobs to rely on have to do - besides promoting himself, he also genuinely cared about and listened to what other people were offering, and freely apportioned praise to those he felt deserved it.

That's the tough part about this for all of us, I think. He was our link between the different poetry scenes, an enthusiast as well as a performer, and the rarest of things in our often introverted, insecure and occasionally self-obsessed little world - a genuine people person who would approach anyone he thought he might like completely unselfconsciously. Meeting and talking to people, and having places he could happily share his most absurd ideas without judgement, seemed to make him happy. He's one of the few poetry performers I've met you could put on the bill at a Fall tribute night, or Ronnie Scott's, or an urban spoken word event, or an anti-folk evening, or a 'serious' reading, or an event at an art gallery and get away with it. His image and enthusiasm gave everyone easy immediate points of entry, and the quality of his performances just caused everything else to click into place. I'll miss him, but so will many, many others.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Spoiling All The Paintwork

Back in the earliest days of getting regular poetry gigs on the London circuit, I used to write about them on a fairly obscure Livejournal blog I kept. Hardly anyone read it, and it was rock bottom in any Google rankings. I liked it that way, and didn't bother to publicise it at all. Initially, it felt like a halfway house between a personal diary and a public blog, read only by about thirty or forty people.

Naturally though, you can't keep secrets on the London poetry circuit, and as soon as people found out that I was not only writing about myself but also other poetry gigs I'd been to, they began to drop by in greater numbers. Nothing is more likely to grab a fellow poet's attention than finding out you're writing about them. I was never openly savage towards anyone on the blog (I'd rather not talk about people who are still finding their feet at all. What's the point?) but that didn't matter - if I made the merest hint of criticism, along the lines of "Not quite as good as the performance I saw in Camden last month, but still great", or "One of their new poems fell a bit flat", or "the event over-ran and I didn't get home until half midnight, which was a bit of a pain", people would zero in on that and assume that I was implying something far worse - that they were losing their touch, or all their new material was rubbish, or they had mismanaged their set times in a completely unprofessional way and ruined my entire life.

That's probably not surprising given how insecure a lot of writers are, but I noticed another interesting side effect of keeping a blog. If I highlighted flaws in my own performances, noting when they had gone less well and why, people also dialled up the criticism and assumed it must be far worse than I was letting on. After all, this is social media! Everyone's here to sell themselves! Nobody would ever openly confess to being "not quite up to scratch" unless they were anything other than head-slappingly awful on any given night. These are the kind of lines given to an audience to read between.

Eventually, I just stopped writing about the live poetry scene and my own day-to-day experiences on it, because I became a coward and had retreated to writing the same old non-commital beige nonsense everyone ends up writing in order not to offend anyone else or damage their own chances ("Oh, everyone writes blogs like that do they, David! I see! That includes me, obviously!" - a voice outside).

Having said all that... After 24 years of doing this, I'm sort of past caring. Which is why I'm going to be brutally honest and admit that while certain parts of the feature slot I did at Bingo Master's Breakout earlier this month flew well, other bits received bemused expressions and only polite applause. It was my first feature slot in two years with quite a lot of new material packed into the time I had available to me, and not all of it seemed as good under the glare of a live performance as it potentially could do. Also, some of my intros needed a bit more work.

These are the kinds of issues that you only get to realise in a live performance in front of a proper audience. Open mic slots tend to be short and snappy and have an entirely different dynamic to the sprawl of a full-length set. There were a few moments at BMB where I found myself thinking, while I was onstage, "Oh, there's a reason I never used to structure sets in this way or load them with so much new stuff". On the plus side, the newest poem in the set was the best received, and the longer things went on for, the more I could feel my sea legs returning. The set started in a slightly flat fashion and ended well. That's better than the opposite situation.

"Bingo Master's Breakout" remains one of the weirdest and most unlikely poetry nights on the circuit, combining karaoke, bingo and poetry to an interesting effect. Each Friday night they run follows the same pattern, starting with a Butlins atmosphere and gradually crashing into sing-a-long messiness. They also book a band at each event, meaning a lot of punters who are really only interested in music and showing off on the karaoke machine end up getting exposed to live poetry as well. It's too much of a niche idea to be partly responsible for any upswing in live poetry's popularity, but it has definitely made its own small, eccentric local contribution. I was walking down a street in Central London a few weeks back and heard two bearded young men talking about it behind me, proving that if you have an unusual themed way of delivering a poetry night, people remember and talk about it.

The last show was themed on the work of the reliably brilliant and brilliantly eccentric Lawrence out of Felt/ Denim/ Go Kart Mozart, and one thing will always stay in my mind - the dry ice machine setting all the fire alarms in the pub off. A taxi driver actually stopped his cab outside to stare at the "smoke" billowing through the upstairs windows, and was possibly in the process of dialling 999 until a cheery smile and thumbs-up from me assured him everything was OK. In all, the whole night was the best fun I've had in ages.

--------------------

I've already talked about Mark E Smith's passing on here, and weeks after the announcement of his death, things haven't quite settled down for everyone. A lot of us are still thumbing through our old records and reflecting, which has been a revelation for me in its own way. The Fall were such a constant creative force, issuing albums with such a frequency, that I usually focused on their latest LP rather than delving back into their back catalogue much (beyond the obvious favourites). Lately though, I'm finding myself picking up copies of under-rated records like "Country On The Click" (from 2003) or "Middle Class Revolt" (from 1994) and realising that while critics might like to tell you that certain periods of The Fall are better than others, every era has at least one great LP in it.

At the Mark E Smith tribute night at the Poetry Cafe on the 12th February, a few people take the stage to read their own tributes or deliver Smith's work as poetry, and the night gradually becomes as unpredictable and chaotic as a typical Fall gig. Blasts of reggae come out of the PA when they shouldn't. A Fall mega-fan who followed them from gig to gig and was eventually beaten up by the drummer Karl Burns "fifteen years before he got to Mark E Smith" gave us backstage gossip. Then finally, a poet delivered the line "Mark E Smith - he has fallen!" dramatically, and at that exact moment a picture of Smith collapsed from the wall. Everybody fell silent for a few seconds and then applauded, presumably figuring that while it probably wasn't the work of the ghost of Mark E Smith, it was probably better not to take any chances.

For my part, I read out The Fall's "Portugal", a bit of an obscure Fall track whose lyrics consist entirely of the cut-up contents of a letter or email complaining about Smith's behaviour. I'm the first reader on, and I feel slightly uneasy opening with this, because it plays into so many of the more recent cliches about him being a chaotic rock and roll character first and foremost. There's way more to The Fall than that. But it sounds great as a piece of poetry, it's huge fun to do, and it's one of the few late period Fall tracks to have a lot of wit and humour behind it ("Mountain Energie", off "Country on The Click" from the same period, is another, and the evening's organiser Paul McGrane read that later on). A few months before he died, Smith said he wanted the next LP to have more lightness and humour about it - "Portugal" points to one way things could have gone.

In common with BMB, it didn't feel like a typical poetry night. It felt like a drunken wake. Albeit one that didn't end as badly as Smith's actual official wake back in Manchester...

Thursday, 1 February 2018

What do Lawrence out of Felt/ Denim and Mark E Smith have in common?

Answer: Besides continuing to stubbornly beat their own particular paths for decades without ever softening what they do... they're both the themed subject of two poetry nights coming up in London very soon, both of which I'll be involved in.

The Lawrence themed evening is at Bingo Masters Breakout, "London's premier poetry/ karaoke/ bingo night", which is exactly as described. Attendees will have the opportunity to sing Lawrence songs on the karaoke machine, win a cash prize at bingo, and listen to poetry - either from other folk on the open mic, or me in the feature slot. It is, to put it bluntly, one of the least conventional poetry nights in the UK, but has managed over a decade of activity and shows no signs of slowing down. I even managed to overhear two bearded youths talking about it while I was walking down a Central London street last week, so clearly it's reaching ver kids in the know.

It's a night that's also very, very difficult to plan a set for, but by pure coincidence I was working on a poem last year which I scrapped because I found it rather too Lawrency, and being contacted to do this gave me the excuse to pull it out of the draft folder and put some meat on its bones. So at the very least there will (probably) be that.

This will be taking place at The Betsey Trotwood at 56 Farringdon Road, London, EC1R 3BL on 9th February with a 7:30pm start. The Facebook details are here.

On a slightly more sober note, the death of Mark E Smith, while slightly unsurprising given recent reports of his health, still managed to shake up a lot of us on the poetry circuit. This might sound odd to outsiders, but Fall gigs were generally accidental socials for us, as we'd bump into poetry people we hadn't seen in a long while. Smith's lyrical ideas and influences were a beacon, especially to the more experimental spoken word artists, and that's resulted in a huge outpouring across social media over the last couple of weeks.

The Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden is hosting a Mark E Smith special on Monday 12th February at 7:30pm, where anyone can turn up and do an open mic session where they reminisce, read Smith lyrics, poems or short stories by any of his influences, or whatever they feel is appropriate. This is a wonderful idea and I'll definitely be present, as will Tim Wells, Emma Hammond, Richard Price, Michael Shann, Matt Abbott, Claire Temple, Mark Gilfillan, Matt Melia, Dan Cockrill, Michael Wyndham, Simon Pomery and Gavin Martin… and others to be confirmed (Luke Wright - where are you?)

The Poetry Cafe is on Betterton Street, WC2 9BX, and again, the Facebook details are here.

(Thanks - kind of - to Jon Hall for the cartoon at the top of this entry, by the way).