Friday, 19 December 2014

I Can't Believe It's Not Utter!

The final London "Utter!" went out in the Amersham Arms in New Cross on Tuesday night, finishing - thank God - on a bang rather than a whimper, with eighty witnesses in attendance on a soaking wet late December night. The epic slam format did an enormous amount to showcase the strengths of the evening, highlighting the sheer diversity of styles the evening promoted, from experimental to unashamedly populist back to oddball outsider again. Rather than catering for one style or demographic, "Utter!" at its best always illuminated the broad scope of the poetry circuit.

There's a write-up on "Write Out Loud" which pretty accurately describes the goings-on that night, as well as deservedly praising Richard Tyrone Jones's hosting techniques - he had an enthusiasm and a glint in his eyes I hadn't noticed for many months, as if he was absolutely delighted to be butchering his Arts Council funded event after ten years. Perhaps he was. Scratch that - he definitely was.

As we approach the end of the year and pick on the bones of 2014, it's going to be tempting for people to assume that the termination of both "Utter!" and "Poejazzi" mark the demise of a certain post-performance poetry way of doing things, both of these events being big-name nights in the confused hinterland of the mid-noughties. That, I think, would be a horrible mistake. "Poejazzi" remained  successful until the end, the line being drawn under its existence having rather more to do with the increasingly busy lives of the people who ran it than disappointing ticket sales. The audience levels at "Utter!", on the other hand, were usually not to be sniffed at for a mid-week poetry night out; the rooms just weren't as packed as they had been in its heyday. The days of the "Green Note" events in Camden where the room was so heaving it was sometimes impossible to get to the bar had disappeared (the Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes puppet show remains fondly remembered by the many people who saw it).

The London Poetry circuit is, as I've stated before, run largely on favours, love and sometimes a tiny bit of a helping hand from the Arts Council. Most promoters fail in their ambitions to build a popular, branded poetry night, instead running an event for two or three years before exhausting themselves and dropping their plans after feeling the sting of a few ill-attended and perhaps marginally disorganised nights. A handful of promoters manage to develop a strong events team and take things a lot further, creating a night which captures the imagination of punters and generates both acclaim and funding - but, as yet, incredibly few of these nights have enjoyed more than four or five years of consistent high level popularity. There's a peak in media attention and audience attendance before a slow downwards trajectory occurs.

The reason for this is rarely that people tire of a format or a host, but rather that the host and the team behind the event just get a lot older and more exhausted. Promoting and maintaining high standards at a poetry night is thankless, almost always financially and sometimes on a personal level too. Amidst the occasional prima-donna and awkward artist they can also often find themselves dealing with poorly paid and inexperienced venue staff, difficult drunken punters and unreliable pub sound systems. And amidst all this, they're expected to effervescently host live poetry, an art form which, while it may be "on the up", is still not front page news and still requires hard work just to get more than a handful of people through the door. Without distributing flyers, tirelessly promoting the evening online and having a reliable team behind you, you can forget about a good attendance even if your evening is a "brand name".

This is why there's so much regular wastage on the London Poetry circuit, and why I feel as if I've watched so many brilliant, well-run nights disappear over the last fifteen years I've been a gig-goer here. Keen, confident poetry-lovers in their mid-twenties soon turn into thirty-somethings with children to feed and increasingly demanding day jobs to attend to. The post-room clerk with big ideas and a love of literature in 2003 becomes the team manager and father-of-two in 2013. The night becomes a chore rather than a joy. It gets promoted less. The bookings go into 'roster' mode. Attendances drop. The ghost gets given up on. So it goes.

Of course, while this is sad and it does feel as if the expertise of a lot of event organisers is being ditched (surely there should be somewhere else these people can take their knowledge and talents?), so long as other people are passionate enough - and stupid enough - to step into the fray to take their place, London will still have an envious array of poetry nights. And that also brings me on to my main point. If anyone is tempted to see the demise of "Utter!" as being significant, believing that there's no longer a place on the circuit for innovative, broad-reaching poetry nights, I'd urge them not to worry. Stick all your energy, belief and naive enthusiasm into it, and the people will come. Yes, there may be events on the circuit that attract younger, more photogenic audiences, but live poetry has an easy cross-generational appeal and if there are obvious gaps anywhere in the London market right now, it's for nights that offer a bit of what "Utter!" always did. Well hosted events with a diverse booking policy, a magazine show of all the best that live poetry has to offer, imaginatively themed and promoted. Take the baton and run with it, friends.

Farewell "Utter!" I'll miss you. It's been a brilliant ten years. But I look forward to seeing what the rest of you have to offer.

(Don't try to create a one-off evening that's anything like "Utter Shit!", though. That was a harsh lesson for Richard as a host and me as a DJ. People seemingly aren't keen on novelty themed nights of plastic poetry and poetry about shite things combined with novelty techno, glam rock and brass band versions of Beatles songs. Who'd have thought it? It remains the only time in my life I've ever managed to clear an entire venue as everyone fled to the front bar at the end.…) 

Sunday, 7 December 2014

The last ever London "Utter!"

The spoken word circuit is cruel. You're laughing, but it is. All niche art forms are. Think about it - in the worlds of live poetry (or whatever guise its operating under at any given moment), folk music, jazz, sculpture, and many other fringe art-forms, history is written by the winners. The people who are right at the forefront of the movements will always tell you it's never been better than it is right now, and the past when they didn't have a career was a bit of a shambles. Of course they would - they're at the top of the tree earning a living from it, and they'd hardly be likely to admit that their situation has all been a mistake. Often, of course, they also won't admit whose ideas they're borrowing or whose foundations they're building on to gain success. Artists are often rubbish at that sort of thing. Not you, of course - if you're reading this, I'm sure you're lovely.

I was a bit hacked off to read an interview with Richard Tyrone Jones in "Write Out Loud" where he explicitly mentions the fact that a lot of the people who worked hard to make sure the spoken word circuit developed have since not really reaped any benefits. The next "Utter!" on 16th December will be the last London event - though Lee Nelson will continue to operate Luton-based "Utter!"s - and it's sad that this poetry night should be bowing out after ten years of offering early opportunities to some of today's leading names.

Most performers on the circuit will happily admit that "Utter!" has been a fairer event than most, offering slots to all manner of different styles of poetry, from the experimental to the unashamedly populist. As a gauge of what's really going on in live poetry at any given moment, it's probably been a more honest sampler evening for new audience members than most other events which are increasingly targeting niche audiences. It's easy for uninformed people to kid themselves that there are two types of spoken word at the moment - urban and "serious, reflective" material - and not the wide cornucopia of styles in-between. "Utter!" dealt with that marvellously by offering mixed bills and opportunities for people who might not easily find major slots elsewhere. It also acknowledged history, as with the recent event showcasing performers from different decades of the circuit. At its best, it made the poetry world feel like a varied and colourful place, an arena with a past and present to be proud of.

I've said it before many, many times, but the only hope spoken word has of being taken seriously in the long-term is if develops a stronger sense of its own history, its own influences, and a more developed level of press coverage beyond the extreme, rabid standbys of "Poetry is dead!" and "THIS NEW FIREBRAND IS THE FUTURE OF ALL LITERATURE!" Try looking up live recordings of relatively successful spoken word artists from fifteen years ago online. Then try ten years. Having much luck? Is it an embarrassment of archive footage or just a few measly offerings? We need to both respect the young performers of the present and the people who made it possible for them in the past if we're to avoid having the same ditchwater dull conversations in the media in ten years time. Without a recorded past, without dialogue, we're giving nobody any background for their news stories apart from the shock of the new and the tragic, lonely death of the old as the next fashion change sweeps through. YOUR TURN NEXT. Though thanks is obviously due to sites like "Write Out Loud" who try to create an archive of news stories and interviews, and to the Internet in general for making a recorded history much easier and cheaper to achieve.

I do hope to see a lot of you at Utter! on the 16th. It finishes with a slam of new performers competing for a £300 prize. At least one of them probably will be a name to watch out for in the future. It's a given. And they had better bloody remember "Utter!", or I'll break into the performer's house when they've signed their major publishing deal and de-alphabeticise their spice rack. The Facebook event page is here

Monday, 1 December 2014

The Private Museum of Peter Gandalf

Back in February 2013, one of my short stories "The Private Museum of Peter Gandalf" was published in issue 2 of "The Alarmist" magazine.

I was thrilled to bits. No, really. Not just because I love what "The Alarmist" do, but because while getting poetry published in magazines is a difficult, never-ending chore, compared to getting short stories published - particularly short stories which err a bit too much on the long side - it's a doddle. Not only do short stories take up a lot more space, meaning editors have to put a lot of thought into whether or not you and your possibly dubious concept deserve 10% of their publication's overall page quota, there are also fewer periodicals accepting them these days. To be brief, if anyone reading this is tempted to give up writing poetry to write shorts because they think there's more money in other forms of literature and it might make them famous, forget it. Stick with the poetry while everyone is still saying "Ooh, you do that! I like that Kate Tempest!"

("Short stories?!" spluttered a poet friend of mine. "Why don't you just write a novel? It's easier to get those released").

Anyway, nearly two years on, long after issue 2 of "The Alarmist" disappeared from most (all?) bookstore shelves, here's "The Private Museum of Peter Gandalf" online. It's the only example of a short story of mine on this site, and this isn't something I plan to make a habit of, but I do have quite a few others sitting around my house waiting for a magazine or publishing house to take them. So it may not be the last one you ever see, if I get my own way.

"Climb that 'if', Dave," says a voice, "and it's so big you can see Croydon from the top".
"Shut up and read the story," I reply.
"You seem to have drifted into Peter Gandalf's tone in this blog entry itself," retorts the voice.
"Yes, I just re-read it a few minutes ago," I confess.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Metamorphic Rock at the Chelsea Hotel

Hello everyone - I'm sorry to say that it looks as if the DJ element of this event tomorrow night has been cancelled due to unforeseen technical/ administrative circumstances.

The poetry will still be going ahead, and it's still well worth attending as an event in itself - but anyone expecting to turn up and find me on the decks will be disappointed. Apologies for any inconvenience caused.

Time to announce something I'm really looking forward to. On Tuesday 21st October, I'll be DJ'ing at the Metamorphic Rock event at the Huntingdon Gallery in Shoreditch. Part of the London/ New York Festival, this will be an exhibition and poetry reading thematically based on the Chelsea Hotel.

As well as poetry from a wide range of excellent talent - and more on that in a moment - there will also be an exhibition of classic rock photographs by the brilliant Bob Gruen, at one time John Lennon's personal photographer. Or, to go with the officially advertised line:

"Manhattan's famous Chelsea Hotel, one-time home to innumerable musical and literary icons, has been closed for refurbishment since 2011. But that won't stop the new generation of London-based poets taking up residence. Set to the backdrop of Bob Gruen's Rock Seen exhibition, they set out to re-imagine the establishment, room by room, according to their own stylistic predilections, and throw the doors open once again to Bowie, Cohen, Bukowski and all the rest."

There are some fantastic poets on the bill, all performing new work - these include Matthew Caley, Amy Key, James Trevelyan, Sophia Blackwell, John Clegg, Harry Man, Mark Waldron, John Canfield, Roddy Lumsden, Holly Hopkins, Jon Stone and Abigail Parry, with others to be announced at a later date.

And me? My DJ sets normally slip around between garage, mod rock, soul and funk, but I've got other ideas in mind this time and will try to keep things as on-topic and appropriate as possible. It's going to be a lot of fun.

£6 on the door. Here's the link to the Facebook event page. See you there.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Wilson Moments

I don't mention music in poetry often - I seem to get most of my thoughts on it written elsewhere, most specifically on the other blog Left and to the Back, so it probably doesn't feel like so much of an itchy area in my brain. 

However, many moons ago I wrote a poem which used Brian Wilson's style of arranging and producing as the basis for much of its imagery. I was deeply obsessed with The Beach Boys for a long time, and even tried (and failed) to produce poetry which used tracks like "Good Vibrations" as the basis for its structure.

Anyway, this effort is the only 'complete' one and simply fleetingly mentions some of Brian's songwriting and production quirks. It never got published and I only performed it live a few times, but here it stands as evidence that once every so often, the two streams of music and poetry have crossed in my notebook. Who was I thinking of when I wrote this, and why am I offering post-holiday advice to a young woman? I really can't bloody remember, to be honest - and yes, that is the truth. It's just trying to capture a resigned, defeated mood. I wouldn't be surprised if it was inspired by all the forlorn looking pink-skinned English women on London trains during late August/ early September, coming back home to their frustrating jobs. I don't know how many of them had returned from California, though, but we can file that idea under "poetic licence". 

Wilson Moments

This year’s tan has
faded as rapidly as the
end of a Beach Boys
The holiday was like that –
it built and built ascending
towards greatness then
realised there was only
so much it could do
in a limited time
with the constraints of the
corporation you work for and
your bank manager.

Cheer up.
Your freckles will no
longer conspire to make
all foundation products
futile.  Your chest will
no longer grin
pink spam smiles
to everyone.
That man you were with,
he is no use to you now,
just one more instrument in your
pop pocket symphony, not
even a memorably
bad concept album
addition to your love life.

You can put your
office jacket back on, and
stop making eye contact
with strangers.
You can stop trying to
escape the fact
you were born in England,

not Cali-for-ni-a.

Thursday, 11 September 2014


I was coming to depend on you to arrive with the gentle morning snow of angry reminders, fast food offers, and requests for me to put this house (which is not even mine) up for sale. Another day, another letter, another nudge towards the core of the iceflake, showing the patterns we keep hidden to others in increasingly microscopic depth.

This missive is different from the rest. It ends with a single kiss, marked with an X.

“What does that mean?” you ask, and I say it means friendship, nothing more. Closeness. A kiss on the cheek. A female handshake to show an emotional deal done. The friendly, alphabetical neighbour of the sinister mark of Zorro.

A week later, you are waiting for me again. The envelope, this time, has my address written in garish coloured ink, like a pentip floral tribute to the uniqueness of my abode. The letter is appropriately perfumed, and written on soft, quilted bond paper, like freshly washed hotel sheets.

It ends with five Xs, quins of simulated kisses.

“Four more!” you comment archly, and fix me with a suspicious stare. I say it signals appreciation, and nothing more. Grateful that I’d taken the time to listen, to offer words of experience, mixing the colours of our emotional spectrum together to bring variety to our drab landscapes. You say nothing. Clearly there is nothing more to say.

Two days later, there is a new letter waiting. The writing on the envelope is larger, more assertive, and each word ends in a long lash of a scorpion tail. Postmarks bleed into the inkwork like Government invasions into secret foreign territory. The letter is too private even for my eyes. Should never have been opened. Cannot be described without breaking some unwritten secrecy act.

It ends with an entire line of virtual kisses.

You say nothing again, and just stand there, glaring at me. I tell you I know what this means. It represents a length of barbed wire, a signal that I have trekked too far across an alien landscape, found out too much, and can only retreat. You slowly nod your agreement.

I don’t reply to the letter for weeks, and when I do, it is nothing more than a short string of winding, point missing jovialities, guided by the hazard posts of exclamation marks. Winter has begun again.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

How To Be A Poet And Not Damage Your Dignity

Hello. My name's Paul. We've probably not met before, because I've only been trying out my poems on 'the scene' (waves hand airily) for a year or so now, just feeling my way around, you know. Have you been doing this for longer? Oh. I thought you were new as well. Sorry. Are you sure you've been doing this for twenty years? Christ. I really, really thought you were a new poet, same as me. (Tries to suppress sneer). 

Anyway, have you been to "Bang Said The Gun" yet? BASTARDS. I asked them to book me and they said they wouldn't unless I won their slam, the fucking bastards. Have you sent your poems off to "Poetry London"? Bunch of pisswhistles. They just sent me a rejection slip back. Like, if I'm going to go to the trouble of sending you a poem, I at least want one side of A4 in return explaining why it's not publishable, don't you? That's my reward for all that effort and work. I expect respect. The problem with this circuit is that it's a giant cabal of cocksucking bastards. In the entire year I've been doing this, not one person has realised how great I am. (Continues at some length as the room slowly empties).

Sometimes when I speak to promoters and publishers and even literary critics, I get the distinct impression that absolutely every relatively inexperienced writer and performer talks like this, but I know that's not actually true. If everyone starting out in poetry happened to be an unreasonable egomaniac with more bitterness than talent and more mouth than charm, everyone would simply pack up their belongings and go home. Even the established practitioners at The Poetry Society and Apples and Snakes would quit and go off to get better paid jobs among more reasonable people at the House of Commons.

What is true is that there are quite a few people who end up getting remembered for their attitudes rather than their work, and unfortunately the circuit is so close-knit that this never ends well. The reason so many people have an unreasonable approach at first seems to boil down to their lack of realistic ideas about how the circuit is run. So, here's a few pointers for newbies, not necessarily meant to be taken literally in each case, nor treated as a wholly serious guide to success (Success? What's that?)

1. Promoters do not, at the end of every gig, head off backstage, roar with evil laughter, then have a money fight with all the bank notes they've accumulated.

You sometimes hear two very extreme viewpoints about poetry promoters. One is that they are wonderful, purely altruistic humans who are doing what they do solely for the good of poetry, for absolutely no personal gain or reward, and should be loved unconditionally. The other is that they're sociopaths and evil gatekeepers who are only interested in furthering their own name, gaining a career in the arts and creaming as much money off everyone else as possible on the way. Oh, and yeah, they only ever book their mates and people they want to impress, anyway.

As with most things in life, I very rarely - if ever - believe these two binary viewpoints are true of any promoter. There are many reasons to get involved. Some promoters start out because they see a stylistic gap in the circuit they want filled, and realise nobody else is going to cover that ground. Others feel that they understand how to attract bigger audiences to poetry and nobody else does, others need to have arts events experience on their CVs, others actually just think it's fun, the chance to throw a big literary party. I've met many different promoters with numerous motivations over the years.

I have, however, never met a poetry promoter who went into it for the money, and nor have I met a poetry promoter who doesn't actually appreciate poetry and doesn't feel that they're approaching the craft of curating and running a night in the best possible way. They may be horrendously misguided, they may not enjoy the same poetry you do, you may never be booked by them even if you frequent their evening every week from now until 2019, and you may think that's appallingly unfair… but if they're doing their jobs properly, they're also working hard under quite stressful and financially pressed conditions, and I can guarantee that if you aggressively argue with them for not booking you, that's it - you'll never get a gig at their night, and chances are you'll piss off their other promoter contacts into the bargain. Word gets around. But anyway…

2. Stop thinking that your entire career in poetry will explode as soon as you get a gig at that big name poetry night.

I was like you once. I'd never even performed a full-length slot in a small pub back-room, but I wanted Apples and Snakes to book me for a Big Gig. I wrote them a letter, filled the rest of the envelope with two quite good poems and about eight substandard ones (though I didn't appreciate how bad they were at the time) and waited. They didn't jump on me as the hot new talent in town, and they had no good reason to.

Back in those days, I had more of an excuse in that there were very few regular poetry gigs in London. Now, though, you can hone your craft at a cornucopia of open mics and slams, get better and better, and build your audience at the same time. The "right" people might not be in attendance, but every small gig, every seemingly unsuitable slot supporting a band or a cabaret act, will teach you to get good enough so that the big promoters will actually start to come to you. Expecting to get a plum gig within a year of starting to write and perform is a bit like expecting Universal to sign you on the back of a demo tape alone - it happens to some people, but the only reason these stories get told is because they're such bizarre anomalies. It's a horrible cliche, but there are usually no quick fixes to success, just a lot of hard work.

And even when you finally get that "big gig", that personal milestone, it probably won't break you. You'll usually need to do more and more to actually attain enough success to even consider quitting your day job. It's a long road ahead.

3. Nobody owes you a return favour.

It's a harsh truth, this, and it makes the poetry circuit - and indeed live performance in general - sound nastier than it actually is. But the fact is that what you as a newbie see at live events is normally held together with strings, scissors, glue and plenty of favours. It may appear slick and professionally run, but there are normally people chipping in their time and effort for incredibly little, if any, reward. Really, it's nothing short of miraculous that some nights keep going at all. The point is, the poetry circuit is overflowing with a community of people who do endless favours. Favours are the poetry circuit's equivalent of petrol. People struggle to keep track of them all.

You sometimes hear poets bitching that they helped someone out distributing leaflets for an hour at the Edinburgh Festival in 2010, and yet they haven't booked them at their night yet or published them in their magazine, or even praised their work on Facebook or Twitter.

Or they booked a poet at their small pub night, yet haven't been booked back at their big, well-known theatre event, and surely it would only be fair to expect a return invite? Isn't this how things work?

No, it's not. If you've offered someone a hand in any way, without being specifically asked, your name does not go to the top of a list of saints whose wishes must eternally be respected. If you do someone a favour, make it because you like them, like their work (or both) and let it rest at that. Have no expectations of anyone.

4. If you're a literary rebel, be prepared to work ten times as hard to get somewhere.

There are two types of literary rebels - the ones who are actually incredibly innovative, hard-hitting, experimental and exciting. I like these and wish they were supported by the circuit more. Then there are the really dreary "mavericks" who lean towards "delightfully politically incorrect" material or poetry incorporated with mime, slides of twee cartoons or Tai Chi or other such avenues which have remained largely unexplored for obvious reasons.

So, if you go against the grain I'll either love you or hate you. My personal feelings aside, however, you're always going to have a huge fight on your hands. Not everyone on the existing circuit is necessarily going to be generous enough to take risks placing your work amongst a much more conventional live bill, so you may find yourself in the position of having to build your own audience, your own networks of known sympathisers, and possibly even promote some of your own nights. Just like your heroes, you're going to have to accept that you're taking the path least trodden and it's going to take you a lot longer to get as much work as a highly entertaining comedy poet who can be booked at schools, comedy nights, cabaret nights and local festivals without fear. The unfortunate truth is that the more mainstream the work, the easier it is to find an appropriate place for it - but if you want to write for mass audiences, why don't you just go and get a job in advertising? There. You remembered.

A lot of literary rebels end up making the horrible mistake of turning into divas, arguing endlessly with anyone who won't book or publish them and drawing battle lines in the earth with their feet, even rejecting everyone else's work as "false", "part of a bourgeois system" and "single-handedly responsible for the death of poetry". And my good man, I know you're frustrated, but seriously… have you any idea how silly you sound to passers-by? You're making a spectacle of yourself.

5. If you don't like what other people do, they probably won't like your work either.

Seriously. This one simple rule has probably saved me years of wasted time in magazine submissions or approaches to promoters. If you don't like their style, they probably won't like yours. This is by no means universally true, but it's a hunch I've personally had confirmed so often that it now dictates my general approach to self-promotion (such as it is).

And anyway, submitting work to a magazine you privately (or otherwise) believe to be shit shows a complete lack of dignity.

6. You are not The Godfather.

When some people finally climb to the first little ridge on poetry's great cliff-face, they think they've arrived. By this point they've probably had a book out and it's had some favourable reviews (but poor sales). They've been invited to do a slot at a respected literary festival. They've been interviewed on BBC Radio Kent at 10pm on a Monday. Yes, the plan is all coming together at last.

Of course, they haven't got to the top. They've only just begun - and this would be the worst possible time to throw all that hard work down the drain by parading around demanding a slot at "Poetry Unplugged" long after the reading list has been settled "because I'm a PROPER poet", turning up to a reading and chatting loudly to people at the bar while someone is on stage nearby because you'd rather treat the gig as a networking exercise, or completely ignoring fellow poets when they try to talk to you at an event, waving them away with your hand as if to say "I'm busy" or just blanking them. And yes, I have pulled all these examples from real-life incidents I've witnessed.

A hint - very few people manage to read the reviews. Nobody heard you on BBC Radio Kent. You were on at 10pm, you vain pillock. And nobody is going to buy your bloody book at a live event if you've alienated them all (never mind the fact it's available in all good bookstores, most of the sales will still be at live events).

7. You are not going to become famous or become a generally respected figure in society.

This is poetry. People have been predicting an upturn in poetry and its absorption into the mainstream for as long as I can remember, and it never actually happens. Every decade seems to bring with it a few poets who will become reasonably familiar media names, but that's as far as it goes. You may be luckier in your timing than me, but I'll still be willing to bet hard money that you'll never be as well known as Jedward. Deal with it.

If you want fame, pick another art form or another job. You should be here solely because you want to be. The fact you write poetry is likely to be of little interest to that person you fancy (task - try telling people you're a DJ, then telling people you're a poet, and watch the difference in how brightly their face lights up), and your own parents possibly won't care. But you're here, among us, and… isn't that enough? Pull up a chair. Have a drink. I'll be here for you even if those other bastards aren't. 

Monday, 4 August 2014

Being English (Work In Progress and complete)

Very few poets spit out their poems fully formed, and I'm no exception. In fact, I'm probably the worst offender when it comes to writing absolute, complete garbage on the first draft and having to slowly sculpt it into shape in order to get it to read and sound the way I originally meant it to. I'm acquainted with one reasonably well-known poet who claims that he's able to let ideas ferment in his brain for a few days before placing a reasonably tight first draft on paper. That must be the final stage in the poet's evolution, and one I've yet to reach. The preceding stages, drawing solely from personal experience, are:

STAGE ONE: "I have written something! It's mine! And because I've written it, and I am a unique individual on this Planet of Earth, it is unique and therefore good and needs little or no changing, for doing so would interfere with the purity of the art!" - the teenage years (though some people never get past this point).

STAGE TWO: "I've written a poem, and it looks mostly good to me, but obviously it isn't. I know that now, because I've received rejection slips with helpful feedback which tell me where my flaws lie, and also I'm beginning to learn what my cringeworthy cliches usually tend to be, and this has the distinct smell of some of those. But how to make it right? And if I put the red line through large chunks of it, aren't I losing a lot of lines I actually like a great deal? And what the hell do I replace them with?" - this may rest unresolved. It usually does. The work gets scrapped.

STAGE THREE: "This poem is shit (or mediocre if I'm having a particularly good day). Most of the lines need to be struck through, but I can't quite visualise the shape yet, and it's going to need weeks of constant revisiting before I feel even halfway confident about it".

I've been on "Stage Three" for most of my adult life. I was rummaging around on my hard drive a few weeks back when I found some really early drafts of a poem entitled "Being English" which eventually got published in a small magazine. But to prove my point about the way I work, the first draft is absolute drivel which really wouldn't have been touched by anyone - borderline adolescent drivel, in fact, shocking for one so old. But I can remember sitting down in a kitchen in Melbourne and having a very definite idea of the mood and how I wanted to sound, and these initial formless ideas were the best I could get to very roughly expressing that at the time. I knew it wasn't a final piece of work, I just wanted to throw some ideas at the wall. Like this:

Everything is what it is.
I accept that.
I stay out of everyone’s shadow,
unplug the television from the
wall at night and
double lock the door,
treat laughter on the street
with fear and suspicion.
Watch car crashes on
video replay with morbid fascination.
Laugh at bounty-hunting
idiots on TV quiz shows,
pretend I’m above what I’m enjoying.
Turn my flesh mud-coloured,
my pale eyes into jack marbles in
chocolate on the first warm day.
Elevate past one-night stands and
meaningless affairs into
relationships and milestones,
fear the possibility of stalkers
whilst looking up a past
lover on the Internet for the
third time this year.
Live life through lists of lists of
absolute order.
Have a straight faced,
non-frowning coinslot mouth,
feed thrice daily,
weather the delays,
weather life,
do with making do.

It would be rude not to.

Cringeworthy. The final piece, on the other hand - arrived at after a year or so(!) - utilises very little of the first draft, choosing to use the unpromising beginnings as a springboard for other ideas. It's not me at my best, but it's a long way from its hopeless origins.

We no longer speak of these things –

the spiders we swallowed.

What our lines are or
where they came from.

The invisible elastic rope
that ties us to the
bedpost of the past.

The cheap ticking,
plastic toy that remains
descended on cheap
melted glue from our
ribs to our stomachs.

We simply unplug the
television from the
wall at night,
distrust sudden
shouts of cheer from the
cul-de-sac outside, and
tie our shoelaces
neatly and tightly
so the loops do not
catch and drag the
feet of others
rudely along our path.

We are immeasurably,
utterly sorry for
every state of affairs, but
nothing must change.

The army burst into our
houses and told us we
were strong enough not to
deviate from this given path.
Once they’d beaten us
sixty times and we didn’t
weep, we decided
it must be true.

And why am I showing you this? No reason in particular, really, but I suppose it's to remind myself, and maybe a handful of other people as well, that the process is often long-winded and bad ideas in themselves are nothing to be ashamed of. You can wallow in the mood and the feel like a hippo in hot mud (or a pig in shit, whichever you prefer) until as many as 85% of the first lines are struck through and replaced with something workable, then reordered. For this poem, some of the drafts have notes next to them like "Still not there" and "almost there - keep?" as I got to grips with what I wanted to say. The first draft is nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to tear up, just as the foundations of a house by themselves make a pretty laughable shelter. I just need to remind myself of this sometimes. 

Friday, 1 August 2014

Zone 4

Standing at the point
Where the buses don’t just stop
But finish,
Where their destinations of
Nowhere somewheres
Roll round on displays
Like commandments on
Scrolls of silk,

I try to interpret
Meaning in the sounds of
Swallowed towns,
Like Debden, Sidcup and Ponders End,
Mouth melodies to
Places never mentioned in song,
Where empty, arching
Concrete shelters have been
Waiting since World War II
For their moment, their onslaught,
The time when the city arrives.

Monday, 28 July 2014


OK, let me explain.  This is a poem that refuses to lay down and die.  It won't resolve itself - it's been in my 'to redraft' pile for about eight years now.  About four years ago I made the mistake of thinking that it was resolved and got a version of it published in "The Delinquent" magazine, but despite their seal of approval I still wasn't convinced.  So I reworked it again.  And again.  And again.

The version you can see below is the latest version, and whilst I feel that my mind is far too weary of the whole idea to really do anything better with it now, there's no guarantee that I won't come back to this again at some point in the not-too-distant future.  In the meantime, this is probably as good as it gets.

Those colourful talking birds,
they come to you in the middle of the
night, fly through the open
sash window like mis-fired
darts from the street corner pub,
scuffle and scrape beaks and
claws across skirting boards like
finger bones on wood.

They murmur their
demands in voices like a
choir of schoolgirls
humming the national anthem
slowly, out of tune
with each other, plead with
trembling beaks like
tweezers delicately gripping at
the splinter of a truth.

They bother like all beasts
bother, climb to kick at the
ghosted screenburn of
bad old ideas, tug the
sheets in the compass
direction of your last lover,
morbidly mutter the
name your parents would
have called you had you
been deemed worthy of it.

They stole your instinct
at birth, and are now
acting on it, indefinitely,
reaching for a conclusion
you have been denied.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

The Love Optician

(There are a few poems I've written and performed live, initially to an extremely positive response, only for the positive feedback - and the applause and sometimes laughter - to wither and die on subsequent airings elsewhere. It's almost as if something in the first shot could never be replicated, either through some fault in my own delivery, flaws with the poem itself, or me just striking it really lucky with an overly supportive audience at first.

This is one such. Scrapped in 2009 because it was creating way too much of a sag in live sets, it will probably never see the light of day again unless a few people drop me some comments begging for its return. Yes, I realise I'm not doing a very good job of selling it, but with old, long-dormant poems my attitude becomes more laissez-faire. You either like it or you don't, and it's no skin off my nose, frankly. Yeah, how do you like THAT? Remember, this is all free online content, if you want the freshest and the best, give me some money. Turn up to my bloody gigs, buy the latest magazines that have my current material in.

On the subject of opticians in general - I used to have a terrifying optician for many years who was deeply snappy, impatient, wore grey faded cardigans and smelt faintly (or occasionally strongly) of sweat. She was the inspiration for this poem, it's very much her stern voice and tone. Once during a live intro I joked that having a really glamorous, charming, highly likeable optician would perhaps be welcome for a change. Not long after I made that announcement, it happened - I turned up to the opticians and was confronted by an astounding beauty who was reassuring and extraordinarily friendly. I then had to try and deal with spending time with her speaking softly into my face, breathing down my ear and looking me in the eyes while the lights were all down. I was in a relationship at the time. I still am in that same relationship now. I couldn't get my contact lenses back in afterwards I was so flustered and flushed. It felt worse than the usual arrangement, guilt-inducing somehow, even though I'd done nothing wrong. So be careful what you wish for - in practical situations, mundanity is usually the more favourable option). 

I’m going to make everything
all blurry now.
Don’t worry.
That’s quite usual.

Now come with me.
Follow me
on to the street outside, and
walk amongst the traffic.
It’s OK.
I’ll guide you, and
sometimes I’ll lie, but
what kind of man doesn’t
suffer the odd knock 
or scratch?

Now we’ve got to know each other,
so let’s hold hands.
That’s it.
And we can go back to yours, and
I can look into your eyes and
tell you what it is you can’t see.

While you’re blind, I’ll
jemmy the skirting boards
from the walls, reveal the
plaster that is pale,
untanned by the warmth of
your breath beneath, and
etch obscenities in
forgotten languages by
compass point, before
replacing everything again.
No, it’s not a curse.
I don’t do hexes, dear.
I just like leaving my mark.

Do you see?
Do you feel better for your new prescription?
Can you see what you couldn’t before?
Equally good!
I have to go now, but
I’m sure, if you’re sensible,
you’ll see my assistant in
six months time
for another check-up.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Two forthcoming gigs

Hello there. I just thought you might like to know about two gigs I've got coming up next weekend.

The first is a DJ set I'll be doing with the Dirty Water Club's Arthur Scott at the "Well Versed" event as part of the Stoke Newington Literary Festival on Saturday 7th June. You can expect the usual mix of sixties garage pop, soul, funk and other oddments besides, but perhaps more importantly the featured poetry acts will be:

Phill Jupitus + Tim Wells + Niall O’Sullivan + Chimene Sulyeman + Bob Constant + Lucy Ayrton + Sam Berkson + Chris Coltrane + Captain of the Rant + Paul McGrane + Lisa Kelly + Emma Jones

We'll be at Mascara Bar, kicking off at 8pm and with DJs until 3am. There's also another full day's Well Versifying ahead of the Saturday gig, with full details available on their Facebook event page if you're interested.

But then I'll also be putting in an appearance at the Garden of Abandon on Sunday afternoon (8th June, Olden Garden, Whistler Street in association with the Chelsea Fringe) from 2pm. Also there will be:


Again, the relevant Facebook invite is here. I look forward to seeing some of you at both events.

Monday, 24 March 2014

What's The Point?

(If you're a poet and you claim you don't get these feelings, I'd suggest you've either only recently started writing poetry, or you're a liar. It's as simple as that. I think even Andrew Motion and Carol Ann Duffy look into the mirror on occasion and ask themselves "Why? Why do I plough on regardless?"

I could have made the ending more optimistic and upbeat, including something about being born to write poetry against the odds, but everyone does that. It's funnier to me to regard it as an affliction). 

What’s the point of
this artform nobody notices,
this expensive, time-consuming,
delicate haircut of a form
that fails to impress even
plump middle-aged ladies
on the bus, their fat
wobbling under their
skin like cheese in cloth,
as they scoff in disapproval?

What’s the point of
these words with no
accompaniment, with this
fragile, brittle aural
sculpture whose
sharp jags are
caused only by SHOUTING,
with each soft word
forming a wave pattern
in the shape of a
check on a tweed jacket?

What’s the point when I
don’t have the credibility, the
soft mother’s hum of melody, the
pounding rhythm of any
sort of party, when my
fingers no longer smell of
metal fretwork and
varnished wood, and I
stink only of yesterday’s clothes?

And at what point do
I walk away?
And should it be now,
when nobody is left listening,

just waiting their turn?

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Nobody's Diary

Following on from the "Reminisce" entry I did recently, I realised that I actually started keeping a diary exactly ten years ago. This has been a brilliant thing to crack open again - revealing a lot of embarrassing truths about myself I probably wouldn't have been comfortable being made aware of at the time, such as that I was an ungrateful sod who was actually having an astonishingly platinum streak in my life without being aware of it. True, I didn't have much money, but I was at the start of a great relationship, was socially very active with a lot of friends, and I had freedom to consider all kinds of options which would be riskier now. Youth is wasted on the young.

This extract from almost exactly ten years ago today highlights an unreal little moment for me, on the way home from a book launch in Central London:

"On the Number 73 bus home, we are treated to Duke Baysie working as the bus conductor, checking our tickets and honking and wheezing with style and aplomb on his mouth organ. I assure you this actually happened, and that he has to pay his rent just like the rest of us in London. Or maybe I dreamt it, or it was a figment of my tired imagination. We get off the bus to the sound of “Killing Me Softly” wailing bluesily in the background." 

For a long while now I assumed that this memory - which has stayed with me - must have been exaggerated over the years, but it's there in black and white much as I remember it. I know Duke Baysee regularly worked as a bus conductor to fund his records, but just having him on the bus rasping his harmonica into the dark of the East London night always felt great.

A better find is an entry talking about visiting my birthplace for a last look around before I leave the country, as at that point I was unsure if I would ever return or not. I reproduce that below - it's not an amazing piece of writing, and it was produced incredibly quickly, but it's faithful. It describes a lot of things about my home town I might not think to include if I was asked to do a quick entry now. And it almost tempts me into the idea of keeping a written journal again, but I stopped because it got repetitive and I complained too much and too often. All the entires about undelivered packages and unexpected bills or replacement bus services made me realise that sometimes we only pick up the pen to write in our diaries when nobody else wants to listen. Including our future selves. Also, I fear that if I began again now I couldn't compete with my youth. Better to keep a record when ten thousand possibilities seem to be orbiting you at once.

Yesterday we both travelled back to the house I grew up in (and left at the age of 10) for “one last look”. I’ve yet to really decide in my head why I wanted to do it. What might have helped, however, was the fact that the weekend was drawing to a close, and we both had precious little money (a problem that’s been dragging on for some time as we desperately try to save funds for Australia and live in London at the same time).

Taking the Central Line outbound through East London for Hainault, the tube train dips underground and rises overground numerous times, before finally surfacing for good at Newbury Park. Pebbledashed terraced houses suddenly become part of the landscape, the dirty brown brick Victorian terraces banished to the city. The train even runs through a golf course at Fairlop –though as I pointed out to Amanda, when I was growing up it was just a plain nobody ever used for anything much apart from flying kites and walking dogs. These days you can sometimes see golfers shading their eyes from the sun and whacking golf balls into the far distance while you’re sat on the tube, a sight I’m sure has confused plenty of people who have fallen asleep and woken up at the far end of the line.

Hainault itself always seems bizarrely twee and slightly out of time, dominated as it is by World War II prefabs and houses that have been smeared in pebble dash but otherwise appear to have no common unified design. It’s made few concessions to modernisation at all. It doesn’t have a supermarket, but it does have a Spar, a Dewhurst’s butchers, and a greengrocers, as well as a nice parade of box-shaped neighbourhood shops with permanent marker graffiti all over them. The churches all appear to have been built in the sixties and are the shape of upturned skips with spires sticking out. The planners who decided upon Hainault’s surrounds also obviously liked the idea of dotting little green squares of land here and there which were too small to be used as parks, too big to be considered mere verges. Erected on them still are the familiar “No Ball Games Please” plaques, last seen on a St Etienne album sleeve near you, and last ignored by any right-thinking child with a football.

Disappointingly, however, Hainault also used to look more like Reykjavik than any suburb of London in my youth, largely because many of the buildings were constructed out of corrugated iron, much like the design of Iceland’s brilliant city. Some planner, however (who will now forever be in my bad books) has obviously decided that this just wasn’t good enough, and the corrugated steel on all the council houses has now had brick placed around it on the outside. So now the council estates look like every other in the suburbs across the land, rather than anything remotely foreign or exotic. Somebody obviously deserves to die for this decision, though to be fair it might have been undertaken for structural reasons. Most of the prefabs were only supposed to be inhabited for a few years, and few were built to last for long.

We finally reach my old house in Dryden Close. I note with disappointment the fact that, unlike my childhood memories of the place, no children are playing on the street. Little has changed around the front of the house, though. It’s (as I already knew) a very bog-standard terraced house. What’s striking, though, is just how small it really is. A slither of pebbledashed wall between two other houses, some semi-circular bay windows jutting out. The crazy paving my Dad laid down when I was a child is still present and correct in the front garden, with a small circle of earth in the centre where a miniscule bush now grows.

Amanda stares at the house with a puzzled expression. I don’t know what she was expecting, but it does admittedly seem perplexing that a family with four children could have lived here, even sharing bedrooms. We sneak around to the back alley to see if we can peek into the garden. Everything’s changed. The swing I used as a child has gone, and the new owner has a compost heap and has planted some fir trees there instead. He or she has also erected a higher fence so it’s harder to see in. Over the back of the alley where there used to be playing fields for Saturday football teams, there’s now a housing estate.

We retreat to the local pub (which I never got old enough in Hainault to ever actually use) to have a quick drink so I can pointlessly wallow in nostalgia.

“What do you think of it?” I ask Amanda.
“It’s like every other London suburb, it’s probably like Pinner or Hounslow”, she replies.
“No… no, it’s different, look, everyone in this pub knows each other”, I retort. And indeed they do, though that may have a lot to do with the fact that it’s the only pub for some distance. “What do you reckon would have happened if my family had stayed here?”, I ask, dreaming of some sort of non-city styled neighbourhood community.
“I reckon you’d never have gone to university,” she replies, which is a fair comment given that the local comprehensive here has an appalling track record, compared to the slightly-below average one of the school I ended up in. We drink up and go, catching the next London bound train just as a cold, wintry downpour starts.

We arrive home to find that a band from Manchester (whose name presently escapes me) are gigging in London for the next few days and also using the recording studio downstairs, produced and catered for by my housemate Jon. A flock of Mancs with indie haircuts clutter around the kitchen and the lounge, one of them arguing loudly with his girlfriend on the mobile phone. Amanda falls asleep way before I do.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Two forthcoming events - Utter! and Sweet Thursday

I'll be appearing at two events this month.

The first is Richmond's long-standing and very relaxed poetry night Sweet Thursday on the 13th February at 8pm. It takes place above a pub called The Old Ship on King Street, postcode TW9 1ND. I'll be appearing there with the usual bunch of open-micers and "Racker" Donnelly.

Then on Sunday 16th February from 4:30pm until 10pm you can catch me at the 10th birthday celebrations of legendary poetry night "Utter!", along with James McKay, James Ross, Fay Roberts, Frog Morris, Mark Dean Quinn 'brilliantly deadpan' (Chortle), Tim Wells, Richard Sandling, Sophia Blackwell, Keith Jay, Paul Birtill, Dec Munro, Dan Simpson, Tony Walsh (before 6pm), Charley Lucy Harrison of 'CU next Thursday' comedy, Pickering of 'Stand-Up Tragedy', Lee Nelson, Jazzman John Clarke and of course Richard Tyrone Jones himself ("fascinating, sobering, hilarious" (New Scientist)) who will apparently be doing stuff from new show 'Crap Time Lord'. Also music from: Nathan Loughran & Jude Cowan Montague

That takes place at The Amersham Arms, 388 New Cross Road, London, SE14 6TY, and the Facebook invite page is here.

There are no other appearances confirmed for February apart from those two, so please do drop by to one or other, or even both if you're particularly adventurous.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Reminisce (Parts one, two and three)

Niall O'Sullivan recently wrote a blog entry about the history of the live poetry circuit which managed to turn me into a whimsical, reflective old man.  Not long after that, he invited other people to talk about their own histories, something I had long considered doing for this blog but felt might seem worryingly self-indulgent.  But when somebody more successful than you encourages that self-indulgent strand of your personality, you think… Oh hell, why not? The worst thing that will happen will be that nobody reads it.  So here goes.

(Forgive me for anything I don't mention below, like Poetry Unplugged.  It almost goes without saying that was an extremely important event to introduce to the London circuit and was probably a big factor in creating networks between poets and changing everything).

The Nineties

(The nineties here are represented by a tragic Student Union photo ID card I should probably burn rather than show to you, with holes punched into it and bits cut out to prove that I had voted for representatives in numerous union elections).

By the time I got to university I had already been writing poetry on a regular basis since 1990 and had been published in a few underground fanzines, but 1994 marked the point I joined the university's Literary Society who gave me my first experience of doing a poetry reading. I've already talked lovingly about the pub these readings used to take place in and I don't want to waste more time doing so here, but that brief little period of my life inside that student organised open mic bubble did actually conform to most of the cliches which would go on to dog me in the broader outside world. The poets all loved each other, hated each other, then loved each other again, then tried to kill each other.  Alongside the naive people like me who were trying their hardest to be halfway good and often failing, we had bad comedy poets, local "eccentrics" dropping in to share their thoughts at length (one of whom would accuse Paul McCartney of stealing all of his best ideas without ever providing any proof) and poets who tried to be shocking by starting their performances with shouted lines like "HAPPINESS IS A DRIPPING PRICK". If I thought these wobbles away from the road we believed we'd set were in any way one-off quirks of the crazy open mic we were trying to run and were nothing like the rest of the circuit (I did) I would be proven wrong over the two decades to come.  The faces changed, but the out-of-key songs generally remained the same.

On the Portsmouth streets outside, irregular open mic nights occurred in other pubs which were extremely friendly, and The Wedgewood Rooms would run a live poetry event once every few months which would usually involve characters like Joolz Denby, Attila the Stockbroker or Simon Armitage being ably supported by a local ranting star.  Joolz was the first poet I saw live who made me realise that I was doing absolutely everything wrong - here was somebody who could really involve, engage and emotionally effect her audience. I walked away from her shows doubting I'd ever be as good, but wanting to seriously up my game.

If I wanted to develop my work or see live shows apart from that, London was the only sensible option, and even London was limited. I recall heading up to the smoke on National Poetry Day to see a free poetry gig in a marquee tent in Covent Garden. The marquee tent was the smallest I'd ever seen - you could probably go holidaying with two medium-sized families in it. John Hegley was there being incredibly sharp and charismatic, but during the Q&A session somebody asked him if he made much money out of poetry. "NO!" he snapped. "And I'm not getting paid for THIS either!" Another early lesson.

Performers such as Hegley and Joolz (and indeed many of the ranting poets who hadn't achieved their levels of fame) were and remain incredibly engaging, but there was no sense of where new poets seeking out live shows could start. In a fanzine interview from the day, Joolz advised any poets wanting to perform to try to support local bands. The idea filled me with terror.  I went to workshops in London instead to develop my work and was often greeted with a room filled with much more middle class, more accomplished, older people than me who didn't know what to do with the inexperienced young man in the room, and often critiqued me as if I had the same degree of knowledge as them and should have known better.  In one case, I read some workshoppers a poem I'd written about Essex, and they stared at me blankly, tossing in a few sneering jokes about the county and the people from it when I stopped reading.  Then another incredibly well-spoken member read a pro-fox hunting piece which scoffed about how city folk didn't understand what it was about, and they immediately lapped it up. Where the hell was I? The city or the countryside? My piece was probably crap, but at least the subject and tone didn't feel objectionable.

Experimental events like The Klinker would often put on token poetry acts as part of their bill, and it was there I first saw the astounding Bob Cobbing, another person who made me realise there was more to live poetry, performance and communication than I had ever previously supposed. His experiments with language and found materials pulled me into newer directions with my own work.

I wrote a letter to Apples and Snakes in 1996 begging for a gig, enclosing some material (which I now seriously hope never sees the light of day). They wrote back positively and said they would investigate me at a live performance soon to see if they could work with me. They eventually gave me a gig in 2008, long after that original letter had been forgotten - but that's not entirely their fault. By the time I had an opportunity to potentially interest them, I'd gone into retreat, back into my bedroom, and I'd given up on the idea of anything other than writing for awhile.

In short - I might have just been unlucky, and I certainly wasn't ready for a full length gig anyway (whatever I supposed at the time) but the nineties seemed bloody desolate, though there were rays of hope here and there.


(Me at "Walking The Dog", photo by Nili Roberts) 

I tried out the London live poetry circuit again in November 1999, and while there seemed to be more nights running by this point, initially the atmosphere still felt either chaotic or stuffy. Some evenings still took place in quiet, musty pub basements in Zone 2 with lit candles on the table and bad folk music on the sound system, but changes were slowly brewing.

I attended an open mic in a modern Cafe in Brick Lane replete with Apple Macs and cappuccinos.  The promoter occasionally filmed the event live and broadcast it (badly) online, and I never heard, read or saw most of the people who attended again, but a group of poets called The Radges showed up and barked their material at the customers. They weren't as able at this point as they would go on to become, but Jason King and Jeremy Quinn in particular seemed both earthy and otherly, as if they'd both seen the ranting live poets and also swallowed some less direct, more surreal poetry on the way.  Later on, they would begin a live poetry "party" with Robbie Chops called "Walking The Dog", an open mic filled with call-and-reponse catchphrases, loud music, booze and energy. Most of what the young poetry circuit in London tries to include in the present decade was present in "Walking The Dog" in embryonic form.  It may have sometimes been drunken and messy, but I've nothing but fond memories of the experience.  Even though it was an Open Mic, customers from the pub downstairs would often creep up to see what was going on, pushing attendances near the hundred mark.  Emma Hammond attended many Dogs, Unpluggeds and Klinkers on the way to becoming the unique poet she is today, and it did feel at the time as if some cross-fertilisation of ideas was occurring.

Other nights had tendencies to occasionally book slightly ropey comedy or cabaret poetry acts as misguided attempts to appease casual punters, but when they got it right, they were slick and enjoyable. Express Excess and Short Fuse never sagged in terms of energy, and New Blood at the Poetry Cafe was notable for doing that very thing the nineties poetry circuit didn't bother with - providing a well organised slot for new voices. Elsewhere, Kerouac's in Deptford was more subdued and sometimes felt as if it had one foot in the previous decade, but actually acted as an outlet for a lot of unestablished names, many of whom would later go on to more success.

Niall is (in my opinion) correct when he says that the circuit was clogged with a lot of bad performance poetry acts touring the city doing the same five-poem set over and over, a bit like the music hall chancers of yore only spread across a tighter geographical base.  It's easy to look back on these people whose names I can't remember with fondness.  So I don't libel anyone, let's make some performers up ever so slightly, shall we?  There was the man who only did twee rhyming poems about dogs (taking one aspect of Hegley's act and trying to build a career from it), the man who wore a Jacobean ruff and performed theatrical and airy verse about his various experiences that week, all while making elaborate gestures with his arms, the one who always wore a straw hat and probably called himself Mr Strawhatman… when I think of these people now I think of them with nostalgic fondness, but my diary from the time is much, much less complimentary.  The jokes - never wonderful from the offset - got very old very quickly.  But away from them, there were some brilliant performers and writers, such as Tim Turnbull, Luke Wright and Ross Sutherland. It wasn't all novelty, props and tat, though Aisle 16 had an effective and non-tacky approach with props.

2005 - 2009

(Me reading at apparently the last ever Jorge event at the George Tavern, which booked live music and poets - picture taken by Anne Brechin).

Despite the cabaret elements of poetry slowly slipping away, the circuit expanded further still. I have a theory that it was probably the shrinking of the volume of performers and continued expansion of the live events available which lead to a lot more risks being taken with bookings initially.  Writers who would ordinarily be regarded as "page poets" had by now developed the performance chops to compete and nights which might have once cocked a snook at them snapped them up instead.  "Express Excess" in particular seemed to take a lot more risks in this direction.

Vintage Poison also started running a plethora of nights across the circuit, and while they never really achieved the impact I suspect they set out to, they did straddle the page/ stage divide often and provided an outlet for some brilliant new poets.  Utter! hit its stride around this point too and took endless risks with bookings, as did Niall O'Sullivan's night "The Cellar", which acted like a poetry spotters convention in terms of the range of styles on offer, featuring top slam artists, comedy poets, performance poets and page poets all in the same room, never leaving audiences bored.  Even the Open Mics felt less shambolic, with Y Tuesday in particular offering a uniquely friendly, warm atmosphere.  Elsewhere, Poejazzi created a well-promoted and slick night with poets and musicians, doing a lot to create an atmosphere where poets could reach new audiences and be taken seriously.

It felt ridiculously easy as a poet to get gigs in galleries or supporting bands during the first half of this period, and while the band support slots were normally a total waste of time in terms of selling books or getting web-hits, they were an important way of getting poets used to the demands of different audiences and sharpened a lot of people's acts.  If I had to pick a period I felt I enjoyed the most, the first half of this time would be it - but then I would say that. I was kept busy throughout it.

I'm going to argue that the Spoken Word scene as it stands today came into effect on 2nd April 2007, the moment Scroobius Pip's single "Thou Shalt Always Kill" went on sale.  There had been a steady series of changes leading up to that point, but the commercial success of that record and the sudden spotlight on the hip-hop orientated style  of spoken word (which had been around, especially in South London, for a long while anyway) did seem like a game-changer, and endless similar poets seemed to rush through in the wake of his success.  I remember buying and enjoying the single at the time but wondering what it meant for the rest of us.

I would disagree with Niall's assertion that spoken word is better overall than the poets on the old scene - they're on occasion just as bad as the worst from that period.  Thinking more broadly away from the most successful exponents, for every doggerel merchant clogging up the circuit's arteries in 2002 there's a rhyming windbag in 2013 whose party piece is a five minute epic poem about the kind of person they are.  We will never be completely free of awful work in whatever form it takes, and the ratio of good to bad work doesn't tend to move as much as we imagine - it's just different flavours of incredible and revolting.

But this is all my perspective.  And my perspective will not be the same as Niall's, yours, Mr Strawhatman's, or anyone else's.  These are all biased views, and we generally tend to censor out the rubbish around us at the moments in life when we're having the most fun.  So my opinions on this mean nought in general, but I would be interested in reading other people's.