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. 

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Platform One - 11th January

It feels too early in the year to start on any kind of promotional drive for forthcoming gigs, but this one is on 11th January, dangerously close to the birth of the bonny baby 2014, and I've got to start pushing it sometime.

I'll be appearing with Cheryl McLennan, and I will also say that I'm really glad to have been given a gig at Platform One, one of the most relaxed and intimate nights on the London poetry circuit.  It's a tremendously friendly and easy-going evening with a very varied tone - just the way I like my poetry nights.

The Facebook invite is here - I do hope you can make it along.  Let's get 2014 off to an interesting start.