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).