Performance Review

I’ve always been honest about how I’m not a lifelong fiction writer or poet. Peppered throughout this blog is the story of how I began writing fiction in 2010. What I haven’t covered so far is how I became involved with performance poetry.

In early 2013, I heard someone speaking about Ill Manors, directed by the rapper Plan B. One day, I decided to listen to the soundtrack with a view to seeing the film at another time. During one of the tracks, a new voice said, “Pity the fate of young fellows, too long abed with no sleep.” I immediately liked it and wondered who this voice might belong to.

John Cooper Clarke, Cardiff, 1979
John Cooper Clarke, Cardiff, 1979 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

John Cooper Clarke was the answer. He first came to prominence in the late 1970s as a punk poet in the vein of Gil Scott-Heron and as the antidote to John Betjeman. He would often open shows for groups like Joy Division, and they eventually opened for him.

By 2013, Clarke was undergoing a resurgence. Having shaken off the ‘punk’ label, he was touring again, he was working with contemporary musicians, and his work even became required reading for the GCSE syllabus. Plan B began working with him after hearing his poem Evidently Chickentown used in an episode of The Sopranos.

When I went to see Clarke on stage, he brought along Mike McGarry and Luke Wright. Until then, I’d been accustomed to the light and humorous verse of Pam Ayers, and I hadn’t considered that performed poetry didn’t have to be cheesy. Indeed, I remember listening to Clarke’s piece Beasley Street while waiting for a bus on a street that could easily have been the one described.

After that gig, I listened to as much performance poetry as I could find, particularly through the former Edinburgh-based duo Rally & Broad. I was introduced to performers as diverse as the politically-minded Alan Bissett and mellow guitarist Lake Montgomery. Alas, I missed the chance to meet Kate Tempest because I’d been invited to read at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh while she was in Glasgow signing her novel.

But what of my own performances? The acts I saw and heard all influenced what I was writing at the time. Probably the first poem I wrote for performance was Anatomy of a Party, available on The Purple Spotlights EP. It was the first piece where pace mattered, with a long and fast first section, then a calmness near the end. I also took every opportunity to perform my work and learn through experimentation what flies with an audience and what goes down like a lead balloon.

As I’ve written more material, it’s become gradually more personal, and that was influenced in part by a weekend masterclass with Francesca Beard in 2016, who encouraged the group to write something we were scared to write about.

Only a few months later, I was informed that I would have my most personal poem to date published in Aiblins: New Scottish Political Poetry, the first to deal directly with my own bisexuality. It wasn’t that I was scared to tell people – indeed some of the audience already knew – but I was worried that people would miss the satire and think it was insulting.

Another poem on my current setlist is heavily influenced by Andrea Gibson, with an honourable mention to the Tempest poem The Woman the Boy Became that I happened to find at the aforementioned masterclass. My piece Sir Madam features either an intersex or transgender character – it’s never specified which – who has a horrendous back story. I was scared to read it in case my portrayal was considered offensive. In fact, it has been well received, even from those who identify as other than male or female.

And I still have more performers to hear. Two people independently recommended Neil Hilborn recently, and who knows where his influence might take me next.

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