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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JC Superstar. (CC: @Sultonna)

After making my fifth post here, my attention was drawn to a service called Headliner, designed to allow bloggers to cross-promote each other. I thought I’d sign up just to see what happened. Today, Mellie Miller promoted this very site on Twitter, so if you’re reading me because of her, a thousand welcomes to you. You can find Mellie’s blog on WordPress and her Twitter name is in the title. What a tangled World Wide Web we weave.

And it’s a good time to join me. Over the next few days, I’ll be headed to Dundee Literary Festival, which attracts some heavyweights of the writing world. It’s possible to see them all, but more prudent to be selective and allow a little time for reflection between speakers. It launched yesterday with a debate over potential Scottish independence, hosted by the neutral Five Million Questions organisation.

Poetry is my weak suit, so I’ve made a point of seeing events with that theme. Today, I heard Robert Alan Jamieson read a little verse, as well as a lengthy extract from his riveting novel Da Happie Laand. Over a ham roll and crisps, I heard Michael Hulse read in a measured, definite voice echoing Tom Baker. I rounded off the day with non-poet Lesley Riddoch, who argues that our country would be better off with localised communes such as those found in Northern Europe.

I mentioned in my entry The Shock of The New that I intended to revisit the subject of poetry, particularly the performance type, although neither Jamieson nor Hulse fell into that camp.

At the start of the year, I was listening to the soundtrack album of Plan B’s Ill Manors when I heard a peculiar part that began, “Pity the plight of the young fellow, too long abed with no sleep…” I looked at the track information to find it featured a John Cooper Clark. I hadn’t previously heard of the guy, probably because he totally disappeared off the radar from the early 1980s to the mid-2000s.

But for the last few years, he’s enjoyed a resurgence. I’ve seen him once live on stage, then once via video link at the cinema earlier this month. His piece I Wanna Be Yours was included in the GCSE exam syllabus alongside poets like Maya Angelou, while Evidently Chickentown was featured prominently in The Sopranos. As well as Ill Manors, his lyrics also feature on The Arctic Monkeys’ AM album. Both of these reached number one.

His amazing story has me wondering if I have what it takes to write a poem for performance. There are still people out there doing exactly that; in particular, one of his live support acts, Luke Wright. But where I find that Cooper Clark often rushes his delivery, probably a result of cutting his teeth at punk gigs, Wright understands his audience, and his delivery is clearer as a result.

Comedian Phill Jupitus has also returned to his roots, performing The Misunderstanding at the Edinburgh Festival, along with another poem comprising solely of titles from its brochure. Craig Charles of Red Dwarf also started his career in a similar manner, before turning to acting.

One omission I’ve made so far is Pam Ayres. I’ve been listening to her recently in the car. She’s a homely, motherly poet, who focuses mainly on domestic matters. I hesitate to criticise because her wit and observations are sharp, and she’s loved by millions across the world, yet her delivery can be forced, for instance using, “On the brinked,” in place of, “Brink,” to rhyme it with, “Extinct.” And she occasionally expresses the same thought in two neighbouring lines, but this can be a useful skill for holding her own on radio panel show Just a Minute against comics like Paul Merton or Graham Norton.

The groundwork has been laid for me, but the question I have to ask myself is: can I produce material for performance that isn’t derivative, especially when it’s something so alien to me? With Wright emerging, Jupitus returning, and Ayers with a new collection on sale, I have a suspicion that performance poetry is about to become massive once again, and I want to ride this upcoming wave.

You can say you heard it here first.