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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The Business of Personality; The Personality of Business

I feel I often bore you senseless with NaNoWriMo references, though it is a large part of my writing life. This time, I pinky-promise to use it only as a launchpad for my main point.

Over the past month, I’ve come to know two NaNo members particularly well: one through spending time together at meetings before the rest arrive, and one by corresponding mainly online. I’ve known both parties for some time, but by conversing so frequently, I feel I understand them better as individuals and as writers.

Notice the order of those words: ‘individuals’, then ‘writers’. I believe we can create better professional connections by first knowing a little more about the other person.

We’ve all probably passed sales reps on the street who ask, “Who’s your electricity supplier?” without so much as a preliminary, “How are you?” Three thoughts occur to me when I hear the electricity question:

  1. It’s annoying.
  2. It’s too personal and abrupt when you haven’t built up even a little trust.
  3. It signals that the seller is interested in you only as a customer, not as a person.

    A segment of a social network
    A segment of a social network (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve seen the people-first principle succeed before. I have a ‘day job’ in the civil service, and my department began experimenting in around 2010 with an internal social network modelled on Twitter. The rules told us that the site was primarily for business talk, but that some social and recreational chat was permitted. In practice, the social talk was predominant, and it led to a lot of in-jokes and banter. Yet when someone wanted to talk business, the others were more inclined to help because we were already acquainted with one another.

I still speak to some of these people today, though the network has long since closed. Of the replacement websites introduced, none has created the same sense of community. I believe that’s because the social club aspect has been relegated in favour of a business-first approach that doesn’t prompt the same connection.

So where can a writer meet with other writers without feeling as though they’re being sold something? Where I’m from, we’re lucky enough to have a regular monthly meet-up where any writer can drop by and interact with other writers on an informal basis. We meet in a bar aptly called The George Orwell, and there are no readings or speeches. If somebody does have work to promote, it never feels pushy because we all know each other socially.

If you ask your nearest library, they’ll probably be able to direct you to such a nearby group. And if there isn’t one, consider starting your own; it’s not easy, but it can be hugely rewarding.