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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Can I Have a P Please, Bob?

Plagiarism

Hot on the heels of my copyright post the other week, a case of poetic plagiarism was brought to my attention. Remaining copies of Laventille have been pulped after Sheree Mack admitted to including others’ work in her own inadvertently, although fellow poets have accused her of stealing work deliberately.

In this instance, it’s not only the original poets who have been hurt by her actions, but the pulping will wipe out the profit margin that Smokestack Books would otherwise have made.

The one positive aspect we can salvage from this mess is that this type of plagiarism is relatively rare. If it happened every day, this story wouldn’t have been reported and nobody would have kicked up such a stink.

Postgraduates

I’m a firm believer that every writer ought to learn the skill of public performance. More on that story later. But last Wednesday marked the first time I would be performing to an audience of academics, rather than the general public or other writers.

The University of Dundee has run a Postgraduate Conference for the last four years where students set the agenda by presenting papers. Students were also free to respond creatively to this year’s theme, Lost in Translation. When I saw the final running order, I appeared to be the only person giving a creative response, and I seriously considered withdrawing as I didn’t feel it would fit in with the other presentations.

The upshot is that I did go ahead with it, although I was moved to a different slot with theatre students and a novelist. I felt it flowed more smoothly, and I received an excellent response, both verbally and on the anonymous feedback slips. My tutor was also sure to stop by and ask a couple of tough questions.

Performance

Shortly after the Postgraduate Conference, I went along to a workshop… on performance; unfortunately, it had to be in that order. Jenny Lindsay, one half of poetry duo Rally & Broad, was hosting, and they’re one of my favourite contemporary acts. She asked each of us why we were there. I told her I was quite comfortable with public speaking, but I felt there was always more to learn.

Blockbusters (UK game show)
Blockbusters (UK game show) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She took us through the process of preparing for an event, including how we might introduce ourselves, putting together a set list, and we even took turns at walking out in front of an audience. The organiser is hoping to put on another event in the near future but using an actual stage.

If you have the chance to hone this skill where you live, I recommend signing up. What many writers don’t realise is that if you’re snapped up by a publisher, you’ll be expected to read excerpts to a live audience. I’m not going to pretend it’s easy to stand up and entertain people, but the only way to make it easier is to keep practising, and prepare your materials thoroughly in advance. Remember, most audiences aren’t sitting waiting for you to slip up – they’re willing you on.

Promotion

Although National Novel Writing Month and its offshoot Camp NaNoWriMo are over, an enthusiastic band of us have continued to meet each week. The most recent meeting was yesterday, but we left after an hour to visit Waterstones where Kirsty Logan was promoting her novel The Gracekeepers.

I’d seen the posters across town, but I hadn’t heard much else about it until that evening. By the time I’d listened to the excerpt, learnt about the background of the world in which it’s set, and was told were some characters written as gender-neutral, I decided I wanted it. The issue of gender is something I become interested in since my feminist friends talk about from time to time.

And our group each spoke to Kirsty Logan for a couple of minutes each as she signed our books. I wish I’d thought to take a photo, as her dress contained pictures drawn in the same style as the book jacket. If I ever have a novel published, that’s a touch I’ll think about adopting, although I might settle for a shirt rather than a dress.