Monday, 29 April 2019

Manchester Punk (Poetry) Festival

I discovered punk and poetry around the same time.  John Cooper Clarke’s scattergun verse is where the Venn diagram intersects. But I soon discovered a scene of performance poetry beyond the Bard of Salford, and punk music beyond the 1970s.

Mid-2000s I went to local gigs to see local bands.  And touring bands like Random Hand and Sonic Boom Six became my favourite bands.  And the more I wrote poems, the more the poetry scene became a poetry community with nights, hubs and friendly pals in cities across the UK.  In 2015 me and Bridget Hart toured the UK to poetry and punk venues, in 2018 my theatre company toured our show about punk to theatre venues and DIY spaces.  Seems JCC isn’t the only place where the Venn diagram intersects.

I’ve done a few gigs with punk bands, and when I used to put on music gigs I’d always get a poet to do a set.  Punk’s not always been about just guitars.  80s gigs used to feature cabaret acts, comedians, story-tellers and all kinds of spoken word artists such as Joolz Deby, Attila The Stockbroker, Porky The Poet (aka Phil Jupitus) and Craig Charles.

Manchester Punk Festival are doing some really exciting and diverse work.  Their festival is a passion project from a consortium of gig promoters who showcase not just shouty punk, but international bands, folk-punk, ska, indie-punk and queer and female representation, and spaces for films, podcasts and ethical food.  I like how they re-think how you manage a large-scale festival, how you approach that structure in a DIY, non-profit driven pro-inclusive model.  They have defined a brand which feels professional, but also DIY and inclusive.  Last year they started a Comedy Stage, so I approached them to see whether they would be interested in running a Poetry Stage.

So after what seemed an eternity of plotting and planning and play-list-making, my line-up for the three days was born.  Something I really noticed at MPF over the weekend were bands really appreciating people coming to support them.  I guess normally punk bands play in the small venues, so pooling everyone together can feel an epic gig.  Kermes played a gloriously sweaty fun set, Whoanows were charmingly fresh, Nervus celebratory, Cherym a fistful of fury, Martha stormed through banger-after-banger-after-banger Perkie was intimate and soulful to name but a few.

And it got me thinking about punk and punk poetry.  Poets often play to smaller crowds, and often present more personal and individual work.  Bridget Hart’s Saturday set was a loveletter to the people in her life.  Martin Appleby told little stories and insights of the scene.  Suky Goodfellow directly interacted with her audience in a Choose Your Own Adventure-style poetry set.  Cynthia Rodriguez took the mic out into the space for her anti-borders banter.  Kit Rayne showed a slice of her tattooed nerdy queer heart.  Simon Widdop juggled stories of home.  Genevieve Walsh was in her natural environment of back-room pub pal-packed poetry.  People hopped up for the open mic.

And I?  I was the first person to perform at Manchester Punk Festival in slippers.  Because if I can’t have comfy feet, it’s not my revolution.

Punk tried to tear down that barrier between audience and performer.  No rock star pomp, we are you, you are us, get a guitar, make a zine, write a poem and join in.

We want that connection with the performer and audience.

The last act I saw at the festival was Perkie.  She played a song called Werewolves which I’d never heard before.  She said it was about this punk community.  I had a little cry.

Punk should be more than just music; it’s a culture, which includes Comedy and Poetry (and film too!).  I’m glad that poetry could be part of the DNA of the Festival.  Up The Poetry Punks!

Monday, 8 April 2019

Three NaPoWriMo poems

NaPoWriMo is the national poetry-writing month.
Participants try and write a poem-a-day.
I had some busy days (and some naff days) so have managed three new poems so far.
All untitled, all fresh, all need work, all here in this blog

Motorway stretches thinly onwards into darkness
Repetition like black and white cartoon loop.
Just point the wheels in the right direction
Keep my foot where it belongs
And count down the seconds.
Across the country
Packages and parcels and produce
Totalled and transported.
Ambulances ignite and illuminate streets
A bleak blue.
Late-working lovers return, party-goers get going
Sleepy key-fumbling.
I trust in the deep red speakers on the passenger seat
Dispatch carefully curated podcasts and playlists.
The world breathes past at 70 miles per hour.
The Google Maps app ticks.
How did it get so late,
And who is over-taking me?

To get to either of my jobs
Or the centre of town in general
I walk past a Model Shop.
I’ve been in this shop
Plenty of times for brushes
And paints and flocks.
But I’ll admit, these many times
Were many years ago.
It’s unchanged in stock
Presenting twee railway
In 1.76 gauge.
Window-rammed with
Cars and toy soldiers
Measured in millimeters.
Glued-up Spitfires and Bombers
Drone above plastic fields of
railways and trains.
Scenes affixed from
Memories of Britain
In Penguin books.
A reminder of consistency
In hobbycraft and
Nostalgic pursuits.
Seems so English
(or British)
Like bowlers and suits.
As I often dash
Late for a shift
Or stride home
I try and snatch
A new fact from the window.
A new name or detail
Colour or brand
As an excuse to keep my
Phone in my pocket.

I have faith.
I have faith that when I press the traffic light button, it will work.
The red ring will illuminate, or the WAIT decree will shine.
The municipal system will be enacted, Green becomes Yellow
And when the Red light halts wheels, Green Men invite
And we will cross the road safely, you and I.
Trust me.
Have you no faith
That I pressed the button?
Have you no faith
That the uppercase WAIT assurance shows
That the request works?
Have you no faith
So you must press the button as well, add nothing
Waste your finger?
Have faith.
I pressed the button.

The traffic crossing is working.

Thursday, 28 March 2019

The Angels, the Vandals and the Greysteels

Last week myself and Natalie Quatermass were in Sheffield all week being mentored by Third Angel.  Me and Nat are Vandal Factory Theatre Company and, after our first show last year, are developing a new play called English Dirt

A line from our last show kept buzzing around our brains.

Who owns the roof that you live and eat and work beneath
Is it fear of starvation that makes you believe what you believe?

This has led us down an English country road of land-ownership, which naturally leads us to question the enclosure laws, power dynamics, nationhood, borders, the State and identity.  With the constant question of sovereignty and Britishness being dragged into discussions across Parliament, the media and pubs our show, English Dirt, set about exploring this theme.

The last year has seen us cover floors with Big Sheets Of Paper and read articles, books and zines around our topics.  It feels like we started this conversation back in 1066, but we’re finally making progress.

I’ve interacted with Third Angel a few times over the years, once at a workshop at York Theatre Royal, speaking at their conference a few years back and generally seeing their productions.  Their co-Artistic Director Alex is a superb mentor who helped us whittle away at some ideas, find connecting themes and narratives and gave us support to find the next stages of our route.

We also worked with band Flora Greysteel, a joyous duo.  We felt our history of land laws should relate to the history of British protest, and Simon and Emily are dazzling in their ability to take the slither of a song or attitude and transform it into spectacular music seemingly in seconds.

I think this last week has taught me a lot about shifting through ideas.  We kept referring to the idea the statue is inside the block of clay already, the sculptor’s job is to excavate it.  We are finding out show, piece by piece, among this vast and important history and story.  If we are wandering down a road, we have thrown away some of the baggage, but also seen new sights along the way.
We also managed to see Standing At The Sky’s Edge at Sheffield Theatre, a show with similar themes about ownership, class and identity in modern Britain.

I wanted to document this week and say thanks to Third Angel and Sheffield Theatres, a big warm hug-filled thanks to Flora Greysteel and my collaborator Natalie Quatermass.  I am excited for the next stage of English Dirt’s muddy road!

Sunday, 27 January 2019

Poetry sales soar = Poetry gigs soar

Last night I attended one of the best poetry gigs I’ve ever been to.  And I get the impression not a single poetry book was sold.

At Salford’s The Eagle Inn, whilst BBC Radio 6 celebs supped in the front, the back room played host to Word War’s Champions of Champions Slam where 10 of their previous winners and runners-up each shared two poems (3 mins max).

Hosted and organised by super team Kieren King and Ella Gainsborough, the night was a diverse and raucous affair, with a mixture of warm story-telling, intense politics, surreal stand-up poetry and personal truths.  There were tears.  Though, as far as I could tell, the only slammer with a book to plug was the heartfelt writer Ciaran Hodgers (guest at the next Say Owt Slam).

The Guardian recently ran an article declaring POETRY SALES SOAR.  Pretty good news after their 2013 article POETRY SALES PLUMMET.  Their 2019 article says this is down to 1.  Millennials and 2. the need for collective understanding after critical events such as the Manchester bombing and Grenfell.

Certainly it’s true Millennials are drawn to the spoken word mantle after growing up on a diet of mainstream hip-hop and New Labour education systems that featured Benjamin Zephaniah and John Agard.  Of course our click/share biteszie culture doesn’t hurt.  Spoken word (especially the 3 min slam format) appeals to our Millennial need for an immediate, digetable experience.  But that’s not to say members of Gen X and BabyBoomers are making exciting and relevant poetry, a testament to the scene’s reach.

In terms of a collective sharing, at Word War’s CoC, Kieran King shared his poem Salford Is A Broadway Musical, a beautiful lovesong to his hometown.  The audience joined in with thick gusto, making this no longer a simple poem but a electric sharing, an outpouring of communal love and a bloody good laugh celebrating home and the scene.

I recently toured the UK with my book, Nerd Punk, published by Burning Eye.  I work with Say Owt and we focus on the performance of poetry and the liveness, but nevertheless Inua Ellams, Hollie NcNish, Rob Auton, Jemima Foxtrot, Jess Green and the aforementioned Ciaran Hodgers all part of Say Owt’s programming have books for sale.  These poets (well, maybe expect Hollie), don’t tend to sell books by the bucketload.but more as mementos to remember the live event, to revisit the words presented by the poet.

Yes, poetry sales might be up but that’s because audiences (and especially millennials) spend time and energy and money on experiences.  The books bought are a way to help capture when you cheered, laughed, cried and shared.

Friday, 14 December 2018

A people's history in poetry

Last week I had the pleasure of guesting at Poetry Jam up in Durham run by Steve Urwin.
The North East is a lovely vibrant community, it feels like one big regional village of Newcastle, Sunderland Durham and Stockton where faces pop up across the poetry events.

I was struck by a shared love for stories at the night.  Rich, warm, generous and personable, a good number of the open miccers told their tales through verse.  Sometimes poetry scenes get known for a particular form, some nights love stand-up comedy poetry, others enjoy right-on political poetry.

It’s no surprise, the North East has a special history of working class folk music and shanties, Alex Glasgow being a particular favourite of mine.

The other guests were the wonderful Ellen Moran and Tom Kelly.  Tom’s career has spawned eleven books of poetry, stories and plays, a real veteran of the scene.  Ellen, by contrast, started performing poetry this year. Nevertheless she was one of the most confident and fierce performers I have seen for a long time.
A notable connection between these two poets was their use of characters and stories.  Ellen shared a poem about her Great Aunt, Peggy, and the rehousing of the working class of the 1960s.  Tom shared a poem about a family photo, and also stories of Jarrow.  A poem that really struck with me told the story of William Jobling, a striking miner and one of the last to be hung by a gibbet in Britain.

I have been researching a lot of British history lately.  The Peasants Revolt of 1381, anti-fascism in the 1930s, the Land Laws and enclosure of the 1700s and the Diggers, Levellers, Luddites and Blanketeers that pepper our history.  The working class struggle often ignored in favour of the story of Kings and Queens and their wars.

Some of my favourite poets are story-tellers.  They paint a picture with language of place, people and time.  And through that story we can write our own.  Ellen works for the Union Acorn, supporting tenants and tackling housing injustice.

I feel connected to a people's history, not because of some shared language, ethnicity, race or religion as Nationalists would unite us, but through a struggle against the rich, the bosses, the managers, the powerful and those that would divide us, erase our stories and enforce their own.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

We want our scene to be magnetic

Poetry scenes become poetry communities.  Because attendees are not necessarily housemates, family or work colleagues, these communities thrive as refreshing spaces to see people once or twice a month in a context for sharing art.  They come from a range of ages and backgrounds, and familiarity of people's poems is a cornerstone of friendship.  You can also make new pals by complimenting someone's poem, a handy conversation-starter.

However whenever a community starts to emerge, we humans also create hierarchies in the form of references, in-jokes and expectations.  Cliques can start to creep, we request classic poems, we shout-out things perhaps understood by the minority in the room, we chat about people, places and events from within.

In a recent review, A Dork In York blog praised Say Owt's recent collaboration with Sonnet Youth and it’s a glowing write-up.  I'm Artistic Director for Say Owt, and hugely proud of this night where we mixed poetry, comedy and music.

However the reviewer does point out “slam poetry has a reputation for being too cool for a reason, and I think that Say Owt could bear that in mind … When the hosts (I’m excluding Sonnet Youth from this – y’all were a joy) are all sat with their mates whooping and bantering on one side of the pub and the audience is on the other, it can feel at times like you’ve wandered into a private poetry party.”

Say Owt’s vibe can, at times, became a little bit raucous because we want the spoken word genre to be excitable and energetic.  We have developed an in-joke of acting slightly rowdy, coming up with chants for poets, subverting the expectations of usually quiet, introspective poets.  Because Sonnet Youth were taking over hosting duties, possibly I wanted to be a high-energy audience member, after all that’ the vibe Sonnet Youth as a “literary rave”.

I can only profusely apologise if any audience member, or poet, has ever felt alienated at our events.  We always try to greet and welcome poets to events we are hosting, and in terms of audience members try and ensure we’re all on the same wavelength, sharing a unified vibe.   

We want our scene to be magnetic.

Coming to any event, especially if you’re considering sharing poetry, can be a daunting experience, and I can see how someone turning up not knowing us might be uncomfortable with toying with a banter-ful vibe.  I certainly know if I’d turned up to a gig when I was starting out and not felt comfortable in that community, I would not have returned.

If anyone has suggestions how nights can dispel cliques and ensure it is a open environment, please comment below or send us a message

Monday, 29 October 2018

The Bat and the Union Jack

That night, hounds howled in fear more than wrath
Milk turned sour and all bread rotted to black.
The sky, overcast, save the silvery moon,
Thoughts sank into depths of gloom.
All Old Wives got out their pens and pads
Added to their tales, secretly glad
An extra few warnings and worries entered the world.
Along the corridors of the house, it could be heard
A groaning and moaning and finally just breath
As the creature was born upon the grand bed
The father, all monocle and splutters, was sozzled
The mother, in pain, snatched his brandy bottle.
The Doctor made the sign of the cross and vanished.
The bed, a wreck, inexplicably damaged.
The Nanny was happy, but only because she was paid
Smiling politely through this end-of-days.
Aside from some crying and glugging, silence preserved,
And the child, made no sound, it simply observed
It nodded at the staff, and they nodded back
It wrapped itself in a shawl, the colour of midnight black
It looked out the window, and seemed unimpressed
The father, now with brandy down his expensive vest
Went off to bed, needless to say his dreams were cruel
The mother, simply stared into space until the next noon.
The candles flickered, the room was cast in a slight glow
Or...did...could...the child...did anyone know…
The baby didn’t seem to cast a shadow...
The Household’s name was Vice-Moore
The kind of rich that like to spit on the poor
Not in public, obviously, but internally, and with pride
Some of that had leaked into the child’s piercing eyes.
And the child sought no nipple.  It turned to the Nanny
Eyes like pale moons reflected in a river
It bit down on her fingers
With teeth like needles.
If she felt pain, she didn’t show it.
After all, she was being paid
And the little monster, somehow, knew it.
The staff looked on, steeling back the sick
Was their minimum wage worth the risk?
They knew, deep-down,
This creature was destined for politics.

They didn’t sing on trains or buses, there wasn’t a street party
Though some families had friends round for a tot of brandy
The votes had been counted, the swing-ometer had swung
The Party led by Humphrey Vice-Moore had won
The new PM, with a devilish grin
Was now, officially, In.
A cunning ploy by his PR team decreed
No photos of the new PM, please
Just portraits.  Ceremonious and proper,
Besides, Humphrey knew he wouldn’t show up well through a camera.
“He’s so...aloof” his champions would agree
“He’s just...better than me”
Even his opponents, sat in Trade Union Halls
Agreed, there’s something hypnotic about it all.
Charming, aspiring, perfect and safe
The PM had taken to wearing a black cape
And, he’d requested, if it wasn’t too much hassle
Instead of Number 10 he’d rather live in a castle.
Now he'd been invited
The country was to be stifled.
And his evil power began to take root in policy
Across the country, services would bleed
Sliced and cut, access removed
Bitterness brewed.
A clawing vision
Narrow the education curriculum,
Fund the Armed Forces, forget the shelters
Mental health? Pull out the heart of the sector.
Carve up the NHS like a hunted corpse
Howl at protests with baton-wielding force.
Punching downward, hating thy neighbour
But, what was more stranger
Humphrey Vice-Moore added a bat
To the Union Jack.

Amazon sold out of pitchforks
B&Q all out of flaming torches
Argos mirrors, Millets stakes
The working class went to Lidl
The posh went to Waitrose
Regardless their class, the people bought up garlic cloves.
They piled out of meeting places, enraged and raucous
Ticket inspectors on trains pleaded
Don’t light your torches until they are needed
Be careful with those pitchforks, paramedics declared
It’s health and safety gone mad, some of the mob feared
Twitter was trending #whatsatstake
Cassetteboy had his own unique take
Memes popped up comparing the PM with Christopher Lee
Even sceptics had to admit, yes, lately it has been unusually foggy
His defenders said, look, just be glad
It could be worse, he could be a 2nd Vlad
Some tried to reason, said, let’s wait for an election
Others shrugged and said, it’s natural selection
"He’s the best man (or whatever he is) for the job
I’d keep him in no matter the cost!"
Well the cost was rising year-on-year
And the population had started cowering in fear
No more!  Time for the slaughter!
Let’s vote with our feet and casks of Holy Water!
The fire brigade conscripted hundreds of vicars
Never before had they blessed water quicker.

And in the Palaces of Westminster, Humphrey could hear them stomping
Chanting, like some protest, but this time with an added something
A sense of rightness, of duty, or purity
Humphrey licked his teeth purposefully.
His cabinet consisted of his oldest allies
They huddled, terrified under his soul-wrenching eyes
“I think it might be” suggested the Home Secretary
“That people believe you’re a…” his words faded away uselessly.
Humphrey scowled.  What was all this fuss?
They didn’t mind when the public services were cut?
Why now are the population in revolt?
Why was the Foreign Secretary sat inside a circle of salt
The Deputy PM stood up, braver than ever before
But still shaking like he’d been selected for war.
“The thing is, Humph, there’s a rumour going round
Believed in every village, city and town
Now, I know it’s all silly speculation
Stuff about coffins and desecrated soil accumulation
And I don’t mind Igor, the chap you appointed as whip
(not quite sure you needed to give the hunchback an actual...whip)
But the sitch is this, now, heard it through the wire
The nation believes you’re an actual vampire…”
Humphrey paused.  Bemused. Puzzled.  He laughed.
That’s rich.  That’s bizarre.  That’s a little bit...sad?
A member of the undead?  Me? I may be in charge
But I’m not some monster with a dark arcane art!
And just as PM Vice-Moore was about to ask how did this rumour start...
The Leader of the Opposition charged in
and stabbed him through the heart.
The blood washed all over the cabinet, the intruder cheered with fervour
“Bloody got the bugger!”
He looked down at his chest and the stake:
And he realised his one, great fatal mistake
The public can stomach the blood-sucking attacks
With tax havans and tax cuts and private sector contracts
They love to treat the workers like a buffet of snacks
But what they really can’t abide, a great British failure
The public had assumed Vice-Moore must be a vampire from Transylvania
(of course a region of Romania).
They didn’t mind being ruled by a British fiend
But one from abroad, well that was obscene!
So endeth Humphrey Vice-Moore, not-quite-vampire, who only liked
cricket bats.
The Times-reading, anthem-singing, flag-waving, dying,
blue-blooded aristocrat.