Tuesday, 13 December 2016

20.16 Blog #30: Blogs and bands, poems and young people

My phone must have crashed, or ran out of memory, or decided to rewrite history, because the calendar has lost all the details from the past year.  It’s quite scary how I have to now rely on my memory to note what has happened this year.

I slap my posters on my wall from every event I put on, so thankfully I have some record in the form of paper and bluetack

We hit 13 slams and 2 years running of Say Owt Slam.  We kicked off with the very unique and honest poet Sally Jenkinson, followed by a feast of poets, Rose Drew, Lily Luty, Marina Poppa, Adele Hampton and headliner Sophia Walker  for International Women's Festival.  A little later we ran an Anti-Slam, this beautifully bizarre new concept of worst poet wins championed by Dan Simpson and Paula Varjack.  Our Clash of Champions, guested by Jack Dean, was won by Ian Winter.  After popping over to Edinburgh Fringe, we then returned with a spate of slams with Scott Tyrrell, Vanessa Kisuule and finally Rob Auton.  We also ran a couple of open mics hosted by Chris Singleton and Gen Walsh.  And that's not to mention all the wonderful slammers that came and cracked out words, and the amazing audiences who constantly bring the energy to make the nights so intense, but friendly. It’s hard to get a handle for me, I see behind-the-scenes, in front-of-the-scenes and the script-for-the-scenes so it all becomes very day-to-day for me.  But I know much the nights matter to people, and I always appreciate the feedback, the support, the love from the York scene, travelling poets, the guests and Apples & Snakes.  We have BIG plans for 2017, and started recording a Podcast now on iTunes, so I’d say Say Owt is the most visibly one of the big hits of 2016.  Thanks to everyone x

Sequels are always difficult, and I made a laborious joke of this in my second show at EdFringe in 2 years.  I’ll admit, I wanted to spend more time writing and making the show, and the theme became something slightly different to my initial concept.  But I did really enjoy running the show, and always appreciate the spoken word community at EdFringe greatly.  It’s always a learning curve, and never take for granted what it means to be part of that world.  I did manage to get some new poems out of the show which have stood the test of time, namely I’m Sorry I Missed Your Gig and Discount Tescos Bunting, the latter now on YouTube.  Will Up The Nerd Punks 3 make an appearance in 2017?  Stay tuned, true believers…

The year began with Hull Truck Youth Theatre putting on my adaptation of Kafka’s The Castle, which I won’t lie:  was a tricky creature to pin down.  As I’m sure any Kafka fan will confer.  But I’m really proud of the final piece, and the production was a great tangled ensemble of characters and I think a modern day (and troubling perspective) on work.  I directed a Play In A Week for the Lawrence Batly Theatre, one based around conscientious objectors of WW1 and the other wizards and spells (slightly different themes I'll admit...). I also wrote a short adaptation of The Emperor’s New Clothes for Harrogate Youth Theatre, but mainly I’m proud to have been doing more facilitation in general for Lawrence Batley Youth Theatre, Harrogate Theatre and York Theatre Royal and worked with their Youth Theatre groups.  Thanks everyone x

I kicked off 2016 by putting on an all-dayer of bands for MooseFest.  We did one more Moose gig with Captain Chaos before my parenter-in-gigs ducked out to focus on work.  So I’ve been doing more gigs as Pewter Promotions with feminist queer indie-punk, like Colour Me Wednesday, Ay Carmela, The Tuts, Fairweather Band, Jesus & His Judgemental Father and Jake & The Jellyfish and a whole number of ace supports.  It's important for me to learn about gig promotion and Doing It Right, and not overloading myself.  But what I think is essential is I put on bands I want to see, else it becomes a favour, not a fun experience.  Thanks everyone x

I decided at the start of the year I would write loads of new poems.  That didn’t quite happen how I’d like.  I have this constantly worry I need ‘this kind of poem’.  The funny one to open with.  The anti-racist one.  The one that changes everyone’s minds.  But I have written some poems for Up The Nerd Punks 2 which are now part of my set, and have been working on some in the lying light for December.  I think it’s not always useful to assume you’ll write loads of new stuff just because you say you’ll write a load of new stuff.  So before I go to bed I’ve been writing for 1-2 mins at least.  Just scribbles.  Thoughts.  We’ll see what 2017 holds.

My band put out an EP!  I performed started scratching a new show for 2017!  I spoke at the Art of Punk Conference at the University of Northampton!  I spoke at the Third Angel Symposium at Leeds!  We continued making monthly nerdy quizzes and it's been a mega fun time, I assure you!  Thanks everyone x

I've also been pretty down at times, filled with the usual anxiety and General Blues of 21st century life.  But thanks for all my friends who stick with me, and I'm sorry to those I don't give enough time to, or have let down.

Thanks everyone x Sorry everyone x

Love, solidarity and rage x

Sunday, 11 December 2016

20.16 Blog #29: National Anti-Slam

Dear Sir and/or Madam.

Further to my previous correspondence dated 1st May 2016 (viewablefor your achievable achieve here) I have been strongly encouraged by my outrage to send this further correspondence.

Imagine my horror upon taking a short visit to That London and taking a stroll through gentrified Hackney and visiting the Picturehouses, I, once again, was forced into a context whereupon I was viewing an ANTI-SLAM in a Picturehouse!  Not just any old run-of-the-mill Anti-Slam but the NATIONAL ANTI-SLAM FINAL.

I was outraged like a shinbone being wafted in the desert
I was disgusted like a hedgehog headbutting A mollusc
I WAS maddened LIKE a stovepipe at closing time
I was fuming like Rome ON a Tuesday

I was quite literally angry.

The pretence of Edinburgh’s Doug Gary proved, once again, that once more performance poetry is, as it once was, a once-and-future thing of pretentiousness.

London’s Camilla made me disgusted to my very core, my core was well and truly rumbled and rubbed and was quite literally pumped with terror and disgust and other emotions far too smutty for the Internet.

I rather felt the Sheffield’s Starr Quality Theatre School™ representative was far too young and working class for a poetry event.  In addition (or, moreover) the reprehensive from Cambridge (Miss Spinning Jenny) was a poor imitation of Working Class Northern Life, and I should know, I’ve seen Kes.

Clearly Ms. Joy France, is clearly an example of what happens when lovely ladies are inclined (or, forced?) to visit Manchester.  The York poet Monica Offlebaum used a large amount of cultural appropriation, a term I do not fully understand but am willing to employ in my review.  Vera 100% Chinese's poetry was...

Sorry, got interuptted.

Now, where was I?  As a Normal Person I neither use, nor like, Twitter and the Edinburgh Fringe duo (American, thus proving the sort of place Edinburgh becomes in August) known as #HashTag@TeamTrending were rather loud but did make some effective political points.

Newcastle’s Viking No Name was neither a Viking, nor unnamed.  They resembled a mime, alas they used words.

However, as a chaffinch enthusiast, I was highly impressed with J. Arthur ProofRock’s deep interpretation was deeply stirring and a fine winner.  I wish him well in whatever body shapes he goes onto in the future.

The Judges were quite visibly referred to as a Jury interchangeable, never once stepping up to clatter down the hammer and put an end to this horror.  No, more they seemed to love the lack of love.

I will admit hosts Dan Simpson and Paula Varjack were admirably bearded.

I do rather hope this never returns to my hope town of York City FC and I do sincerely hope that poetry can do so much betterer.

Yours sincerely

A. T. Slam

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

20.16 Blog #28: Albums of 2016

Henry’s albums of the year

So 2016 has been and is almost gone, and as usual I have a number of albums and EPs spinning on my antique 2009 iPod.  In fact, quite a lot.  Thematically, the majority are indie-pop/punk with a strong queer undercurrent.  I think this reflects the gigs and scenes I’ve been hanging out with.  

Sometimes you might assume the indie-pop/punk tunes below are descendents of the landfill indie of the late 00s.  These were mostly laddish bands doing anthemtic choruses, this new wave are more inclusive, political, DIY and lyrically inventive.

Something I love about following a band is how their catalogue of music expands.  A couple of years ago, all I had were 3 Petrol Girls songs that spun around on my repeat in my ear.  2015 I managed to put them on not once, but twice.  Now 2016 bequeathed us the Some Thing EP and their debut album Talk of Violence and I am consistently inspired by the band’s commitment to inter-sectionality.  Positioned as a feminist post-hardcore band, Petrol Girls also champion LBGTQ+ and refugee/immigration causes.  The album itself feels beautifully raw and captures their live performance, but for me whenever I listen to it I am reminded there’s a world of activism out there that isn’t going to get restful anytime soon.

Martha’s debut album was easily my favourite album of 2014, and probably one of my favourite bands.  Initially this album felt a little less raw than their first, but over time I realised instead of offered a more playful introspective approach to song-writing that probably make better earworms in the long run.  The album is a little more funky, a little more pop, a little funnier and friendlier than their s/t album, and the jangly upbeat tempo makes me return to the ‘M’ section of my iPod.  There's a lot of intelligent lyrics, well-crafted song-structure and a variety of tempos that it makes the album feel very special and so easy to listen to over and over and always discover something fun or unique in each song.  It always makes me re-think lyrics as poetry and stories but still with a punk and pop edge.

A band I’d heard a lot about, the album can feel incredibly smooth with a recurring undercurrent of politics, feminism, home, family and has a real strength that, if I’m honest, surprised me.  The band manage to capture a great turn of phrase, hook and definitely feels like a full repeatable album than a handful of catchy songs.  The band’s lyrics have real story-telling potential and Lande’s vocals draw you in alongside the music.  This was a toss-up between Happy Accident’s album (see below) simply because genre and scene-wise they share a lot, but I think I’m going for Muncie Girls because I already knew I was a big Happy Accidents fan thanks to their earlier furious madcap high energy EP (and their debut album is just as pumped), but this album was a refreshing discovery.

To lump all these albums together is a CRIME, especially as they all have their own unique charm.  Colour Me Wednesday’s EP is another slice of their clever pop lyricism, Ay Carmela treads the line nicely between heartfelt story-telling and sharp punk, The Tuts’ Update Your Brain is pretty much the perfect vehicle for their engaging and finely crafted live performance and Daniel Versus The World’s queer piano-punk music is as sad as it is angry, as powerful as it is delicate.  However the recurring themes of queer identity, feminism, friendship, home, DIY, anger and love, individuality and community have made the Dovetown collective mainstays of my listening life (and this way I get to include all them in my top 5).  Also, the fact the collective all play in each other's bands, and are essentially a family, means I hope they don't mind rocking up as single supportive gang as they so often do at gigs.

This album sneaks into the top 5, not because it’s not been well-played on my iPod but because actually I’m not as into ska-punk as I once was back in t’day.  But I will always return to SB6 as a band that excite me.  Not your run-of-the-mill ska-punk fusion, this album packs all the playfulness with rap and electronic music to keep apace of the scene.  Whilst the fury of out-and-out political lyrics might be the SB6 of the past, what the band still do incredibly well is tell stories of (usually female) characters, and has a direct message to stand up for yourself as a person, an individual, as power in your own right.  They have a great commitment to making something fresh, and in a world of indie-pop I was grateful, and excited by, these bangers.

Notable mentions:  Happy Accidents (You Might Be Right), Pokémon Liberation Army (TM101), OPS (Sluice Around), Chris T-T (9 Green Songs), The Julie Ruin (Hit Reset), The Fairweather Band (Meow), Harry & Chris (Simple Times)

Shout outs to:  Viva Zapata (Fuck It, It’ll Be Fine), The Potentials (We Are The Potentials), Doe (Some Things Last Longer Than You), KINKY (Sissy Mosh), Skull Puppies (Endless Dungeon Crawl), Camp Shy (Camp Shy), ROMP (Departure From Venus), The Coathangers (Nosebleed Weekend), Savages (Adore Life), Dream Nails (DIY), Tough Tits (Hairless), Austeros (Painted Blue), Pup (The Dream Is Over), Syslak (Syslak EP), Shit Present (Misery + Disaster), Dan Kemp (Holding Down)

Also my band made an EP.  Pewter City Punks (Glass Type EP)

Thursday, 1 December 2016

20.16 Blog #27: Art of Punk Talk

Below is the talk I gave for the Art Of Punk symposium on 25th Nov at Northampton University

Leeds Town Hall, packed with pupils from across all Yorkshire to attend the GSCE poetry live event, featuring some of the greatest poets the establishment deems worth of being on the English syllabus.  Towards the end of the day, a rake-thin figure makes his way onto stage, hair a frothy mess, eyes hidden behind deep black shades.  He holds up a glass of water and bemoans in a thick Salford accent:  “I wanted a whiskey, but they gave me a water.  Why would you want to drink something fish screw in”.  The assemblance of pupils is amused, perhaps bemused.  He proceeds to read I Married A Monster From Outer Space.  He is, of course, John Cooper Clarke and in the audience is a young Henry Raby, on a day out from Oakland Secondary School for a taste of live poetry.

I grew up in an era dominated by American pop-punk, the Blink-182s, the Offspring and Green Day.  These bands never appealed to me, it was only when I was 16 and bought a copy of Never Mind The Bollocks from a car boot sale did I find a joy for punk rock music.

I come from a theatre background, arguably the most punk rock theatre sector:  The Youth Theatre sector.  And in the amphitheatre of the Big Youth Theatre Festival, surrounded by other young people from across the UK I rambled out my first poem which began with the phrase ‘I’m A Post-Nietzsche Creature’, a direct reference to Cooper Clarke’s line in Post-War Glamour Girls.

From then on, I identified as a ‘punk poet’ by virtue of the fact I liked punk, and I did poetry.



1.  Does punk poetry come influenced by the dominant music we associate with that term?
2.  Does the virtue of being a punk make your poetry automatically punk, can a punk write non-punk poetry?
3.  What are the literary qualities of the genre, in other words, what the fuck is Punk Poetry?

I upset a fellow in my friends’s band, by saying his other band were not punk, or to be specific, not folk-punk.  They played folk, acoustic rock, bluesy music, but it wasn’t folk.  It was DIY (which we’ll get to later) but it was not punk.  Maybe punk-y.
I’m going to start by saying punk is not a music genre, but it is a genre.
Punk is defined by three things:
Anti-authority, to the point of questioning the world
Anti-commodity, to the point of being DIY
The 1960s were about free love, progression, liberation and freedom.  Peace, man.
So punk celebrated the death of this redundant idea, this fakeness, this lie.
I wanna destroy passer-by, I wanna be sedated, hate & war, I am a poser, love will tear us apart etc.
Now, that’s fine for punk rock music to play with this disgusting behaviour, but poetry is something different.  Poetry is meant to be beautiful,
And punk poetry acts acts came in a wave.  The Medway Poets, Mark Mi Murduz and John Cooper Clarke and Seething Wells and Porky The Poet.  You could catch stand-up comics, and ranters and jugglers and theatre-makers amongst the bands.
So how do we define punk poetry?
Let’s look at anti-authority:
God Save The Queen, She Ain’t No Human Being.
Punk certainly has a healthy distrust for power structures, which is why with a few examples, it usually hovers towards the anarchist wing of politics.  Even the punx (with an x) who enjoy a good few cans of cider and listen to The Casualties with a handy pot of glue hate the authority that would stop them getting smashed, even if by their own admission “politics is bullshit, fucks communists blah blah blah”.  They just wanna do what they wanna do.
And punk poetry is the same that it defines the structures of publishing.
Let’s look at examples of punk poetry from the 1970s and 80s.  Joolz Denby, Bradford-born-and-based poet always found it difficult to get published, or rather publishers found it difficult to deal with her and her frankness.  Attila the Stockbroker regularly rails against the intuitions of bankers, bosses and businesses.  And fascists.  A committed Marxist.  His poetry has always been taking power.
Of course, this politicised life has not been without threat, Joolz talks about being attacked for the way she dressed and acted by men disgusted by her individualism, and Attila about being targeted by the far right.
More modern punk poets include Pete The Temp, who has dedicated his life to supporting squatting activism, and more recently occupations.  Pete comes across as a gentle soul but has been dedicated to rethinking and reclaiming space in an increasingly gentrified London.  Jenn Hart is committed to supporting feminist causes, putting on feminist gigs and acts and writing intense poetry about modern women’s issues.
Here are three chords, now start a band
Punk rock and DIY are not synonymous, but they are often on the same bill DIY.  Metal, Goth, Hip-Hop, cosplay, computer gaming, comic book publishing all have these elements of DIY
I define DIY as making art using whatever materials you have to hand in the most low-fi manner, which can also mean cheapest, way possible to reject capitalist and commodification of that framework.  Very different to entrepeunirliamism, which uses materials to hand but for the end result to actually make money and work within a capitalist framework.
Some bands and promoters come to DIY by necessity, with the lack of support from mainstream promoters or structures, but others choose the DIY life in order to reject a world of money-making.
Punk poetry often employs this form of DIY through the publishing of zines, current zine Paper & Ink and excellent example by Martin Appleby down in Brighton or Zach Roddis who made his own cassettes and poetry books.  Poetry zines can be traced to riot grrrl scenes linked to person zines (perzines).  No one else with publish your work due to your gender, sexuality, race or content of the work (or at least, without editing) so stay the master of your work.
So punk poetry isn’t waiting for publishers to respond, waiting for those deals to come to you.  It’s neither about waiting for gigs, it’s making them happen yourself.  It’s putting on poetry gigs in pubs and small spaces.  We’re putting on Harry Baker in a Church next week.  Rethinking space is increasingly harder, but also increasingly more necessary.
But wait Henry.  This all sounds very familiar.
Political poetry that challenging structures and hierarchies is not unusual.  Look at Adrian Mitchell in the decade before.  Certainly poets from Black communities, like Linton Kwesi Johnson and Benjamin Zepahniah have always been critical of racist institutions.  Modern black poets, like Inua Ellams and Vanessa Kisuule also tell their own stories.  Jess Green went viral for her attack on Gove, Hollie McNish’s mathematics was a nice summery of the problems with racism, Kate Tempest has been looking at the underside of society, Sophia Walker and Jackie Hagan have told their stories of being queer.
Poets regularly make their own zines and booklets, regularly make event happen on a shoestring.  Kirsten Luckins from Apples & Snakes talks about the ecology of spoken word, like it’s a nature reserve and we artists are the wildlife.
So it’s not just punk poets challenging mainstream thoughts and right-wing politics.
It’s not just punk poets being DIY, either.
So maybe there’s something in the ugliness.
(note ugly =/= not sexy.  Punk can be very sexy, and ugly, at the same time)
Ugly.  Messy.  Weird.  Raw.  Flawed. Homely.  Home.
From the sound effects of vomit on Chumawbawamba tracks, skinheads tattooing their faces to Poly Styrene shaving off her hair and the gobbing.  Lemmy’s looks, the mud the Slits caked themselves in, Joe Strummer’s missing teeth, Johnny Rotten’s Richard III crawl.  Even the word has a root meaning in being worthless.  Make my day, punk.
In commedia del arte, we see the figure of the harlequin, the trickster, who is allowed to get away with mischief.  This character exists today in the gender-blurring lines of the Panto Dame.
Look at Rick Mayall’s character of Rik, and his stand-up where he faffs, sneers and gushes from his greasy face.  He’s parodying a punk poet, he’s subverting subversion.
I would argue punk poetry’s recurring theme is a sense of the ugly, the bizarre, the strange, the dirty.  Whether that’s in the form and the verse, or the topic.
Punk is everywhere under the surface.  It’s in the poetry gigs in pubs and in the politics and in the publishing.  We built that network, and we kept it alive, we united with other genres and scenes.
But punk is when you get sweaty, when your voice is hoarse, when you’re nodding vigorously.  When you feel alive.
So that’s why I’m trying to do nowadays.  Bring the poets to perform at the punk gigs, bring the punk energy to the poetry gigs.  Which is why I run slams.  I want to drag the punk element into spoken word and make it vibrant and noisy and messy.  Similarly, I always try and get a poet to Say Some Words before punk bands to get them out of the comfort zone, introduce new audiences to poetry and also up the ante for the context of poetry.

And that is the role of punks in poetry and punk poetry.  To be the subversive voice inside existing scenes, to keep playing, agitating and twisting.  Being ugly.

20.16 Blog #26: Third Angel Talk

Below is a draft of the talk I gave at Third Angel's Where From Here Symposium 17th November at Leeds Beckett University.  I didn't really read this word-for-word, but hopefully got across the idea.  Third Angel are a 21-year-old Theatre Company making autobiogrpahical word that plays with text, stories, truth and space.

Strawbs Bar 2007.  Probably a kind of chill northerly breeze.  Young Henry, keen to be at University after a Gap Year of mainly working at Virgin Megastores and reading Harold Pinter.

Straws Bar.  Giant cushions in the shape of Strawberries hang upon the walls.  Bannister coated in too many layers of white paint.  Creaky floorboards.  Here, a Young Henry, keen to be at University after a Gap Year of mainly seeing his mates go off to University and attending very safe unenthusing poetry nights, gets up to read at Sticks & Stones

Sticks & Stones, the brainchild of Andy Craven-Griffiths and Adam Robinson, cohorts in poetry and words, a mixture of hip-hop background and literary story-telling.  Bringing poets from across the UK who are the best of the best of a bulging scene before the Scroobius Pips, kate Tempests, Hollie McNishs and Mark Grists did wonders for viral videos.

Young Henry Raby, totally forgets all his poems and ends up sticking Andy’s banana in his pocket.
I stopped trying to be John Cooper Clarke, and like all students, tried to work out who I was at University.  I seemed to me, in the depths of those times, that everyone else at University was doing incredibly well at being a well-adjusted, popular person while I stumbled around.  But I think, and only realise this now, that the best friendship circles I found where at those Strawbs nights.

So at University I developed a kind of personality in 3rd year as being some raving anarchist because I was against cuts to the University.  In the left-wing circles at the Uni, UI was a incredibly liberal lad circling around Worker’s Liberty, SWP, SP and the Anarchists trying to make sure everybody all got along.
And as part of 3rd year English & Theatre Studies, we saw Third Angels’ Words + Pictures.  What intrigued me was the autobiographical stripped down approach to theatre compared to other works we had been seeing at the Lowry and West Yorkshire Playhouse.  Also, I’m pretty certain it had Games Workshop references.

“You’re nothing like you are onstage” is something often said to me in the Real World.  On stage, all improvised asides and audience interactive banter, well rehearsed poems and necessary energy required to make the event memorable.

In The Real World, allergic to eye contact, apologetic, fiddly.

I find the world of poetry open mics and slams, the audience recognise truth.  Or that is to say, they recognise bullshit.  Vanessa Kisuule said of our recent slam it was her fav for years because everyone was being themselves.  In London, everyone is (apparently) trying to be the next Big Thing.

Hi, I’m a human being, here’s my story or opinion to share with you fellow human beings.  Thanks.
But it’s a lie!  A goddamn lie!

Because the more we incorporate elements of stand-up, of theatre and character, elements of story-telling, of being the bardic clown, we are blurring what is truth.  We can play with it, make it a performance, even fake it.

If you own the stage, if you are in control as the story-teller, as Third Angel’s work often is, the audience place faith in you, they believe in you, they are prepared to trust you.  They recognise agendas, perhaps they might not always believe a stand-up comic, but there is something very Perfect about poetry.  Unless it’s of the whacky sort, it feels raw and honest.

There’s also the problem if you’re going to get political, like any great public speaking…

So does Henry Raby the performer have a fake quality to him, a constructed confidence which leaves me wondering if I’m being honest to my genre.

In this book on D.I.Y. a lot of the authors are very very good but they’re all talking about the idea of DIY.  Third Angels’ entry is saying, look, don’t worry too much about the ideas.  BEWARE THE SOFA is their motto.  Beware getting stuck sat down over-thinking, discussing, debating, analysing.  Just make something.  Just crack on and do something.  This is one of the unwritten rules of running Youth Theatre sessions (yes there is also YT Facilitator Henry) is you need to get those teenagers on their feet!

So what I take away from Third Angel is their playfulness with autobography and truth, their blurred lines of audience/performer and also their readniess which will hopefully be a boon in the uncertain world of 2017.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

20.16 Blog #25: Election Special

So all term there’s been a little spectre that has been lurking beneath the surface of every Youth Theatre session I’ve run this year between Harrogate Youth Theatre and York Youth Theatre, getting stronger and stronger as we entered this recent term.  Like a force that imposes itself in the corner of your eye, this power has grown from a casual aside to almost dominating some games and exercises.  The Spectre of the American Election.

Or, to be frank, mostly Donald Trump as a figure the young people go to as a boogieman who wants to build walls and dominate situations.  Often, he ends up being assassinated in the scenes.

I believe that Youth Theatre should unpack current issues through the use of drama, and so to the best of my ability I wanted to explore what people in power do to stay in power, or get more of it.

The session with my 16+ group was like a role-playing adventure.  Each person had randomly assigned traits (such as a keen gardener, happily married, born in another country, owns a football club, history with the military, holds a Doctorate in Sciences) and a single Secret Objective (put Arts in the spotlight, make sure you are the Leader, put your country on the world stage).  Then the group did some character work to embody the character, we allowed 3 leaders to bring together 3 parties, put one group in ‘power) have them a table, pens, paper and water) and the others stuffed into the corners.

We presented the group with issues, which they had 2-5 minutes to decide who would issue a statement, and what this could contain.  We gave them Marches for Workers Rights, Oil Spills and Remembrance Day.  Instantly they all fought to make the most worthy statement, creating promises, raising concerns and trying to outdo the other parties.  We raised the stakes on a refugee crisis, and added in question time elements.  We allowed them to join other parties and when they made decisions, brought those back to bite them.

But we also tried to keep it fun.  Fergus who works with me was the singular voter of this created country, and read out some invented Polls as the ‘Every Man’.  We also gave 3 bits of breaking news bitingly reflective of our current leader’s misgiving (an indecent act with a balloon, caught in riots fighting police for worker’s rights and finally called the French “cheese eating surrender monkeys”).

What we found was these young people are all pretty liberally-minded, and all groups broadly agreed on centrist issues, such as raising wages, welcoming refugees and not escalating any conflicts.  What was fun was not the decisions they made, but how they presented their decisions, how they wrangled for their own angle and spotlight.

This was an exercise in drama, each character had an agenda just like any complex play, everyone is after something with their intentions and back-story filtering into the current action.  It also meant decisions made in ‘act 1’ affected events later in the ‘play’ (for instance in an example of one-up-man-ship one group renamed a stadium they owned ‘Poppy Stadium’ for Remembrance Day, only for us to claim that Nationalists had used it as a symbol of anti-refugee sentiment).  And, finally, it was a theatre lesson in how devising can work making an immersive world, playing as character for longer than just a short snippet.

But in terms of understanding elections and parties, the very intelligent group had a keen sense of the language of politicians.  There was a sense that good-must-be-done, as none of them attempted to really manage with their positions of power, but at the same time status became central to their decision-making and policies.  I think although we positioned this workshop as a ‘game’, it was inevitable that they different parties would relish in trying to manoeuvre within the game, a small scale version of the larger was parties interact with one another.

But a shout-out must go to the members of York Youth Theatre who threw themselves into the political frame with gusto and, without such commitment, the game would not have worked so well, or given everyone such enjoyment.

Of course this was an experiment, and one I’d like to try again.  We took some feedback from the group, and no doubt next week in evaluation we’ll hear more ideas for making the exercised work.

If you have any thoughts, or want a copy of the workshop plan, or even want me to visit your Youth Theatre group (or even adult drama group) to give it a try, drop me a line henrythepoet@btinternet.com

Thursday, 10 November 2016

2016 Blog #24: I hereby place a curse...

This week I took the curse spoken by Rooster Bryon at the end of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem and used it with no less than 4 Youth Theatre groups across this week.  Theyw rote their own curses in group, some fun, some sinister, all very inventive.  Here’s just some examples I salvaged from the workshop floor for posterity:

We are now placing a curse on Christmas haters
Your nose will never stop running
You can only wear shorts in winter
And may Asda forever be sold out of root beer
Your life will be a never-ending assembly
Popadoms will never be there for you
And Curry stores won’t serve you.
Your blood will run as a cold as a frozen bagel
And this curse will never end

We curse you Michael Gove
You have ruined our future
You have increased stress and failure
You have decreased content and success
You have confused, upset and bewildered our generation
We curse you and your soul forever more
We pray you suffer and therefore see our suffering
We curse you with the power of algebra to never be able to find the value of X
We curse you with compassion and manners (you have none)
We curse you with not being able to use nouns and verbs correctly
and not be able to string a sentence together
With all our power, we curse you to have to tell the truth and not be able to use fake statistics
Not to be respected by your peers
The greatest curse of all:  To do every exam that you have just enforced upon us
Don’t underestimate our power!
This curse lasts forever!

We curse you Donald J Trump
May your hair forever look like a guinea pig
May you constsantly be wrestled by protesdtors
May the Whitehouse be replaced by a shed
May the 4 year term by shortened to 4 minutes
May you have mind-blanks’ in all your speeches
May you fall in love with a Mexican
May you be trapped in your wall for the rest of your life
May you discover that Hilary Clinton is your long-lost cousin

I curse thy phone to smash
I curse thy to miss the bus every time and watch it drive away
I curse thy wretched body to always have acne
And they favourite series will carry on going until it is rubbish and have no life anymore.
May thy never enter TopShop or purchase an iPhone
May thee never be able to fill in thy eyebrows
Your instagram will have baby photos for all to see
All your friends on Facebook will leave you
You shall get 2000 dislikes on YouTube

Nobody will reply to your Tweets

Friday, 21 October 2016

20.16 Blog #23: Ken Loach & Hope

This afternoon, I watched the squatters occupying the old BHS building be evicted by bailiffs and police.  They piled plants and possessions onto bikes, said thanks to Subway opposite their temporary home (for free cookies I believe) and headed off.  Seems advertising their anti-Phillip Green party to be held at the old BHS building had encouraged the owners to push through an eviction sooner rather than later.  I got home and listened to the Autonomads, a Manchester ska/punk/dub/folk band who sing about security guards at the Job Centre and exposing the systematic cyanide of signing on.

In between these events, I went to see I, Daniel Blake.

I have loved Ken Loach since Film Studies at York College back in t’day.  At a time when I was discovering real-world politics, his films presented real-world humans.  3-dimensional, honest, believable and human, this form of British kitchen sink drama felt so touchable to accompany a need to grow up swiftly to exist within my new post-school world.

The last Loach film I saw in the cinema was Looking For Eric, and although I enjoyed The Angel’s Share, I can’t say either are my favourite.  But throughout Loach’s work is a real sense that working class people are good, decent and friendly.  He’s a myth-buster.  From Riff-Raff to My Name is Joe to the heavily polarised worlds of Bread & Roses and Land & Freedom, his working class characters are there to support one another.  Sweet Sixteen maybe is an exception, which is why is makes that film so powerful in its sheer hopelessness (but that’s just my reading).  At least with I, Daniel Blake he could rely on his neighbours, co-workers and the friendliness of strangers at the Library.  It’s not much, but it’s something.

I Daniel Blake is an old story now, one of benefit sanctions, ATOS and job seekers’ which still exists, but is sliding off the agenda of the right-wing tabloids who have now turned their sights to target refugees and immigrants in the wake of the EU referendum result.  If anything, they have shifted the zeitgeist us vs. them mentality now (peddled by the Tories) from “scroungers” and the disabled to “foreigners”.  The film ends with Daniel Blake declaring his is a citizen, no more, no less, and yet Mrs May might well ask Mr Blake, were she ever to walk amongst the people of Newcastle, “a citizen of where?”

There are a number of powerful moments peppering the film, and I cried so many times I lost count.  But one moment that has stuck with me is when the young child, Daisy, visits Dan who is refusing her help.  She insists.  She says, “If you helped us, why can’t I help you?”

With a handful of exceptions, Loach’s films show humans helping humans.  Yes, there are humans hurting humans too.  I often quote folk-punk band ONSIND, and one song states:  True hope resides in that moment where a person holds their hand out to a stranger on the ground.

There is despair, darkness, sadness and blood in Loach’s films.  There are tears, fists and poverty that grinds into your guts.  But there is also friendship, family and community.  There is solidarity between people and therein lies the hope at the centre of Loach’s films, like glinting treasure in the mud of an ocean floor.

And this, dear reader, is why I want to write hopeful poetry.  Angry, bitter and loud.  But hopeful.

I will not allow myself to be destroyed by these betrayals / I won’t ever let these bastards grind me down. 

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

20.16 Blog #22: The Power of The Podcast

The first Podcast I started listening to was Wittertainment (aka the 5 Live Film Show) off the back of seeing Mark Kermode (ol’ Marky K as I call him for some unanswerable injokey reason) on various programmes, hands a’flappin’, films a’reviewing.

Like Mark loves his horror films and Simon likes his various voice-led personalities, when I get into something I become something of a collector.  So in the past year I’ve been scouring new cool unique and odd podcasts for my Generic Fruit Based Device.

My top ones at the moment are Imaginary Advice by Ross Sutherland, which is a collection of strange stories, spoken word pieces, anecdotes and experiments in language.  Whilst spoken word is becoming snappier to fit the model of 3 minutes slam and viral videos, Ross is playing with stories well over 10 minutes.  For a (massive) punk rocker such as myself, it’s a super break from punchy pieces.  Six House Parties is incredible.

There’s No Such Thing As A Fish is probably one of the better known podcasts, run by the QI Elves, it’s like an episode of the panel show but without comedians vying to be the funniest in the spotlight like bears clawing for a chucked fish.  Rather, it’s like mates chatting and sharing strange, curious and unbelievable facts which give good fodder for future poems, stories, play and conversations.

Podcasts have become something of a zine-like culture.  Zines are for people to put a little bit of themselves into writing and images, bound together with staples, glue and oodles of love.  I guess a blog has similar qualities.

I’ve found the Podcast has the same DIYness.  The best podcasts are the incredible specific ones, the ones that have a fanbase dedicated but on the otherside of mainstream, underground, cornered, familiar to those who also explore the same caverns.

Batman The Animated Podcast, to me, sums up what a podcast should be.  Very specific, very nerdy, very honest to the podcastee, Justin Michael, talking about his childhood and love for the Animated 90s cartoon.  But I’ve never been a big fan of perzines (personal zines).  I love people telling their story, but some can be a wee bit self-indulgent.  But BTAP also talks about the history and use of animation, casting, writing, acting, sound, lighting and all those processes.  It’s a fascinating insight and everything I want from a Batman-themed medium.

So this year I’ve been making podcasts with the night I run, Say Owt Slam.  Some have been edited by Odd Horizon, some I put together myself.  I spent a long time playing with audacity, downloading the right fomas, playing with editing, uploading and re-uploading.  I can honestly say the Say Owt Podcast is very DIY, despite using the Evil Eye-of-Sauron-like iTunes platform.

#1: Sophia Walker & Adele Hampton 
#2: Dan Simpson 
#3: Jack Dean 
#4: Dave Jarman 
#5: Rose Condo 
#6: Scott Tyrrell 

Thanks to listening to Desert Island Discs, I think my interview style has progressed over the course of the podcasts.  I think we got better at nailing topics, as well as having fun.  I think the one we did with Rose Condo really got to the heart of writing and the process of creating spoken word.  I can’t wait to continue the Podcast deep into 2017.

You can find Say Owt Podcast on iTunes.  Please listen, subscribe, download, share and any and all feedback hugely welcome.

Now I want to make a new podcast about Batman, though.


(p.s. Desert Island Zines sounds a great idea….)

Sunday, 25 September 2016

20.16 Blog #21: Page Against The Machine

The Unspoken Rule of Spoken Word

Last night myself and Stu Freestone presented our 11th Say Owt Slam at the Basement, 23 months after we first started in October 2014.  It’s been an enormously fun time giving a platform to local and travelling poets and showcasing some of the breath-taking talents across the UK with guest poets.

It’s been a long road learning about promotion, comparing, marketing and performance and sometimes in the haze of drinking in Dusk afterwards I can forget those lessons and the need to record them.

But one thing I noticed at the Slam last night was all but one of our poets read from the page.

There are plenty of reasons why a poet would want to read from the page.  I’ve seen Ross Sutherland use a notebook as a prop, despite the fact he knew the poem and revealed the page was blank, in order to play with the concept of a story-teller.  John Cooper Clarke and Rob Auton use a huge overflowing notebook of scribbles like a giant tome of blurted thoughts matching their styles.  Poets might want to use the page as a way to emphasise the literary-ness of their work, or even plug their book by visually using it.  The poem might be work-in-progress so no point learning it just yet.  But, at the end of the day, the most likely reason we poets read from the page if we simply haven’t learn out poem.

This is not a swipe at any poet, especially the ones last night, who read from the page.  It’s scary enough getting on a stage in front of a crowd to express yourself, especially hard if it’s a slam and at the end 5 strangers will judge your performance.  And our winner did read his 2nd round poem from paper, so page poetry =/= loser by any stretch.

Plenty of times I’ve not learnt the poem.  I’ve been guilty of trying the poem without fully practising, only to scarper into my pocket for the print-off like clutching for the lifebelt, drowning in a sea of forgetfulness.

Sometimes you just can’t learn a poem, and that might because of your mind, your time or even the fault of the poem’s ungraspableness.

So here’s some offhand thoughts about reading from the page:

1.  It has the potential to root you.  If you’re a poet whose feet end up doing the awkward dance on stage, it means they won’t wander.
2.  It can give an aura of authority as a story-teller or literary crafter.
3.  It draw attention to the poem rather than the performer, giving focus to the use of language.

But on the flip side:

1.  It limits your hands, which are an useful expressive tool.
2.  It means your eyes, and mouth, are face-down, meaning less connection and limiting vocals into the mic.
3.  It creates the (false) suggestion you don’t know the poem or are less invested in the poem.
4.  If it gets lost, damaged, the lights make it unreadable or it rustles you’re in trouble.

So I would always suggest if you are to read off the page, get a notebook.  Cover it in stickers or doodles, or get one slick and impressively smart.  Make it appear like your brain physicalised, a wad of papers or a precious tome.  Use it as a prop.  I know that people read off their phones, again, I have read off my phone and I get we live in a digital age and I also get that not everyone can afford printers or printing costs, but for every problem there is with paper, reading from the phone (or other electronic device) adds a devilish extra issue:  it looks like you didn’t go to the effort to even print off the page.  Obviously this is not true, you could know this poem inside-out, back-to-front, intimately and beautifully connected with this piece.  But the casualness of a phone give that extra element of suspicion from the audience.  Poetry has such raw live connecting power beyond connecting to Facebook.

The audience are your friends, but audiences also make assumptions.  In theatre, we understand signifiers.  Colours, such as purples and greens, detonate villains, whilst reds and blues denote heroes.  Status is ‘read’ through action and stance.  Characters with swords are warriors, characters with flowers are lovers.  Put an old character and a young character on stage we assume they are related.  The stage is a canvas which we interpret signs and symbols.  

So last night I presented as a scrawny guy in an Anarchist t-shirt and patches on his trousers which probably meant the audience expected political/protest poetry, so I tripped up the audience up by doing a poem about dinosaurs.  Scott, our guest last night, tripped up the audience several times with awkwardly graphic but hilarious tales, like his piece Coitus Interuptus, and that’s where some of the humour can come from, being surprised and belaying expectation is one of the funniest, or even touching, experiences audiences can have.

So subsequently, if you come to the stage with paper on your head, the audience are already unpacking this situation with expectation and assumption, and you can use the page to your advantage.

When I did my EdFringe show, Up The Nerd Punks 2, I read a fictionalised tour diary from my notebook, which broke up the more energetic non-page-read performances.  I also read a poem I’m Sorry I Missed Your Gig from the notebook, but cut up the piece so it flopped out of the notebook like a scroll.  Cheap laugh, but just gave reading from the page an extra dynamic.  After years of trying to resist the page and just learning everything, I see the potential of using the page.

So I am not going to say: “Just go learn your poems!” because everyone approaches the text and performance in a different way, but I will say, whether poem mic or (indeed especially slam) do consider how you are presenting yourself and, inevitably, your poem to the audience.

All the best!

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

20.16 Blog #20: Can I just say...

Last week my band played a gig in Sheffield, which was riotous, sweaty and proved to me that underground DIY punk music isn’t dead, it just went folk-punk.

But something happened after our set which (conveniently) sets up something that’s been in my head for a few months now.

A young punk (I think a University student) came straight up to me to offer feedback on not only the set, but the make-up of the band.  This is just after we’d played our last song, as the applause from the welcoming audience died away, just as I was taking off my guitar, with all my body choked full of adrenalin, this guy started explaining to me how the band could work better.  I couldn’t focus on his, or what he was saying.  It barely registered.  I changed the conversation to DIY venues.  He felt that Wharf Chambers in Leeds was “too far down the rabbit hole”, by which he meant, to left-wing (I think).

The fact is, I have often felt that we as artists need to be quicker to find honesty in conversations.  Too many times have I seen a poet, actor or musician and felt they could have been better, if they changed a line, did a different poem, sorted out their introductions, slowed down, sped up, looked for the humour, used the mic.  Whatever.  Likewise I have learned for someone to point out the obvious in my work and sets.

This is a question of ‘quality’, a definition loosely set by a collective consciousness.  Problem is, how do we grade art?  The Clash’s London Calling is a high quality album to me, but probably not to a classical music fan.

So often, standards are set by a collective conscious, but that consciousness is dictated by people in power, reviewers, funders, programmers, professors.  The gatekeepers of culture.  And your gig-goer or theatre-attendee doesn’t always factor into this grand scheme.

So if it boils down to opinion, we should be ready to offer some thought on the art we have experienced.  That’s what this guy was doing, he just did it at the wrong time, too forward, too
So when is it the right time to offer constructive feedback?  When that person is in the bar afterwards, chuffed with their performance?  Later on, through the de-humanising social media which lacks the subtly and nuance necessary to offer feedback?

In my experience, this guy should have waited until a break between future bands, because actually his points were fair enough.  But I kinda felt accosted, I switched into Friendly mode rather than being able to properly acknowledge his feedback.

But if we’re ever going to improve what we share, we do need to share our thoughts afterwards.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

20.16 Blog #19: Guns Blazing

This year’s Edinburgh Fringe was a real lesson in captivating audiences.  And caging them.


Some acts come out guns a’blazing.  They absolutely and unequivocally nail it from the get-go.

My chum Stu recommended Jayde31, a show I would have never bothered with otherwise, simply due to being late a night, stand-up cabaret and in a venue I don’t often frequent.  But Jayde hit the audience like an avalanche, giving no time to breathe, question or flinch as she bombarded us with the greasy parts of growing up.  Key, she never gave us real pause to consider or think until she allowed such a moment in the beautifully crafted moment of pathos so necessarily on the Fringe, and so rarely given so earnestly.

Mark Thomas blew me away when I stumbled across Bravo Figaro, and only after did I read up on his history in the left movement.  Red Shed was expensive on my poor wallet.  But the show was full of hilarious and heart-wrenching stories and character from the Yorkshire working class.  I was almost tearing up within the first 5 minutes, and was in tears for the final song of Solidarity Forever echoing around the room, and history.  But Mark looked like he’d taken a swim in the North Sea by the end of his show, dripping with dark sweat.  Because he worked the crowd marvellous.  Mark throws himself around, the characters and action are enormous to fill this large space, but also to bulk up our hearts.

Milk Present’s JOAN featured Drag King Louis Cyfer, who portrayed the fumbling frantic and fantastic Joan of Arc  Who’d have thought a Saint could be so boisterous as she leapt around in this round space, grabbing audience members onto stage, leading us in a chorus of battle and portraying three men in her life.  The final scene was heart-wrenching as Joan (spoiler alert) prays to Saint Catherine, and we couldn’t have got to that point if we didn’t laugh with her and love her for the past 70 minutes.

So this ‘Guns Blazing’ approach makes me think about absolutely confidence, and control, of an audience.  Other poets on the Free fringe exhibit this well, Dom Berry and Monkey Poet springing to mind, whereas others, like Harry Bake, favour a more relaxed, welcoming approach.

Guns Blazing is hard to maintain, and harder to make tight and accessible.  But Guns Blazing doesn’t mean an intensity that scares, it can also be a friendly intensity.  I’ve always thought about the way that punk poetry should try and reflect a full punk band, how can only individual be the equivalent of guitars, drums and shouting?

In theatre, we often say if you aim for as much energy as you can muster, make your character unbelievably big, then you can always tone it down.  It’s much harder to work from less.

So whilst I never hit the ground running to the extent of the examples I’ve given, it was fascinating to see three different performers (a stand-up comic, a piece of theatre and a story-teller) all hit the audience hard, keep on pummelling and, inevitably, also make me feel deep emotions I’ll carry with me for a long time.


Sunday, 28 August 2016

Blog 20.16 #18: The EdFringe Hiya

The day after Edinburgh Fringe was made for unpacking, washing, eating and powering through Stranger Things like a Normal Human Being.

I took the show UP THE NERD PUNKS 2, a sequel to Up The Nerd Punks last year.  I don’t know quite why a sequel seemed to fit.  It obviously suits the nerdiness of film and game sequels, but I felt there was more to say on the subject.

The show began as exploring what it means to ‘battle’, in the sense the inspiration, whether you are a villain or a hero, when two ideologies clash etc.  But as the world has increasingly become tense with racism and nationalism, the show became about drawing lines in the sand.  Not exploring the fight, but committing to the fight.  It hard for me, despite my Anarcho-Tendencies (not a crust band) I’ve always liberally acknowledged everyone has their own opinions and backgrounds.  This is true, but as the world feels edging closer to a darker 1932-esque fascism, there’s less requirement for introspection and more need for action.

I started off with audience hovering around 6, but my final show (admittedly a Saturday) ended with a rammed room of 30.  I did about 2-3 hours flyering a day, and got to hang out with poets from across the UK all lovely people.  I didn’t get to hang out with as many people as I’d like. 

The curse of the Fringe is the “Hiya!” as you pass someone in the street, or it is for me.  I put flyering, show, seeing shows and rest as priority, and seeing people seems to slip away.  For that, I am sorry to people I didn’t get to see, but I guess it reinforces everyone does Edinburgh differently.  I guess that's my battle every year to simply hang, and actually, in retrospect, without realising it, thatw as a central part of Up The Nerd Punks 2.

I wish the Fringe could accommodate for people not able to spend hours in bars spending money on booze to have a place to hang out.  If there is such a space, let me know.

Thanks so much to everyone who came to the show, my 11 guests over the 10 shows and general smiley friends.  Much love xxx (angry scrawny punk love)

This was my 3rd year taking up a show, and I was racking my brains as to how I approached it in 2012 with Letter To The Man (from the boy).  Every time I return, I learn about a new venue, café, takeaway, bus route or method of flyering.  I always see Edinburgh as a way to raise my game.

So what have I learnt from this EdFringe which I didn’t know before:

·         You can always tweak your show.  Don’t be afraid to keep teasing with it, that’s the specialty of doing so many shows back-to-back.
·         The size of an audience doesn’t always reflect how loud they react.
·         The Free Fringe people are lovely.  They have to be.  When you flyer next to them, exit flyer them and guest with them everyone has to support each other.  I don’t mean be friendly with each other, I really do mean support each other, whether propping up at a bar or propping up that keenness.

So UP THE NERD PUNKS will return for the 3rd, and probably final, instalment.  I will make the branding around this less nerdy, and the show less pop culture heavy so it’s more universal.  I want to explore the origins of punk, and part of activism, with the history of sci-fi and fantasy and how punk culture and nerd culture might just help us save.  It’s the end of the world, the destruction of all life, the apocalypse.   We need to travel in time.  We need to be the Kitty Pryde, Terminator, Doc Brown.  We need to save the future.  We need to save the world from…Bromaggeddon. 

Where we’re going, we don’t need bros.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

England poem references

If anyone's seen Up The Nerd Punks 2, I have a poem which references several struggles in English history.  Here they are if you wanted to read more:

Wat Tyler and the Peasent's Revolt 1381:  Uprising against higher taxes due to the Hundred Years war and an end to unpaid serfdom

The Diggers 1649:  Amidst the Civil War, they demanded anyone could work the land for the good of everyone.

The Luddites 1811-16:  Used direct action to oppose machines taking their jobs in cotton and wool mills.

Peterloo 1819:  Protest of 60-80,000 people protesting high corn prices, land laws and demanding more rights and the vote.  Were charged by soldiers and 15 were killed, 700 injured

The Match Girls 1888:  Went on strike for better working conditions in match factories

Suffragettes 1897 onwards:  Women and men fighting for votes for women.  Used tactics including arson, vandalism, occupation, intimidation, disrupting meetings  Were often arrested and forcefed

Conscientious Objectors:  Anti-war and anti-militarism has always been part of British culture.  If you were bullied or pressured into joining the army or being conscripted, but refused to kill, you would be shot for 'cowardice'.

Miner's Strike 1984-85:  Miner's defended their livelihoods and the working class across the UK.

Monday, 15 August 2016

20.16 Blog #17: Here & Heritage

Last week I worked on a Play In A Week project for the Laurence Batley Theatre and Heritage Quay at the University of Huddersfield.

The Heritage Quay is an archive of Huddersfield’s local and international history, and it’s a fantastic snapshot of the character of Hudd, something this little York lad has grown to appreciate over the years.

The young people I’ve worked with through the LBT have been feisty, inventive and full of character, and this project was no exception.  Using items from the archive, as well as local historian Cyril Pearce popping in for a chat, and the group’s own knowledge, we devised a show around the Conscientious Objectors of the 1st World War, mainly from the perspective of the people of Huddersfield.

This involved first a lot of unpacking ‘socialism’, ‘conscription’, ‘liberalism’ and the women’s movement.  I even managed to slide some anarchism in there.  This was just sly of a slog, and we kept it fun and open rather than narrow and intense.  But it had to form the bedrock of the show, like the archive it had to reflect the real stories of the city.  We couldn’t be afraid of these words, terms and historical accuracy.

But it was important to make sure the group knew we were telling the story of these people, their lives, opinions, beliefs, families, friends, work and hopes.  As much as international socialism was a cornerstone, was what more important was making the audience care about these people living 100 years ago.

The group did marvellously well at balancing both, and I didn’t try and force my opinion on them.  Hopefully there was room for debate.  Certainly the show told the COs tale, but the issue was explored from a number of angles.

I think we are told continually that the COs were mainly religious men, but the Huddersfield story is one of working class solidarity as well.  The politics cannot be ignored.  Nor the fact it split the women’s movement, and though some proved themselves good citizens, others opposed a male government’s profit-hungry war.

As much as we need to encourage young people to tell their relevant current stories, it’s also important to remember the place they come from, the world that’s trying to be covered up, forgotten about, rejected and remade.  100 years ago socialism and anti-militarism were not dirty words, they were part and parcel of modern life for the working class of Huddersfield, and a history that should not only be presented and explored, but celebrated and learnt from.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

20.16 Blog #16: Deer Shed & DissFest

A few weeks ago, myself and Chris Singleton spent the weekend stood in a field shouting poetry at each other.

Around us was a festival, Deer Shed to be precise, a swarm of 10,000 people 45% of the under 16.  Amidst the chaos of workshops and music we performed poems by request.  On the spot improvisations.  Based on audience’s suggestions.  Anything for an easy life, right?

When I’ve done this before in cafes, pubs and libraries there’s always more resistance and uncertainty, but in the middle of a wacky festival we are just one more attraction the kids get excited by, and that’s a testament to the intense madcapness of Deer Shed.

Some of my favourite requests were the ones me and Chris tag-teamed, telling a story between ourselves and often the people who had suggested the poem. Though me and Chris aren’t necessarily from a rap background, we tried to take part in rap battles.  Child-friendly of course.  Monsters vs. Robots, Shrek vs. Nemo, meat-eaters vs. vegetarians.   Not poems I’d ever claim to be worthy of Don’t Flop videos, but fun in the moment nevertheless.

You can watch one of our battles here:  https://www.facebook.com/DeerShed/videos/10153585201676619/

It was also fun collaborating with Chris, who is a lovely poet from Leeds running Verbal Remedies and running into a few lovely folks, like Kate Fox and the Holy Moly & The Crackers ensemble.

Deer Shed is a great fun festival, designed for families, so maybe not one of my favourite as a participant (seriously, no ska-punk stage?) but definitely my favourite to visit as a performer and poet.
Here’s a poem what I wrote for the Festival inspired by the suggestions of passing peoples:

At Deer Shed Festival I ate the best
The tastiest
Most monstrous Hot Dog ever
At Deer Shed Festival I watched the Card Ninja
Boomeranging cards with calculating power.
I spent a good hour cart-wheeling by the Helter Skelter
Filled up the comedy tent with roaring laughter
Then some crowd-surfing like a winged monster.
I strummed a metallic 3 stringed guitar
Elementary!  I went to see Sherlock Improv
Grumbling bears, stories to hear, a raggle taggle of cracker folk.
Zombies!  All around me!  That’s realistic blood!
I stayed up partying as late as I possibly could.
The Blacksmith clattered in metal-melting heat
I opened my Northern gob to speak (and eat)
And I don’t know who won, the Monsters or Machines
But if this Festival was a film
It would be an action-filled classic.

Similarly, this weekend I was at DissFest writing poems for people visiting the very sublime Fairchild’s Tea Room.  This time more relaxed, you could almost say tamer, as I penned some poems for people supping delicious fruity teas in the mega civilised and friendly atmosphere.  Here’s one of the poems I wrote about the English weather:

As you know, as summers go
The English one is to-and-fro
Enjoy the parks, the fields, the beach
The trees cast shadows in the heat
It’s shades and spades and t-shirt weather
Carry an umbrella?  Ha!  Never!
We’ll get toasted, burnt red
Feel the rays upon my head
But, what’s this?  In a flash
The dusty dirt is a muddy splash
The rain comes in buckets and buckets
No!  We cry:  SKY STOPPIT
The rivers rise, the wind it cries
Cats and dogs storms and spray
It ruins our sunny day
So now we know, us soggy fools
Never break the golden rule
Always carry a cagoule.

DissFest, run by Unity Twenty Three, is like the LittleFests I've worked on in Yorkshire, a way to get people to engage with arts in their town by putting it into unusual spaces, or making it as accessible as possible.  Lovely friendly, and important, work by the team.

And another I wrote for a women about the Ukraine, her home country

Last night we heard the mountains cracking
Like skin from burning sunshine
We saw the rocks peel away
And the countryside cower into itself
In the morning we walked from the river
And, like pulsing veins over stinging skin,
We passed forests deep like black tea
Then the old sky mixed colours of blues and greys
And the rain washed down like a heavy tea
Poured with gentle care
And we smiled, and we washed away the night
And carried on walking

Saturday, 16 July 2016

20.16 Blog #15: Roll me through the gates of Hell

A friend commented on my Facebook wall asking if I knew where to get tickets for Mischief Brew’s Leeds gig this August, and 5 hours later I was posting an R.I.P. to Erik Petersen, the lead singer, writer and essentially the brains, voice and heart of Mischief Brew, the best folk-punk band ever.

I don’t say that lightly, but after all the Andrew Jacksons have Jihaded and all the Mice have Ghosted and all the Ramshackles have been Glorious I’m afraid it was always the Brews, spiced with Mischief, which were left bubbling into my ears.

Mischief Brew was the folk-punk collective from Philadelphia, USA headed by Erik Petersen who wrote a huge number of songs across various EPs, albums, splits and collaborations.

I discovered Mischief Brew, along with the seedy world of folk-punk, around 2008 when I saw Al Baker perform with Suicide Bid in London.  Al covers Old Tyme Mem’ry on hisfirst album, and it’s easily on of my fav MB songs.  It encapsulates everything wonderful about Erick’s writing.  It’s has a lovely playfulness with the lyrics “We're lamenting about yesterdays sad ending about the water in your whiskey the brass passed off as gold” and Erick’s delivery is unashamedly punk with the snarl of “luxury boxes where your stored in what was country”.  It’s a messy, rattling song that exists on a shabby guitar, sung with a sore throat and a wild glint in the eye.

I never got to see Mischief Brew, and certainly never met Erik, but my rustic eulogy to this artist is his incredibly ability to be consistent.  I don’t just mean consistently a writer of quality, but don’t underestimate the fact he never wrote a bad song.  Some songs are surely better than others, I can’t deny that.

But I mean Erik is able to wave an entire world with recurring images, themes and ideas.  This isn’t the case if you’ve heard one song you’ve heard them all, because he writes on a number of topics.  Bang-Up Police Work is an ode to oppressive cops, Every Town Will Celebrate is about gentrification, Dirty Pennies homelessness, Punx Win about community, the Midnight Special the prison system and Watching Scotty Die the sad failures of the American healthcare system.

But within these songs are the same smells of squats and cigarettes.  The same sounds of railroads and barking dogs.  The same taste of strong coffee.  The same touch of wood, coppers and the feel of a campfire.

Like my blog earlier this year about the play-wright Harold Pinter, the art is world-building.  When you enter into a Mischief Brew album, it’s got the same recurring feel like being immersed in a tale. It’s about rambling and rebellion, grit and guts, dusk and the dark.  It’s very old-fashioned, or appears to be, swathed in the 1920-30s world of Woody Guthrie, but the post-70s grit of punk is very much the driving force.

But mainly, Erik’s writing was romantic.  For all its corners that stank of anti-authority bitterness, he played uplifting music that was celebratory as much as it was dangerous.  He wrote old-fashioned songs because those songs have stuck with us, not because they wallow in despair, but because they grab despair by the scruff and take it dancing with the goblins, witches, trolls, punks, gypsies, comrades and rebel children.

 When you offer pink or blue I'll take the blackest.
When you offer only two I'll offer three.
When you point me in a direction I'll run backwards.
And at the border of utopia I'll toast to anarchy.