Last night was a very lovely evening. Words & Whippets has been running since 2013, born from Yorkshire season but has continued to be York Theatre Royal’s annual advertisement for spoken word and poetry. As programmer, I’ve been very proud to bring ace acts from across Yorkshire (and beyond) to the theatre and hugely delighted by super audiences.
One conversation that came out of last night’s post-show drinking session was about the need for a few decent comedy poems. The headliner, the sublime Kate Fox, has a whole back catalogue of funny stand-up poems. Kate, as she chats about in the Say Owt podcast (plug plug plug) is very proud to celebrate the stand-up tag. Also performing was Andy Bennett, a master at rhyme, meter and using those to great comedy effect to lampoon Lord Byron, internet trolls and boozy behaviour. Both Kate and Andy got the audience roaring with laughter.
A few Yorkshire Ales down in conversation with poet & play-wright Hannah Davies, we compared out sets to this stand-up ability. The very useful tool to pull out a very funny poem. Though no joke is ever guaranteed to land, sometimes you can be sure a funny poem will leave the audience smiling.
“But Henry!” I hear you cry: “You’re a political person and a political poet! You shouldn’t have to make people laugh just to appease and amuse them!”
Well you’re right gentle reader, I think it’s perfectly reasonable for a poet to do an entire set without going for a single laugh. And many do, and that’s about how you want to engage with an audience. Some poets we’ve had at Say Owt events write very moving, fierce or personal poetry but actually it’s their chatter between pieces that has the humour.
But I know for a fact I’ve been in situations at certain nights, usually buzzing with energy, where I think a good few laughs would dissolve some tension, shift the atmosphere or lead nicely into the next poet whose work is less intense.
I think I use humour in most of my poems, so I’m not really talking about employing comedy. I more mean a very specific, well-crafted, well-rehearsed poem that’s definitely going to get smiles if you pull it out of the well-worn poetry bag. A useful tool in the ongoing struggle to make a room entertained.
So how do you go about writing a ‘funny poem’? I do remember, many years back, being annoyed about the fact I did not have more gag poems up my sleeve, because, I felt, I’m a funny guy! I tried to put the energy into the spontaneous audience participation I rely on. I think I have a list of ‘issues’ I want to face, for example I know I always want to address nationalism, sexism. I know I want to write about home or friendship. This is perhaps the punk in me, where most punk bands tick the boxes to earn punk points.
I don’t feel I really have this with a funny poem, no funny topic in the corner of my brain waiting to see the light. But a great book I read was Off The Mic for stand-ups, with the advice always keeps your eyes peeled at the world. Certainly poets do this, but I think I focus on the serious topics of the world. That needs addressing. That needs challenging.
For me, if I find a funny idea I immediately run with it. Pretend You’re A Dinosaur came from when me and some mates pretended to be dinosaurs at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. I’m Sorry I Missed Your Gig came from a wicked zine by Emma Thacker. These are poems I know have some comedy currency.
Having said that, Pretend You’re a Dinosaur became about being tough in the face of anxiety, and I’m Sorry I Missed Your Gig about improving the gig-going experience so I suppose I always find some substance in the sentences.