Two very different shows

April 13, 2011

Self promotion has never been my forté. For this (and a variety of other reasons), most of the gigs I get are when people actually ask me to come and do something at their event. I’m not overly convinced that the word-of-mouth non-pushy approach is the best way to become a famous poet and get on radio 4, but there you are.

However, at the end of March / beginning of April, I had two gigs in the space of a few days, and yet they were as different as you can possibly imagine. Still Life was like nothing I’ve ever been to before. An investigation of inspiration and the muse, it was essentially a life drawing event, with great paintings from history reenacted by live models, along with introductions to the people who feature in these paintings, all set to music and at points, lighting. I’d been asked to write a ‘five minute piece on the subject of inspiration’, which was a challenge I was up for, although it’s a bit outside my usual direction. Thankfully, after a couple of stolen afternoons in the first rays of spring, something came together -I’m still not entirely happy with it, but I reckon it’s going somewhere. Rather than a complete piece, it emerged as a series of fragments – which reminded me of the (now sadly forgotten) V. S Pritchett’s declaration about short fiction: “something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing”. So I ended up with a series of glimpses, called Dancing Bears after Flaubert’s tautology. This is a small section from the beginning (those who have known me for many years can probably play spot-the-references!)

People say a lot of things about poetry

When we were young
& philosophy crackled in our heads like popping candy
Poetry was everything

A far superior philosopher
With the shrug of G. E. Moore
Proved us wrong

Pointed out solid objects
Imagined anew
In the spring sunshine

“See that. It’s a tree. It’s not poetry. It’s a tree.
That’s not poetry. That’s a building.
See my left hand.
See my right hand.
Of course they exist. There they are.
Where’s your scepticism now?”

And still we play billiards          And still we continue to doubt

Let the sunshine in
Let objects, like inspiration, joyously continue to exist
Hold their own against any deceiving demon

You can’t clutch it

A crucified butterfly
Is no longer a butterfly
A cricket bat
Is different from a bit of wood
In the shape of a cricket bat

I’m beginning to think I’m living up to Wendy Cope’s pleas for “more poems about cricket”. Anyway, the rest of the poem had similar glimpses of varying levels of crypticism, and hopefully managed to make its way through the thicket without becoming mawkish and sentimental. One can but hope!

The rest of the evening was fantastic – having said (above) that it was like nothing I’ve ever been to before, I’ve never even been to a life-drawing event before – but I can’t imagine they’re usually like that! I’m not much of an artist, but managed to draw some pictures anyway – this is probably my favourite one (below), but that’s probably because I didn’t add too much detail!

Things started getting a bit more trippy in the second half – after I’d read my poem, I popped out for a bit of fresh air (smoke a fag) and clear my head (buy a drink) and then came back in. By this point, they were re-enacting Picasso’s three dancers, with projections on the models and some kind of crazy music. I got a bit cubed out by the monocle scene (which was the portrait of Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix), and then by the time it got onto the Man Ray cello I felt like I’d walked into a David Lynch movie, but that might have been because the girl playing the cello had lifted her feet up and it looked like she was a dwarf playing the cello. Meanwhile Kate had cello-marks on her back & was playing the saw, whilst a couple of sleepy clowns languished on the side of the stage. As I said, I’m fairly sure this isn’t what life drawing events are usually like.

All in all, it was a fantastic evening, and although I’m not 100% sure I managed to pin down inspiration myself, I certainly left the evening feeling very much inspired.


About three days later, I went up to Hackney to perform at the new Hammer and Tongue Hackney poetry night. I’ve intended to perform at one of their London gigs before, but always seem to be thwarted by the weather, etc. I’m delighted to say that despite leaving 2½ hours to get there, I managed to get to London (and indeed Hackney, which I reckon is a greater achievement as it doesn’t even have a tube station) without any problems whatsoever, and a good hour before the doors even opened. The gig was hosted by Angry Sam (don’t let the name mislead you – he’s very rarely angry, as far as I can make out), who first got me into performing poetry as a favour to him at his first ever Brighton poetry night. (NB: I really don’t like the title ‘Performance Poetry’, mostly because of the implication that it’s some kind of second-rate version of poetry. Don’t get me wrong, it often is – but the implication that you can read out poems on stage in an over-exaggerated and dramatic manner makes them somehow less worthy as poems bothers me a bit. Is it possible? The Page and the Stage? I’d like to think so.)

Anyway. I’d never done a proper poetry gig in London before (see first paragraph for reasons behind this), and I had a WHOLE HALF HOUR (slightly longer, in fact), so got to do quite a selection of bits and pieces from over the years, with the added bonus that very few people in the audience would have heard any of it before! I always like the atmosphere at Hammer and Tongue nights – they’re a bit more rowdy than your average poetry evening – and several friends from the big smoke came along to see.  Sold entirely out of books, and generally it went down really well. And I got paid! (This is often a rarity in the world of poetry). Plus I found out that Vicky (Rob’s girlfriend) totally works in a HORROR MAZE. This is awesome. I totally want to work in a horror maze.

So I reckon it’s about time to come clean about the blog. By which I mean hook it up to all those Web 2.0 machines and invite actual genuine people some of whom I have actually met in real life to read it. The main reason I’ve left it a bit of time before doing so is because I was never sure I’d actually get round to updating this, and there’s nothing worse than inviting people to read a blog that’s essentially empty and stagnant. But here we are, six posts in and I’m still just about finding something to write about each week. Part of the reason a) I was thinking about starting up this blog and b) I’m loath to hook it up to the 2.0 is that I’m always a bit wary of the ‘future of the internet’, or possibly just nostalgic for the past.

Don’t get me wrong. I love faceboke. Especially speaking as someone who currently spends a large amount of the working day sat in front of a screen, it’s an incredible way to share jokes and links with friends, stalk people, and generally make the working day pass a bit quicker. Bored? Never! Here’s a picture of David Miliband covered in confetti! Distracted! No! Here’s a youtube clip of a tapir charging into water at 25 miles an hour. I guess it depends what you’re into. I could spend all day looking at pictures of David Miliband looking confused and videos of tapirs. Each to their own, I suppose.

And it’s not because Faceboke is run by the CIA and Tony Blair and it’s actually collecting a mass database of people’s favourite animals and calculating how much GDP is lost each year by online faffing. It’s not even the creepy targetted ads or the fact that my holiday snaps are now owned by some american company who are going to use them to sell people holidays on the Sussex downs. It’s the fact that the internet used be a lot more renegade.

These days, you’ve got a cosy compartment that’s ‘you’. An ever changing picture of your face, connections to everyone that you’re ‘friends’ with, and a frustrating list of ‘interests’ that they keep moving about and turning into ‘pages’. When I was a teenager and finally got The Internet (a great day in every late 90’s teenager’s life, and way better than faxing things into teletext), I was making web pages on Geocities, and eventually various free web host companies. I haven’t actually learned very much more about coding HTML since then, but experts in the field tell me that not much has changed. But the best thing about this was that sites were a whole lot more anarchic.  Geocities was famous for blinking, scrolling text, horrendous animated GIFs, and other sorts of things that offend the eye of any aesthetically inclined webdesigner, but it was also full of all sorts of chaos and beauty.

You didn’t really have an ‘interests’ section to fill out (and no-one had a digital camera in those days so you probably didn’t have 1000+ pictures of yourself on your site either). It seems steeped in dusty history now, web-rings and guestbooks and discussion boards and mental american teenagers and bucketloads of teenage angst (hell, I was the right age for that as well) and hipsters websites where instead of text links they’d just have numbers and hey, all that sort of thing. And the pseudoyms. In some ways it seems totally insane that most people on faceboke use their ACTUAL REAL NAME. But I guess that’s the way it goes, and essentially Faceboke is Friends Reunited with more whistles and bells. And I guess some people want anyone who went to school with them to be able to find them on the internet.

I’m concerned I’m being a bit elitist here, and sure, it’s a great thing that anyone can ‘be’ on the internet without having to learn HTML. That’s fine. Even blogs massively democratised having an online presence – you can just feed in text to your own online webspace. But, y’know, I miss the anarchy. I miss the chaos. I even miss comic sans, yellow and black “under construction” signs, and all the scrolling text. But given that we live in a world where terms like “world wide web” already sound incredibly dated, I guess it’s still possible to be pretty old fashioned online…