It came to my attention that I haven’t written anything on here for over a year. OK… look. Don’t look at me like that, with those sad eyes. I have been thinking about you… I have, I promise. I’ve been busy with lots of exciting things which I’m going to tell you about one by one, in small manageable chunks. I’ll start with the most recent, which was spending two weeks doing a run of North East Rising at the Edinburgh Fringe. I can honestly say I’ve walked away from it feeling like a new person.
Out of the many complicated ways of putting something on at the Fringe, I decided to go with PBH’s Free Fringe because it’s the only one that’s free for everyone. It’s entirely volunteer run and there is a proper feeling of comradery, other PBH-ers frequently asked how I was doing and gave me advice. I did the same whenever I could.
I went with quite a simple mission. My main objective was to meet some great poets and try to coax them down to the show in a vain attempt to get some recognition. I wanted a couple of good reviews and I also wanted at least 4 people to come every day.
I was put in Clerks Bar, a trendy hipster/sports bar round the corner from the Summerhall which was billed as the new ‘Home of Spoken Word’. As a new venue, it had no reputation to fall back on as a place to see poetry. Everything me and the other performers did there was breaking new ground. I made a sign out of gaffa tape and an old ‘for sale’ sign which I found behind my local pub. I flyered people outside, occasionally making them laugh, until 5 minutes before I was due to start. Then I’d dash down, put ‘Revolution Rock’ on by The Clash and pray for the best.
Actually the very first flyer I gave out, after 5 seconds of standing outside, was to someone who had heard of me before. He’d run a seminar on my poem ‘When Cheryl Cole Got Old’ and explained that it was a pity he couldn’t find a written version of it. I replied that, luckily, I was selling books and then he bought one! Not every person was that receptive, but things definitely got off to a good start.
Without the perks of a ticket office it’s hard to say exactly how successful I was in terms of people on seats. All in all, I estimate an average of 8 people per day, which is double the average for the whole fringe and I’m very pleased with it. The review situation was more difficult but I did get a brilliant 4 star review from SG Fringe http://sgfringe.com/2015/08/11/north-east-rising/ so it was still a part success. The ‘coaxing brilliant poets’ thing, on the other hand, went brilliantly. A number of famous people came and bought books and seemed to really enjoy it. Making those connections and having the chance to share ideas was really eye opening, it was like living on a little island entirely populated by people on your wavelength.
The crucial thing was that having the opportunity to perform, day in and day out, has really sharpened me. One day a stag do from London decided to pop in. I knew it was going to be a tough gig when one of them asked me outside if I heckled. I then had to explain that a performer isn’t the one who heckles… But despite one of them completely ruining the show by talking all the way through (and getting a telling off by some other audience members) another gave me a tenner at the end and, making sure he was out of ear shot of his mates, said he loved the poetry, had never thought about it before and wanted to know if there was any poetry nights in London!
The whole run taught me that, to a great extent, a lot of how a gig goes is completely out of your hands. You can’t force a good audience and, as in life, a lot of it is about doing the best you can with the hand you’ve been given. I went to the Fringe feeling like a poet and I left feeling like a hardened performer.
Some great things I managed to catch while I was there were Luke Wrights first theatre piece ‘What I Learned From Jonny Bevan’, ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ and Matt Abbott’s ‘Skint and Demoralised’ which reminded me why I do poetry. A set of loosely connected material, from fun ones about a Wakefield Pie shop to hard hitting pieces about street workers, it was a classic extended poetry set. I’ve seen the style before, but no one could have rekindled my passion for doing it more than Matt.
A poetry show is a difficult thing to pin down. As soon as the word ‘show’ is mentioned, many poets veer towards creating something that’s essentially theatre. Directors are called in. Impetus’s are considered. In one fowl swoop Matt reminded me that, yes, I can choose to use a narrative structure with a connecting story such as what I did in NER. But I can also choose not to do that, because I’m a poet.
Free from the restrictions of the storytelling element of what I was doing, I watched as Matt put his sovereign encrusted Wakefield fist straight through the fourth wall and warm the audience. The kind of thing I enjoy doing night after night at guest spots, when the word ‘show’ isn’t mentioned at all. The show becomes ‘a poet is doing some poems’ and it’s an approach I’ve considered a few times before. I think next time I’ll give it a go.
All in all I had a great time and really want to do it all again next year. Edinburgh is a strange beast and a number of times I wanted to give up. But there’s a place that sells Macaroni Cheese Pies till 1am and, in the end, isn’t that what life is all about?