North East Rising at The Fringe

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 decidedGeordie Cultural Ambassador 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?

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The Fuzzy Line Between Acting and Lying

I was doing a workshop with performance poet, novelist and general legend of a man Polarbear a few weeks ago and he asked us all a question: “Is there a difference between acting and lying?”

It’s not the first time I’ve wondered, but the fact that I’ve been writing the script for North East Rising recently meant that I thought about it more than I ever have before.

MagrittePipe

Well? Is there a difference between acting and lying? The general consensus, according to a few people I’ve spoken to about it and Google, seems to be that it’s a matter of consent. There are huge similarities in the way that someone will lie to try and persuade someone that something happened when it didn’t and the way an actor will try to make someone truly believe in an event or emotion they’re telling you. The difference is, when someone pays to go and see a film or a play, they willingly buy into that lie for the sake of entertainment. A lie in real life can potentially remain hidden forever and is never consented to beforehand.

Although, to start with, I can already spot a few holes in that theory. First, are there not times in performances when we still believe things that have been said for a long time after the performance has finished? There’s been millions of times I’ve tried to quote a fact or truism, only to find out that it came from a film and may potentially be made up. I would argue that if a character is going to be likeable, they have to say things that are true on some level; if they’re living in a world that’s based on ours, then they have to observe things that seem true despite the fact that they aren’t a real person.

On the flip side, sometimes we do give people permission to lie to us in real life as well, don’t we? What about when we do it to make them laugh? Is being sarcastic not just a lie we all consent to?

But as well as these two exceptions, writing the script gave me a completely new perspective on the question entirely. Because when the character you’re playing is yourself, when you’re performing something autobiographical, sometimes you have to lie and the audience may never find out. A great example is stand-up comedians. Often stand-ups base their material on things that have happened to them, “I was walking down the road the other day, right, when I saw this…”.  We all know comedians embellish things or plain invent them for the sake of making a joke. I would argue that the minute they do that, they’re acting. In fact, even if they’re telling the truth but it’s scripted then they’re acting. Performing on a stage requires a whole level of communication and body language that isn’t really natural to begin with; you don’t just stand up in a room and start staring at everyone right in the eyes, talking really loudly, without much concern for what the people you’re talking to think or feel, do you? No, that would just be psychopathic.

Sometimes it’s obvious that the event being described by a stand-up probably didn’t happen quite like that, if at all. Sometime comedians even reveal the fact they’re lying during the show for comic effect, Stewart Lee and Sean Lock are good examples. But other times it’s harder to tell. Was it true? And, if not, does it matter? Would it make it any less funny if it wasn’t?stewart-lee-vegetable-006

As well as this, even with the best will in the world, sometimes when you’re playing yourself you have to lie for the sake of structure. Life doesn’t fit into a strict hour or two of material. Sometimes things happen in between in real life, things that would slow down the story and so need to be left out for the sake of moving things along quicker. In real life, this is called a white lie. “I was walking down the street the other day, right, when this man walked past and said I was a filthy jizzbag”, sounds slightly more funny than “I was walking down the street the other day smoking a cigarette when this man walked past, pointed to it and said I was a filthy jizzbag for smoking those things”. Obviously it depends where you’re going with the story but, the point is, sometimes things are better left unsaid. In both instances, the man we’re talking about still said something unexpected and strange, do we really need to know what his motivation was?

Sometimes for the sake of narrative we have to lie otherwise people would just lose interest in what we’re telling them. It reminds me of a fact I read about the famous Beat novel On The Road, an autobiographical story about author Jack Kerouac’s journeys from New York to California. The original story was longer, with many trips backwards and forwards. It was more true, in that respect, because it happened exactly like that. But the publishers were worried: it was too sporadic, all this backwards and forwards, East and West, people we’re going to get a bit confused, maybe even a bit bored. So in the end, events got spliced into one trip instead of two; it became one journey not lots of them. Sometimes the truth is too true for art.jack-kerouac-tune-radio

Now I know we’re not talking about acting here, it’s a novel, but it serves to prove a point about autobiography. Unless you know that about On The Road and go back to the original manuscript, most people will never know which bits really happened like Kerouac says they did. Just like a lie in real life, we might never find out. And I found something similar involved with writing the script for North East Rising. In between the poems, I wanted to stick to events that had really happened to me as closely as I could. But, for the sake of making it flow, events got twisted, embellished, things happen in a different order to the way they really did. Sometimes they just completely didn’t happen, I needed to lie so I could steer the narrative back to another real event.

Does that make it lying or acting? You could pick the most mundane thing out of my script and assume that it’s truth when, in fact, I lied. Like some lies in real life, you’d never know. And now I’ve came out and admitted it, that it’s not all ‘true’, I suppose that means it’s acting after all, right? But if you come and watch my show and you believe even one thing that isn’t true when you walk away, then acting can be exactly the same as lying.

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The Anti Slam: How Crap Poetry Taught Me the Point of Spoken Word

anti-slam promoA few weeks ago I got an offer to be a part of something really fun. “How would you like to do the Anti Slam, a competition where poets stand up in front of judges and, instead of trying to do the best  they can, they try to be laughably, gloriously shit and lose”. “Easy!” I thought and, without thinking much further, said “I’m in”.

But the process turned out to be a lot harder than I expected. My first attempt, a tongue in cheek praise of the mining industry called ‘The Mines’*, was basically the anti-Calling New Geordieland (a collection of my poetry which embraces the North East in the 21st century). I thought it would be funny to do the opposite and go on a rant about the regions glorious industrial hay day and, in the process, try to make a point about how hard life really was back then.

But with a day left to go I started to have second thoughts. Is a parody of a topic really enough? Did the poem not still have some artistic worth if it pointed out what was wrong with something? Was it, in essence, slightly too good? (slightly being the key word here).

So I decided it would have to be even less well put together, in short: even shitter. And that’s what was quite fantastic about doing the Anti Slam because it also forced me to ask myself what a good poem, as well as a good performance, actually is. So I made the subject even duller, with no point to it in the slightest, and wrote one called ‘Dust’*. I decided to perform it extremely nervously, with no emotion and with an almost robotic pause at the end of every line. I realised that these are the worst things I think a performer can do and working it out made me not want to do any of them even more than before.

Anti-Slam finalAs an audience member the whole night was absolutely hilarious from start to finish. Steven Frizzle was a well deserved winner and goes on to the final in London, having created a fully formed character, Godfrey Staples: a spoilt American youngster who writes angry poetry about his dad, the head of a stationary enterprise. I’ve been familiar with his musical parodies for a few years now and this was a brilliant piece of stand up in its own right, something I really hope he keeps going. Other highlights for me were Emma Whitehall‘s completely cringe worthy erotica poem, Sarah Hammersley’s truly terrible rhyming and Chrissie Petrie‘s contribution, which was basically a very disturbing shopping list.

I caught up with Paula Varjack after the show, the co-founder of the Anti Slam which started in Berlin and is currently touring throughout the UK.

Was there anything about the nature of poetry slams that made you want to create the Anti Slam?

“Well the whole thing started because a lot of my German friends were poets on the spoken word scene and a lot of my expat friends were English-speaking comics on the stand-up scene and I wanted to do something that brought the two groups together. I don’t have anything against slams! I’ve always enjoyed them, though they can get very heated sometimes. Even if you say you don’t want to win, you’re always a bit upset if you lose. I wanted to do something that totally took that away and made it as fun as possible.”

Do you think doing something like this can teach us anything about poetry?

“I think it takes a lot of craft and thought to intentionally write a really terrible poem, not just a bad poem, but something truly embarrassing and cringe worthy. And in doing so you are challenged to think about what a good poem is and also how you write one. I’ve thought about this for a while, that there is something very liberating about embracing failure, it’s a big part of the ethos behind the Anti Slam.

Then a few months ago, I took a performance workshop with a mentor of mine, Stacy Makishi, and we did this exercise where we had to think about what would be the worst criticism we could receive about a performance: what we were most afraid of. Then we had to make and perform a short piece that embodied that. So, for example, if you were scared of being self-absorbed you would make the most self-absorbed piece you could imagine. Every single piece presented was hilarious.

Now, this group were all phenomenal performers, many very established, but that wasn’t the only reason the performances were so fantastic. I realised then that that’s what it is that makes the Anti Slam work: the act of permitting yourself to embrace what you try to avoid is not only liberating but it frees up all kinds of creative energy.
It’s also really enjoyable and that makes it enjoyable for the audience as well. Essentially what happens for the audience is they are watching a group of performers having lots of fun and that energy can only be infectious.”
Sure enough, by the end of the night two really interesting things had happened: I understood myself better as a performer and also felt closer to the other poets who made complete tools out of themselves as well.
The Anti-Slam grand final will be coming to London later this year and, whether you’re in to poetry or not, I guarantee it’s the best worst thing you’ll see in a long time!

 

*The Mines

 

My Granda said it was propper fine

when he worked down in the mine.

The hours were long but he didn’t mind

they ate ice cream all the time in the mines,

the mines, the mines, the mines,

the miney, miney, miney, miney, mines.

 

The people that ran it were really kind,

they gave you hats with shiny lights,

there was a safety inspector assigned

before the poisonous gasses made him blind

in the mines,

the mines, the mines, the mines,

the minedy, minedy, minedy, minedy, mines.

 

They were yours! They were mine!

My heart still pines for the joy of the mines!

HOW COULD THATCHER BE SO BLIND?!

Like pouring away a fancy wine

the day they closed down all the mines,

the mines, the mines, the mines, the mines

AND THE DOCKS! But mainly the mines,

the minedy, minedy, minedy, minedy,

minedy, minedy, mines.

 

* Dust

 

I found dust on my table the other day,

I got out a feather duster and tickled it away

but after a few days the dust had come back

as if I had not dusted at

all.

Where does dust come from?

It is dead bits of skin said someone

I know.

But I have never had a dusty leg

or a dusty arm, that’s what I said.

 

So I decided to sit and wait

to see how dust accumulates.

I went to my table and stared into space

looking for dust all over the place.

 

After a while my wife came to say

that she had to go away for a long time

and didn’t know when she was coming back.

I asked her if this conversation could wait

I was looking for dust all over the place.

But she just said goodbye and left.

And would you believe that since that day

I never saw any dust there again.

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Writing Poems for Hallmark: A Polite Exchange

 

Creative Opportunities (creative-opportunities@hallmark-uk.com)
23/04/2014
To: rowanmccabe6@hotmail.co.uk
creative-opportunities@hallmark-uk.com
Hi Rowan,
 
Thanks for sending us your work, we enjoyed looking through it. We’re always looking for new talent so I really appreciate you taking the time to think of us and giving us the opportunity to see it.
 
Unfortunately the styles you’ve shown us aren’t suitable for any ranges we’re developing at the moment but feel free to send us anything else you think we might be interested in seeing in the future.
 
Thanks again and all the best,
 
The Hallmark Creative Team
 
 
From: Rowan [mailto:rowanmccabe6@hotmail.co.uk]
Sent: 31 March 2014 11:12
To:help@hallmark.co.uk
Subject: Writing Poems For Your Cards
 
Dear Hallmark representative,

I am a poet who is extremely interested in writing pieces for the insides of your cards and was wondering if you could pass this on to the relevant department?
For the past three years I have been a spoken word performer covering all sorts of topics from philosophy to feelings of cultural disenfranchisement within the North East of England.
 
However, for a long time it has been a dream of mine to reach a broader audience and to write catchy verses for the inside of your fabulous cards. Here is an example of one I have written for a birthday card:

Today is rather special
Because it’s just for you.
It’s the day for cards and presents,
For cake and candles too.
It’s the day you’re made a fuss of,
A day when dreams come true
And a day of celebrations
Is especially what you’re due.
Happy, happy birthday
Happy birthday to you!


I also have some more political verses you may be interested in:


I’m hoping that you love this card
Though I know you won’t for long.
It cost a tree to make it,
Soon the forests will be gone.

I’ve had a look on your website to see if there are any vacancies for a card poet but was unable to find any. I sincerely hope you will consider this expression of interest and will bear me in mind if you know of any future vacancies.


 
Kind regards,

Rowan McCabe

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Banned From Geordieland

A crowd of terraced houses
with pasty pink faces
turned their backs on me
and I became a jigsaw piece
in the wrong box.
Cos' I didn't say "reet"
quite as often as I should;
cos' I didn't play football
on a desolate field at weekends.

From the school's yard
to that street on Walshy
reverberating voices reminded:
"You're not a proper Geordie yee!
You're too posh!
Living with your Ma with her degree,
sittin in your room reading!"

As if we weren't living
on this bonfire housing estate. 
As if we had a car
or owned a first hand telly
not passed down
from retiring family.

"And anyways
you weren't even born in Newcastle,
you were born in South Shields
that means you're a sand dancer!"

A whisper
of the oceans breeze
twisting
across the sand dunes
invisible
is what it made me.

It's fair to say
the kids on the estate 
were hard to get on with. 
At the bus stop
the colour of its sour piss reek
one asked what kind of dog I had, 
a castaway mongrel, 
and here's me
in my dirty blue fleece
the rubber zip half chewed off. 
I mumbled some answer
while he burst my lip,
the blood sticking in thick clots
in my hands like acrylic paint. 
He hid behind his older brother
so I couldn't fight back and laughed.
My Mam phoned the police
not for the last time:
glitter of broken glass under car tires;
potato in exhaust pipe.

This was a tale
between two cities:
Hebburn is a limbo. 
Told I was too bookish
to be a Geordie,
too poor to be a toff;
a sort of non-person
pickled cryogenically
in speech and geography
but what of the venerable Bede?

Retreating from grey 
wasteland of childhood,
spent evenings alone
on some land round the back;
the place that used to be flats
till' the council detonated explosives. 
Trees and wild grass covered it now
like the post apocalypse. 
Pieces of rubble there were
King Arthur's stone.
My Swiss army knife a sword titanium,
mind projecting imagination
over every unconstrained organism.

I singled myself out in the end- 
became a proper cliché goth. 
Got an ankle length trench coat too long
with Christmas money off my Grandma, 
sometimes cousin's nail polish black.
It was a really bad look for me that,
considering by this point I was also pretty fat:
I looked like a jacket potato
decorated by Marilyn Manson in art class. 

And I still remember the time
I got eggs thrown at me 
by radgies in The Newie. 
The sun baking the whites milky
on my hot cowhide
like sliced eyeballs
gazing back accusingly. 

Y'know these kind of moments
infect your identity.
And how was I supposed to know back then
these kids weren't an authority
on being a Geordie?
Or that some of them
were actually from Sunderland
(whatever that means).
I decided that if being a Geordie
meant changing the way I spoke,
if it was a certain haircut
or a type of clothes, 
if it meant pretending I was someone else
then I was withdrawing this application
for Geordieness. 
I was deporting myself 
from Geordieland.

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An Open Letter to Aloe Blacc

Dear Mr. Blacc,

A few years ago I heard your song “I Need A Dollar” and was deeply saddened by the difficult situation you described. I am also a big drinker of wine, although I think whiskey tastes a bit like hot metal.

I was writing to let you know I have recently came into possession of one dollar and was wondering if you still need one? You see, I recently had one of my poems published by Everyday Poets (you can look at it here if you like) and they believe in giving all artists pay for what they do, even if financial restrictions mean they can’t offer very much (it’s the thought that counts, I’m sure you’ll agree). So at the minute, the amount they can give happens to be exactly one dollar!

As I live in the UK, there’s not really that much I can get here with my dollar. So I started thinking “who do I know who really really needs a dollar?” and I’m sure you can imagine why you sprung to mind.

Anyway, let me know if you still need one and I’ll sort you out.

Yours faithfully,

Rowan McCabe

P.S – Your boss shouldn’t be able to just fire you like that. Did you get a written warning beforehand or anything?

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The Real Life Mr. Hanky: Barcelona’s Christmas Poo

Caganar 2As it’s the festive season and all that, I thought I’d show you something really strange I found in Barcelona last summer. El Caganer, literally translated as “the crapper”, is a Christmas character who’s been part of Catalan culture for over 400 years. He’s often depicted as a peasant, wearing his traditional Catalan red hat and is bent over, with his pants down, right in the middle of doing a massive poo!

Yep, and would you believe me if I told you that El Caganer actually plays a major role in Christmas celebrations over there? Nearly everyone has a statue of him and he often finds his way into nativity scenes; he’s situated somewhere near baby Jesus’ inn, where everyone can gaze lovingly at him while he does his dirty business.

You might be wondering, like I was when I first heard of this, if it’s some kind of mass-scale Spanish troll. However, I asked my friend Alex, who’s lived his whole life in Barcelona and he assured me, in all seriousness, that El Caganer is as wholesome and Christmasy as Saint Nick.

And it gets weirder. You see, The Caganer isn’t the only Christmas poo celebrated by the Catalans. There’s also Tió de Nadal or “The Christmas Log”: a hollow piece of wood with legs and a face which poos out children’s presents on Christmas day. Yep, that’s right, it poos out the gifts people!

Tió_de_Nadal At the feast of the Immaculate Conception (Dec 8th), children give the log something to ‘eat’ and then cover it with a blanket so it doesn’t get cold. They do this every night until Christmas Eve (or Christmas day), when they hit the log with a stick and sing songs to encourage it to poo. Then the kids go into another room and pray for the log to poo while the parents put some presents under the blanket. When the children come back they lift up the blanket and bobs your uncle: poo presents.

Although there’s loads of conflicting theories about where these quirky traditions come from, the one I really liked is the one our Barcelona tour guide mentioned. She explained that the focus on poo in Catalan Christmas is a celebration of the cyclical nature of life itself. Healthy manure is essential for a good harvest, a good harvest is in turn needed so we can have lots of tasty food. And delicious food is, of course, really important for a happy Christmas! This will in turn become good manure again (or at least it would if we followed The Caganer’s lead and took a poo outside… there’s something for you to consider over the holiday season after a few too many roast spuds).

Seriously though, is it just me or is there something strangely beautiful about that? I think any Christmas tradition that celebrates our connection to nature is alright in my books. Especially at a time when we’re wasting so many precious resources and polluting the earth, all so we can exchange trillions of plastic nick-knacks in a mince pie fueled frenzy.

Obama CaganerBut Christmas in Barcelona isn’t some sort of poo utopia, mind. In true consumerist fashion, there’s now hundreds of different types of Caganer you can buy, including one that looks like Prince William and one that looks like Obama. And they’re extortionately expensive. Happy holidays!

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