Since the project took on a bit of a life of its own, this post has now moved to the official Door-to-Door Poetry website:
Since the project took on a bit of a life of its own, this post has now moved to the official Door-to-Door Poetry website:
Since the project took on a bit of a life of its own, this post has now moved to the official Door-to-Door Poetry website:
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
A 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.
As 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.
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.
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
Where does dust come from?
It is dead bits of skin said someone
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.
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.
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.
P.S – Your boss shouldn’t be able to just fire you like that. Did you get a written warning beforehand or anything?
As 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!
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.
But 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!
Is it just me or are there far too many fluorescent jackets everywhere you go? I work part-time in a primary school and whenever we take the kids out on a trip they all have to be wearing that most beloved of health and safety uniforms.
First of all, why on earth they need to wear these in broad daylight completely escapes me. I remember when I was in school and we went on all kinds of trips through the woods, the city, the dungeon and we got on just fine without any fluorescent jackets at all!
Well excuse me for sounding a little cynical here, but I think that any driver careless or short-sighted enough to miss a line of 30 or so children crossing the road (and not slow down accordingly) is probably careless or short-sighted enough to miss a fluorescent jacket as well. There. I said it.
“But why take the risk eh Rowan?” you say. “Why take the risk when it would be just as easy to put on the jacket, put on the jacket and avoid all the doubt”.
Because: “oh dear, I bet that wouldn’t have happened if they were wearing a fluorescent jacket” sounds so much worse than: “well.. they were wearing a fluorescent jacket… there’s nothing more anyone could have done here is there!?”
But it isn’t just school children though is it? Since the 90’s all kinds of officials like policemen, electricians, postmen, gasmen, council workers, builders (pretty much every official who has to walk the street) now wears a fluorescent jacket don’t they?
It seems the logic here isn’t about safety but authority. “Look at me! I’m an important person!” shouts the self-righteous luminous jacket, with its magical glowing properties: far superior to any of your pathetic, regular fabrics with their lack of ability to reflect light. “BOW DOWN BEFORE ME!!”
And cyclists use them as well don’t they? To show the motorists that they’re there, while motorists use them now during breakdowns as well. It’s actually law in some European countries to carry a fluorescent jacket in the car all the time, if you don’t you can be fined!
Whatever happened to faith in the good old-fashioned light, that’s what I want to know! The car light? The bike light? The street light? Remember those? They did the same job! Except they created light instead of reflecting it!!
“Well its OK for you to poke fun Rowan!” I hear you retort, “having never been in a serious accident in your life. People are doing this for the benefit of themselves and their families and you’re mocking it! With your big mocking face! I hope you die!”
Well I can let the school trips slide.. and the cyclists, the motorists.. and the officials at a push. But today I saw something that went right over the line and crossed into sheer absurdity.
I saw a man. Walking his dog. In a residential area. In broad daylight. And him and the dog, WERE BOTH WEARING FLUORESCENT JACKETS!
Now I’m sorry but this is just too far! What’s next? Jackets for cats as well? Might as well go the whole hog and start sticking them on wildlife too! Pigeons and badgers all lit up in various techno-colours because “YOU NEVER CAN BE TOO SAFE CAN YOU!?”
So let’s get this straight. The pedestrians and the dogs are wearing the jackets for the motorists and the cyclists to see right? The public servants and the officials are wearing them for the public in general, while the motorists and cyclists are wearing them for the other motorists and cyclists.
So the message here seems to be: “Here! Everyone! Look out for everyone! All of the time”… which seems to dilute the whole point of anyone wearing them in the first place!!
It reminds me of an anecdote from my time doing A Level history. I looked at another student’s exercise book and noticed they’d highlighted every line, bar a few connectives like ‘the’, with a yellow highlighter pen.
“But how are you going to know which bits are the most important?” I asked.
“Oh, I’ll just remember all of it” she replied vacantly.