Thursday, 18 March 2010

Fusebox 3 - We Are The Beatles

And here is another 2003 article I wrote for Rattapallax's online mag Fusebox (now no longer available). This was a follow-on from the anthology many of us were happy to be included in: Short Fuse: A global anthology of new fusion poets, pub Rattapallax, New York 2002. Helen Thomas and I were happy if not giddy to be present at the book launch in New York, October 2002. I was then asked to be guest editor of Fusebox and wrote this editorial on the kinda viva la difference between US and UK performance poets:


"Its like the landing of The Beatles," said Todd Swift. "The UK poets are here!" He was of course joking, and we were all in the recording studio of a New York radio station and it was October 2002 during a week long book launch of Short Fuse: a global anthology of new fusion poetry. Todd had been referring to me and Helên Thomas who were being interviewed along with Phil Norton, Todd and Fortner Anderson. Helên and I were in high spirits and larking about, but I was struck during the whole of our visit by how different UK performance poetry is to US performance poetry, and yet how it refers to and is influenced by US poets in much the same way as popular music and the Beatles were by US rock'n'roll way back in the 60s.

So, "Poetry is the new rock and roll" huh? Tom Phillips has a lot of fun with this in his poem; poking fun at how pundits seek to label emergent art forms as "the new rock and roll". And yet …

There's no doubt that performance poetry in the UK owes much to the import of slam poetry from the US. We've taken it to our hearts and added our own twist. I first became enamoured or "bitten by the bug" of performance poetry when I went to my very first slam, in Bristol, to support Lucy English. Wayhey! This is my type of poetry. I thought. And loved its immediacy and power – and entertainment value.

Lucy's poetry is well represented in this edition as she remains in the top 5 of my favourite UK performance poets. She displays a skillful mix of variety and humour in her work. Also, as another woman of – erhem – a certain age, I love "Old".

Performance poetry is subversive. It shakes the poetry establishment and challenges its hegemony. It lifts poetry from the page in ways that readings alone can't quite reach. Nathan Filer says that as he is primarily a performance poet and that as such, he prefers people to "hear" his material rather than "read" it. His "My Little Sister" is here in mp3 format. And this isn't a case of poetry poaching from the music industry nor from stand-up comedy. Performance poetry is an emerging art form, in its own right, which fuses spoken word with other art forms to become something unique. Glenn Carmichael is a fine poet who brought slam to Bristol with Bristol Poetry Slam; he mixes film, visuals, music and words in all of his performances, and his work is represented here in film.

Performance poetry does not rely on publishing houses nor academic institutions to define whether or not the work has "made the grade". It relies on the audience. And the performance poetry audience vote – either literally in the case of slams or via "bums on seats" - on what and who they consider to be good enough. No longer do we – the audience - need to be told what is or is not "good" poetry. No longer does poetry have to be hard work to be enjoyed. No longer do we feel as if we, or our audiences, need a university education to enjoy poetry let alone write it. This is a reclaiming of our oral tradition. And the way it connects with an audience is exciting.

That's not to say that performance poets are not published either. As you will see from the biographies, many have MAs in their art, or are jobbing writers, or have been published as "proper" poets; many teach at further education establishments and universities. Many of us refute the criticism levelled at performance poetry that it is "poetry lite" or represents a "dumbing down". My view is that performance poets up and down the UK and globally are producing spoken word that is accessible and has something to say about internal and external contemporary life. This collection goes some way to reflecting the UKs multi-culturalism especially with Khadijah Ibrahiim's moving tales of her grandmother's experience of arriving here on the ship Windrush from Jamaica in the 1960s. And her poem "Riddims Talking" is here in mp3 format. In Anita Govan's "black butterfly" one can almost taste the grit in those Scottish Edinburgh Streets. And Diké Omeje's wonderful witty play on words are cool, hip, and mesmerising – as are his performances.

In UK poetry gigs you can here the early influences of music hall monologues such as Albert And The Lion, and the clever cautionary tale verse of Hilaire Belloc and Joyce Grenfall, and even the songs of The Two Ronnies and Benny Hill. Humour is a key to UK performance poetry and can be every bit as iconclastic as Monty Python was. Poetry out loud in the UK includes a revisiting of working class traditions in the subverting of songs and mimicry – examples being Lucy English's "My Worst Things" and Helên Thomas' "We Are The Beatles". And then there is punk: Atilla The Stockbroker says on his website that he is "inspired by the spirit and "Do It Yourself" ethos of punk rock". Anti-establishment, irreverent, political, and very UK – yep, I don't think it’s a huge stretch to see punk rock's influence on UK poetry. Whether through punk poets such as John Cooper Clarke or Attila The Stockbroker, or even John Hegley.

And UK poets do not shy away from verse. Are not averse to verse (sorry!). Rhyme is not only making a bit of a comeback (especially through rap) but has never totally left. And yet, I gather from my trips and membership of various poetry group websites, that US poets are not so keen on rhyme. Please feel free to disagree. Here in this edition, Lucy English uses rhyme to good comic effect in "Excuse Me", as does other poets like Helen Thomas, Crispin Thomas; whilst Diké Omeje is one who uses rhyme for emphasis and to surprise.

Performance poets are more and more fusing words in ground breaking ways. Khadijah Ibrahiim is a fine example with her mix of rhythms and strong beats. You can hear the influences of Africa, punk, reggae, pidgin, dialects, rap, rock, hippy stuff, television, all and everything in poetry being performed. Wanna hear a vampire goth poet? We have her in the form of the wonderful Rosie Lugosi. I especially love her "Creatures of the Night" and "I'm being Queer for Britain". Magic. Then there's Attila The Stockbroker, a full-time punk poet who is a contemporary of John Cooper Clarke and who, in the grand tradition of poetry, mixes music and politics with wry spot-on words. In this edition he pays tribute to Joe Strummer of The Clash (Commandante Joe) who died suddenly this year.

Many poets now record CDs to offer more of the experience of their live performances and for some, to free poetry from the page where arguably its been tethered for too long. All this adds to the vibrancy which is performance poetry. At Big Mouth Cabaret nights we always have music which crosses over with poetry through its lyrical content and Bucky have been our resident in-house band and their rendition of The Beatles is in this edition.

So, are we The Beatles? John Lennon was a fine poet. When I was a kid I remember getting my hands on his Spaniard In The Works which I loved alongside the poetry of Spike Milligan (one of the founders of The Goons and Q, both forerunners of Monty Python). I would maintain that UK poetry is distinctive from, yet influenced by US performance poetry.

The Beatles work is now regarded alongside classical music. Yet in their heyday they were seen as "pop" and "lite". If poetry is the new rock'n'roll (which it isn't and that's a tired old cliché in any case) then I'd rather be Mick Jagger, no Otis Redding, no Marianne Faithful, no Ian Dury, no The Clash, no, Bananarama, no - many and diverse examples might as well be chosen. What I'm trying to say is that we are at the beginnings of performance poetry much as The Beatles and pop music was in the 1960s.

This isn't an academic work, but I maintain that there are parallels to be drawn. Then, "classical music" was seen as the only worthwhile music – the rest throwaway. Nowadays we have moved through rock'n'roll, punk, new romantics, the horror of the 80s, the boredom of the 90s, to the pop idols of today. OK, like some pop music some of today's poetry won't last the course. Some poets will be "one-hit wonders". (Now "readings" – which involve poets mumbling their poetry badly in back rooms of cafes - are different to "performance" and if I'm to carry through this analogy then I'd liken those types of "readings" to english folk music with morris dancing thrown in – but that's just my opinion! or bias). Being likened to The Beatles is not such a bad thing. In many ways it’s a useful comparison. Performance poetry has had the same criticisms levelled at it as rock'n'roll and The Beatles did back then. And yet it is a vibrant art form which is yet to have its day.

I bored Helên Thomas so much with all this that she wrote We're Not The Beatles (or 4 ants recreate Abbey Road – see cartoon) which she then quickly followed up with We Are The Beatles. When Helên and I collaborated on a project we joked that we were like the Lennon and McCartney of poetry – only neither of us wanted to be Paul McCartney - so I wrote a poem about that experience called "Lennon and Lennon". One of the poems we did come up with together, and which is included here, is "Ship Shape" - a poem neither of us would have written on our own but one we both like. Our come-uppance is that we both now live in fear that since our split one of us might write a Frog Chorus. Still. What fun we had. And there's nowt wrong with that.

I hope you will agree there is some very fine poetry here indeed. These are some of my favourite UK poets, and like all collections (well, like all my collections) there are exceptions to my self-imposed UK-based rule – Kevin Higgins (Irish), David Hill (Englishman in Prague), and Phil Norton (American living in Oz). I included them because they are so good. Phil Norton's mp3 of Everything Is An Alarm Clock is superlative and one to aspire to.

Oh, and this wouldn't be the UK without footie. So have included some football poetry. Yes, football poetry. Read it here in "On Me 'Ead, Son", and visit the football poets website and see what you think.

So, are we The Beatles? No, of course not. But we are here to stay.
Rosemary Dun © 2003

1 comment:


    Follow this to listen to Helen T's "Four Ants Recreate Abbey Road Album Cover With An Everton Mint"