You have to have a certain type of madness to create a successful poetry festival from nothing. Meet Matt Panesh, AKA Monkey Poet, an affable and self-effacing Northerner in the prime of his life, pouring his considerable energies into creating something special, right where he lives.
When Matt was a boy in Northwich, a young Liverpool poet called Roger McGough visited his school and inspired Matt. In a few weeks’ time, Matt will introduce the legend that is McGough, together with many of the country’s leading poets at Matt‘s own poetry festival in Morecambe. It’s a prestigious poetry showcase that could easily grace any of the UK’s major cities, but is instead situated in a small North West coastal resort – off season. This is Matt’s vision for which he risked bankruptcy and homelessness. Remember that this area is Mr Blobby’s graveyard, AKA Crinkly Bottom RIP.
It’s fair to say that what many perceive as the faded glory of Morecambe is not everyone’s first choice for an autumnal weekend. But last year something special happened. And, this month, on the weekend of the 22nd, it’s happening again, and Morecambe Winter Gardens will be the centre of attention. The Grade II listed structure (which opened in 1897) will play host to the second incarnation of Britain’s most ambitious poetry festival. The Winter Gardens is a beautiful building in need of some repair but still viable as a festival centrepiece – though it’s probably best known these days for TV’s Most Haunted.
I first met Matt a couple of years ago in a venue he runs in Morecambe called West End Theatre. It’s not your typical theatre, rather a small shop in a fairly run-down parade in Morecambe’s West End (which bears no similarity to London’s West End, beyond the name). The so-called stage area was the left-hand bit of the shop floor with 50-odd seats lined up along the right-hand bit. When I say 50-odd seats, the emphasis is on the odd.
Matt’s West End Theatre is not really big enough to need a PA system, although the woman who lives upstairs does like to have her TV on loudly and is, Matt tells me, “into Europop”.
As a professional doing a gig, I arrived early and, seeing the state of the back room that even a seasoned estate agent would have a hard time calling a dressing room, I decided to sit in the shop front and await the audience. This gave me ample time to get to know Matt and his team. The conversation took me back to my early days in 80s’ Manchester and the great promoters like Agraman who ran the Buzz Club, to Darren Poyzer of Stand and Deliver and The Witchwood fame, and Chris Coupe who organised the legendary Manchester Busker. Each and every one was optimistic, bohemian and passionate (some might say bordering on the beautifully bonkers).
I’m glad to say that Matt’s optimism paid and the place soon filled up. The sell-out audience were brilliant. It was like the best indie book shop event ever, but without any bookshelves.
The path to poetry
Matt tells me he had to kip in the shop at various points over the past few years in order to make ends meet. He has great memories there, too. “I put a one-off comedy night on and Tony Slattery walked in. Tony had been driving around and heard the promoter on the radio and turned up randomly,” he says. “We still have his half-smoked cigarette in a glass case.”
So, Matt had tried his hand at promoting before that first poetry festival. A few years before he’d promoted the ever popular Dr John Cooper Clarke and made enough profit to pay the rent on the West End Theatre for the first three months. It was logical, then, that his first booking for the inaugural Morecambe Poetry Festival was the Salford bard.
Meanwhile, back in 2005, Matt had seen Mike Garry perform poetry sets in a bar between bands. This inspired Matt to perform solo shows and, between 2007 and 2014, he created seven different hour-long shows. – an incredible amount of creativity which is captured in his book Tribe published by Burning Eye. In addition, Matt played the Edinburgh Festival but, forgetting his set list for an early performance, floundered a little and he received a two star review. He was so angry that, the next night, he attacked the stage with all of his adrenalin and received his first five star review. Channelling his energies seems to have paid off, although he say he feels more assertive promoting others.
Matt started using the name ‘Monkey Poet’ during a trip to America. In Indianapolis, some creationists were opening a museum containing velociraptors with saddles and dummies, complete with Stone Age kids petting them. It’s stuck ever since. There’s even a stage named after him at another festival.
Line up, line up…
Fast forward to the 2022 Morecambe Poetry Festival and it’s the sheer number of major poets that impresses: Mike Garry, John Cooper Clarke, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Joelle Taylor, Lemn Sissay, Kate Fox, John Hegley, Attila the Stockbroker and, to make up the numbers, me.
Together with the venue and other costs, that’s a lot of financial outlay, so the question was – would enough audience come to enable Matt to break even?
Matt enlisted the help of Anne Holloway who runs the poetry publisher Big White Shed in Morecambe as well as Liz Bee, both of whom had done a great job on the Nottingham Poetry Festival which I’d set up seven years ago. Basically, he stole my best people and my best ideas.
But there was so much more to the 2022 Morecambe Poetry Festival than the big names, not least the community events, the open mic events and the involvement of so many people. Matt told me about Colin, a volunteer in his 60s who’d only written one poem in his life and who read live for the first time at an open mic session. The following day he read it again. Matt bumped into him out on the seafront. “You’ve started something here,” Colin told him. To Matt’s surprise, Colin was being filmed reciting one of his poems at the end of the stone jetty.
I ask Matt what was last year’s biggest challenge. His answer surprises me. “The PA, it was awful, and also the fact that I was operating the PA, that came as a surprise.” Um, “I think I’ve spotted your problem,” I say. He replies: “This year we’ve invested in a sound technician.”
He continues: “That first year we broke even and made a small profit.” That’s good news – not because I’m going to put my fee up, but festivals need to make a profit to survive.
There’s even better news. “The TS Elliot Foundation are now supporting the festival for the next five years.”
What’s in store for 2023?
This year’s festival starts with Pete the Temp at 6pm on September 22 at the alternative stage which is “Johnny’s’ nightclub next door to the Winter Gardens. The show is called From Homer to Hiphop and is a sort of a history of performance poetry.” I bet I don’t get a mention. I’m more likely to be getting a hip op these days.
I feel honoured to have been invited back this year, this time to perform alongside Brian Bilston who has become incredibly popular on social media. Brian and I are touring together next year but fittingly Morecambe will be our first show together. Brian as been called the ‘Banksy of Poetry’ because you never see his face. You probably see too much of my face, so we’re a good match. I might just stand in front of him and he can read his poems behind me.
Roger McGough is on with Gerry Potter (who used to be Chloe Poems) and Jackie Hagan. Matt tells me that “Jackie was my housemate. The day after her birthday she got a numb foot and had to go to hospital. She appeared at the very first fringe festival I did in Morecambe with a show called Some people have got too many legs.”
In a separate event, Roger is being interviewed by my good self so I’m looking forward to that. Matt says: “To have Roger is fantastic, I see him as the Godfather.” That’s lovely, I just hope Roger doesn’t see me as Fredo.
Former Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy is joined by ex-Scottish Makar Jackie Kay for an incredible double bill, and Atilla and John Hegley both return. There’s even a symposium on Sunday followed by a meal. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s also a Morecambe Poetry Festival Anthology this year, containing a poem by each of the featured poets. The newly arrived Eden Project has been involved in the book and has written a forward.
Later in the year, Matt has a film festival planned in Morecambe. I ask him why he’s putting on all of this entertainment.
“We’ve got a statue of a comedian on the seafront but no comedy. People have been disconnected from their own heritage.”
Matt has great dreams for future events and, if all goes to plan, hopes to run an Arts Centre in Morecambe. I hope he succeeds. Who knows, they may put a statue of him on the seafront one day.
Main image: Matt Panesh by Jill Jennings
Morecambe Poetry Festival takes place September 22-24, 2023. For tickets, click here.