My knowledge of poetry begins and ends with Pam Ayres (ask your Granny) and four-line stanzas where something rhymes with Nantucket.
But Manchester is the place to rediscover the art of poetry. The city boasts a burgeoning poetry scene with a whole new roster of artists making serious headway.
Performance poetry and stand-up now mingle on the bill thanks to nights such as Punk in Drublic. The evenings, which raise money for Mustard Tree, a charity seeking to combat homelessness in Manchester, have featured comics including Danny Mcloughlin, Alex Boardman and Allyson June-Smith, alongside poets such as Jackie Hagan, Genevieve Walsh and Thick Richard.
MC and brains behind the project, Robert Steventon told me how the idea came about.
“As stage manager at Manchester’s Comedy Store, I saw many performance poets who had a comedy style, and I felt there was a gap in the market for a night that formally married the two. The poet who opened my eyes to the comedic potential of it all was Thick Richard. He tells really grim stories about Mancunian life in hilarious poems. Those kinds of influences are spreading with the likes of Rosie Fleeshman who is an excellent performance art poet.”
The original inspiration for many is John Cooper Clarke who has been storytelling and rhyming for almost 40 years. Now there seems to be no shortage of acts – aspiring or already established – in the North West to fill Punk in Drublic evenings several times over.
“Manchester has an amazing scene and I’ve made some great friends,” Steventon explains. “It’s a small world so people within the poetry community know each other well, watch other nights and make connections. There isn’t a week that goes by now where there aren’t at least three poetry nights on. It’s a great entry platform for new talent, and people get in touch to try it out, though there is an art to it and it isn’t as easy as it might seem.
“It’s always been around from Beat poets to poetry slams. You only have to think of the effect Tony Walsh’s poem at the Manchester vigil had on people, moving many to tears. The variety of emotions poetry allows you to express is really empowering and people use it to address serious things and vent about social issues so most audiences can relate to it.”
Having said that, audiences can be notoriously single-minded. If they’ve paid to see stand-up comedy, they might be reluctant to accept a dash of poetry with their pint. I wonder if that means that the poets on show can only perform humorous pieces in order to fit in?
“There is a continuity to the running order of the evening,” Steventon says. We open with a comic or very funny poet and over the course of the show, lull people into more serious stuff, before finishing up with another stand-up.
“Confronting people with poems has varying degrees of success, but for every unsure punter we have had, we’ve managed to convert another who would previously have shuddered at the thought of poetry, so it has been really rewarding.”
Thick Richard is one of the veterans of the stand-up poetry scene, performing all over the UK including the Edinburgh Fringe and Glastonbury. His work is very much of the ‘venting’ variety with the likes of Stockport and Noel Edmonds in his verbal sights. He also presented Swear School, a crash course in bad language. As one of the performers credited with shaking up the scene, does he think poetry has a duty to shock?
“Not necessarily, that’s just the way I do it,” says Thick Richard. “I started doing this 17 years ago when the scene was small and pretentious so I probably seemed really confrontational at the time. Poetry nights were stale and very much owned by page poets who would just turn up with books and read. They didn’t like me and I didn’t like them.
“For me it was more about shouting and being in people’s faces which eventually branched away to become performance poetry. It was only when US-style slam nights took off, that stand-up shows started booking poets.”
He continues: “There’s still an argument about the page and the stage. You have published, written poets who have a go as performance artists and vice versa. Punk in Drublic nights are a good platform as people aren’t too surprised to see poetry at an alternative comedy gig whereas at a more conventional show, they would switch off as soon an act started to rhyme.”
One of the main skills comedy and poetry share is being able to tell a story. Thanks to the likes of Peter Kay and the much-missed Victoria Wood, observational comedy has long since replaced the more traditional joke-telling comedian. The content you write about can receive varying reactions, but Thick Richard is philosophical about picking his targets.
“The content choices I make go down well with some and not so much with others. Sometimes I know what’s going to work and other times I can’t judge the audience at all. I go down well with old and young people, but the middle-aged Radio 4 audience really don’t like me. Scotland’s always good and London crowds are always appreciative because there’s a lot of bad stuff down there so if you have decent material they really appreciate it. There are a lot more gigs around now but more people taking the slots so it doesn’t get any easier. But so long as you don’t mind eating rice for every meal you can scrape by.”
Performance poetry has opened a whole new career for actress Rosie Fleeshman. Just six months after writing her first poem, Fleeshman is enjoying great acclaim with her spoken word show Narcissist in The Mirror. So, if orange is the new black, does she think poetry is the new stand-up?
“It’s making a massive comeback and a lot of people are really getting into it. Even things like the Nationwide TV adverts are making people aware of the different kinds of poetry there is and that it doesn’t just mean standing there reading from a book. What’s excellent about performance poetry is that it lures audiences into the art form who wouldn’t normally give reading a poem a chance.”
Writing and expressing herself through poetry has been therapeutic for Fleeshman, but also an unexpected career move.
“It has completely changed my life. I found the confidence to start writing in November and things have developed quickly with my one-woman show. Everything I do now is based on writing and creating my own work.
“As an actor, you’re continually waiting for someone else to offer you a job but now I can do it for myself and I’ve no desire to go back to being an actor who waits for the phone to ring. My show is very much about my own experiences, focusing on millennials and expectations after finishing drama school, and being faced with reality and disappointment about things not all working out the way I expected. It’s been brilliant to grow and change creatively and I’m thoroughly enjoying poetry and happy to be seen as an actor, writer and poet.”
This brings us back to the idea of page versus stage. Some may still assume that poetry nights involve people on stage reading from a book – possibly wearing Aran sweaters and smoking pipes. Fleeshman feels that performance poetry, and its filtering into the stand-up comedy world, is helping to turn it from a specialist art form into entertainment.
“I’ve always been a performer and am really comfortable on the stage but it’s a balancing act. I’ve had feedback from poets saying I sometimes over perform and need to just allow the words to speak for themselves. Stage skills are a help, though, because if you can’t hear what’s being said then the words are lost. On a comedy night, I always try to do a mix of stuff because people want variety. The main priority for me is to entertain.”