It’s been a bit of a week.
It kicked off with someone at my door demanding I don’t do any more stand-up poetry for several reasons:
1) It’s drivel.
2) Nobody likes it.
3) It’s upsetting people and they won’t come to the gigs.
4) It’s obvious who it’s about.
5) It’s stressing that person out.
5) Nobody likes it.
This was all a bit problematic because firstly, of course it’s drivel. I keep saying so.
I DO NOT DO POETRY.
As poetry, my stuff is utter drivel. I agree, like totes.
I don’t know what poetry really is. What I mean is people like Coleridge do poetry. My stuff isn’t like his. But nobody’s ever could be like his. He wasn’t just off his face a lot of the time but he lived in the place I come from and all of the best people I used to know combined those two things too.
After last night’s gig somebody asked me who my influences were, then asked if I minded saying. I can’t think of any possible reason I wouldn’t. I don’t think I’m very much like Adrian Henry, Hugo Williams and John Betjeman. I wish I was, except two of them are dead and the other one isn’t looking very well. But they were the people who I’d like to be like, in writing terms.
Adrian Henry was one of the Liverpool poets. I saw him perform in Bath once and won’t again as he’s dead now. I wish I could write things as good as this:
Love is the presents in Christmas shops
Love is when you’re feeling Top of the Pops
Love is what happens when the music stops
Drivel, isn’t it? But I like the musing, thinking aloud quality of the repetition. I like the triviality and familiarity of the references to things like Top Of The Pops. I like the banality and the silliness, because sometimes that’s how you feel when you’re in love. Is that poem ‘about’ a specific person? Maybe. Maybe not. We can all recognise the feeling though, without that doing any harm to anybody at all.
Miss Joan Hunter Dunn
Summoned By Bells was the first book I bought with my first wages when I went to London. It was ‘about’ a secretly adulterous portly man in a pork pie hat maundering around railway stations and churches, poking around his furniture-making parents’ courtship half a century before. What’s not to like?
At work I sat next to a man who’d been one of the managers of the band Killing Joke. Anyone who thought the band were fascists obviously never swapped sandwiches with Danny. Nice bloke though he was he totally didn’t get Betjeman, couldn’t stand the dum de dum de dum de dee of the rhyming, notwithstanding that Betjeman himself said he was no rhymer, no Milton. But then and now I can’t understand anyone who doesn’t go a bit quiet and reflective with a silly smile half on their lips as they read:
The scent of the conifers, sound of the bath,
The view from my bedroom of moss-dappled path,
As I struggle with double-end evening tie,
For we dance at the Golf Club, my victor and I.
On the floor of her bedroom lie blazer and shorts
And the cream-coloured walls are be-trophied with sports
And westering, questioning settles the sun
On your low leaded-window, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.
Bath-path, tie-I, shorts-sports; chase the rhyme John, why don’t you? But at the same time I was arguably lucky enough to grow up in a house like that. I knew girls like that. I never wore a bow-tie for a date, but I did have to learn how to tie one later on. (Tip: tie it around a bannister or a bedpost, then undo it on the adjuster, then put it round your neck. No, don’t thank me, honestly. Yes, I did say have to). And when I read that I can still feel the sunburn on my forearms as I put on a crisp shirt for the evening and wonder how she’s going to be. This evening. Do you think she’ll, you know? if we can find somewhere? There’s a surprising amount of that in Betjeman’s stuff. Joan Hunter Dunn was a real girl who Betjeman had a crush on, (with whom, hem hem) but they were never engaged and they only once went out for lunch. I’m pretty darned sure they never fooled around on a car seat instead of going into the dance they were supposed to be going to. Was the poem ‘about’ the woman whose name he slapped all over it? Well, yes and no. They weren’t engaged. They didn’t go to a dance. And not on a car seat or anywhere else. But she played sports quite a lot and her parents had a house like that.
I discovered Hugo Williams in a library in Bath but not in the way that Peter Wyngard discovered a police officer in a public lavatory there. When I was supposed to be revising I read No Particular Place To Go over and again (yes I know that’s a phrase I use over and again. It means over and again, you see). That book included the poem about Miss O’Sullivan’s Record Exchange, which is fabulous and was real, (we used to jive in the listening booths when she turned the music up, knowing we wouldn’t buy. It was the best she could do. You couldn’t hear that kind of thing any other way in 1956). But Hugo Williams also writes stuff like this:
Whether it was putting in an extra beat,
or leaving one out, I couldn’t tell.
My heart seemed to have forgotten
everything it ever knew
about timing and co-ordination
in its efforts to get through to someone
on the other side of a wall.
As I lay in bed, I could hear it
hammering away inside my pillow,
being answered now and then
by a distant guitar-note of bedsprings,
pausing for a moment, as if listening,
Then hurrying on as before.
I wonder if Hugo Williams has people knocking on his door saying ‘I know who this is about.’ It’s obviously a very personal poem. Is it about lying in bed listening to the sound of someone you really like shagging someone else in the next room? Maybe. I think so. Some people’s lives are settled and without things like that happening. Mine – well, I’ve known what Hugo Williams was talking about, if he was, even if it was a really long time ago and before I adjusted my attitudes somewhat. Compartmentalising, I think it’s called. Probably. But it could just be about not being able to get to sleep.
He also wrote stuff like this:
I don’t know what to do
As you pass your time
Perfecting the darkness between us.
That was about someone flicking her hair over her eyes looking for split ends instead of looking at him. There has never been a period in history where that’s been a good sign. So I wonder if he ever got email as I did this week, asking him why his stuff is full of self-pity and that wasn’t like him and did he have a split personality or something?
Moving on, as I think we probably should, nothing I write is ‘about’ anyone. Things happen, those things provoke ideas, sometimes the ideas become stuff I write down, sometimes it works as a performance piece and sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s not a documentary.
Like Williams, like Betjeman, like Coleridge, like Henry, which is nowhere near saying my stuff is as good as theirs, the things I write about happen to everybody. It’s not a written record. It isn’t supposed to upset anyone. I hope it doesn’t. It isn’t meant to.
It certainly is time I broadened my scope and varied the themes in the things I write. It’s probably overdue and last week’s visit was a good, if unwelcome, wake-up call to get my finger out and write about some different things. So this week I have. (What Does It Feel Like, Mick? and Nazi Jazz Rules) It’s actually better stuff.
Some people like my stuff. A surprising number, to me, anyway. Not everybody will and that goes for anything, whether it’s pub poetry, as Naomi Jaffa at The Poetry Trust smilingly but somewhat sniffily called it last week, (as in “I don’t do pub poetry, Carl”), politics or pizza. Actually, that’s rubbish. Everyone likes pizza.
To be clear, I absolutely do not want to stress anybody out. If people don’t like my stuff I can live with that. If they don’t want to see me then I’m certainly not going to keep trying to see them.
People get over-excited. But the next time someone comes to my door telling me where I’m allowed to go and what I’m allowed to say then the stress levels involved in finding a police car in your drive and uniformed officers in your living room talking about counselling, procuring, aiding and abetting harassment are quite high, I’m told.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some new stuff to write for a gig for Mother’s Day that people clearly do like, or at least enough to pay me to do it. But with that topic and my family, that’s going to be a bit of a challenge.