Poet and comedian Mark has been good enough to share some memories…
Mark Miwurdz origins
I began performing poetry around Sheffield in 78/79 as Mark Miwurdz. There was a thriving local band scene, a lot of post punk electronic stuff and I supported bands like Cabaret Voltaire, and The Comsat Angels. I was working in a factory at the time and going to see local bands. I had never been that interested in poetry at school, but I did love comic lyricists, like Jake Thackray and Tom Lehrer, so I’d make up songs rather than poetry. I also liked the lyrics in musicals, even though I was straight! The only poets I liked were Cyril Fletcher doing his odd odes on That’s Life and Pam Ayres. Also, any stand ups that used inventive language, particularly Les Dawson and Billy Connolly.
Then I heard John Cooper Clarke around the time that I was socializing on the band scene and it all sort of clicked. The inspiration for doing live poetry at music gigs came from JCC, but the influences were more diverse. He was the only person most people had heard doing poetry in that setting so the comparisons were inevitable. The only other gigging poets I was aware of then were Linton Kwesi Johnson, and I’d heard of Patrick Fitzgerald, who was being labelled as a poet with music. I was also vaguely aware of John Dowie who was doing acerbic songs and poetry on the band scene in Manchester.
I was very popular around Sheffield, and because there were so many gigs, I did a lot of them. I was usually referred to as a punk poet, or Sheffield’s JCC and have several old music fanzines with reviews and interviews from that time. I had never heard of ranting at that point.
Then an issue of the NME came out and had a full page article by X Moore about a skinhead poet called Seething Wells. It told of how he and another poet called Attila The Stockbroker, had invaded the Poetry Olympics in London, and performed a ranting style type of poetry, taking the piss out of the event, calling it The Poetry Ol-limp pricks. It made it sound like they had literally ran on stage and took over, though I’m not sure exactly how accurate that was. The organizer Micheal Horovitz, may or may not have agreed to them performing, I don’t know. But that is where the whole popularising of ranting poetry started as far as I recall. The article went on to say how Swells was receiving correspondence from someone in jail who he’d influenced, who wanted to do the same as him. (This later turned out to be Ginger John, I believe) and mentioned that there was a poetry scene in Bradford with other like minded poets, and named some of them. Joolz, Little Bro and Wild Willi Beckett I think. I was at once elated that there were more poets around, but deflated not to be mentioned.
This was a revelation to me. There were a bunch of other performing poets only 40 miles away and I never knew! So not long after that, I was contacted by Little Brother and invited to appear at one of their Bradford poetry nights. It was in a pub called The Vaults and was advertised as The Rhyme Bandits. I don’t think Swells was on that night, but there was Little Brother, Joolz and Wild Willi Becket who did mad poetry in a character type performance, with a backing band who were Justin and another guy who were starting out in New Model Army. (There’s a short docco on him on YouTube, he died in 2007 and was deffo in that early wave of poetry) I wouldn’t say that any of them had a ranting style. Joolz was like a dramatic, spoken word performer, Little Brother was quite political in content but owed more to the monologue style of music hall than any angry ranting. Eventually I came across Swells at a uni gig and he wasn’t like any of the others I’d seen, much more aggressive, obviously because of the skinhead gear, and his style, tough nut ranting, really was the epitome of ranting.
Swells and Little Brother then became mates and would stay over in Sheffield, where I was still working in the tuning fork factory and living at my mums. I organised a few gigs with them, the three of us performing as The Street Wise Monkeys. I recall after a gig, back at my mums, we played Poetic Consequences. Write a line, fold the paper over and swap, then write your next line, etc. We ended up with three, 4 line poems, interwoven. I was influenced to write a bit more politically because of hanging around with them, but the accent was always on laughs with most of us. At gigs we’d usually be billed as Ranting or Punk Poets, but weren’t too fussed about the labels, we’d discuss it I think we were all a bit fed up with constant JCC comparisons, but were just happy to be gigging. Little Brother eventually got his full page X Moore article in the NME, and I got mine in The Melody Maker, written by a northern journo called Frank Worrall. Poetry gigs were often reviewed in the music press and I remember one review in the NME when I supported Nick Cave’s The Birthday Party, saying ‘Mark Miwurdz mixes a frothing cocktail of poetry and comedy, leaving the audience shaken and stirred’
I still hadn’t encountered Attila, who was becoming a bit of a character in my mind, not least because of a review of a gig he’d done in a North London pub, which was a right wing skins hangout. It was called The Blue Coat Boy, and I think he was supporting the Business. Anyway, apparently he didn’t get through much before they clocked that he was a ‘commie’ and it all kicked off. The big thing in the review was that he had ‘had his mandolin smashed by thugs’. He was based down south, but when I eventually gigged with him, like Swells, his image belied a more mild mannered regular bloke. I remember him staying over at my mum’s after we arrived late pissed after a gig. The next morning I got up to find him playing mandolin in the living room, for my mum, who was sat there with a cup of tea and a fag on!
I went up to the Edinburgh Festival early 80s as a punter and met Roland Muldoon who ran the Cast gigs, where Attila, Swells and Little Bro were already regular performers. He had taken up the show, A New Variety of Poets, to the Assembly Rooms. I think it was Little Brother, Swells and Benjamin Zephaniah. Anyway, LB introduced me to Roland and I got onto the Cast circuit. I remember Swells and LB telling me that I’d love the gigs and would go down a storm, but not to say the word ‘cunt’ because the feminists didn’t like it. The Cast gigs were fertile ground for poets and it was there I saw more styles, carribbean poets like John Agard. Quite a few other poets, Lemn Sissay, and female poets, Liz Lochead, Claire Dowie etc. The only female ranting poet I remember is Big J, (Janine Booth) and of course Joolz, though she was not a ranter as such.
The Ranting Poetry label stuck around for a bit. There were some young poets like Little Dave, and a now released from jail, Ginger John, who were into the ranting style but then others, like Dino The Frog were just doing their own thing. Every town seemed to have it’s own poets, a guy called Nod in Newcastle, Swift Nick in Hull, there was a poetry ensemble in Sheffield called The Circus of Poets, though not all were that keen to align with what was going on nationwide. I worked with Ian McMillan from Barnsley back in the day, early 80s but he seemed to steer clear of the emerging cabaret/poetry scene and keep himself to himself. Maybe he thought of himself as a more ‘serious’ poet, I don’t know. It would be interesting to find out what someone like him, who could have done the cabaret circuit and supported bands, but stayed close to home and ploughed a different furrow, as far as I know, thought of what was going on.
So pure Ranting Poetry was, I think, a brief splash, but it’s ripples were felt far and wide for some time after. I see it a bit like how The Sex Pistols were the defining nucleus of punk, but then loads of pub rock bands who had been performing for a while, got labelled under the new wave/punk banner, it was the same with ranting. That Swells NME article, about crashing the Poetry Olympics, to me, signalled the birth of ranting, but lots of poets of different styles were spurred on and swept up in it. I think there were also quiet a few older, 35-50s age poets who came out of the woodwork too. A few of these older poets started to put gigs on around the country, putting on the younger radicals, whilst compering themselves. I would put Nick Toczek in that bracket. A fully formed, social commentary poet who wasn’t part of any scene, and worked in schools and stuff, but was able to slot into part of the new radical poetry scene. He didn’t look or sound like Swells or Attila, (neither did I for that matter) so not sure he would have been as at home in the Brixton Ace supporting GBH but It was an all encompassing period and poetry in all forms was being performed all over. There was a guy who was a lecturer at a college near Manchester, he’d done poetry over the years. He started a poetry gig in the 6th form college. In the student’s lunch break, they would all file in, in the assembly hall and watch a political, often foulmouthed poet. That would probably not happen now… (part 2 follows)