The Independent,18 March, 1998 gave performance poetry a glowing write up. The then big names have largely disappeared. The bloke with the loudhailer shouting “fuck” at the Poetry Cafe was Dom Joly. He filmed a few bits of Trigger Happy TV at the cafe’s open mic’ Unplugged night.
Atomic Lip’s video on YouTube is used by several poetry teachers as a how not to do it. Tomorrow’s chip wrappers and all that.
The word on the street is upbeat – poetry as a performing art is making a comeback, aided by Litpop and a three-day festival.
By Dominic Cavendish
He looks like your worst idea of a poet, squared. He shuffles up to the microphone in tattered old jeans and a shirt untouched by iron or fabric conditioner, his hair wild, his eyes wilder. He starts muttering over the general chatter, “Break through to the other side,” over and over again. It sounds like an exhortation to leave, but suddenly a breath- defying rap fills the musty air of Islington’s Big Word club: “This is for the cover bands, yeah … the coward cover-uppers up-and-comers unoriginal and virginal uninspired and too scared to try insipids,” he hisses. The audience are gobsmacked.
You may have caught MC Jabber’s fleeting appearances after the Channel 4 evening news over the past few weeks. Along with three other relatively unknown poets (Jillian Tipene, Patience Agbabi and Pink Sly) and the rather well known old Lutonian, John Hegley, he has been given three five-minute slots in a series entitled Litpop. These pop-promo-style interventions are tied in with a three-day festival of word power to be held next week at London’s 100 Club.
The intention behind Litpop is to help up the profile and reputation of versifiers who write with an eye to performance rather than publication, a species often treated with more condescension than a scatty great-aunt. The timing is fortuitous: in pub backrooms across town, the talk among struggling performers is upbeat. The London performance poetry scene may be small, they’ll tell you, but nevertheless it’s the biggest and best in the world. Across the country, the Bristol and Cheltenham-led cult of the poetry slam – imported from the US – in which the public give the yea or nay to try-out bards, is generating grass-roots enthusiasm for sweet poesy.
Huddersfield-based MC Jabber and Brixton-bred Pink Sly are being hailed as stars – comparable to yesteryear’s quicksilvered punkster-rhymster John Cooper Clarke and dub dude Benjamin Zephaniah. This generation is also claiming its inheritance from the Sixties, when the Mersey Sound and the Beats garnered media attention on both sides of the Atlantic as re-energisers of the spoken word, for so long muffled in ivory towers.
“Poetry you can dance to,” the Litpop festival fliers promise.
It’s not an entirely fanciful notion: after all, one of the most striking bits of footage from the first International Poetry Incarnation, a massed gathering of scribes at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965, is of a woman slowly gyrating during Allen Ginsberg’s performance. The sight of someone giving it large to Jabber’s information-overloaded algorithms (Ginsberg’s “Howl” on speed, if you will) or Pink Sly’s laid-back mock national anthems is all the more likely, given that, like many performance poets today, they take their influences from club culture.
The Litpop line-up boasts an array of names that wouldn’t look out of place on club fliers: JCOOI, Jonzi D, Malika B, Stricke 9. Jabber (aka Scott Martingell) started out five years ago doing spots at all-day festivals and raves and now regularly provides his own “nutritional beats per minute” for up to an hour in a number of northern clubs. Jonzi D dances to his hip-hop “choreopoems”, Jillian Tipene does a Maori haka, while Pink Sly has been known to get his audience doing the conga during his set. Not to be outdone, Hegley has his “Poem de Terre”, which requires the donning of a brown paper bag, a slow jig, potato-tossing and, preferably, a muddy field to do it in.
Steve Tasane, organiser of the festival and member of Atomic Lip, “poetry’s first pop band”, believes that “people who go out and get drunk on a Friday night, or go to clubs, can relate to the rhythms they’re hearing. They can get an immediate buzz from it.” The Lip, who previewed their show a few weeks ago, certainly provide buzz. On stage, Tasane, shaven-headed and sporting a low-cut black Lycra dress and fish-net tights, looked more like a Martian poet than Craig Raine ever did. In grinding polyvocal arrangements, the quartet fenced with acronyms, celebrated the grunts and groans of sex and sexuality, and looped repetitive sounds in a bitter house music pastiche.
So far, so literal. Ginsberg, inspecting Liverpool’s pop poetry in 1965, enthused, after William Blake, “Albion, Albion, your children dance again”. However, the dancing he spoke of was a metaphorical leaping for joy; a state of transcendence. Michael Horovitz, one of the prime movers since the Fifties behind the UK’s rediscovery of the oral tradition, civilisation’s fount, speculated in 1968 that “given free rein [poems] might subtly evaporate the dominion of commercial interests, aggressive nationalisms and governments as we know them.” Unshackled language was being reclaimed for the people.
The downside of this democratic impulse was that roll your own verse acquired a bad reputation. “Performers got very lazy,” says Tasane. “In the Eighties, the general view was that performance poetry was crap. And it was. There are still a lot of poets who are talentless or who make no effort to put on a decent show and they’re holding the scene back. Things have to get slicker, glossier.”
Surrounded by papers and old Evian boxes in his Notting Hill residence, still smarting from his commercially unsuccessful 1996 Poetry Olympics at the Royal Albert Hall, Horovitz concedes that these are different times. Poetry has to struggle to be heard above the competing din of the mass media, but glossiness is not the answer. He is currently working on `The New Waste Land”, an update of TS Eliot’s modernist masterpiece, in which he lashes out at the hyping of Murray Lachlan Young, the 28-year-old poetaster who shot to fame on the back of a mega-bucks EMI deal (now ended) and who is currently appearing in a TV ad for Virgin Atlantic. He connects it with the soundbite politics of New Labour. I’m all for everyone trying their hand at poems, but if the result is that thousands of untalented people dream of making it as stars, that’s the last thing they should be encouraged to do.”
You can still hear the voice of everyman during open spots and slams. In Ladbroke Grove, a woman describes the universe from a worm’s point of view; in Cheltenham, an 84-year-old recites an ode to a tablecloth; at London’s Poetry Cafe “Unplugged” night, a man materialises with a loudhailer, intones the word “fuck” for five minutes, then vanishes. Amusing, maybe even touching, but hardly the best advertisement for the scene. Perhaps MC Jabber, whose combination of homeless chic and quickfire technique can draw crowds, offers the best compromise solution. “Poetry’s the last bastion for uncommercialised expression. It’s also a service and these days, we all have to be good little service providers, don’t we?”
Words to make anyone’s lips curl.