Many of the New Variety acts, there were always poets on the bill, supporting the GLC which was fighting to remain after Thatcher decided the best way to shatter it’s left wing influence was to abolish. The NME, 24 March, 1985 reviews.
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.
An outstanding, and typical, bill from the ‘alternative cabaret’ promoters. They’d usually have a poet (often a ranter), a comedian, a musician and a ‘weird turn’ on the bill.
This bill from NME, 31 March, 1984 has some top drawer names: Pauline Melville, Benjamin Zephaniah, Mark Miwurdz, Billy Bragg, Matumbi, The Popticians (John Hegley’s band), Left Wing Teds and many more.
The Camden Centre, June 18th, 2015
Now that was a gig! The main gig of our season of events. Though we say it ourselves the best line up of the year… if not longer.
Forthright poetry that wasn’t afraid to be saying something.
Mark Thomas more than capably hosted and ensured everyone kept to time – which was no mean feat.
First up was Teething Wells with one of his rants from 1981 and then a current attack on gentrification. Plenty to be angry about.
Little Dave took the stage next, for the first time in decades. It was great to see some of the old ranters, seasoned turns like John Cooper Clarke and LKJ as well as poets at the start of their career such as Emily Harrison all on stage and all on target.
Ginger John took the stage next and took it like it was a Normandy beach. Charming, funny, and deft as ever… seeing him back on stage has been one of my highlights from Stand Up and Spit.
Janine Booth did an incendiary set and her the audience were with her, joining in with ‘Mostly Hating Tories’.
Ranting centre-forward Attila the Stockbroker showed just why he’s not stopped gigging. By now everyone knew this was a unique gig. Attila’s performance was as punchy as you’d expect. He even had several of the audience in tears, the atmosphere was that good. He read one of Seething Wells’ poems Roger. That was a lovely moment.
John Hegley took the John Hegley spot and calmed the pace as only he can.
Ending the first half was Linton Kwesi Johnson. Linton read a couple of poems, his second was his reflction on the 1981 riots that swept the country: The Great Insurrection. Like all the poets the relevance of the poetry leapt into the air. Linton’s third poem was a highspot of the night, a highspot of all the live poetry I’ve ever seen come to that. He read Michael Smith’s Mi Cyaan Believe It. The room hushed as those that knew the poem soaked it up and the younger people were carried along with Michael’s words and the power of Linton’s delivery.
Next was a short interval for drinks, credit to the Class War contingent whose table at the end of the night had the highest tally of empty beer bottles. Poets old and young mingled, ‘zines did the rounds and people caught their breath. Great to see poets like Clare Pollard in the audience, spoken word is in such a healthy state it’s a good time to look at, and enjoy, it’s history.
Emily Harrison, fast building a reputation for one of the best young poets reading at the moment, commenced the first half and showed that the angry and funny style of ranting has been passed on.
Joolz took the stage next and as Porky the Poet said “Joolz was her usual spellbinding mix of hilarious and harrowing, (as a poet she’s the closest thing you’ll get to watching ‘Goodfellas’).”
John Cooper Clarke raised the roof. Quite rightly a national treasure and a bloke who’s poetry, and life, is a testament to being original, witty and (mostly) decent.
Porky the Poet was last on and was his usual genial and generous self. Like all the poets he took aim at our wretched government, and did so with humour.
“We did all the ranting, to stop things happening, and it’s got worse.”
Stepping out from the gig we moved from a space where people were positive, having fun, fighting back to pavements where people were grey and worried.
We need our ranters.
The gig was all and more that we’d wanted: top drawer poets, an enthusiastic audience, old friends, new friends, great poetry and a valuable look back at ranting poetry that clearly resonated with what’s going on today.
There’s a review at Write Out Loud
I first saw Seething Wells speak his ranting banter
at a CAST New Variety night in Shepherd’s Bush.
This rabid Ringo at the drumkit of language.
This red hot-handed crop brushing grit spitting
rush of Northern Soul. 1983 maybe and
Mad as Bradford.
fast-boarding great balls of bite
straight from the chip fat
at bat-breaking speed
this blindly blathering beast
jarring with the jingoistic, lingo going all ballistic
Seething Wells Spoken.
(both poets worked on the buses)