Monday, 8 August 2016

20 Years of Poetry Unplugged

Legendary London open mic night Poetry Unplugged celebrated its 20th Anniversary last week, and to mark the occasion a huge shindig was thrown featuring some of its most memorable acts from the period.

"That's a very direct and factual establishing sentence there, Dave, though a bit overlong and bland. Now, why don't you tell us a bit more about what happened on the night?"

Erm. I can't. I fully intended to go, but unfortunately was struck down with Tonsillitis, and decided that a late night in the Poetry Cafe's cramped basement wasn't something I could handle, even under the most celebratory of circumstances. The noise of me constantly churning up pus from the back of my tonsils can't have been anything anyone would have needed to hear, either, not even as an experimental five minute "noise poem" called "Tonsil Tennis Played With A Bigger Racket Than Usual". Still, from all the accounts I've read online since it was a great night.

Despite not being there to celebrate the anniversary, there's utterly no reason whatsoever why I can't talk about why it's an important event in the poetry calendar, and why it's twenty year landmark is a heartening thing. I've talked about the night once already in the Morning Star, but short articles in left-wing newspapers and personal pieces for blogs are two entirely different things with very different rules attached, and I can actually reminisce about my personal connection with the place hopefully without being boring.

I was actually something of a latecomer to Unplugged. For exceptionally naive reasons, I'd decided that the Poetry Cafe was an awful venue filled with deeply unfriendly nights after one bad experience I'd had there in its earliest days (Don't ask me the name of the event or the person who ran it, gossip-hunter - it's far too long ago for me to recall those details now. In fact, I can barely remember why I was so put out.) This was childish and simplistic of me, a bit like turning up to a bad gig at the Brixton Academy and then blaming it on the venue itself, but in my defence, you have to remember that the poetry circuit in London wasn't necessarily all-embracing in those days. If I'd walked out of the Poetry Cafe with the impression that all its events were essentially quite dry, academic readings with no young riff-raff to be tolerated, it might be because those frosty divides did exist in those days, and I felt that I'd been stung a few too many times. They still exist to an extent now, of course - and some young spoken word artists on the circuit have erected walls and barriers of their own, complicating matters further - but the circuit in general is more liberal and accepting than it was.

In the end, I was persuaded by a well-meaning acquaintance on the circuit to give Unplugged a go, and at some point in the year 2000 I wandered down the Poetry Cafe's basement steps into a small room jammed with people. The evening was run by John Citizen in those days, who had a reputation for running a tight ship in an eerily laidback way, as if he'd mastered the art of two contradictory states of being at once, a zen-like watcher of the clock and the reading list. I recall nothing of the acts who went on before me (and I doubt any Unplugged debutante ever does) because I spent the best part of 30 minutes worrying about the sheer volume of people, all seemingly from different backgrounds, with different expectations about poetry and different ideas. And such noisy bastards, too - they cheered at poems they particularly enjoyed, roared encouragement at newcomers, and in general made the place seem like a night out, not a test pad for new poetry.

If this sounds equally naive and you're spluttering to yourself, thinking "Don't be silly, the Poetry Cafe is a tiny venue, not the Hippodrome!" - again, context is everything. Most non-professional poetry nights on the circuit in those days, especially open mics, were lucky to get twenty people through the door. And it would usually be twenty quiet people in a slightly large upstairs pub room, not crammed into a small basement area. This felt new to me.

When the moment came when John Citizen announced my name, I rushed to the stage nervously and over-enthusiastically, and accidentally stomped on his foot. He howled out in pain, and my first words on mic at the Poetry Cafe - ever - were "Er shit, I've just trod on his foot. Sorry, John!" A new catchphrase was not born that night. Nobody laughed at me, which made the situation a bit worse. I suspected that instead, they might be dying inside on my behalf.

I rushed through my set at what felt like a breakneck pace, did the one poem I had I was genuinely sure of, and to my amazement got encouraging applause and cheers. I honestly doubt this was because my performance was genuinely good - I doubt it was even tepid, to be honest - but the audience seemed motivated to push me along because they'd not seen me there before, and they knew I'd got off to an awkward start, and somehow pulled through the mess. There was a camaraderie at the night I hadn't witnessed on the rest of the open mic circuit, and while it wasn't an explicit rule (I don't recall John Citizen telling everyone to give new readers big cheers back in those days, as the present host Niall O'Sullivan does as a matter of course) I get the impression that this attitude had already woven itself into the fabric of the night. From that point forward, I was back frequently, and I was never as nervous again.

I've since met and made some of my longest-standing friends at Unplugged, as well as being offered my first proper poetry gigs through promoters who happened to be there flyering for their night. Back in those days, they would engage in a sly bit of talent-spotting as well as engaging in promotional activity, giving Unplugged an additional purpose as a place people may earn paid ten-minute slots elsewhere. This element of Unplugged has fallen by the wayside in recent years, with only John Paul O'Neill still attending on a regular basis working out who to encourage. This is, to say the least, a deep shame, but let's leave the point to rest for now and have the argument another day.

I'm not necessarily claiming that without Unplugged I wouldn't have made these friends nor been offered those opportunities, but it would probably have taken me a lot longer. And on top of that, the fact that the night is in Central London at a specialist poetry venue means that it's the true hub of the circuit, the central drinking fountain - all poetry life is here, from dub poets to slam winners to Creative Writing students to self-confessed oddballs. While most poetry open mics tend to become clubs for like-minded writers and people, acting as extensions of the host's personality, Unplugged has always been far more unpredictable, and embracing of that unpredictability.

There are some (though not many) people who don't like Unplugged and seldom go, but what's interesting is that their criticisms are often sitting on opposite sides of the spectrum. I've heard the insult "Too orderly, not anarchic enough" before now (usually from hipsters angry that they couldn't read for ten minutes). But then I've also heard the insult "It's too rowdy". This is proof that when you're trying to satisfy a diverse audience, someone somewhere will still feel left out despite all your best efforts. Others have made the mistake of attending while believing that every performer must be above a certain standard, which is a rum expectation to have of any open mic.

The hosts have all had a tricky balancing act to carry out in the last twenty years, and have all handled the situation in different but equally successful ways. Citizen, as we've established, was a walking Little Book of Calm and a genuine comforting presence to new poets. Before he was famous, ex-Unplugged urchin Pete Doherty harboured ambitions to take over his reign, but sanity (and chart success) prevailed and Carl Dhiman stepped up to the ranks, often being gently sardonic to regulars in the process but a considerate and incredibly encouraging man towards new readers. O'Sullivan has sat on Unplugged's throne for the longest time of all of them, and manages to be entertaining and gregarious while still proving to the newcomers that he's interested in their ideas, ensuring they get maximum audience support and encouragement.

For me, it's a fantastic testing ground for new material (even after all these years) where I can get a firm impression of how a poem might sound in a lively venue. I still get to meet some interesting people. And I occasionally get the odd person asking me "Are you new? That was quite promising", which always brings me down to Earth with a bump irrespective of what other compliments I've had that month.

I'm glad it's twenty. Even if that makes me feel incredibly fucking old.

Thursday, 11 February 2016


As I'm sure I've probably whined on here before, the life of the part-time writer with a "proper" day job is never a simple one. You may mean to update your blog, write new material, get stuff out to publishers and even tap promoters on the shoulder and remind them you exist, but if you're working overtime more often than not and struggling to get indoors before half eight in the evening, it's not going to happen. And all of us have those periods in our lives.

Failing that, of course, you  might just live in a desperate bit of nowheresville, a small town orbiting a not particularly interesting city, and lack the ability to get feedback for your work or even perform. I've been there too. Every single time I've ever ended up staying for an extended period in my parent's spare room, I've relied on the Internet to get feedback on my latest work. The lack of any other local cultural outlets at all made it the only way.

Last time this happened, way back at the turn of the 21st Century, I used the long-forgotten but actually pretty brilliant literary sharing website Poesie, which allowed you to share drafts of short stories and poetry. It was busy enough to keep me interested, but quiet enough to spot the regular contributors and home in on the best. In particular, I always got huge enjoyment out of the work of the Austin-based poet Cindee Sharp, who is hopefully still producing poetry somewhere.  It had a varied user-base, ensuring that the style of the work was also varied and it was easy to at least be surprised by someone's work even if you didn't actually enjoy it. A few fairly famous London poets even cut their teeth on Poesie, a fact I found out years after the event.

Those nights on a dial-up internet connection in my parent's spare room ("David, could you get off the Internet, your Aunt is trying to phone me and she's confused by the bleeps on the line and thinks something's going wrong?") eventually fizzled out. Due to the fact that my life has got a bit too hectic for poetry readings or workshops in the last few months, though, I've decided to give another poetry and short story sharing website a try - namely Scriggler.

I haven't been a user long enough yet to form a definite opinion. I get the distinct impression that you really need to join specific clubs or communities to get the most out of the service - it's awash with vampire stories, fantasy, erotica, thrillers and angst-biographies as well as other work, and trying to land on something that's to your taste is often difficult work otherwise. They have a tagging system in operation on the site, but there's nothing specifically for non-genre fiction, for example, which might help in cutting past some of that other material (I've nothing against people who read fantasy or vampire novels, you understand, but it's really not my bag). Like all literary sharing website and open mics, of course, the tone and quality are often wildly divergent as well. That's the deal you get with open access - it's not curated, it's wild and open. Sometimes that's fascinating in a "Human Zoo" way, other times it's trying.

All that said, the site is clean, simple and pleasant to look at, and has the clear and obvious support of a number of social media users who retweet and highlight work they enjoy. It seems as if you'd get more feedback and possible support by posting a new piece there than slapping it on your blog and getting the usual five people to comment - and for that reason alone, it's serving a positive function and going one step above the areas the pre-social media Poesie managed.

I've placed a number of my own pieces of work on there. You'll be familiar with some of them already, as I'm not putting up much new material until I get to better grips with the site, but there's one short story on there that's never been published elsewhere. Go and take a look, and I'll continue to add more material over time. It would be nice to get some feedback and comments as well (*mumbles to self*...)

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Forthcoming gig/ Emma Hammond's "The Story of No"

Yes, I know, it's been ages since the last blog update. But as it seems like I begin every new entry with an apology, I won't bother this time. Moving house is a mighty old chore, especially if you're moving into a new place that needs considerable volumes of work done to it - I'm typing this entry right now from the one inhabitable room on a laptop with a newly cracked screen (if anyone has one they'd like to sell to me, you know where I am) while builders have left their bricks, concrete, wood and rubble in the downstairs area.

Still though, I'll be out of the chaos on the evening of Thursday 26th November and doing a gig for the Girlfriend in a Comma spoken word night, alongside musical comedian and poet Cecilia Delatori and award winning American poet Molly Rivkin. It all kicks off at 8pm at the Full Stop Cafe at 202 Brick Lane, E1 6SA. If you're on Facebook, you get the simple and easy diary details here.

It's been a long time since my last gig as well, largely due to various bits of chaos (good and bad) that took over my life from the Spring right through to this Autumn. I've given some material a test run at Poetry Unplugged and it felt very, very unusual to be back out doing poetry again, while at the same time reminding me why I enjoy it so much. I complain and whinge as much as the next poet about the fickle waves of fashion in the scene, but the reality is that none of it really matters that much - twenty years down the line, just getting a chance to mess around with new ideas is still simultaneously nerve-wracking and thrilling.


It's been my absolute pleasure to review Emma Hammond's latest collection "The Story of No" for the Morning Star newspaper. Like any other daily newspaper, The Morning Star doesn't have room for 1,000 word dissections on new poetry collections, which is a deep shame as this a book I would have been fully able to give that treatment to. Early drafts of the review sailed way over the word limit. The poets I tend to respect the most are those who have a very recognisable style and world-view of their own, and Emma has that in spades - her influences always seem to be as much rooted in the 60s/ 70s poetry underground as they are modern spoken word and satire, and it meshes together unbelievably effectively.

You can read the review here, and you really should buy the book.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Do Nothing

All right, poetry folk? Yes, I know. I know. I've been very quiet for some time now. No blog updates, no new poems, no gigs, not even the odd open mic appearance. I'm not going to pretend that anybody cares all that much what I get up to - very few people care all that much about what any poet bar the most popular ones have to say - but I do feel the need to at least justify it to myself. Even if very few other people are saying it, I do still have a voice in my head asking "Are you sure you're not on the verge of giving poetry up for good?"

So this could be denial, but nonetheless, here's the main reasons for my silence:

1. Life got complicated and busy.

There are numerous things going on at the moment. For starters, I'm trying to buy a house, a process which seemed pretty simple to start with provided me and my partner weren't too fussy about our final destination, but has obviously bundled a lot of stress and uncertainty into my life. These elements spur some people on to brilliant work, but the effect they tend to have on me is that I lose focus.

And also, there are other events and worries which are private business and therefore outside the remit of this blog. That good old whiskery fun-loving guy Uncle SpareFunTimes isn't my friend right now.

2. Because life got complicated and busy, I've felt the need for light relief much more.

So when I've finished work at 7pm, my first thought hasn't been "I know what I need right now! A nice foaming nut brown ale and a two hour poetry gig, with me trying my new pieces out at the open mic beforehand!" It's been "God, I think I need a drink, some decent company, a good conversation, and preferably that pub up the road with the really good jukebox with loads of Northern Soul on it".

I know the love some people have for poetry is greater than their need for social interaction, but I'm afraid I can't push things that far. I need to speak to people as well as listen to them sometimes.

3. In terms of live work, the circuit isn't really very geared up to work like mine at the moment, so I'm disinclined to waste energy.

I've been doing this for twenty years now, and I hope to carry on for another twenty at least, and I'm able to recognise the temporary nature of dominant styles and trends. The poetry circuit is very geared up towards young, snappy, immediate work at the moment, whether that's hip-hop or comedy influenced, and it's presently harder than usual for subtle or reflective poetry to get slots on bills, especially if it's being delivered by established stalwarts (and I'm quoting the last couple of descriptions I had from promoter's bills with 'stalwart' here, not making it up) rather than fresh new names. Ten years ago, I'd have panicked about this. Right now though, it illicits a big "meh". It will pass. Trends in the arts are much more fleeting than you'd suspect, trust me, and vacuums get very quickly filled.

"But you've made what you do sound really boring there, and I saw you at a mixed comedy/ poetry bill this year and you weren't, you went down quite well". Thanks for saying that, sir! What can I get you to drink?

In the meantime, there's no point in me knocking myself out at open mics or slams (which, in terms of the latter, I don't really do anymore anyway) if it doesn't pay any dividends. I don't really feel I need the practice time unless I'm working on new material, and even if I do get a really positive audience response, it's not going to do much to convince the average promoter that the work I produce has a place in their scheme of things. Most have already made up their minds. They already know who I am, where I am, where they can contact me, and what I do. So, being pressed for time and money and energy at the moment, I'm treating this as a "will go out and do things when I feel I need to" situation. (And I probably will be back out very soon, because I can feel myself being pulled towards it as I type this).

4. I've been writing a lot of stuff that doesn't necessarily lean towards live performance.

Short stories, prose pieces, quite layered poetry. That's when I've been writing at all, of course. This year hasn't been that productive, I admit.

5. We need another night like "Walking The Dog" again.

No, I mean it, we do. If somebody just ran a poetry night with a nice load of drinking and socialising on the side, where people were chatting happily in the break and catching up with each other and meeting new and interesting people rather than pushing product and networking, I'd go to it.

Anyway, that's my excuses for being quiet. I'll update the blog in another three months with more excuses if things flag further still. 

Friday, 15 May 2015

The Alarmist - RIP

Last night (Thursday 14th May, if you're reading this days after the event and are the most unreasonable kind of diary-keeping pedant) saw the launch party for the last ever edition of "The Alarmist". The passing of any good literary magazine is nothing to celebrate, but the death of an angular one with so much colour, wit, intelligence and accessible experimentation is particularly tragic. By combining brilliant, highly original short stories and poetry with humorous shaggy dog stories and biting bits of comedic verse, it was a reasonably left-of-centre literary journal and casual lunch-break reading dip combined. If there's another magazine out there doing something similar - at least in the English language - I'm not aware of it. Literary publications frequently suffer from an overload of pomposity, and "The Alarmist" replaced that with playfulness.

The front section of issue 5 is taken up with a large essay on how and why the magazine failed to last for more than two years, and it's well worth a read on their website if you've even the faintest interest in how independent literary magazines operate, or are thinking of starting one up yourself. If your ambition only stretches as far as producing a small black-and-white periodical with local distribution, it's probably not that relevant - but anyone who wants to attempt something bigger (or pull their small regional effort up to the next level) will probably learn a lot, or at least be forewarned about the pitfalls.

The regrettable lesson coming out of all this seems to simply be that the more ambitious you are, the more likely you are to fail. "The Alarmist" started out by giving away free artefacts such as poetry scratchcards - an utterly fantastic idea which is almost impossible to believe nobody's thought of before, until you get a sense of the scale of costs involved. Later issues just focussed on original design and striking content, and on that level the magazine really hit its stride around issue 4, which contained the most consistent stretch of stories, poems and artwork (lest anyone think I'm being biased about a magazine that published my work here, I didn't feature in issue 4 at all).

I'm occasionally asked why I don't start up my own literary magazine. The answer is simple. I don't have the time or money to do it myself, I don't believe that the magazine I would most enjoy producing would sell very much in an already deflated market, and I don't have a cohort of people willing to help me make it a workable venture (and that cohort extends far beyond people working to get the damn thing made and distributed, and into the realms of people willing to plug the damn thing on social media and elsewhere). But even if I did have a willing cohort of people, I probably still wouldn't have the time. The world is filled with writers hungry to get published somewhere - most magazines worth their salt get hundreds of submissions between issues - printers being an unreliable pain in the arse, bookshops not paying up on time, and poetry nights to sell your wares at. It's a big task to take on, and anyone who starts it with the best of intentions has my admiration.

The final "Alarmist" launch last night was odd to say the least, in that there was a poster outside 93 Feet East in Brick Lane advertising the poets on the bill - our names will probably never be emblazoned around Shoreditch again - and the terrifying comedian and winner of the Malcolm Hardee originality award Candy Gigi ended the night with aggressive audience participation and psychotic invective. But it suited the occasion, and was the most explosive finish everyone could have hoped for. If anyone wants to watch grown men being terrorised at high volumes by a barking wild-eyed woman with fruit, vegetables and cream, it's worth every minute. You probably won't even realise that you need to see this outside of the environs of the shit end of Walthamstow Market, but you do.

Anyway, buy issue 5. A poem of mine is in it. Then buy as many back issues as you can. Then please - go away and produce an interesting magazine yourself, no matter how much Gary and Mansour make you feel as if you shouldn't.