from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Friday, 10 February 2012

performance poetry: why humour is like a spark plug

No way to describe it except paradoxically: the light on the high tide in the Teign early yesterday morning was both luminously clear and frosty-hazy opaque gold.

I love train journeys, especially starting early in the morning; and I love that I can get on a train in dozy alternative Totnes and arrive in gritty-city Glasgow, say, or Edinburgh by teatime; or Cardiff for lunch. I love too that meditative rhythm, and the gazing/dreaming/reading as one is in a kind of time-suspension bubble, and work is on hold (for me, usually) in this cocoon of the travelling present moment.

Yesterday I was only going to Exeter. Just as driving the moor's high upland between here and my dad, or my daughter, means that I journey on one of the most beautiful roads on Britain, so catching the train from Totnes to Exeter is one of the UK's most amazing journeys, as from Newton Abbot onwards the rails run by the estuary of the Teign, then the open sea at Teignmouth and Dawlish, then back inland alongside the Exe estuary. (Not infrequently the trains are brought to an abrupt halt by a particularly high tide with, presumably, water getting into the engine's secret places, like the points.)

Yesterday morning was high tide, and amongst little cocktail-stick clusters of silver-tipped ochre reeds huddled wild duck floated. (Later, coming back, low tide: the patterns of channels and mudflats and clumps of ochre/silver-green/peatbrown wetlands topped with swaying rushes so made me want to reach for my paintbrushes – idle for two or three years, due to family stuff and overwork in the admin department.) The Teign was silver in that haunting atmospheric way that some marshy pools in the French countryside can be at dawn – do you know what I mean? (Anyone seen the film of that wonderful coming-of-age book by Alain Fournier: Le Grand Meaulnes? I think in English the film was called The Lost Domain – can't track it down on DVD anywhere; would love to know if anyone has info.) And then suddenly you're out by the blue and gold high water lapping the red sandstone cliffs of Teignmouth and Dawlish with their dramatic stacks and your senses are so full you can't think.

As the sea morphs into the Exe there are any number of swans on the flooded meadows, and Canada geese, duck, egrets, divers and some little birds I can't identify – dunlin? sanderling? – at the saltwater's edge. On the inland side of the track Powderham Castle grounds host a few hundred fallow deer lazing on frosty grass in shafts of light beneath sessile, pedunculate and the evergreen holm oaks. The willows near the water are starting to blaze red at the tips, and the silver birch (oddly punctuated by pampas grass escapees) are turning magenta – signs of approaching spring.

This is such a treat. So I'm smiling when I arrive in Exeter; and am thinking again that, erratic and low-level income notwithstanding, there's little I'd rather be doing right now than what I am. Having made such a journey to come to Exeter, I'm to be paid for doing something I love: being audience and co-facilitator for an intro and q&a session either side of a really great gig. I'm doing some work for the Prince's Trust and its PoetryQuest project which in the southwest, is currently, via myself and fellow poet Anthony Wilson, taking poetry workshops into small rural primary schools. Partway through the workshops Anthony and I are providing is this performance put on by Apples & Snakes as part of their SPIN project for the pupils as inspiration for their own forthcoming performance.

The line-up is three extremely funny performance poets: Jon Hegley, whose dry humour I've enjoyed for many years; the eccentric and wonderful Ashley Harrold, whom I met when he attended an Arvon course I was tutoring (and who then booked me for a reading in Reading); and the engaging Joe Coelho.

The children loved it all. My cheeks ached. How is it that Jon could make us laugh so much with a poem that consisted entirely of the word 'me' repeated maybe 30 times in different voices and with accompanying facial contortions? And then, on the heels of that, again with a different poem, consisting of the word 'tea', nearly ditto? And then again, in his poem about a sick octopus on the heels of the last two, when we all expected a particular rhyme to be 'tea' (having been well-primed), wrongfooting us by saying in a deadpan voice: 'No, seawater. You've just had some tea. Haven't you? You've just had some tea.' OK, you'd have to have been there.

I'm not a performance poet. I work better on the page, so to speak. And I can barely write a funny poem to save my – whatever; or, at least, maybe once a year I manage. If I have to.

But I learnt a lot about the art yesterday: that humour depends
  • on setting up expectations and then thwarting or subverting them; 
  • on juxtaposing two apparently contradictory or mutually exclusive ideas; 
  • on the presence, maybe, of other ingredients below the humour (quite a lot of these had a slightly sad or poignant undercurrent that hooked our emotions even as we were laughing); 
  • on timing; 
  • on delivery (voice, body, face); 
  • like a pantomime, on some degree of audience participation;
  • and on that most essential ingredient, a childlike simplicity and appreciation of the absurd. 

I also realised that, as in so many other things, just how much depends, like the spark needed to ignite the process in a combustion engine, on the gaps....


  1. Wonderful imagery! What a fun adventure – thanks for taking me along!

    BTW is this what you were looking for? (blogger wouldn't let me put in the html so you may have to copy and paste into a browser)

  2. Oh David you're a star for tracking that down! I'll look (though the US/Canadian version doesn't always play on European DVD players but it's certainly worth checking out). Thank you so much!


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