Since you asked, Cone O’ Tragedy‘s most popular feature is my weekly interviews with UK performance poets. We’ve heard from Dockers MC, Polarbear, Nathan Filer, Yanny Mac and Nathan Jones. This week, it’s the turn of Joel Stickley.
How did you get into performance poetry?
I saw Luke Wright perform a few poems at a cabaret night when we were both at university. Immediately seeing that perfomance poetry was a formulaic and creatively bankrupt art form, I wrote a parody of him hilariously entitled ‘Luke’s Right.’ When he heard it, he was so angry that he offered me a gig at a night that he and Ross were putting on. Rather than trying to make a two-minute poem fill a ten minute set, I wrote some more material. One thing led to another and, three months later, I found myself standing in the rain at the Edinburgh Fringe, handing out flyers for a perfomance poetry show. That was seven years ago.
I see this as a kind of cautionary tale.
How would you describe your work?
I’d pretend to be thinking about it for a while, cock my head to one side and make a kind of humming sound before asking the interviewer how he would describe my work. Then I’d agree with whatever he said.
Do you think there’s a difference between ‘page’ and ‘performance’ poetry? If so, what?
Yes, definitely. I think performance poetry is closer to stand-up or music than it is to page poetry. If there’s a performance poem that works on the page, it’s probably only by chance, like having a computer that also works as a door-stop.
Why should someone come to a performance poetry gig?
Well, there are two possible reasons. The first is that they should come to a perfomace poetry gig because they’ve been to one before and know that they’ll like it. The second is that they haven’t ever been to one before and have no idea what to expect. The second reason’s better than the first, but you can only use it once.
What do you think your best poem is, and why?
It really would depend when you asked me. I tend to like ones I’ve written more recently, whereas old ones I can see all the flaws in and am bored of. Given that, the only real measure I have of one of my poems is how long it manages to stay in circulation before I get too embarassed to perform it again. On that metric, the winner is probably one called ‘The Rhyming Poem’, which I’ve been wheeling out for a few years now.
But if you’re asking for my current favourite, I’d have to say my poem about the evolution of fish, ‘Playing God’, which is only a few weeks old. I wrote it for the Athens Children’s Book Fair and illustrated it myself in brown felt tip.
If you could nick one other person’s poem and claim it as your own, which poem would it be, and why?
I’d love to be able to pick something that made me sound well-read and intellectual, like saying that I’d nick something off John Donne or Pablo Neruda, but let’s be honest – I’d sound like a right ninny reciting ‘To His Coy Mistress’. If I was going to try and pass something off as my own, it’d probably have to be something written by one of my fellow Aisle16ers. Boring, I know, but plaigarism is all about being methodical.
What typifies bad performance poetry to you?
Tell us about a particularly memorable reaction you’ve had to your work.
At Port Eliot Lit Fest a few years ago, I did a set which caused one member of the audience great offence. The first poem I did was called ‘My Passport Photo Makes Me Look Like A Suicide Bomber’. She didn’t have a problem with that one. The second poem was called ‘The Tale Of Britain’s First Paedophile Prime Minister’. She laughed along with everyone else. Then I did a poem called ‘The Rise And Fall Of Lightning Jim’, about a snail who throws away a promising career in snail racing after a doping scandal involving salt. It’s a poem I tend to do when I go into primary schools. She glared at me throughout, then turned to her friend and, with barely concealed outrage, said, ‘I don’t think that’s very funny, actually. My uncle was an alcoholic.’
I read the moral of the story as being this: you never know who’s going to be offended by what, so you might as well tell jokes about terrorism and child abuse.
You say ‘ambition’ typifies bad performance poetry for you. I have no idea whether this is one of your clever meta-answers or an utterly straight response, and if either is the case I still wouldn’t quite be sure what you meant. Would you mind clarifying?
I thought about how to answer that question for a while, and I actually think that’s my real, considered and unflippant answer. Most of the really cringe-worthy poets I’ve seen had one thing in common – they took what they were doing incredibly seriously and thought that poetry was the most important thing in the world, a powerful tool to affect real change in society. And they’re wrong. Poetry isn’t the answer to anything – it’s just an entertaining way to ask the questions. Sometimes not even that. Sometimes it’s just a game you play with words. And you know what? That’s fine. That’s what poetry’s for. Trying to use poetry to correct all society’s ills is like trying to travel from London to Manchester on a space-hopper. By all means play with it, mess around and enjoy yourself, but if the journey’s that important to you, buy a fucking train ticket.
You say your starting point as a performance poet was parody – I wonder if you feel that was the beginning of a long creative arc that finally culminated in Who Writes This Crap?, a book and show entirely fashioned from lampooning the form and content of different everyday texts. I say, ‘I wonder if you feel’ – what I mean is ‘I personally believe and want you to agree’.
It’s certainly been a common thread through the whole time I’ve been writing and performing. I think I just like writing things in character, inhabiting other people’s voices, and parody is one of the most fun ways to do that. And by parody, I mean the whole range of ways to imitate: satire, pastiche, homage, parody, tribute. Taking the piss. Stepping into someone else’s shoes. Taking a piss in someone else’s shoes. It’s all good.
With regards to poetry, you seem to have wound in the performing duties a bit. What are your plans? Are you hoping to produce and perform lots of new poems, or are you searching for pastures new? Or what?
I don’t gig compulsively. I never have, really. I’ve always enjoyed impromptu, one-off shows more than huge, unwieldy tours. Luke and I did a very short tour of the Who Writes This Crap span> show earlier this year and it was an absolute joy. A handful of dates, then a bit of time at home to write. Once I rack up fifty or so performances of the same material, I start to get really sick of it. So the thing is to keep working on new projects. Luke and I are collaborating on a script for an animated film at the moment, as well as tentatively trying to work WWTC into a radio-friendly format. I’ve been doing a lot of work in schools, getting kids to write poetry. I teach on a creative writing course for adult learners. I write when I have the time. It’s all great fun. I wouldn’t have it any other way.