After a week off due to me fannying about the UK feeling all whimsical and introspective, flipping off beggars then getting poorly, pray doff your hats for the triumphant return of The Performance Poet Interviews. At least it’s not me having opinions for once, thank whatever interventionist deity presides over blogging (probably some sort of chimpmunk with snarls of sticky, bifurcating ganglia where its eyes should be, called P£t£r5000). Click the ‘interviews’ tag to see the bitter, often strangely phallic fruits of previous weeks. Today, however, we hear from Salena Godden. Her memoir, Springfield Road, is due out very soon from HarperCollins.
How did you get into performance poetry?
Like most poets I never woke up one day and chose to do this…did it choose me? I have no idea… but… It seems people start calling one a ‘poet’ and introducing you to their friends as a ‘poet’ and you roll with it and stop correcting them after a while.
There are two answers to how I got started with the performance:
(1) When i was at school I used to write and sometimes sell poems for fags and favours at school. These were often for girls to give to their boyfriends when they’d been chucked. But put it this way, I did a roaring trade at Valentines, “Steve Steve, my heart on my sleeve…” these awful poems were often read aloud around the back of the ‘bike sheds’… or down the woods where we jacked off lessons and got stoned…
(2) In 1991 I left Hastings and moved to London – I got a job with Acid Jazz records – I was the A&R; girl, skinny thing with wild curly hair and without apology charging about Soho like I owned it. They started the Acid Jazz Magazine and I penned the column titled ‘unsung heroes’.
My first ever interview was with the legendary Jock Scot (brilliant Scottish punk poet dude who is best mates with Shane Mcgowan, Nectarine No.9 etcetera). We started hanging out in Filthy McNasty’s where we were served beers by the young barman poet Peter Doherty still cutting his teeth with a band he’d started called The Libertines.
Jock first got me up on stage at West London’s Paradise Bar when I drunkenly admitted I wrote stuff. I always thought I was a songwriter and it was Jock Scot that reckoned the words could stand up on their own. This was the door opening – the door they always talk about.
My early gigs then were there and also places like Filthy’s in the company of Jock Scot, Tim Wells, Shane McGowan, Phil Dirtbox, Will Self, Murray Lachlan Young… and a young Peter and his band… among countless others… Good times!
As honest as I cannot ever be to your face and as truthful as all things I wish I had said in retrospect.
Do you think there’s a difference between ‘page’ and ‘performance’ poetry? If so, what?
A good poem is usually both.
Why should someone come to a performance poetry gig?
I suppose people are not used to listening. We tend to hear whilst preparing what we want to say next. A poetry gig is like listening without having to quip and reply – a poetry gig is being told it’s maybe not what you thought after all – but you’re not alone.
What do you think your best poem is, and why?
Always the last one I wrote, the fresh new ones just printed or published always excite me, in the most childish indulgent way, as much as they always did and i hope they always do. Gig wise though – I reckon ‘Imagine If You Had To Lick It’ is still the big crowd pleaser – ‘Can’t Be Bothered’ and ‘Wee Wee Hole’ close seconds. Why? I guess those 3 poems are the ones that get quoted back to me most often.
Personally i love my ‘Emily’ poem best. Reading this at Emily Williams funeral was the most difficult thing… to control myself not to cry. That girl was sunlight, one day, aged 26 she literally dropped down dead with a rare blood condition. One day I want to grow up and be the person she believed I was/am.
I met you on the tube train and asked you
if you wanted to pole dance with me
you said you did and so you did
we swung from the bars
on the Piccadilly line
and then we took you home
and drank cocktails until dawn
I liked your face
brown sugared with freckles
eyes full of mischief and life
one hundred per cent fun
you were quick and so smart too
you had the boys eating out of the palms of your hands
your hands were small and soft to hold
and your nails short and dirty
laughing with a mouth full of teeth
you’d wipe the sleep from the corner of your eye
and say yes but of course, everything, the world,
of course why not?
with you – nothing was too far or too bold
your head was full of brilliant ideas
to get us into trouble
if they ever caught us, caught you
Now, I remember the sun rising in Islington
the pavement shone with gold
and I balled my eyes out in Angel
tears before bedtime
and some broken boy heartache
it was 7am and you suggested
we go to the postman’s pub
you got us another pair of pints
lit two fags and quietly
told me it was going be alright
you had me eating out of the palm of your hands too
and made me see the light and the funny side.
So I was going to say
I thought that I’d see you this summer
smoke all your cigarettes
laugh about boys
watch the sun rise
and bombard you with poetry
and I was going to say
a hundred things
you lovely, lovely girl
but words are not enough
I will plainly say
I will always miss you.
If you could nick one other person’s poem and claim it as your own, which poem would it be, and why?
Elizabeth Smart’s ‘By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept’. I know it’s more a book/memoir than a poem… but to me it is the most beautifully executed poetic book, a journey into falling in love and losing it, the insanity of falling in love, the loss of control, power and rationale. My favourite line: ‘But he never passes anywhere near me without every drop of my blood springing to attention…’
I was inspired by this and did ‘nick’ the line and wrote the poem ‘By The Flower Stall in Kings Cross I Sat Down And Wept’.
A poem about losing one of the great loves of my life to heroin.
By The Flower Stall In Kings Cross I Sat Down And Wept (after Elizabeth Smart)
Meet me at two thirty
by the flower stall
in Kings Cross,
I will take you to Edinburgh
where the last page
We were drunk
with jasmine and
where the swallows
flew into the w
Where are you?
Which hospital ward
do you lay in
refusing to see me?
I didn’t mean
that we’d never speak
You have cancer
I’m told its serious
they say its for the best
they keep your whereabouts
they tell me that I should
just leave it.
Being taught a lesson
but I already couldn’t
I forget the crimes
where we went wrong,
the messes we made,
I find it impossible
to measure darkness,
just absence of light.
You started it,
you, leaning over the bar
get your passport, you said
I’m taking you for dinner.
I asked and what will you drink?
Cider and you, you smiled,
and you in Spain.
We made sad love,
the roof leaking rain
into buckets around the bed,
in our bubble
it would be alright,
but then I woke up crying.
Now a gold June sunrise
forbids me to sleep,
swallows swoop by
but they don’t fly
into my window pane,
I pound and punish
in some vain attempt
to reach you,
but its a letter
I’ll never post.
By the flower stall
in Kings Cross
I sat down and wept.
Then I went to Edinburgh
where the last page
this book I read
for there was a time
when you could not pass
anywhere near me
without every drop of my blood
springing to attention.
A slammed door
the last word
We were stubborn,
to face you
sick and in pain
to see you
how I left you
If I could I’d read
you these lost last lines
until the rocks melt
and the sea runs dry
What typifies bad performance poetry to you?
I really dislike tokenism poety and I’m not that into stiff and forced rhyming poetry. I’m mixed race, Jamaican Irish and also a female – but I never felt a need to bang on about it… Urgh! Even worse in rhyme! Being true to myself, doing what I do and standing up on stage says it all… know what I mean?
Mae West coined it better when she said something like… I am all for feminism, but it is something to be whispered into the ears of men, quietly, slowly, and just one at a time.
What do you think of the state of the UK performance poetry scene at the moment? Is it okay to talk about a ‘scene’, or is that a bit unhelpful?
I was never that sure of the ‘scene’ – it’s very fragmented isn’t it? Slam poets vs page poets vs performance poets vs rappers vs tantric sex poets vs schoolyard poets etc etc… There are people I have worked with for the last 15 years that are stronger than ever – getting published, getting nominations, winning prizes, doing good, writing and fighting the good fight.
If there is one thing I have learned it’s that there are some folk that are in it for the monkey, some for the vanity and shiny lights and some for the longevity and the long haul, others for the cathartic free therapy and there’s always the flash in the pan poets you just never hear about ever again… and the poets still doing the same poem from 1992 too.
Tim Wells really helped me get going in the beginning, he and i go back to the mid-90’s as mates and collegues. Recently we got some old anthologies and magazines out from 10-odd years ago and it was interesting to see who is still rocking it and who’s just clean disappeared. I don’t know much about the ‘scene’ – I think it gets splintered and pedantic. Politics are so boring.
To me it’s all about the good fight – and there’s some great fighters and writers out there, both young guns and kick-ass old schoolers too. Here’s a quote from the Bukowski poem ‘Roll The Dice’ I have framed on my living room wall:
Go all the way
It could mean not eating for 3 or 4 days
it could mean freezing on a park bench
it could mean jail
it could mean derision
isolation is the gift
all the others are a test of your endurance
of how much you want to do it
and you’ll do it
despite rejection and the worst odds
and it will be better than anything you can imagine
do it do it do it…..
….and you will ride life straight to perfect laughter
its the only good fight there is…
Tell us about a particularly memorable reaction you’ve had to your work.
There was a time once – I came off stage and I couldn’t stop fizzing, electrified, I could hardly breathe. Weirdest of all is I cannot remember the actual gig but I can clearly recall the backstage dressing room, the heat, white lights, hearing roaring cheers on the tannoy to do an encore, but lying on the floor of the dressing-room literally vibrating for five minutes. Where was I? Fuck knows. Tokyo? Amsterdam? Dunno… I was scared shitless it had gone so well. I was somewhere far away from home.
Best heckle I ever had was being lead by two lady cops and frog-marched to a police station in a village in Austria. The locals had been putting drinks on stage throughout my set and at one point I didn’t see a shot and I slipped over in a sticky pool of pear schnapps on-stage. They were going to arrest me for ‘being drunk on stage’ but I thankfully got away with it. Phew! It was a Prisoner Cell Block H moment though, the lady cops were very strict with me.
Funny groupie moment: I once went to a boy’s flat after a reading in NYC – maybe New Yoricans – in his flat he had posters up everywhere of Coldcut… He played the Coldcut tracks I did on ‘Let Us play’ & ‘Let us replay’. He kissed me whilst looking at my video of ‘Noah’s Toilet’ on the DVD and was saying ‘That’s you (kiss)…and (kisses TV screen)…that’s you (kiss)’.
I think he was joking, having a laugh – I didn’t stay long enough to find out.