The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family

Apologies for the massive expanse of time between my last post and this one. It’s been a while. I’ve been so busy that the most I’ve been able to do on this site is keep the gigs page up to date! And hey, I’ve introduced a gig archive section, because everyone wants a record of almost completely useless information, don’t they?! So things have been pretty exciting on here. Not.

But what I’ve been busy doing, actually is, I think, pretty exciting. A number of things have been eating up my time, some more interesting than others, but I’m not here to write about the emergency meeting my housemates and I called in order to deduce what was causing our tumble-dryer to start customising everyone’s clothes in the style of a Jackson Pollock painting (it was an ink cartridge trapped in the filter), or the production of Blue/Orange in which I played Bruce last week, or the mountains of cake we begrudgingly worked our way through after the birthdays of both Millie and Jenna over the weekend, or the fact that we turned my front room upside down into a makeshift film set to make the Method trailer (it will be online soon).

O’, no. I am here to write about the solo show I am currently working on: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family. It’s about my dad and me, and the laughably little we have in common. We are such different men, and the nature of our relationship (or lack thereof) has always fascinated me. So a year and a half ago, on a train back to Birmingham from a gig in London, I started writing about it. I wrote about the few things we do have in common, and the handful of times (at that point, specifically the two times) I’d felt really connected to him. One of those two times was when I watched this video on YouTube, in my first year at University:

Incredible stuff. Spine tingling stuff. That penalty save! Wow. (Or not, depending on how you feel about football.)

My dad is a Luton Town fan, and this match is legendary in our family, or in his mind at least, so it’s become somewhat legendary for me. He wasn’t there when I watched the video, I was on my own in my room in my halls of residence, but I felt like we had shared an experience, across time (24 years of it, from 1988 to 2012) and space (all M42 & A42 of it, from Nottingham to Brum).

He was born in London, moved to Welwyn Garden City, moved to Luton, then moved to Nottingham. Always North, and always directly in line with the M1. Which got me thinking. I decided I wanted to start in Nottingham, where I was born and grew up, and hitchhike south down the M1, stopping off at every place he ever lived, every pub his parents ever ran, and speaking to everyone he never knew (perhaps a bit ambitious but you know what I mean!) until I get to the Wembley. A pilgrimage, if you will, based on football and shared experience, and sountracked by Gerry Rafferty.

Since I started writing 18 months ago, a lot has changed in our family, and I want to reflect that in the longer show I hope this becomes. But for now I have the opening 20 minutes of a one-man spoken-word/theatre piece (whatever anyone wants to decide it is!) which is centred around these 2 experiences I have ‘shared’ (either literally or emotionally) with my dad.

I first performed this 20 minute extract earlier this month as part of ‘Lit Fuse’, a joint Apples & Snakes and mac birmingham venture which featured other new work from the excellent Lily Blacksell, Elisabeth Charis and Roy McFarlane, working with director Polly Tisdall. And I’m performing it again TOMORROW in ‘Biting Tongues’, part of Capital Theatre Festival, again working under the brilliant directorship of Polly Tisdall (who is, by the way, an award-winning storyteller and theatre-maker in her own right), and again alongside Lily Blacksell’s new piece, this time with other new work from good friends and fine Birmingham-based poets Lorna Meehan and Carl Sealeaf.  I honestly think it will be a thoroughly enjoyable evening of new spoken-word/theatre, and I’d love to see as many people there as possible.

The plan after this? Well, go on the hitchhike, for starters!, and then make an hour-long show, possibly even in time for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2014, though whisper it quietly…

VoiceBox Radio & Grizzly Pear

Two very exciting events happened over two very exciting consecutive days:

Last Tuesday I was lucky enough to be invited on to VoiceBox, a spoken-word radio show on Burn FM, hosted by Elisha Owen and James Dolton, who, unlike Troy McClure, you may actually recognise from previous poetry posts. I was one of two guests alongside James Grady, a fantastic musician and comic performance poet. VoiceBox has hit upon a great structure, and Tuesday’s edition took in live and studio-recorded spoken-word tracks, live performances from Mr. Grady and I, some on-the-spot writing, and a fantastic debate spawned by their ‘contentious question’ of the week, which this time concerned the benefit(s) of slam poetry to the wider scene: a particularly relevant one considering my last post!

You can listen to both last week’s show, and the first edition which featured Jenna Clake and Mark Watson, on the VoiceBox SoundCloud page.

The following day saw the first 2012-13 instalment of the formerly low-key Writers’ Bloc open-mic night, now re-branded, re-booted and re-kicked up the proverbial arse as Grizzly Pear, with a swanky logo (well, a logo), and a pro head-liner for each event. I’ve been thinking up and organising this night for quite some time, so I was a little nervous and frantic as kick-off approached. But cometh the hour, cometh the silly fluorescent braces, and everything went swimmingly. On the night, I likened the experience to watching a child who you’ve raised and trained compete at sports day, the result of which is totally beyond your control. But in truth I was very much in a position to mess things up, as compere/host! I could’ve inadvertently poisoned Clayton Blizzard with an underdone Mexican Burger (before the Bristol Pear mobilises its lawyers, I’d like to say that the burger was fine), I could’ve killed someone with a loose electrical cable, I could’ve mispronounced a poet’s name, or done a (further) disservice to the Eminem song I was already bastardising! But, alas, the evening was a roaring success – described by one review as “dynamic, varied and thoroughly entertaining” – and I was genuinely overwhelmed by the positive responses from the audience during and after the event. Bristol-based folk-rapper Clayton Blizzard rounded off one of the most consistently high standard open-mics I’ve ever seen with a brilliant, humorous and profound set.

I’d like to extend my thanks to everyone that came and supported the event, from legends of Writers’ Bloc’s recent history (Sean Colletti) to legends of the academic Creative Writing circuit (Luke Kennard); from legends of the Birmingham spoken-word scene (Lorna Meehan) to legends of the current Writers’ Bloc cohort (too many to name). You know who you are, and so do I, plus where you live, more to the point. Joking aside, it was enthusing to see so many more unfamiliar faces than familiar ones at Wednesday’s event, which suggests that the poetry and spoken-word community might actually be expanding as quickly as I hope it is, to include people other than my immediate friends and course tutors!

I’ll see you at the next one, won’t I? Good. It features the apparently-unbeatable UK-wide Slam Champion Vanessa Kisuule, and it’s happening on Thursday 25th January. Whack it in your diary. Not write. I said whack.

New Spoken-Word Show on Burn FM, plus other new dates

A quick post to tell ya’ll about VoiceBox, an exciting new spoken-word show that begins this Tuesday on Burn FM, the University of Birmingham’s student radio station. It’s on from 9-10pm. Hosted by James Dolton and Elisha Owen, two of the most beloved rising stars of the West Midland’s spoken-word scene, each week the show will feature one guest from within the University, and one from the wider scene. This Tuesday they’re kicking things off in fine style with James Grady and Bohdan Piasecki, respectively the University’s and West Midland’s most irreverent word-smith and most popular promoter. Bohdan‘s monthly Hit The Ode is one of the region’s highest quality performance poetry nights. Week 2 features Jenna Clake, an excellent page poet who made her performance debut at Word-Up recently, a new(ish) night run by the show’s other guest; Mark Watson. Definitely worth a listen. I’ll be on the show on Week 3 (23rd October), alongside a leviathan of the British poetry world, or so rumour has it… More details when I have them!

In other, more immediate news, tonight I’m appearing with James and Elisha at Birmingham Book Festival‘s Student Writers’ Challenge. It’s at the Bacchus Bar in the Burlington Arcade in the city centre from 7:30pm and should be a great gig. On Saturday, one of the country’s biggest slams is taking place in Cheltenham as part of the Cheltenham Literary Festival. I haven’t actually qualified yet, but whether or not I make the final is almost immaterial, as the night is guaranteed to be a stonker (a positive stonker!). It again features James, as well as Lorna Meehan, who are great friends as well as great poets, plus the rest of the star-studded line-up (another way of saying I don’t know who’s in it yet!). The audience for the final will exceed 350, so is essentially the Champions League of British Slam Poetry. I can’t wait!

For details of when where how (to book) who why (you know why), etc. see the Live Dates page.

Poly-vocal Playground

Given that I discovered the joys of spoken-word only relatively recently, and am still very much finding my feet in the West Midlands scene, it shouldn’t surprise me that I’m constantly discovering more and more things you can do with it. The latest find in my gold-panning exploits is probably the most game-changing so far, and has really opened my eyes to the medium’s potential for versatility: namely, poly-vocal poetry.

Several posts ago I mentioned that I’d successfully auditioned for the city of Birmingham team for the inaugural National Team Poetry Slam Championships (a catchy name!), and May’s edition of Hit The Ode (31/5/12) marked our debut performance. This was by no means a last dress-rehearsal (the Champs are not for another 4 weeks) but more a playground for us to try out various ideas and make changes based on audience response. By changes, I mostly mean cuts, as we need to lose about 30 seconds to make the slam-standard 3 minute mark, but also to see if our contrapuntal weaving actually works. Okay, so I’ve just seen the footage and we need to lose 90 seconds (gulp!).

Rehema Njambi, Hannah-Rose Owen-Wright and I each have very different voices. Rehema was born in Kenya and grew up in Kent, producing a lovely kind of soft musicality, her inner Kenyan becoming more prominent when she reads poetry. Hannah is from New Zealand but has English parents (notably, a Brummie mum and a sister who now lives here, in Balsall Heath). In N.Z. they say she sounds English, though to most English ears she will doubtless sound distinctly Kiwi. And, despite being the most conventionally “local” of the 3 of us (just up the M42 in Nottingham), my accent has somehow become a hybrid bastardisation of north Notts and Sheffield (someone at Hit The Ode asked if I was from Sheff.) with select Mancunian vowel sounds (think Elbow’s Guy Garvey: “LUHV, TRUHST, DUHST). I don’t know how this has happened; both my parents are from the South (my dad’s a Londoner, mum’s from Oxford). All I can think of is that my granddad was from Manchester, though sadly our lives didn’t overlap as much as they might have done so I’d be amazed if he is responsible for how I speak. More likely, and much less sentimentally familial, is the influence of my peers at school, and probably a desperate need to sound nothing like my folks!

Our Championships poem has thus ended up being largely about heritage, exploring how we sound, how we feel, and how the three of us have wound up representing a city that none of us are from! I’d like to tell you more, show you the video of the Hit The Ode performance even, but that would be to spoil the surprise for the Bristol audience, and the other teams. Bristol and London’s teams have already started wheeling out the fiercely competitive scaremongering propaganda, and the Twitpic banter is in full flow!

We performed again five days later at Rhymes in Kings Heath, formerly a monthly event back for a one-off poly-vocal special, run by our team “coach” Lorna Meehan, a fantastic performance poet, actress and comedian in her own right. With no rehearsal (save for the last-minute car park run-through we managed to squeeze in at the interval) between Hit The Ode and Rhymes, the performance was clunkier, slower, and (because we were performing with mics for the first time) punctuated by an embarrassing boom-stand incident which saw my mic fall from its clip and hang limply around my shins for a few painfully long and silent seconds! But the evening was by no means disastrous. We performed our individual poems too; Hannah experimenting with a different combination of existing work, and Rehema taking my breath away with a remarkably honest poem about her younger brother. I premièred a new piece too, “F-Bomb”, which went down pretty well, though it will also need serious reductions to hit 3 minutes! Again, a video of this will not be forthcoming till after the Champs, so get down to Bristol. If not for this reason, I still really recommend a trip to the South-West on June 28th to see some of the best individual slam poets flex their figurative muscles, as well as the highlight: pioneering poly-vocal pieces.

This is the Facebook event: http://www.facebook.com/events/397372280304723/, and here’s the place you actually do the actual buying of the actual tickets: http://bierkellertheatre.fatsoma.com/events/63235/

And…here’s a mysteriously effective trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y9uxH1UG0tY&list=UUJdSS9jwAUskX-oPi56ACXg&index=1&feature=plcp

Hit The Ode and Rhymes were personally exciting for another reason, too. Elisha Owen and I wrote and performed a duet (is it pretentious to use the word duet in terms of poetry? Yep, probably, but I’ve gone and done it anyway) after seeing the exciting German pair Le Poonie at Hit The Ode in April. It came from some small sketches I’d made which tried to incorporate clicking into a performance piece, and it turned into something much bigger and more exciting, with a story, some comedy, and some pathos too, I hope. It went down a storm (as much as anything can go down a storm in a small room upstairs in a West Midlands pub) and we performed it again at Rhymes to a more intimate but equally receptive audience. Rhymes was also the first time my mum has ever seen me perform poetry, which was nicely surreal – I hope she enjoyed it!

Both the duet with Elisha and the team poem were mentioned in Gary Longden’s review of the evening: http://garylongden.wordpress.com/2012/06/06/rhymes-poly-vocal-special-station-ph-kings-heath/, and Elisha has also bashed out a fascinating blog post about her submergence in the performance poetry world too, infinitely more succinct than this one: http://www.thelostartofenjoyinglife.blogspot.co.uk/

The potential for drama is inherent in poly-vocal pieces. It allows for the creation of characters and scenes between them; for dialogue, tension and conflict – immediately more vivid and distinct than with any individual stuff…directionless rambling monologues therefore refreshingly avoidable. It creates textures and patterns, and allows for greater extremes of volume, pitch and intensity to be traversed. And the best of it adheres to the Slam practice of no props, no costume, no backing tracks…it remains exclusively about the words, only here the things you can do with them are brimming with myriad possibilities.

All in all, it’s a bit bloomin’ excitin’.