Photo Credit: Guiseppe Cerone
Hi Luke. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on the publication of your latest book What I Learned from Johnny Bevan earlier this year and its award-winning show which you’ve toured extensively. Do you think your performance of the piece has evolved over time now that you’re so familiar with the material?
Certainly. I’m used to ad-libbing the links between poems, and I get a thrill from that unpredictability. But what I have learned from performing Johnny Bevan is that there is evolution and associated excitement even when the actual words you say stay the same every night. With every new performance I discover a new way of saying a line, and I get a lot of enjoyment trying to perfect the performance.
The verses have a clear narrative thread and story. I’m curious if they were composed sequentially and did you know exactly where you were going with it from the outset, or did you just have broad brushstrokes in mind and let the writing lead you where it will?
You always have to let the writing lead you but I did write the show sequentially and I did have a good idea where it was going. I pretty much had a scene by scene synopsis before I started writing. That synopsis gave me a solid foundation to weave my ideas around. The tone of each scene was more set by the writing.
I understand you performed at the Houses of Parliament as part of an event organised by the MP Clive Lewis earlier this year too. How was the experience and, given that the show isn’t a shining endorsement of the New Labour years, what was the reaction like?
The reaction was good. Don’t forget Clive Lewis is hardly banging the drum for New Labour, so I guess it was politically convenient for the Corbynistas. It was a great experience going to parliament. It’s our building and it should be approachable. I was proud to do the show there for a couple of MPs and parliamentary workers. And my dad came and had a nice time, so that was good.
As someone who has been involved with the spoken word scene since the 90’s, in what ways (if any) do you think it has changed in that time and are there any figures on the contemporary scene who have excited or inspired you recently?
Yeah, it’s changed loads. It’s much bigger and there’s a lot more young people involved. When Ross Sutherland and I first started doing gigs together there was hardly any teenagers doing poetry, but there’s loads now.
Poets are also beginning to follow an established career path by moving into making one-person theatre shows. There’s also the festival circuit. When I started out only Glastonbury had a poetry tent, then we started Latitude in 2006, which has the biggest poetry line-up at a music festival. Since then nearly every festival books poets – it’s a good way to get a new audience.
Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have enjoyed this year or are looking forward to?
I do about a 100 gigs a year but I remember them all! Highlights have been Shrewsbury, Port Eliot, Latitude, Festival No.6 and Edinburgh Book Festival. And I’m particularly looking forward to going back to the amazing De la Warr Pavillion in Bexhill this October with John Cooper Clarke, and also The Shelley Theatre in Bournemouth which is new to me.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
This is a poem called ‘On Revisiting John Betjeman’s Grave’ – which I know sounds like a wanky title! But I think it’s a pretty honest, straight poem. My mates and I did a tour of motorway service stations ten years ago to create a show in homage to John Betjeman for his centenary. The idea was that we would visit the bits of Britain Betjeman would have hated to see if we could still write good poems about them.
Our trip finished with a pilgrimage to where the great man is buried. Earlier this year I found myself back there, almost exactly ten years on – this poem is about the passing of time, ageing and forming a bond with a writer who is long dead.
On Revisiting John Betjeman’s Grave
Ten years ago we slouched up here to you,
a band of gobby boys against the world,
a cobweb string of paying gigs
to keep us from the dole.
We walked up from the beach across the easy
seventh hole, new beards and cocksure hair,
to try and forge ourselves a link,
then fasten it to yours.
The poem that I wrote claimed some success
in this. But mostly it was mimicry –
a ditty dashed like homework then
a rush down to the sea.
Today I come at you from Pityme
alone, down salty Cornish lanes, their hedges
heaving with the goods of May.
Until I reach the course
and see the sunken church behind the green.
Your grave is just the same, the stone looks fresh.
It seems the decade has been kind
to you, but what of me?
For one, I know you that much better now.
Back then you were the bard of railways,
of chintz and church and teashop trysts,
of towns I’d never know.
But now I see the terror, shame and sin,
the longing for the lost. Your knife-twist endings
startle like a newborn’s cry
and heap their weight on me.