poster by Alice Walker.
It was embarrassing the first time someone claimed that “poetry is the new rock n’ roll,” and I’m not about to repeat their mistake. And yet… well, lets look at it this way; the best rock singers have also been poets, and maybe the best poets have also always had a bit of rock n’ roll in them as well. Poetry was arguably the primary voice of the intellectual outsider before rock n’ roll started taking itself seriously; specifically before Dylan started taking cues from Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and Rimbaud and Lorca and Whitman and Baudelaire and all the rest, and suddenly the thing was to get up and sing your visions of ecstasy and injustice, rather than just write them down or read them in some East Village coffeehouse, and so rock happened and changed the world, and the walls came down and the people rose up and everybody got Levis and somewhere along the line rock sold out, and what’s so rebellious and weird about playing guitar in a rock group anymore?
But poetry, well… maybe rock music, that huckster hybrid of old-time blues and showbiz moves, just borrowed a few poets to give it some depth and meaning and freaked out cool, and then the poets all died or got booted out and now rock is just showbiz again. But you know that there’s never going to be a Poetry Idol type show on mainstream TV. Cos that would be too much like giving people a platform to say what they really think and feel. Music can too easily be just entertainment, can be technique and soothing sounds or- just as bad- an undiscerning generator of excitement and enthusiasm for whatever you’re trying to promote, be it a new car or a football game or a political rally. Oh, poetry can fool ya too, along with its wheedling, insinuating cousins, rhetoric and invective. There’s certainly a whole load of dreadful poetry out there, and just as much that is good, technically, but kinda bloodless. Lifeless, polite, anonymous. But a real poet, a real outlaw poet, is dangerous. They give it to you straight, or they give it to you mixed up and surreal; they hold up a mirror, and it might be a distorting funhouse mirror, they might turn everything you believe on its head, they might lose you in an unimagined world of strange imagery and bizarre juxtapositions, but you will see something, and you’ll see things just a little bit differently afterwards. Or maybe you’ll just realise that the world inside your head, with all its dark and dirty secrets, its insane desires, its shameful thoughts and ridiculous associations, has its counterpart out there. Maybe poetry can make you realise that you’re a poet too.
So, I’m a poet. But I’m also a rock n’ roll kid. That’s where I’m coming from. And with the Midsummer Poetry Ball we tried to promote a poetry gig like a rock n’ roll show. It helped that, as a headliner, we had one of the great living rock n’ roll poets, Mick Farren. A published poet from way back, Mick is also founder and singer with The Deviants, not just a legendary rock n’ roll band but one of the few that really understand and embody the demented essence of great rock n’ roll. But we also had a whole load of local talent whose muse is informed as much by music and the culture around it as anything literary and academic; performers each with a distinct personality and style, uncontrived and individual, writing and reading work that, while challenging, I firmly believe you don’t need any kind of literary background to get and appreciate.
So we flyered the show at alternative music gigs. We contacted music magazines and websites for publicity. We sold tickets in independent record shops. And we won out; roughly 70 people gathered in a 100 capacity hall, and they were not your usual poetry crowd (though we made sure they knew about it as well). They were old hippies and punks, curious kids, alternative music types, a smattering of literati, rockers and ravers. And they sat down, and they listened to, as the blurb put it, “three generations at least of outspoken, outsider counter-culture poetry.”
Lisa Jayne: photo by Andrea Shamlou
Due to some last minute technical and organisational problems I won’t go into here we kicked off about half an hour later than planned, in a chaotic rush to catch up with ourselves before the strict 11pm curfew. Lisa Jayne performed two short sets comprising her customary visceral surrealism; images you could cut yourself on, rushing past like a just-missed train made up of sense-memory and dream association, and the conflict between the outer appearance and the inner world. Dan Belton looks at life with a black sense of humour and a bitter, laconic, disappointed romanticism; again, the gap between the deal and the ideal is very much his stomping ground. Mick Farren laughed in recognition at Dan’s world-weary observations on reaching an age where there’s “no sex, few drugs and precious little rock n’ roll” -and though a second set saw Dan sharing his deceptively tender lyrics for his first teenage metal band (very deceptive, given a chorus involving shoving a severed arm up your arsehole), in fact it seems a notable nature poet may be emerging, surprisingly, from Belton’s crusty punk chrysalis.
Dan Belton. Photo by Andrea Shamlou.
Alice Walker. Photo by Andrea Shamlou.
Alice Walker also performed twice, her second set notably more animated and urgently sensual than the first. Not that one was better than the other; both demonstrated Alice’s preternatural grasp of emotional consequence and the significance of small moments, and her ability to shift these into several dimensions at once; the ordinary, the mythic, the artistic, everyday objects vibrating at a higher-than usual frequency, Van Gogh-like in their rich significance. Due to the constraints of time, Mydget Submarine was only able to perform three songs, fusing classic 1960s-derived melodies- power pop psych- to vocals that had more of the desperate fervour of post-punk, with traces of Husker Du and the Meat Puppets lingering in the mix.
Mydget Submarine. Photo by Andrea Shamlou.
Gary Goodman seems to have quietly ascended to the next level as a poet and performer, his initially unassuming diary-style confessional pieces in fact all carefully wrought and delivered with a keen sense of emotional pacing, each building up to an affecting climax as images and sensations collide, feelings mount and conflict and Gary’s delivery becomes more impassioned, the dry intellectual wit giving way to a torrent of anguish or, occasionally, joy. Crucially, Gary’s soul-searching never seems self-centred or isolating; he casts himself as a Chaplin-esque outsider, foolish, defeated, drunk, an adult waif but railing against an uncaring, brutish and stupid world in a way that his audience can immediately identify with- hence his growing popularity as a performer. Another recurring theme is fatherhood and his unconditional love for his two daughters through all the difficulties and missteps the role involves, again detailed with an unflinching honesty that listeners, be they parents or not, cannot help but recognise and appreciate.
Gary Goodman. Photo by Andrea Shamlou.
Finally, to Mick Farren, performing a forty-minute set accompanied by electric guitarist Andy Colquhoun and percussionist Jaki Windmill, both current members of The Deviants. And indeed, what we get is in some ways a stripped-down Deviants set- lacking the sterling rhythm section of Russell and Sandy, of course, but this augmented recital still feels like a rock show. Seated on his customary stool, a black clad Farren lunges and gesticulates while delivering his sardonic, gothic verse, leading us into a surreal sci-fi western universe of improbable sex and leather-clad siren seductresses, where esoteric drugs still open the doors to the palaces of wisdom and the hope of somehow evading the implacable advances of our arch-enemies time and mortality. At 68, Farren links back to an era when outlaw giants like Burroughs, Thompson and Morrison still strode the earth, and rock n’ roll and outsider poetry were linked, along with wider and more amorphous notions of youth-as-rebel-culture and drugs-as-shamanic-tools, standing firm against the rapacious advances of the military-industrial greedheads and all who served them.
Such an era may seem quaint and discredited now from our lonely 21st Century beachhead. And yet we at the Midsummer Poetry Ball still broadly advocate and stand behind such principles. Poetry as naked self-expression, as the unspeakable visions of the individual, as call to arms, as a scrambling of the neurons, a psychic antidote to mass media brainwashing- rock n’ roll borrowed these associations, then dropped the ball. We’re picking it up again. And we’re throwing it over to you.
Jaki Windmill, Mick Farren, Andy Colquhoun. Photo by Andrea Shamlou.