Features Q&A and Interviews Published 12 August 2011

Luke Wright

On performance poetry and the Edinburgh Fringe.

Natasha Tripney

Cynical balladry.

This is Luke Wright’s ninth year in Edinburgh. He took an August off last year to spend some time outside the bubble with his family, but now he’s come back with one of his most interesting and ambitious show to date, Cynical Ballads, a show that feels more potent and urgent than ever in light of recent events in London and around the country.

The performance poetry, spoken word and live literature scene, both in Edinburgh and elsewhere in the UK, has changed considerably over recent years. There are more opportunities than there were when he was starting out, the “Free Fringe has made things a lot easier in that respect,” but there’s also more people performing and exploring the ways in which such work can be performed.

This year sees poets like Tim Clare and John Osborne stepping away from doing work that is overtly poetic.  Clare’s How to Be a Leader, is energetic, intellectually engaging and often beautiful phrased, but it’s closer to stand up than the performance poetry which characterised his last show Death Drive (though it does – or did, when I saw it in previews – end with an impressive piece of rhyming), while Osborne is performing  John Peel’s Shed, a heart-warming piece about his musical obsessions.

Wright has however, he says wryly, been, “keeping it true.” If anything Cynical Ballads tips the balance in the other direction, cutting much of the banter and focusing on a series of long-form poems. With past solo shows like 2009’s The Petty Concerns of Luke Wright he was careful to split his material fairly evenly between poetry and stand up; there was a sense that without this mix, this off-setting, audiences might struggle – especially Edinburgh audiences, who as Wright says, can be unpredictable, they’re taking a punt on something, they’ve got wet shoes, they’re “sitting in a cave,” they don’t always know what to expect or how to respond to it.

His new show is almost all poetry, with a focus on the ballad form. Wright believes that “seven beats between rhymes is perfect for stage poetry”, and that the ballad, traditionally an oral form, is ideal for writing responsive, relevant poetry. These ‘caustic tales of broken Britain’ are mordant, spiky pieces, witty and stinging, bleak but not without hope. We discuss the strange sense of disconnect about being up in this insular, self-circling environment while the rest of the country is engulfed.

Wright says he has essentially thought about “nothing else but poetry from the age of seventeen.” He was influenced by John Cooper Clarke, but also by seeing his friend Ross Sutherland perform his work. He was fortunate that a lot of people he went to university with in Norwich shared his interests and obsessions. The Aisle 16 collective was founded in 2000 by Wright and Sutherland and quickly went from performing poetry gigs in rooms above pubs to taking work to Edinburgh. Their first full length show Powerpoint, was strikingly ahead of the curve in the way it integrated multimedia techniques with performance. Now every other comedian seems to have a projector, but few do it with such invention and clarity of intent. Aisle 16 followed this up with their most successful show to date, Poetry Boyband. Following this success the collective became looser, the members pursuing different solo paths, but still working with another with regularity. They frequently showcase new material through their Homework sessions at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club in London.

The Norwich scene has grown organically and many of well-known names on the performance poetry scene – Clare, Joe Dunthorne, Molly Naylor, Dean Parkin – have connections with the city, and the Escalator Live Literature programme administered by Wright. Now the landscape is shifting again and the work being made by emerging artists is often as much about theatre as it is about performing poetry. The perfect illustraion of this is Inua Ellams’ The 14th Tale, which was picked up and staged last year at the National Theatre; venues like BAC and Soho Theatre have awakened to the creative appeal and commercial potential of such work. Wright thinks that for some of these artists, it’s more about the performance, about “making a connection” than about being a poet, about words on the page. “There’s a difference between poetry and spoken word,” he insists. For Wright the poetry remains the main thing, the rhythm, the meter, the page; there’s an element of poetry geekiness to him and some of the other members of Aisle 16, a fondness for playing with form, for setting themselves challenges, for playing Oulipian games. Univocalism is a particular favourite, imposing restrictions on the writer and seeing what results.  One of the highlights of last year’s Fringe was Clare and Sutherland’s Perecian stand-off in which they riffed on dubious sexual practices with a limited palette of vowels (the phrase ‘anal gravy’ is now permanently lodged in my cortex).

This year’s Edinburgh Fringe programme provides the perfect illustration of how spoken word and performance poetry are evolving as forms. Martin Figura’s Whistle and Hannah Silva’s Opposition are more clear-cut examples of poetry on stage. Ross Sutherland is one of the core artists at this year’s Forest Fringe and Hannah Jane Walker is collaborating with Chris Thorpe for an intimate, conversational piece, The Oh Fuck Moment, while Sabrina Mahfouz’s Dry Ice, drawn from her experiences working in a strip club, and Siddhartha Bose’s Kalagora are examples of pieces that play with both the poetic and the theatrical. The Poetry Take Away, from which you can procure your own personal poem, written and performed for you, has been upgraded from a damp trestle table next to the Tron to an actual take-away van.

There is a whole spectrum of work here, straddling both the comedy and theatre sections of the Fringe programme, and filtering out to new audiences. Wright talks with evident pleasure about the energy and excitement  of playing small spaces like the Albert Club in Manchester. For him that seems the essence of what performance poetry can be, so it’s seems fitting that the Aisle 16 team, Wright, Clare and Osborne, will also be working together this year, performing Aisle 16 R Kool each night at 10pm in the suitably sweaty and close-quartered environs of Edinburgh pub, the Banshee Labyrinth.

Luke Wright’s Cynical Ballads is at the Underbelly, 4.15pm, until 28th August 2011. For tickets visit the Edinburgh Fringe website.

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Natasha Tripney

Natasha co-founded Exeunt in 2011 and was editor until 2016. She's now lead critic and reviews editor for The Stage, and has written about theatre and the arts for the Guardian, Time Out, the Independent, Lonely Planet and Tortoise.

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