A winter feast of poetry and wit was on offer at St David’s Hall on Sunday night. The evening began with a set from Clare Ferguson Walker from West Wales – described online as “sculptor, painter, singer, mother and poet.” Quite a build up. Of course , it’s not easy to be the first act on and Ferguson Walker was nervous – her rapport with the audience grew but never quite took off. She drew on personal experience by reading a poem about her relationship breakdown and divorce which was a howl of pain and anger – but the twist was effective : ” I wish you were here” – reflecting the ambivalence often experienced in such situations . Other themes were student days in Aberystwyth and gender issues in a poem called “The Man Who was a Chaise Longue”.
Next to hit the stage was Mike Garry, a long time Manchester collaborator of John Cooper Clarke. He was a much more confident performer using his voice and posture to give drama to his verse. His first poem took us to the dark side of Manchester in “The Fallow Field”- grit, outrage and despair. But Manchester and childhood were also celebrated in a tribute poem to a teacher who inspired and expanded horizons. There was an impressive variety in Garry’s poems, from a love poem to his son, a relationship poem, to a poem on internet betrayal (“Pay As You Go” ). Plus a humorous celebration of his mother’s words of wisdom.
Simon Day (formerly of The Fast Show) appeared in the guise of Geoffrey Allerton, “Yorkshire’s acclaimed poet”. He was dressed in stereotypical garb of an older Yorkshire man – cap, tweed jacket, glasses. But perhaps subverted by trainers on the feet. He cleverly played on what our expectations of such a character(such as reactionary views, naïveté , nostalgia) by making his own statements sound absurd. For example, his nostalgic poem about modern circuses made it seem ridiculous to regret the passing of appearances by Siamese twins, dwarfs and tigers. He poked fun at his own naive titles such as “On the train” and “Goodbye Dad”. But he painted quirky pictures of the people on the train, or an older couple in “Marking Time”. There were also touching moments too: in “Goodbye Dad”, Day/Allerton explored his search for a dad after his dad left home, finding one in Mr T in the TV series The A Team.
And then, after the interval, to the main man, John Cooper Clarke – the so-called “punk poet” but he would perhaps prefer another nomenclature “the godfather of performance poetry”. He proudly hails from Salford and , like Garry, celebrates his locality including Manchester in his work. Despite spending the 80’s lost in heroin in Manchester, he has since retrieved his talent and public persona – although he has also said that he was idle during those years. On Sunday, his presence on stage was announced with a huge fanfare and eventually a slender, diminutive figure appeared to an enthusiastic reception. He immediately filled the stage with huge charisma and an impressively stylish turnout- soft, grey bowler type hat, a long pocketed grey jacket, the usual black skinny jeans topped off with shades and a very smart pair of grey leather boots. His skill in working the audience was revealed over and over again, for example, he could not find one of the poems to read in his new book, kept us waiting listening to his frustration and then recited the poem from memory. Even his monotone delivery was mesmerising.
We were treated to a mixture of old poems and new poems from his new collection “The Luckiest Guy Alive”. All still as gritty, witty and close to the edge as ever. He has updated his famous Manchester poem “Beasley Street” to reflect the process of urban gentrification – ” Beasley Street/Beasley Boulevard”. Beasley Boulevard is now a “strange and pale” place with a “phone box clear of hookers’ cards.”
He talked to us about getting into the haiku poetry form which he has started to use with his usual wit:
“The convey one’s mood
In seventeen syllables
Is very diffic-”
In between the poems, Cooper Clarke shared some joked with us. Foe example, “What is occasional furniture the rest of the time? Periodic tables.” Some of the jokes were more problematic, verging on, if not misogynistic, There was one based on the four playing card suits : hearts , diamonds , clubs and spades. At least one member of the audience found his work misogynistic. At the same time it was clever. A dilemma?
Cooper Clarke has found fame and reputation in many quarters, on GCSE syllabi, in wedding recitations, in the TV series The Sopranos ( minus more extreme swearing). He is now Dr John Cooper Clarke courtesy of an honorary doctorate. But his greatest fame is that of a performance poet and he certainly socked it to us on Sunday night. It was a very enjoyable evening with some variations in quality and some challenges too.