Nothing says Christmas quite like the Arts Centre’s infamous Xmas Poetry Bash. Sold out and buzzing, the Colchester venue offered, as always, a warm and welcoming haven from the bleak winter night waiting outside the door. Featuring Ross Sutherland, Luke Wright, Martin Newell and Dr John Cooper Clarke, the evening cane alive with wordplay and comedy, as well as some immensely touching, heartfelt moments.
First up from these local poetry heroes was Ross Sutherland with his own take on a ghost story. Sutherland’s pieces are often immersive, with audio accompaniment, and always with a twist; they draw you in and you can’t help but hang on his every word.
Next to grace the stage, like the lovechild of Robert Smith and Adam Ant, was Luke Wright, who brought with him wordsmithery galore in his foppish manner. Watching Wright is like watching a piece of theatre; he flits between characters and accents with ease and never fails to entertain.
Following him was Martin Newell who has a place in the heart of many locals watching the show. His beautiful rendition of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas really gets you in the festive spirit and his poem Well Done You, which is always a crowd pleaser, gained him rapturous applause.
After that, it was the turn of our headline act, punk poet Dr John Cooper Clarke. Dr Clarke’s seemingly unrehearsed stage persona and straggly appearance should, in theory, make for quite uncomfortable viewing, but his performance is far from that. Spurting out poems at lightning speed in the monotonous, Mancunian tones that could only be his, Clarke can still hold an audience as he did back in his days as a young punk.
Before the show we caught up with Ross Sutherland and here is what he had to say to us:
Arts Centre Blog: Where does your inspiration come from?
RS: I really like arbitrary rules. I think there is nothing more terrifying than a blank page and someone telling you to do whatever you want. It’s a lot easier when someone comes in and says: “Look, you have to tell this story, but you have to do it using only words that have the vowel e in them and every sentence can only be so long and it has to contain these things here.”
The more restrictions you put on something, the more it sort of pulls you away from writing cliche. It makes you draw from deeper parts of your imagination and more from your subconscious. The thing I feel proud of creating isn’t usually the end piece, it’s creating this sort of fiendish puzzle to solve and simply the act of solving the puzzle creates the artwork. It removes a lot of the anxieties of why I write and makes it fun. You get to be surprised by what comes out in the end. If the audience knows the rules too, then they get to go on that journey with you. Deep down I suspect that writing this type of poetry, or whatever you want to call it, is more fun than listening to it. The more I can get people to think like me when I’m writing it, the more I think they get to appreciate the end product.
ACB: Has poetry always been something that you’re interested in? It kind of has. Poetry is a weird thing because it’s always such an empty word in the end. It really doesn’t mean anything; it’s effectively the bin marked ‘other’ as it covers such a wide variety of different things. It just seems to be the term people use for stuff that doesn’t fit into other, more established, art forms. If you can’t make money from it, then it’s probably poetry, to a certain degree. I think I have lots of different interests, but I think my love of poetry is the root of a lot of it. My Gran used to encourage me to write nonsense poetry when I was really little. When I moved from Scotland to Colchester I used to write poems, nonsense verse mainly, to my Gran as a way to stay in touch with her. That’s easier than writing the sort of “Dear Gran, thanks for the money, I bought socks” kind of letter. I couldn’t write those kind of letters so my mum said to just write about an owl in a wig or whatever. Then I would happily sit down and write that and my Gran would still enjoy it.
I first saw John Cooper Clarke at The Music Box in Edinburgh in 1995, back when I was 15. I found that really inspiring – I didn’t really know much before that. My dad took me and it was amazing to see this thing that felt like a punk rock gig, full of all these ageing punks in the audience and still had the energy of a stand-up gig, but it was just him up onstage. I enjoyed the atmosphere. Comedy can sometimes feel combative, or sometimes you can really enjoy a comedy gig and leave and someone asks what it was about and you have no idea. I didn’t feel that necessarily and it also felt kind of achievable because you didn’t need any equipment or any set design; you barely needed a microphone. I came back from that gig and my dad gave me John’s book. My dad had met him many years earlier, back when he was 17, so he was very much a fan.
When I was at Colchester Sixth Form College, I found out he lived just down the road – I assumed he still lived in Manchester, but no, he’s that weird guy that’s in TSB all the time and looks like a stretched Bob Dylan. We got hold of him somehow, my English teacher asked him if he wanted to come and do a gig at the sixth form and I got to be a support act for that. After the gig we went to the pub over the road and he had his notebooks with him and he was showing me his work and asking me for my opinion. In retrospect, it’s such a generous thing to do to someone. So we were looking over it together and then after that, I left and thought “that’s it. I’m going to write for the rest of my life”. The warmth and support that he’d shown was so awesome.
ACB: When you were starting out, how did you get your work out there? A lot of it was this idea of just doing it for myself rather than waiting for someone to recognise you or do it for you. There were a couple of other stages that we would go to, me and Luke [Wright]. Like the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden and we’d do shows there and we’d meet other people. Quite often one gig would lead to another as that’s sort of how it worked, but in the end we set up our own night. We were at university in Norwich, at UEA. I was there first, then Luke came two years later and Luke was really keen to set up a night and so we began a night in the city. I would recommend that to anyone if you’re writing, it’s always best to try and set things up for yourselves. We started as a night which we ran four times a year, and the resident poets who we’d regularly ask to be our core group, became our writing collective and we retained that. Then we started making theatre and at that point we were probably more like a theatre company.
We produced three full plays and individually we’d do side projects. We were stronger than the sum of our parts and it was always so much more fun to do it with other like minded people. So I think, if you book a venue, the right people will gravitate through that door and once you have them you just hold onto them and force them through some kind of protracted blood oath to keep working with you and to keep forcing you to get back up on stage by creating increasingly ludicrous demands on each other. There’s a night we run at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club called Homework and that’s been a good chance for us to get back together and collaborate, and I try to get the guys onto my podcast whenever I can.
ACB: We’re here tonight for Christmas, how are you going to be spending Christmas?
RS: I’m going to be in my house in Peterborough. This is our first year where family is coming to us, rather than us go to other families. We’ve done the whole four sets of parents in one Christmas thing, so this time around we’re just going to stay put. Neither of us are very good cooks, so that whole side’s going to take a bit of a hit. My cat’s just out of hospital and it’s quite needy so I think he’ll appreciate us being around – it’s his Christmas this year.
ACB: What are your plans for 2018?
RS: I’m going to do more live events of my podcast. I’ve really enjoyed taking my podcast out and the formula that I’ve been doing on there. That’s been a real joy for me watching that build; I love doing radio and it really suits me and the way that I write so I’m definitely going to do more of that. I’m getting married in April, so that’s going to take up a lot of the year. I’m really tempted to take the thing I’m doing tonight and developing it a bit further, because I’m doing a 20 minute version of it tonight, but the original script of it that I did on the radio is really long, like over an hour. So, yeah, I’m tempted to develop that as a piece and to do that in the theatre, but it’s really hard, as always; it’s kind of like a gambler sort of spreading his bets. It’s often best to keep several horses in the run because you don’t know which one audiences are going to go for, or which ones are going to get funding and so, a little bit like writing a poem itself, if you knew where you were going, by the time you got to the end there would be little point in starting it. I would love to do an hour long exorcist ghost story.