The host glides elegantly down the stairs..
Now, settle down, everybody and queue nicely.
(Crowd nearly out of control with excitement. Security return early from their fag break)
Today we are honoured to have the wonderful, talented and enigmatic Robert Garnham
Host bangs a ruler on the desk
(There is instant silence )
That’s better, because we’re all very excited to welcome Robert Garnham
(Our esteemed guest wafts elegantly down the lighted stairs)
Welcome, Robert. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Absolute pleasure, Heather. thank you for having me.
(audience go wild with frenzied cries of ‘Robert etc’)
So so glad you could join us.
.(Ripples of agreement)
And may I say I love those tartan Oxford bags and paisley shirt.
oh thank you, took all night to turn these up. I don’t remember Noddy Holder having any trouble.
That’s because he had stacked platform boots. You’d better get yourself to Freeman, Hardy & Willis.
(Host sweeps everything off her desk in a brutal fashion. Audience and esteemed guest looks nervous)
Down to brass tacks – Tell us about your background
I have the most unusual background to be a performance poet in that I didn’t actually start until I was in my late thirties, and only then by accident.
I’d always written short stories but hardly sent them out anywhere. I grew up in a part of Englefield Green in Surrey known as the ‘Forest Estate’ and went to school in Staines, and then my first job at Sainsbury’s.
At the same time, I’d always known I was gay, but at the time of late ‘80s and early ‘90s there wasn’t the representation on the media like there is now, beyond the usual stereotypes, and looking back, I was probably a little camp. This was probably mistaken as being an aspiration to poshness by those I grew up with!
In 1996 my parents moved down to Devon and I went with them. I took evening ‘A’ Level classes and finally got good grades. I then progressed to seven years of Open University and obtained a degree in English Literature, then obtaining a post grad degree in Museum Management with the University of Leicester. But all the time I was still writing silly stories and not showing anyone.
By 2009 I decided that all I seemed to do was work or study, so I decided to go and see some culture. The only culture advertised in the local paper in Paignton was a night of ‘performance poetry’, so I went along. The host was a lovely chap called Chris Brooks and I asked for a slot next month and he said Yes. But then I realised that I didn’t actually have any poems. So I spent the next month writing a couple of (awful) poems which I ‘performed’ and the audience laughed in all the right places. I realised then that instead of keeping all these humorous pieces to myself, I could share them. Also, it was a drug, that laughter! I became hooked.
I’ve been performing ever since, all over the UK, and in places like Berlin and New York, the Albert Hall, theatres, festivals. And wow, imagine if I’d never gone along to that performance poetry night in 2009!
That’s just fascinating, Robert. 2009 was a turning point year for you.
Yes, these quirks and twists of fate, eh? And look how far you’ve come…..When did poetry and comedy become a part of your life?
Comedy has always been a part of my life. My late father loved comedy and would listen to or watch all kinds of things, so long as it made him laugh. I’ve probably got the same sense of humour. Indeed, my Dad was one of the funniest people I knew.
I’d listen to radio comedy, cassettes and records, not caring who it was so long as it made me laugh. Adrian Juste’s show on radio One where he’d play comedy snippets between the songs, would lead me to look up the ones who made me laugh.
I also read a huge amount of humour books, a really diverse mix including Flann O’Brien, Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker and I include poets such as John Hegley, Pam Ayers and Ivor Cutler.
Oh I adored Adrian Juste! Saturday afternoons as I recall. And Dorothy Parker I could read again and again. And that wonderful John Hegley! They’re all spot on.
What about poetry?
Poetry? Hmm..I’ll be honest and say I hated poetry when I was younger. I just didn’t get it! Poetry seemed to be stand-up poetry but without jokes or a punchline. It never seemed to have a meaning to me. There’s a joke in my new show about my school not being very cultural, and it was true. It didn’t even have a drama department, though my wonderful English teacher encouraged my writing. But when it came to poetry, he was flogging a dead horse. Mind you, we were a class of Neanderthals.
It was only when I was doing my literature degree that I first got into poetry. I hated the modules that we had to spend on poems. The big names left me so bored, and it didn’t help that we did the Romantics, then Seamus Heaney talking about those bloody bog people, then it was TS Eliot and I wanted to shout at the page, “For gods sake, don’t beat around the bush, if you want to say something, then bloody well say it!”
Then we did Frank O’Hara and WOW! He used conversational language and wrote poems about things like going out to eat a hot dog and drink cola, and he wrote about being gay in 1950’s Manhattan and it completely changed my view of poetry. I took Heaney and Eliot’s books out from the library and whispered, ‘Sorry…Sorry…I didn’t mean it!’
Even so, I still wouldn’t say that I’m a voracious reader of poetry. I love performance poetry but I’m sad to report poetry has never been a big part of my life (Yet..?).
What a learning curve, Robert. Again that twist of fate, and that education is truly wasted on the young.
Performance poetry is tops with me too. Keats will send me to sleep for example (forgive me).
Who were your biggest influences?
My influences change all the time and most of them aren’t poets. I just like anyone eccentric and doesn’t care what other people think, and express themselves.
I really got into pop music in the early ‘80s and the arrival of the Pet Shop Boys coincided with my formative years, and their whole career can be measured against what I was doing at the time. Their use of language and rhythm and the imagery of their songs, the way they make me feel so happy listening to their work, the fact that they’re still making music, the way they constantly reinvent themselves, their unashamed eccentricity, the irony, the campiness….
You can also add to the mix Laurie Anderson whose work always takes the listener/viewer to sublime places, but with a gentle touch of humour. Ivor Cutler, whose slightly surreal style makes the listener see the world differently. Jerry Seinfeld who makes the mundane hilarious. Bob Newhart who was a big part of my childhood. His calm ‘button-down’ style with its halting, nervous delivery is probably the biggest influence on my performance style.
There are so many others! Edith Sitwell, David Byrne, Salena Godden, Melanie Branton, Dandy Darkly (look him up!), Rachel Pantechnicon, Byron Vincent. The list goes on!
Well, Robert, I have lost count of how many times I’ve swooned hearing those names. The stunning Pet Shop Boys – they’re a part of me too.
And Bob Newhart! I loved The Driving Instructor! A great childhood influence.
Now, I believe you’re working on a new show, and a collection. Fill us in…
I was fortunate to have two books published by Burning Eye, ‘Nice’ and ‘Zebra’. Amazingly, they let me do a third. ‘Nice’ had been mostly about sexual matters and the funny side to being LGBT, ‘Zebra’ had been a more introspective affair about wider LGBT issues, and I was incredibly proud of both.
In 2018, the idea for a third book was mooted and the world at that time seemed a pretty miserable place, and it seemed that it would be nice to write a collection that would be fun and positive and be about mental health and being proud of who you are. So I decided that the book would be called ‘Yay!’
Of course the world got even more serious with the pandemic and everything, but my personal brief to myself would be that the book would have all comedy, happy, silly but still quite meaningful poems about life, identity and other things. There is one very serious poem halfway through about mental health and those dark thoughts which probably come to us all.
The book should be out in May and I’m really looking forward to unleashing it on the world.
The book will be accompanied by a brand new show. This had already been decided before Lockdown. I don’t think I would have committed to a brand new show had I known! I started writing it in April 2020, then rehearsing and learning it in November. I’ve been working on some dates and I can reveal it will be coming to Guildford on July 13th! We are also making a film of it in a completely empty theatre next month, which will hopefully be available on streaming from the spring.
The show has the title ‘Yay!’ The Search for Happiness’ and follows the adventures of a poet who becomes a poet in residence on a ship in his quest to get to the root of what it means to be happy. There, that’s a scoop for you!
Robert, I am bowled over here! So fascinating and prolific
( ripple of applause and awe)
AND I will be in that front row at Guildford! July won’t come quick enough!
Now the dreaded question – What’s the best gig you’ve ever done, and the worst?
I’ll start with the worst first, I don’t want to end the interview on a downer. I have a weird relationship with the Edinburgh Fringe. I’ve been going as a performer since 2014, and I went a couple of times before that just to watch. In 2016, I put my own solo show together called ‘Static’. I was really pleased with it and I’d taken it round all the fringes in the UK. It was half poetry, half performance art/miming, during which I’d work through complicated silent procedures with props. I’d worked with a director, the wonderful Ziggy Abd el Malak, and he’d shown me how to move slowly, and treat props with reverence, and treat silence, and be ever so calm on stage. This had gone down very well at other venues.
Anyway, I arrived in Edinburgh with my big box of props, only to find that my venue was a roped off corner of a sports themed bar! With a TV constantly tuned to whatever sports event was on that day. So I’d find myself performing against a backdrop of football and beered-up lads yelling ‘Kick him in the balls!’
As for the best gig, hmm…. I’m so lucky that I have so many to choose from. The best nights are those when people start laughing early and carry on laughing all the way through, so the energy in the room is maintained.
I often record my gigs, such as Bristol at the Arnolfini with an audience of around 200. Also I was fortunate enough to do the Hammer and Tongue Tour in 2019, visiting six different cities over a week and a bit.
But for me, the highlight of my performing career was headlining at the Duplex Cabaret in New York. This historic venue has hosted some of the biggest names in comedy and LGBT cabaret and is right in the LGBT village. My set went incredibly well and I met such lovely people. I was scared that my humour wouldn’t translate to a US audience but it went down so well!
Afterwards I went upstairs with the other performers to the flat over the venue, used as a green room, and there I was, surrounded by drag artists and cabaret singers, drinking and chatting on an incredibly hot night in Manhattan, and I didn’t want it to ever end! I was a long, long way from Staines Sainsbury’s!
Gosh Robert! What a dream come true! I almost felt the atmosphere and elation of Manhattan there! Amazing anecdote. Fabulous.
I have sat through people trying to perform in a noisy bar in Edinburgh and really felt for them. What a learning curve!
Thank you so much for coming on the show, an enthralling interview and July can’t come quick enough for me!
Now, dressed like that, you must be off somewhere impressive. Featuring at the Slagg’s Cafe perhaps?
Well, you’re right about these trousers and I really want to be like Noddy Holder or Dave Hill. So I’m off up the Kings Road to get some platforms. Four inch heels, if possible. Also, a crushed velvet hat.
Then it’s back home for an episode of Z Cars and walking practise
Wonderful. That reminds me, I need a two-tone skirt.
Thank you so much for coming on the show and being so engaging and enthralling.
(Huge huge applause. Security look nervous)
Our esteemed guest walks cautiously up the lighted stairs.
Wasn’t Robert Garnham just amazing, Poetry lovers?! Do check out his wonderful website for details of gigs and join me at Guildford if you can
Thank you for watching. Keep tuned for more poetry antics soon…..