To save me patiently working through this cobweb strand and making minor adjustments, here’s the deal. I wrote most of this on September 17th and planned to post it on Sunday 20th. And then the wonderful Anthony Wilson told me he was putting my Guest Post out on that day. Mirabile dictu!!!!! Fantastic!!!!! Pow!!!!! So this is now coming out a week later than anticipated. So the appearance of the guest poet and polished gem has still to be decided. Cliffhangers, eh? Anyway. The strand for September 7th starts here: just imagine that when I write ‘last week’ it will mean ‘the week before last’, and so on.
Here starts what I suspect will be an even more rambling post than usual. It’s because I’ve had a couple of 500 mile round trips to read at literature/arts festivals in the last three weeks; I got to read in a brilliant cafe with windows that looked out on a dark sea and a darker mountain; I got to read in a sunlit white room upstairs in a church on the south coast; I got to thinking how I ever got to this. However did I find myself compering a regular open mic.? However did I find my calendar full of poetry events? Because the Gary Larson ‘Cow poetry’ cartoon pretty much sums up what I imagined poetry readings to be like. I’d been to readings, either by accident, or because poets were booked at teachers’ and advisors’ conferences that I went to when I worked for a living. I got to hear Tony Harrison, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Charles Causley..and, I suddenly remember, Wendy Cope, who was splendidly waspish when asked if she’d do an encore. But essentially, those were famous names even though they weren’t necessarily in big venues. No. I’m thinking of open mics. and readrounds in pubs and coffee shops. I came to these late in life. Here’s the story of how. It’s just a story. No need to take notes. Like I said last week…it’s a no-uniform day.
In the 90’s I started going to singaround folk clubs, because my partner is a fan of singer-songwriters, Americana, acoustic guitar players. These days she gets to guest with her singing partner. I like folk clubs, and guitars and banjos…when it’s done well. Came the day I got asked if I wanted to sing. By someone who had clearly never heard me sing…and then he said, well, next time, maybe you’d like to do a poem. That’s how it started, and how I built up a collection of stuff I could do. What goes down well in folkclubs is poems that rhyme, and poems that are funny, and, preferably, poems that do both. I built up a list of ones that went down well, by people who wrote the kind of poems I still can’t write myself. Pam Ayres, Roger McGough, John Hegley, Matt Harvey, Shel Silverstein, the incomparable Les Barker, and my favourite, McGonagall. I did some of Carole Ann Duffy’s ‘The oldest girl in the world’ (especially, The babysitter). I learned something about getting introductions right for this or that audience, about timing and pauses, and how a bit of redundancy in a poem is what you want to give the audience time to catch up, and, at one club, how to use a mic. to work quietly. All good stuff. But came the day when I’d sat through enough nights where unaccompanied singers sang Authentic Traditional Folksongs with millions of verses and the chorus after every one. They almost always sing flat. Enough nights where beery chaps murdered Tom Paxton and Bob Dylan. I got fed up of the way that many singers have a repertoire of three songs and never vary or learn new ones. I got fed up of Eric Bogle songs, much as I love his own versions. I got fed up of the maudlin false nostalgias.
About this time, I started going to poetry workshops, and I realised that I wanted to read MY poems, and also that they weren’t what would work in a folk club. I didn’t do ‘funny’. Over the last five years I’ve written ones that might work, and I keep them in a folder marked : Stand-ups and stockingfillers. They could turn out useful useful for relieving a bleak sequence. Like I said at Havant last week , I tend to do bleak. Anyway, I started going to poetry nights instead of folk clubs. Thankyou, The Albert Poets for introducing me to so many guests who changed the way I read and think. Julia Deakin, Clare Shaw, Mike de Placido, Char March, Gaia Holmes, John Duffy….all of them. Gradually I got used to signing up for open mic.s, and eventually I got to do guest slots, and finally to find myself co-organising and compering (is that how it’s spelled? The extra ‘e’ looks wrong) The Puzzle hall Poets Live where I got one of my very first guest slots thanks to last week’s polished gem …Gaia Holmes. And now, here we are, writing a weekly poetry cobweb strand. Who’d have known.
However, despite the pleasure I get from this mutually supportive and inspirational bunch of people who constitute the world of small poetry groups, I’ll tell you what I miss. Since I shifted away from the music, I miss the gigs I’ve been to where I’ve seen and listened to talented artists. Tom Russell, Steve Forbert, Slaid Cleaves, Diana Jones, The Waifs, The Be-Good Tanyas, Laura Viers, John Wright………even the legend that is Rambling Jack Elliot, who can casually tell you, en passant, how he did this or that with Woody, or how he got Kris Kristofferson on stage, and so on.What they all had in common, what made them special for me, was that they were working small venues. Pubs, church halls, concert-rooms (as in club concert rooms). They were doing it for not very much, and some of them had been doing it for years. They know how to tell a story, how to work a mic., how to put a mixing desk to rights, how to balance a set, how to warm an audience. They put in hard hours and hard miles; they can be living from hand to mouth, but they go on doing it. You can learn a lot about how to be a guest poet from folk like this.Inspirations all.
Which brings me to Mary Gauthier.
Maybe you’re not into Americana, and you’ve not heard of her. Well, now you have. Mary Gauthier is one of those who make me optimistic whenever I’m feeling down about where the writing is going, or if it’s worth the effort. I first heard her sing at The Pheasant Inn in Sheffield. It’s a place that in the 90’s used to host many of the Americana musicians I’ve mentioned earlier. It wasn’t the most salubrious or glamorous place. I remember queuing outside in late Autumn gloom and drizzle, and then walking through to the concert room via a taproom with a carpet that stuck to your feet, and young mums who sat with toddlers in prams, and fed them crisps and bright pink drinks. The overall colour scheme was brown in all its variations, the lighting was perfunctory, and the stage was cramped, and too high (just click on the picture for the full effect. I could swear that piano was at The Pheasant). And then on comes Mary G. and lights up my night. One woman with a guitar and a mission. I’ve seen her since in a church in Leeds, in a church hall somewhere in rural Leicestershire with a backdrop painted by the Scouts for a pantomime, above a wine bar in Wakefield. Man, does she work. To my absolute delight she’s battled and battled and worked and worked and now she needn’t work crap bars filled with people who don’t listen, on stages like the one in the triptych. Now she’s on radio shows; she plays festivals all over the States and in Europe; she seems to be booked up for every day,forever. And she’s played The Grand Ol’ Opry. Isn’t that something for an artist who’s gay, who’s battled drug addiction, who wrote a song for Karla Faye -executed in Texas to the applause of George Bush-, who’s protested that Woody Guthrie never got inducted into the Country Hall Of Fame. She’s brought out a succession of critically acclaimed albums. I guess that helps.
And why am I writing about an American singer-songwriter in a poetry cobweb? Because what she teaches me is that if you want to be any good you work and work and work. You learn from the best, and when it’s all going to hell on a handcart, you grit your teeth and dig in and keep going. And because she writes lines that stand up in any company. I stole momma’s car on a Sunday / and lit out for good / moved in with some friends in the city / in bad neighbourhood. And she did. Aged fifteen. So I’m indulging myself with this big ‘thankyou’. The first time I saw her a long time ago, I wrote a poem and emailed it to her. You know what? The next day, she wrote back and said ‘thankyou’. Star. I’ve rewritten it a few times, and I’ve read it at folkclubs and at poetry readrounds and open mic.s. It’s a poem about one night in Sheffield, and it’s also a poem about her songs. Which makes it, I suppose, an ekphrastic tribute poem. There’s a niche category.
a cold autumn night and this cold Sheffield bar
smells of 60 watt lighting and yesterday’s beer:
and this lady of the shooting stars
is wondering how she came to be here
with her dreamers and thinkers, her junkies and drinkers
the lovers and dancers, the liars and chancers
the outlaws and angels and whores
in gigs like this in a Thursday night bar,
where the spotlight shines in her eyes.
For a moment she stands there looking lost,
or maybe just looking surprised;
then she unpacks her old blue Taylor guitar
from its scuffed and well-stickered case;
she peers into the 60 watt distance;
and wonders aloud…says: is this the right place?
She fiddles with tunings, tries a coupla chords;
through the mic. comes her quiet country drawl:
hi. I’m Mary Gauthier, from Louisiana;
come here to sing songs for y’all………
and I’m hitching a ride on a back country road
through the landscapes of Mary Gauthier
a ride through another country….
well… they do things differently there:
bright lights and lost dreams, poets and drag queens
trailer-trash has-beens, death cells and limousines,
and the angels are falling
and there’s fire in the fields
and places flash past through the windscreen of song
like phrases or rhymes half heard in a dream
Juarez, Las Cruces, Prairie du Chien
Thibodeaux to Raceland…you know what I mean.
And you’re hitching a ride on southern states voice
that sings cool and clear as the moon,
tho’ it isn’t exactly singing
but more like talking in tune
one that lingers on sweet and curdles on sour
holds on to a note like a child plucks a flower
lights on a phrase like a bee on a stem
lets the words run like water held in a cupped palm
or just fades to whispers like a moth in a flame
like the wind in the grasses, like the rain in the pines
like the hushing of tyres when the wet blacktop shines……
so thanks for your leaving home stories
and the roads you’ve travelled before
the poets, the dancers ,the lovers, the chancers,
the angels, the liars, the burned- out high fliers,
the drinkers, the thinkers, the junkies, the whores;
yeah….. here’s thanks for the ride, Mary Gauthier;
the journey was over too soon.
I’m still listening to shooting-star stories.
Still singing along to your tune.
You can follow Mary Gauthier via her website. Google it. You can travel round the States and Europe with her. Go listen to the music. But make sure to start with ‘Drag queens in limousines’ because that was the one that did it for me. And then you can hear the rest:
- Dixie Kitchen (1997)
- Drag Queens in Limousines (1999)
- Filth and Fire (2002)
- Mercy Now (2005)
- Between Daylight and Dark (2007)
- Genesis (The Early Years) ( 2008) – 15 track compilation from the 1st three albums
- The Foundling (2010)
- The Foundling Alone (2011) Acoustic Demo’s of songs in development, from The Foundling
- Live at Blue Rock (2012) 11 mixed new and old tracks plus a hidden Mercy Now
- Trouble and Love (2014)
I just looked at my planning notes and realise this wasn’t what I set out to write. I guess I should make sure I make up for it next week. It’ll be about poetry readings. It may well turn out to be one of those poetry posts about what to do and what not to do. It may step on toes. I will think about that. And then, the week after, we’ll be having a proper poetry guest, and it will not be a non-uniform day. See you all next Sunday. Run and skip if you like. It’s a no-uniform day today.
I just read this last paragraph. Forget some of it. Next week we have a guest poet. From the Midlands. So.Collars, ties and proper shoes. No trainers. Don’t be late.