Luke Wright’s Fringe shows sell out each year, and when you witness the performance poet in action it’s easy to see why. By turns laugh-out-loud funny and heartbreakingly poignant, Wright’s witty and direct style, punchy use of rhythm and rhyme, and strong connection to the way we live in Britain today has garnered him a larger audience than most poets can dream of (as well as more 5 star reviews than you can shake a stick at). After the success of 2011′s Cynical Ballads, I spoke to Wright about his 2012 show Your New Favourite Poet to find out what he hopes to achieve this year.
Your poems hold up a mirror to Britain today: its media, political figures, class system and so on. Do you think that poetry should be relevant and timely in this way, and will Your New Favourite Poet continue in this vein?
Your New favourite Poet does continue in this vein. I have a long ballad about Raoul Moat and the media’s involvement in that case. I also have a jaunty ottava rima poem about a certain notorious political couple who befell a terrible scandal in the late 90s and then turned that into an opportunity for tabloid fame. The other poems are less political. The theme of this show, if there is one, is Britishness, but it’s more light-hearted over all. It’s got a greater sense of fun than Cynical Ballads.
In regards the relevant/timely issue – I don’t think poetry SHOULD be any one thing. My work engages with society, often through the prism of media, so it feels very contemporary. In 100 years time the work will suffer more than most because of this. I think people are surprised to see poetry engaging with public discourses because at school we are introduced to old poetry that has stood the test of time. Therefore contemporary stuff that places itself in the here and now feels alien, but it’s not. Poets like Pope and Swift were doing what I’m doing now in the 18th century, Shakespeare is full of puns on contemporary issues and slang, Tennyson famously wrote Charge of the Light Brigade after reading an article in the Times. It was a biting satire on a military fuck-up, no different from poems berating Blair for Iraq today.
You mentioned Britishness as being the theme of Your New Favourite Poet. Your poems do seem to show a real pride in, and affection for, normal, unprivileged British lives (mentions of 3-bar fires and TV Quicks remind me of Morrissey’s lyrics). You also attack snobbery throughout your poems. How important is class to your work?
The single worst thing with the world is distribution of wealth. Pretty much everything, for me at least, comes back to the fact that, as Jarvis Cocker would put it, “cunts are still running the world.” The class system is a very visible and ugly symptom of that. It’s malicious and cruel. It also has lots of easily identifiable stereotypes which lend themselves to the kind of poetry I like to write. I don’t always sit down and think I’m going to write about class but invariably it creeps in there because it is so ingrained in the country I am writing about.
This strong connection to the country you live in reflects the direct connection you have with your audience. You’re extremely ‘out there’ with your poetry (on YouTube, the BBC, Channel 4, Latitude, the Fringe and so on) which goes against the cliché of the tortured, introverted poet. Is performance integral to your work, and would/could you write without it?
There’s no doubt that my style has been influenced by the performance of my work. I hit upon ballads as a form of writing in because I believe the seven beat gap between rhymes is perfect for live performance. If you watch these battle raps the kids are going crazy for you’ll notice a lot of the disses drop in at a rough seven beats after the last rhyme. It works, it seems ingrained in us. The Victorians would declaim their poetry, it was just something they did. They’d write it then say it out loud. We lost that with modernism but I think it’s creeping back in. Even the most hardened ‘page poet’ (I don’t like these crude distinctions as most of the best stuff straddles page and stage, but for argument’s sake) has to do readings now to boost book sales. I was talking to Hugo Williams about this not so long ago and he said that getting a reading was a very rare thing in his early days. His first one came after his second collection was published and they were very stuffy, intimidating affairs. He was told to wait on a hard wooden bench outside with his suit and tie and gravely called in after some time. The thing is, this idea of the tortured poet angsting in his garret is the exception that proves the rule that working poets are, these days, increasingly sociable creatures adept at reading their own work and often plugged into social media.
This angst-ridden, introverted vibe is absent in your work, though some of your past work does seem highly confessional (for example ‘Company of Men’). Do you enjoy placing yourself inside your work or do you prefer to put some distance between yourself and your poems?
Company of Men is an old piece. It’s from my 2007 show Poet & Man and that was a very confessional show. I did two confessional shows. I think I did it because it was very much in vogue (it’s that Apples & Snakes model of “here is me, here is my story.”) I guess a lot of stand-ups do it too. I had experimented with a poem about teaching workshops that was quite soppy at the end in my debut show in 2006. After that my director and a few other industry types convinced me that it would be good to explore a more personal angle. I don’t regret it. I still write plenty of personal pieces (though a lot of these tend to be shorter, more sober pieces that work better on the page). However, for the last couple of shows I’ve really enjoyed creating characters and stories and then letting my personality come across in a firm and ironic narrative voice, glossing over details and giving my opinions in the way a creative writing guidebook would tell a novelist to avoid at all costs. It’s not that I have issues with talking about myself, but there is limit to how much of my life is interesting enough to mine for material every year. And of course, in something like Chris & Ann’s Fish Bar, which was the centre piece of Cynical Ballads, I am mining my own experiences and emotions to write those tender scenes, as indeed any writer does.
This sort of engaging poetry is rife in this year’s Fringe, across comedy, theatre and the new spoken word category, yet (even very good) poetry sells a fraction of the amount that (even very bad) novels do. Can this change, and do you think shows like Your New Favourite Poet help the cause?
Performing your work will help you gain an audience. Novels sell well because essentially the greatest tool a writer has is story, narrative. Poems tend to be moments. Moments can be much, much more powerful. They can stay with us (as indeed can a great moment in a novel) but they don’t make us turn the pages in the same way, they don’t keep us on the edge of our seats. Poetry is closer to philosophy and/or religion (not in a spiritual way, rather a meditative and epiphanic way). The casual reader of poetry tends to love poems that say something they felt but were not able to articulate. The more one gets into poetry the more it becomes about style. No poet has ever told me anything that I didn’t already know or could look up, but the way they say it, well, that’s a different matter. People scoff at the idea of style over content, but in poetry, for me at least, it’s all about style. So, while anyone can pick up a novel and be thrilled by the story, the content, I think poetry rewards the reader who perseveres and develops their appreciation of language and style. It’s less instantly gratifying than most prose and for that reason I think it will always be less popular. That said, it is short and lends itself well to new media for that reason, so that is no doubt helping poetry get out there more. Plus if you’re telling stories and your work is more accessible, as mine is, there’s no reason why you can’t develop a larger audience.
Luke Wright – Your New Favourite Poet, Underbelly, Cowgate. 22-26 August, 18.30