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Monday, 12 September 2011

Interview: Mike West

Mike West has donned many guises over the years - bingo caller at the poetry-hybrid night Bingo Master's Breakout, underboss of well-versed satirical night Celebrity Euthanasia, false biographer of hangman Jack Ketch for Fuselit: Jack's 'Hijacks' booklet and human jukebox of intriguing fact and fiction. Having enjoyed countless whimsical conversations with him in the past, we decided to make it official with an interview...

Tell us a bit about what you get up to in poetry and beyond.

Indeed. I started my first blast of poetry performing in the later years of the previous century (I love saying that!). I dropped out several years ago worried I'd become too vapid, but never stopped going to gigs. Then last year the Vintage Poison collective plucked me to co-host one of their nights along with Kevin Reinhardt, and I broke my vow of performance abstinence to take on the best job in poetry: bingo caller at Bingo Master's Breakout.

I'd been spending my wilderness years developing my old comic techniques for more biting subject matter, and writing a kind of verse that doesn't mesh very well with most gigs, or most mags, because it is too long and too old-fashioned (it even rhymes, for Heaven's sake). Fortunately I am not at all interested in publication. Anybody who's been in Foyles, seen the number of books they've got, and concluded that the world needs a few more of those things is a special kind of mad.

One of my ongoing unpoetic projects is www.historyxls.com, where I (and anybody else who fancies it) will be cataloguing the history of the world in the form of a spreadsheet. It would be fair to say that there is still quite a lot of work to do on that.

Who or what influences you in your own work?

I am interested in getting verse to do things that it used to do very well but is rarely called upon to do these days. Before the Aeneid, Virgil wrote the Georgics, which is a handbook for farmers written in the same epic style. It contains possibly the hardest-to-translate bit of classical Latin verse we've got: a description of how to assemble the parts of a plough. Its content is on a par with instructions for a flat-pack wardrobe, but it scans and jingles in the mouth beautifully. You can almost hear the bits twisting and clicking into place. I have recently had great fun writing heroic couplets to describe the loading action of the Ross Mark II rifle.

I have been trying to write a little more like Philip Larkin. He's the only poet I know who can explain emotions and abstractions in precise terms, without having to stop and steady himself on a metaphor like I just did. A more realistic target for me, though a distant one, is the 12th-century "Archpoet", who wrote Goliardic poetry: cheeky medieval Latin verse about hard-drinking students and wayward monks, frequently in the meter of "Yankee Doodle went to town riding on a pony". His work features in the libretto to Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, and if he had known his words would live on to accompany a surfer in a famous deodorant advert he would have been well chuffed.

What makes for a good or bad gig?

Blimey, I wish I knew that. I am constantly surprised in both directions. But over my years of poetry gig attendance, I have found that the quality of poetry is directly proportional to the size of the wooden beads worn by ladies in the audience. Roddy Lumsden's themed readings in the Betsey Trotwood always have some good stuff, and the beads come in around 15mm in diameter for those. I've seen TS Eliot prizewinners pulling in over 40mm.

What's the strangest experience you've had as a performer or host?

The Celebrity Euthanasia series went a bit Apocalypse Now towards the end. There was that night when the stage lights blew up so we sat round a wicker lamp reading Geoffrey Hill's "Mercian Hymns". Another night I had a nasty head cold: I'd just mumbled to a plausible stopping point in my opening spiel, inwardly thanking Superdrug and the mic stand that I hadn't collapsed, and brought on the first act when a black-clad man glided into the single-figure audience. It was not Death, but Pete Doherty. Obviously I'd read about him in Metro, and was thinking if he started causing trouble I was in no fit state to handle it. But he was good as gold, cheered all the floor spots, and it shaped into a fun little show. He can come again. Camden School of Enlightenment - what's happening, when and what have we got to look forward to?

Ooh yes! It will be a chance for performers to explore themes more ambitiously than the spoken word circuit normally allows. The Enlightenment part is that we should all end up knowing a bit more about something, or seeing something in a different way, through comedy, poetry, music or suchlike. All the featured acts will pick a specialist subject, and we'll have some "resident lecturers" who get to expand their theme over three shows. The part I'm most looking forward to is the Dead Poet Society spot, where a performer will dedicate a set to one of our favourite poets of the past. We're starting with Hovis Presley, and Ivor Cutler's coming up in November. We will be at the Camden Head, 100 Camden High Street, on the second Tuesday of odd-numbered months, starting September 14th. More info at www.csofe.co.uk.

Your tweets have quite possibly converted me to Twitter - what do you enjoy about it, who do you currently follow and if you could follow a fantasy Twitter thread, who would it belong to?

It's my one concession to social networking. You get to select your own virtual 24-hour tea-party of people sharing their musings, and send them away if they get boring. I am enjoying Viz Top Tips, Robert Auton, a couple of people who write tiny mystery stories, and somebody who pretends to be Alexander Pope and comments on the news in Augustan couplets. Pope, Swift, Gay and the rest of their Scriblerus Club would have been the kings of Twitter. As would Jesus ben Sirach, whose pungent moral furballs narrowly failed to make the cut for the Bible (still, that must have been a rejection letter worth keeping).

Your karaoke turns are somewhat legendary ("Ebeneezer Goode" being a particular highlight). What songs would you like to do, but haven't yet, and how would you make them your own?

The "Bingo Master's Breakout" karaoke selection books are still awfully light on grimecore; and the Rambling Syd Rumpo songs of Kenneth Williams are surely ripe for the Dropkick Murphys treatment. One that's on the list is "You Were Made For Me" by Freddie and the Dreamers, but the dance that goes with that song involves bending the knees at alarming angles and I can't quite do it. I think Freddie could only do it because his childhood diet in 1930s Manchester would have been dangerously deficient in calcium.

What makes you facepalm?

The English comic haiku, where the writer has had a thought that isn't significant enough to make a proper poem, and isn't funny enough to stand up as a joke, so it's been mangled into that 17-syllable Procrustean bed to guarantee some polite applause. The proper Japanese-style haiku is a thing of skyey marvel, but the English comic haiku is just the sickly cousin of the noble limerick.

Do you have any secret London-based places/events of wonder to share?

Up in Camden, the Pie and Mash shop on Royal College Street does a consistent job of serving delicious pies with existential despair, and then there's the Phoenician supermarket in Kentish Town. Back in my "manor" of Fitzrovia, you simply must pop into All Saints' Margaret Street, a multicoloured towering pre-Raphaelite universe wedged into no space at all. John Betjeman was a huge fan, and on Sundays they do a high-as-a-kite Anglican evensong that will better your appreciation of late T.S. Eliot no end. Then wend your way to Bourne and Hollingsworth, where cocktails are served in teacups with cucumber sandwiches. It's done up like a 1950s parlour, feels like walking into the raucous end of a naughty duchess's funeral wake, and gets extra points for being underneath the tobacconist's in "Peeping Tom". (I am writing this from the edge of a private croquet lawn off Regent's Park but that is a whole other story.)

Who or what should we be watching?

I am confidently expecting good things to continue coming out of Jack Underwood, who is meticulously and thrillingly slapdash, and James Brookes, who has fully charged his poetry bowl at history's all-you-can-eat salad bar without spilling any of it carelessly on the lino. And I am keeping half an eye on Sophie McGrath, who doesn't put herself about very much but has produced one outstanding poem called "Lebanon". My favourite live act right now is David J aka The Vocal Pugilist: apparently he's been at it for donkey's years but he was a new discovery for me this summer, courtesy of Rrrants. On top of playing with some genuinely fresh ideas, he can do such unbelievable things with his voice that in less enlightened times we would have had to burn him at the stake.

Do you have any Boltonian pearls of wisdom or suggestions for would-be comperes and performers?

Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. For a poet, until you've gained such a standing that people will hang on your every word, ideally this means knowing your material off by heart so you can devote your eyes and brain to your audience, but I accept not everybody has time to do that. Also think carefully about whether, and how, you need to preamble your poems. If you've told me in advance at what stage in your relationship you wrote that ex-boyfriend poem, I'll be suppressing yawns. If you leave me to speculate, I might end up suppressing little whimpers of fascination. Comperes have it easy: when you're dying on your arse you can just bring the next act on. But again, it's preparation. Having my links sorted out in advance usually gives me the confidence to make up better ones on the spot. Eh, our kid?


For Enlightenment alerts, visit the CSofE site, and don't forget to follow Mike's bite-size wit and wisdom via Twitter at @camdenlight.

Photo by Ant Smith.

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