Matthew Jacobson interviews Spoken Word artist St Vespaluus.
When did you begin to have an interest in poetry?
I’ve always been a voracious reader (and always have five or six books ‘on the go’), but I can’t say that I’ve always been interested in poetry. As a child, I hated ‘children’s verse’, and even in my near dotage, I detest whimsy, ‘cutesy-ness’ and silliness in poetry, prose or any other genre. I’d rather be forced to watch a box set of six seasons of Terry and June (at gunpoint, obviously) than watch an ‘action comedy’ or ’comedy drama’. It was the dull, English text books of my ghastly grammar school that gave me access to the seriousness I craved from the likes of MacNeice, Stephen Spender, Auden, Stevie Smith (incredibly) and then the Victorian poets.
I never had a Robin Williams/John Keating/Dead Poets Society figure to inspire me at school, but at least I was pointed in the right direction. All the hard work was done by me; something just clicked and an English degree was the next logical step. I was going to say “F**k me – if I had my time over again I’d choose a course where I didn’t have to learn Old English*,” but having thought about it, it gave me access to the original Anglo Saxon versions of The Wanderer and The Dream of the Rood, two of the most beautiful poems in creation, and two poems that I think about at least once a week.
*A Germanic precursor of English with its own vocabulary, and possessing word order patterns often very different from modern English. It wasn’t a case of just saying ‘Ye’, or putting an ‘e’ on the end of certain words (as some 1950s Hollywood Moguls/1970s English cider companies were wont to think).
It was incredibly difficult to learn, and a real thorn** in my side.
**Esoteric, intellectual gag of the week
And what was it about Poetry that you connected with?
The innate and obvious external beauty of the world; the search for truth about one’s own mortal and psychological being; the revelation that suffering and the pursuit of love and happiness are indivisible; and – as the great Olive sang in their/her classic number one hit of 1996 – it teaches you that You’re Not Alone.
Who were your first influences?
On my writing? I couldn’t tell you. There are lots of gags strewn throughout my poetry, but I try to use them as an ironic counterpoint, or as an embellishment to a far more serious point. I love Thomas Hardy, but I prefer his poetry to his prose (although – again, obviously – his prose seems to have been divined directly from God*), but years ago I read too many of Hardy’s Emma poems during a very vulnerable time in my life and I think they just damaged me. Forever.
*Although She doesn’t exist. (SWIDT?!)
How would you describe your poetry, is there a theme within, if so – could you expand please?
There are a number of recurring themes. The use and abuse of language – mainly as a weapon of control/’conformity enforcer’ – seems to be a recurring motif in my performance poems. The things you’re allowed to say/not say within a community -and the idiots/bullies who try to enforce these unwritten ‘regulations’ – are particular bugbears of mine.
I’m not talking about political correctness here – if you don’t understand that institutionalised or community-santioned, offensive/hurtful/racist/sexist language terminology and language have to be eradicated (and it’s much worse since Brexit/the Tory criminals’ 80 seat majority), then you need to be educated, exorcised, or even just washed properly; no, what I’m talking about are gender and class restrictions that stop people from evolving and living a better life.
Coming from a poor and particularly aggressively male-dominated childhood world, I had to stand up to the Have You Swallowed a Dictionary? brigade, the Restricted Code enforcers* and the abbreviated-to-microscopic-proportions ‘streetwise’ lexicographers who determined what was appropriate for a ‘lad’ and a lady to say.
You have no idea how much I hate those clickbait ‘What do you call this?’ internet memes – the ones where a picture of some sort of bread roll, an item of ‘leisure footwear’ or a terrace alleyway is displayed, waiting for some utter dickhead to pronounce their particular, local, age-related informal language variant and then to proclaim: “End of thread.”
Anna Burns’ truly fabulous 2018 novel Milkman was a revelation for me. Besides being the best Booker winner since James Kelman, I can’t ever remember a writer so brilliantly encapsulating this Orwellian/Kafkaesque destruction of thought (the novel is set during the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’) and personal liberty in such a fantastic, elliptical and poetic form.
Gender expectations and gender fluidity are other recurring themes, as is the devastating effects of poverty; the need to see EVERYONE as ‘family’; the long-term effects of childhood/teenage trauma and the damage that lost love does to a sensitive soul.
Like me. Gary Numan gets quite a few mentions as well.
*You can stick your lolly ices up your arse. I will never indulge in any discourse – either written or spoken – involving the vicissitudes or enjoyment of some sugary frozen confectionery on a stick.
St Vespaluus – Photo by Stephen Porter
Your poetry nights, ‘Spoken Word at The Reader’ and ‘BLAST’ are a great opportunity for budding poets to perform live – when did you have the idea for the nights and how easy / difficult was it to put together?
With regard to BLAST! I was asked to put together a poetry night after headlining a show at Jimmy’s in Liverpool city centre last October. We did five great shows there, but now we’ve moved the venue to the Old Bank Ale House in South Liverpool. BLAST! takes a lot of time in putting together a suitable list of poets and performers, although I seem to have ‘collected’ a bank of superb poets and writers who I’d be happy to perform with on any occasion.
A bit like Brian Clough moving from club to club. And taking his favourite, most trusted players.In fact I regard the brilliant Cath Holland as our John McGovern – although she’s much better in the air and scores more goals from midfield. The actual running of BLAST! takes up quite a bit of time – contacting performers, creating posters and artwork; distributing hard copy posters and flyers; advertising on social media; contacting the venue and so on…
Spoken Word at The Reader takes even longer. Acquiring a headline name often involves a lot of correspondence and cajoling because we can only offer a relatively small fee to some of the country’s most talented artists and performers, so I’ve been really made up when artists of the caliber of Jayne Casey, Will Sergeant, Nick Ellis, Amina Atiq, Vicky Foster, Toria Garbutt, Gerry Potter, Sunstack Jones and Beija Flo have agreed to give up their time and energies for our little corner of the world.
Every single one of our headline performers seems to have enjoyed playing to appreciative audiences at (perhaps) the most beautiful venue and setting on Merseyside. I’ve got to give special mention here to the incredible Spoken Word artist Roy – who has been so generous of his time and talents, and has been so supportive over the past couple of years. A fantastic, charismatic performer – and just a wonderful fellow.
How do people contact you to perform?
Spoken Word nights at The Mansion generally feature more experienced poets and performers – artists I’ve seen on my travels, heard on 6 Music, or who have been recommended by trusted contacts. I first saw our upcoming (September 9th) headliner Anna Jane Houghton at Shipwrecked, the festival curated by The Shipbuilders’ frontman Matty Loughlin-Day (another Reader favourite and brilliant headliner).
Anna Jane is a magical performer and listening to her perform at the festival was just beautiful – dream pop at its very best. Occasionally, I’ll get direct enquiries along the lines of “Can I perform at your poem thing, y’bastid? I’m dead fuckin good at poems, me”, but I’m pretty good at letting people down gently, and pointing out other opportunities for their artistic ambitions. Any aspiring poet/writer/musician can contact me for BLAST!
Just DM me at my Saint Vespaluus Twitter account or try firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll see if I can fit you in for one of the next few performances.
And what next for Stephen Porter?
My first offer of publication fell through/just didn’t happen, but I have three near-as-damn-it completed works, including my first collection of poems, my prose Saint Vespaluus Chronicles Part I and a (should we say) very niche short story compendium waiting for me to do the groundwork for release. I’ll be choosing one of them in a week or so. I’ve performed at Edinburgh, Manchester, Leeds and quite a few festivals this year and I’ll be performing at the brilliant Secret Circus’s Pride celebration at the end of this month. I have a couple of headlining/special guest shows coming up and I’ll be continuing with Spoken Word at The Reader and BLAST! for the foreseeable future.
I’m still working 9-5 (part-time); I’m also doing some freelance copywriting, and I’m writing my own bizarre Pick of the Pops weekly nonsense articles for my website – and for two or three days a week I’m just a lonely housewife waiting for a 70s style milkman, postie or bread delivery man to come round and give me one.
I keep very busy, believe me
With thanks to Stephen, best wishes for the future