My first collection, Nice, was published by Burning Eye and its launch event was on the same day that David Bowie released his last album. Naturally, the book was in gestation for almost two years before then, so some of the poems in it are now getting on for ten years old. And one of those has done very well for me, thank you very much.
Famously, I got into performance poetry by accident, almost. I’d gone along to a performance poetry night not knowing anything about the genre, or even poetry. I was aware of John Hegley and Pam Ayres and that was about it. I asked for a slot at the next one and the host said yes. Which meant to I had to go and start writing some poems!
So when it came to writing performance poems of my own, I didn’t really have any other big names to refer to and my early efforts were not great. Sure, they had funny lines in, (the Torbay scene is dominated by comedy poetry so I thought that all poems should be funny), but they weren’t setting the world on fire. I started performing outside of Torbay and some of these fell flat.
So about eleven years ago I started a process of researching what made a good performance poet. My early influences were Byron Vincent and Rachel Pantechnicon. Both used language and attitude to such an effect as to draw out the comedy from the rhythm of the poem and the sound of the words rather than just the content. It was around this time that I wrote most of the poems that ended up in Nice: The Straight Poem, Plop, Somerset, Fozzie, Octopus, Camp Cat . . . And to my amazement, not only did people like them, but they started winning the odd slam here and there.
But there was one poem which never seemed to go well. It was about beards, and it had some lines in which audiences really enjoyed, but it started limp and it ended limp and most of the middle was limp, too. It started with the line, ‘People think your beard is weird’, and it carried on in such a way with a whole stanza which was obviously an attempt to mimic the style of another one of my favourites, Matt Harvey. ‘Stubbly chin fuzz accumulator . . . Chin wobble beard flap contemplator . . . Lunch munch jaw motion exaggerater. . . Ages since you’ve seen a razor’.
The poem had a lot of great ideas but the whole premise of it was that I was criticising someone’s beard, and I didn’t like the implication that I was doing this just for fun, just for a cheap laugh. I don’t want to be that judgmental or prescriptive sort of person. I decided to spend a whole weekend looking at this poem, and I remember trying to think of ways around it. What if I liked the person’s beard? What if it was my beard? And that’s when the idea came. The whole poem should be about being envious of anyone who has a beard!
And this kickstarted a rewriting process where I took on the new persona of someone who really wants a beard, and added some of the verses from the original which did work, fused the two together, and then worked on reordering the stanzas so that a steady rhythm built up. At the time I was a proponent of something that I nicknamed the Third Verse Freakout, something to aim for before the denouement of the last stanza. And this is what I applied to the new poem.
I tried to be as concise with the wording as possible. The old beard poem was a loose, baggy monster. Spoken word was new to me, but I’d grown up with comedy from a young age, particularly New York stand-up acts and the way that they can use a just few words to conjure up meaning. I was also familiar with the technique of the ‘tag’, or the ‘afterthought’ as it’s more commonly known in British stand up, where you add another punchline to a punchline, and then another, and then another. Kind of surfing on the waves of laughter of the audience.
The poem was debuted at a night in Exeter run by Liv Torc, and there was a big university student contingent in. On the spur of the moment I picked on one of the lads who had a beard and not only did it work really well, but the students loved it. The poem was born!
Not long afterwards I had the great pleasure of co-headlining at Bang Said the Gun in London. It was a good set and I knew I would finish with the new poem, but I hadn’t yet learned it. And you’d never guess what happened . . . I opened my book to the wrong page and read out the old version! I remember afterwards being absolutely mortified.
Since then, Beard Envy has become perhaps the poem I’m most remembered for. I’ve been performing it since 2012 and I’ve got it down to memory, I’ve performed it all over the UK and in Berlin, New York and Australia. I remember once after a gig in London, someone shouting from the other side of an Overground station, ‘Love the beard poem!’ And two years ago, I had the unusual joy of someone making it in to a short film, for which I was invited to a days filming with the South West Beard Club as they had their annual Beard Competition. In fact, whenever I meet someone from the spoken word milieu, the first thing they might say is, ‘Oh, I saw you once doing your beard poem!’
Since then I’ve had a few other poems which I consider ‘bangers’. But there’s a downside, and that’s the sense, every time I write, that I had to come up with something as good that will serve me just as well. I’m lucky that I have quite a few that always are assured of a good response, but the writing process actually gets harder the longer you do it, because you have such lofty aims for everything you write.
Whatever happens, it’s a poem I love performing. But you know what? I’ll let you in on a little secret. I don’t actually like beards!
For more information on Robert Garnham visit: www.professorofwhimsy.com