Al’s punchy street wit is a regular sound at The Cheltenham Poetry Festival. With his stand-up style and rhymes taken from everyday observations, he knows how to connect with his audience. He’ll leave you thinking ‘damn, why didn’t I think of that?’ We talk about the impact busses have had on the creative process, why you shouldn’t read too much, and look at what poetry actually is nowadays– it gets deeper as you read on.
What would you say your influences were?
Poetry or just anything?
Um, just anything.
Loads of stuff really. But with poetry I try and steer clear of actually reading a lot of poetry, as daft as that sounds. I mean, I do read poetry, but I’m not like…I genuinely think the best poetry is written by people who aren’t reading loads of poetry. I think you start off by reading poetry and absorbing all kinds of influences, and you get to a point where..[pauses, drinks cider]. I think there are two types of writers and artists; there are people that add something new; and there’s people who, basically, just draw off of what’s already happened, just recycling. And I’m only interested in the former, you know, doing stuff that’s bold and fresh, chiefly because it would bore me to do otherwise. So, influences, I get a lot from places and just little..I mean, I get a lot from busses.
Busses are my mark.
Eavesdropping you mean?
There’s an element of that. But a bus is a moving house in a way. It’s my main mode of transport so it’s something that I get to observe. And it’s where I do most of my writing, not as simple as overhearing someone and starting to write something, but when I’m writing something, I think busses are feeding into my things all the time. But in terms of poetry, I like people like John Berryman, Dylan Thomas, and a Victorian poet who’s vastly underrated, Gerard Manly Hopkins. He created a whole new form called sprung rhythm, and you read his stuff and it’s like fucking hell. You can’t believe your reading stuff from the Victorian era. It’s so modern and bold. For me it’s about the musicality of the language, the sound of the language, using language in new and exciting ways. We live in an info-heavy age, which can also be tedium heavy.
You’re currently an outreach tutor. What would you say your average working day is?
Yeah I do outreach stuff in Cheltenham, and the West Midlands. And it depends, I work with all age ranges. What I’ve been doing just now is involving children and adults at the same time, which can be quite interesting. As we get older we tend to block ourselves in terms of our creativity, whereas with kids it just all comes out. They don’t edit in the same way. They like making really quick choices. It’s like they’re playing football– thought, action are one of the same. You gotta make a quick decision. The groups that I work with are predominately disaffected youths in supportive housings.
Are they really keen to get involved with poetry?
Well you get groups where you can see that you’re not going to get everyone on board in an hour, but you’ve always got to roll with what you’ve got. And I generally find that if you don’t try too hard you can get them on your side. The aim is for them to come away from it having got something really positive from it. I was doing an outreach programme for this festival [Cheltenham Poetry Festival] and there was this chap who started writing this poem in the workshop. I was just chivying him along, encouraging him. I’d go away and come back and he’d have written a few more lines, and he didn’t even know he could do it. It’s great to be able to be something as simple as that person, in that time, in that place, that can help unlock something and make it happen. It makes life worth living doesn’t it? You know the Oscar Wilde ‘all art is quite useless’. It is, but it makes life worth living, cus living in a kind of utilitarian world where everything has to have a function is really fucking boring. Great art, or great football, has no point, other than it’s own beauty, you know what I mean? So it’s great if you can open the door for someone and say ‘here we are, switch the light on and help yourself.’ That’s what we’re here for.
What would you say the image of poetry is to the average Bri–
Boring, really boring. I mean I do some work in schools and if you asked all the kids ‘put your hands up if you think poetry is boring’ about 99% would. What’s good about poetry that’s heavily rhymed and accessible, and rap obviously, is that it gets kids into stuff and they don’t even know it’s poetry. I love Roots Manuva and his lyrics. He kind of reminds me of The Specials. It’s got that sort of urban, gritty, British-not taking itself too seriously. It’s like ‘Oh so you mean that’s part of’ yeah, yeah that’s all part of poetry. It’s all coming from the same place, broadly speaking, so it’s being able to achieve that shift of perception is great. But in answer to your question, yeah, people think poetry’s boring. John Cooper Clarke and people like that have worked wonders in breaking those barriers down. People think, yeah I like this, this is pretty cool. Dylan, I suppose. You need those people. As much as I love literature I don’t like the fact that it’s so often a private little enclave for the privileged few. Does that answer your question?
It does, thanks Al.