I first met Paul, having seen his videos on YouTube, at Blackwell’s, after This is Oxford, last autumn. He terrified me in that “oh no, you’re a really good poet how am I meant to talk to you?” kind of way. Since then I’ve not only gotten to know him as just about the nicest, most generous man you could meet, but have had the privilege of drawing him into the New Libertines orbit. And at Chipping Norton Literary Festival his performance of The Extremely Abridged History, Present and Future of Paul Askew in Five Dream Scenes went down as the best thing I have ever seen (here’s the poem). What I sense in his poetry and performance is not only a depth and breadth of emotion, not only dealing with the things I try to tackle, but a restlessness, a refusal to settle on an answer when there is always another question, and a sense of the fleeting moments of joy, endless hours of anxiety, and the increasing paranoid anxiety that the knowledge that the-search-is-endless-but-I-CANNOT-get-off-not-now-not-for-one-moment brings. Paul Askew, the person and the poet, is a truly special thing. Cherish him. And have a listen to the really cool things he has to say about poetry.
1. Looking through your poems for common motifs, I arrived at animals and food…
And Death. Don’t forget Death.
I’m not sure why, but these are the things that help me to write the style of poetry I mostly write in.
When I was growing up, I would get up really early, and on Sundays my Mum and her boyfriend would usually stay in bed til fairly late into the afternoon, because that was the one day that neither of them would have to work. Our TV in the front room was kept on a chest of drawers that were full of VHS tapes of stuff recorded off the tele. I would spend my Sunday mornings watching things like Monty Python, The Young Ones, Not The Nine O’Clock News, Blackadder, Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out, Fawlty Towers, Cheers, etc etc. I grew up watching comedy and my favourites were usually the slightly more surreal ones.
I specifically remember this one Not The Nine O’Clock News sketch. It was about a man who had taught a gorilla to speak. They’re appearing on a chat show and soon just descend into some old bickering married couple.
That one sketch is a pretty huge influence on a lot of my poems. I just love the fact that in that sketch, they take something totally surreal and make it a normal part of the everyday world. A lot of other comedies do this too of course, not just comedies either (look at David Lynch’s films for a start), but that’s the time which I first noticed it and realised that that was what was happening.
2. Your poems, and your performance of them, are incredibly intense. It seems, sometimes, as though you’re literally draining yourself on the stage – do you ever worry that you give too much of yourself?
I don’t really know how else you’re supposed to do it, to be honest. Surely the whole point of watching a performance is to see someone perform. If I watch something, I want evidence that the person or people involved are giving it their all. I don’t watch a gig to do someone a favour, I watch a gig because I want to experience something. I expect that to be why other people turn up to gigs, open mics, etc, too, and so when I’m performing, I kind of see it as my duty to give it all I can. That probably comes from when I wanted to be an actor, was in a youth theatre group and also studying Performing Arts. You kind of get that mentality when doing that sort of thing.
I did an open mic the other day, and I was doing the door for it so didn’t have time to get nervous about it or really even think about what I was going to be doing, and I’d done that thing where I hadn’t really done any practice beforehand. As a result I just ended up reading from my notebook in a rather flat “I’m reading this poem from my notebook” way. I found it pretty unsatisfying, so fuck knows how the audience felt about it.
I mean, I almost always read from a hard copy of my stuff, but not in that way, you know? I don’t read from the page because I’m a “Page poet,” I read from the page because my memory is pretty rubbish these days and if I don’t have the poem to at least glance at, I will forget it. Not only that, but I’ll also forget how I want something to be performed, what words trigger what switch, how I want a pause to work, etc. All the things that hopefully make it more interesting to see in a live context.
3. Why poetry instead of prose?
When I was doing my creative writing BA, in my second year there was a compulsory writing poetry module. I was having a massive problem with it as I thought I didn’t “Get” poetry. I mean, obviously I went through that teenage writing poetry phase that so many of us do, but I don’t count that as mine was all a pile of wank (it’s true, I recently found some of it and it’s all just awful), and in the previous year to the module I had written a couple of poems while trying to impress a woman who wrote poetry, but it was all just a bit straightforward “I’m writing a poem, this is what poetry is,” boring, lazy stuff. Because I didn’t actually read poetry then.
The poetry we had read in the first couple of weeks of our module hadn’t sat well with me at all and I couldn’t get my head round this poetry thing. My tutor, after spending an infuriating hour long tutorial trying to explain a certain poem to me and having no luck whatsoever, decided a different approach was needed for me and lent me four Ivor Cutler albums.
Ivor Cutler was a fucking revelation. It was like the poetry version of the comedy that I’d grown up with. “Ohhhh, you can do poetry like this?”
Hearing ‘Fremsley’ from the ‘Dandruff’ album was like watching that gorilla sketch from Not The Nine O’Clock News. Everything Ivor Cutler did just clicked with me. I “Got” it. That was my “Way in” to poetry, if you like. From there i found out about people like Edwin Morgan, Luke Kennard, Ian McMillan, John Hegley, my friend George Chopping, and from all these writers I got more of an appreciation for poetry as a whole.
George is actually responsible for me performing my poetry. He used to work with my Mum and they’re still friends. When she told him about me writing poetry he got me to go to the open mic he runs and sort of made me perform some stuff. It went down really well, so I carried on doing it. The rest, as they say…
These days, I just seem to find poetry more satisfying than prose. I am starting to try and write prose again too though, so we’ll see how that goes.
Thinking about it, a lot of my poetry is fairly prosey anyway. I’m not really a “structured, set rhythm and rhyme” type of writer. I’m more concerned with a sort of natural flow of language. I like internal rhyme and sound clusters. I can have more fun with those. Sometimes it’s good to give yourself limits, but I’d much prefer that something read and sounded natural rather than being “Acceptable,” if you see what I mean. I think that having a form can be great and all, challenging even, but if it becomes something you’re reliant upon you can end up writing something that seems a bit awkward. I don’t see the point in stifling something just to make it fit a recognised framework. Form should be secondary to content as far as I’m concerned.
4. Tell me about the importance of storytelling
Oh God, I’m gonna talk myself into a right corner here if I’m not careful.
I think storytelling is vital.
See, on the one hand if you’re not telling a story on some level then what exactly are you doing?, and how can you expect anyone to connect with what you’re doing? What’s the point of it?
I think too much poetry ends up eating itself. Poets and people who love poetry complain that it’s not taken seriously enough or doesn’t get widespread attention, but continue to write these incredibly distancing, navel gazing poems. It’s like the obnoxious kids at school in gangs who spend their time being wankers and then wonder why the teachers are so hard on them. You can’t have it both ways. Don’t be bull-headedly introspective and then wonder why not many people give a shit.
Conversely, I find there’s a tendency with some modern poets, especially ones from London it seems, to be very repetitive. They seem to be more concerned with finding as many ways to say the same thing as they possibly can than actually writing something that has progression, because they don’t actually understand how to effectively tell a story.
On the other hand though, you have experimental poetry, flarf, alt. lit, etc, some of which can on the face of it seem to be the exact opposite of storytelling, but some people working in these genres produce some pretty fascinating stuff.
When I was doing NaPoWriMo last month, I scrapped a poem that I’d spent the day working on because just before I was about to post it, I read something that an alt. lit writer called Crispin Best had posted on Twitter, that had in one sentence said what I was trying to say far more effectively than I had taken about five or six stanzas to.
To do that kind of thing so effectively though, you need to understand storytelling. It’s like free jazz. You can’t just start blowing randomly into a saxophone because that will just sound shit. You have to know the rules and know what you’re playing against for it to work. It’s the same with experimental literature. You can’t just write something like “Beef toboggan in Kathmandu. / An existensis trivium, / lording over four for Steven. / Blades on a Thursday,” because that’s totally empty. There’s no point or purpose to it. You might as well just be some mad bloke shouting at passers by on the High Street. No-one likes that guy.
5. Most of your poetry seems to be about loneliness…
At the risk of sounding emo or like I’m seeking sympathy, it’s kind of inevitable that that would be the case, because I am a pretty lonely person. I find it very difficult to make connections with people, and I find that when I actually feel that I have, I tend to either get over-enthusiastic and put them off wanting to know me that well, or I get scared and push them away or keep them at a distance. As a result of this, I spend quite a lot of time on my own.
I think I’ll leave it at that, I’m not about to start going all “In The Psychiatrist’s Chair” on you. I’ll just say that it is pretty much guaranteed that you will end up writing about what you know, and loneliness is something I know well.
6. 50 year old Paul Askew will look back happily on his poetic life if…
HA! I have no idea. I can’t seem to work out definitively what I want from all this right now, so I have no idea what will make me happy to look back on in a couple of decades time.
If I can look back and be happy with whatever it is that I have done though, that’ll be pretty awesome.