I have been privileged to have James Webster perform as part of The New Libertines a couple of times this year. James, a contributing editor for the fab Sabotage Reviews, represents what’s good about poetry – thoughtfulness, engagement, powerful delivery, multi-facetedness, texting things to fans – and wearing gloves whilst performing. Welcome to his world.
DH. So, gloves. Nice move
JW. They are, aren’t they? Gloves are definitely the way forwards for poets. I think we need to make the ‘Poets Who Wear Gloves Collective’ official.
DH There is a lot of controlled anger in your poetry and especially in your performances. What’s the primary object of the anger?
JW That’s a toughie, I guess it varies from poem to poem. I tend to find that there’s a lot to be angry about in the world, but most of the time that anger’s seen as unproductive and unreasonable, so it’s far too easy for people to dismiss you as ‘just being angry’ when debating an issue you care about. Poetry’s one of the few places where I guess I can actually vent and it’s ok, because poetry’s an emotional medium.
I think if there is a primary target for the anger it’s people who perpetuate what I see as injustice and ignorance. We live in a world that’s fucked up in the most beautiful of ways and we all have the choice to try and, I dunno, sculpt it with our actions into a shape that’s more fair, more inclusive, more lovely, and some people don’t. So I think the anger’s direction is, not so much against those people, but trying to light a fire under the asses of those cool people who might hear it and think ‘we can try and make this better’.
DH and is the supreme control you maintain something deliberate, because it’s very effective?
JW I think the control comes from a number of things. When I was young I was a really angry person, without much reason, and as I got older I learnt to control it to the point where it rarely ever came out and a lot of people won’t really see me as an angry person. Couple this with the aforementioned tendency for people to dismiss your views if you’re too angry (but dismiss them also if it seems you don’t care enough) and that equals controlled anger.
In performance as well I think I always tend towards understatement, a lot of poets I know do really well with big, over-the-top performances, but I’ve always thought that for me the power in performance comes from quietness and the contrast that has when I do let myself be a bit bigger. There’s nothing for me quite as spectacular as letting your voice drop and feeling the audience totally with you in that really intense quiet place performance poetry can get to. The few times that’s happened in my performances, that’s magic right there.
So I guess it’s a mixture of those things, part deliberate and part personal conditioning.
DH your superpowers poems feels programmatic for me. It feels as though the recurring motif in your work is looking for something (be it lost things or the next hit)…
JW Yeah, I think a lot of my stuff does tend towards the questing doesn’t it? I’ve always been a fan of quest narratives (big Grail fan in my youth and it’s something that pops up all over my life, even in silly pastimes like video games and roleplaying, I’m enmeshed in quests constantly) and the idea of searching for something is one that’s always appealed to me.
And it’s a recurring theme in popular culture that our generation are always looking for fulfillment and finding it in all the wrong places. That’s interesting to me, partly because of the judgements placed on those supposedly ‘wrong’ things, but also because of something a sociologist friend of mine once said, that as a society that’s more and more secular we’ve lost the idea of looking for the transcendental (as Lucy Ayrton would put it ‘we gave up on salvation a long time ago’). I’m not saying that we should all become religious again (‘cos I am and I still feel unfulfilled a lot), but I think the idea of what we aspire to these days is fascinating. It seems to me society tells us it’s financial and romantic security (plus the occasional new bit of ikea furniture), but so many people have that and are still searching.
I don’t even think there’s an answer, we’re all searching for something and even if we find it we’ll often just move onto the next thing, but that’s cool, it’s how we get stuff done.
For me that search is always for little things I can do that might makes things, in some tiny way, better. Whether that be writing or whatever.
Plus I have a nasty habit of losing things and not being able to find them no matter how hard I look, so the idea of magically being able to find stuff is super appealing to me.
DH Do you think that people in general have stopped looking where they should continue, or do you think ideally people should stop looking and learn to be content?
JW Never stop looking. ‘Contentment is the enemy of invention’ as Martha from Spaced says …
Appreciate and love what you have, by all means, don’t let the search, or the quest, don’t let it blind you to all the awesome in your life.
But always strive for more, for better, that’s how the world gets more awesome.
‘cos you can be damn sure the people making the world better for them and only them aren’t gonna stop and be content with what they’ve got.
This is all just my opinion, obviously, but my life’s motto is essentially ‘make tomorrow better than today’.
And if I get another quote in (this one from Pratchett): ‘If [God] meant there to be a perfect world, I think he wanted it to be this one’. So never stop searching.
DH where did the texting come from?
JW The explanation for the texting is very simple; about two years ago I finally got a phone contract with unlimited texts, which happened to be just around the time I was getting serious about poetry again (for a variety of reasons, even some good ones), and I was kinda just sitting there with my new phone going: ‘what on earth do I do with unlimited texts? I don’t have unlimited friends …’ and the idea just popped into my head.
So now I text people free poetry every week, they just need to text me with their name and number (doesn’t even have to be their real name) to 07960428660, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sorry for the shameless plug.
DH poetry needs more….
JW Poetry needs more ‘other voices’. It’s a travesty, in my opinion, that performance poetry (a medium that can be so progressive) is still dominated by white middle class men. Of course I am speaking as one of those men and I have no desire to get off the stage, but I definitely think poetry needs more voices from female, gender queer, 3rd gender and alternative gender people. I think poetry needs more queer voices. I think it needs more weird and speculative voices.
There are some great people who think the same, and Fay Roberts’s Other Voices: Alternative Spoken Word Cabaret at Edinburgh this year was one of the highlights of my trip. The All-Female slam on International Women’s Day in Edinburgh a while back was also a beautiful thing. But we need more of it.
And poetry needs more voices speaking out for the voiceless, more people engaging with the world around them and reshaping it with their words. Poetry is of the world and it wouldn’t exist if the world weren’t poetic, so it makes me sad when I see comic poets who don’t seem to me to be engaging with the world at all as far as I can see, but just play for laughs. To me that isn’t poetry, that’s clowning. And not even the good sad clowning.
And finally, I guess, poetry needs more love. Not self-congratulatory lovey love (I’m not saying you should love every poem you hear, quite the opposite), but genuinely appreciative and honest love (the kind of love where someone can give you devastating constructive criticism and you can appreciate them for their honest opinion).