Friday, 26 September 2014

Interview with John Cooper Clarke

DESPITE being told he'd never make a career out of poetry, John Cooper Clarke has certainly proved his school career adviser wrong.
Not only has he forged a successful path writing and performing his poetry - and has been at the forefront of the poetry movement for the past 40 plus years - John has also seen his work adapted by musicians, released several albums of his own, performed on the same bill as the likes of the Sex Pistols and has been hailed as the Bard of Salford.
Indeed his acerbic, satirical, political and funny verse, delivered in a rapid-fire performance style can be heard through a wide breadth of popular culture from the Arctic Monkeys to the Sopranos earning him the label punk poet in the process.
Not bad he says for a boy from Salford who went to a "slum school" and "hated every minute of it".
The 65-year-old is still writing and touring and is about to take to the hallowed stage of the Royal Festival Hall on Saturday, October 4 as part of the Southbank Centre's London Literature Festival.
He will be joined by special guests, Mike Garry, Luke Wright, Simon Day and Phill Jupitus in what promises to be an entertaining and eclectic evening.
We chat ahead of the gig which is part of his latest nationwide tour. Frank Sinatra is on the stereo in the background and John is just back at his home in Essex after a five week family holiday in France.
Whether it's the music or the fact he's feeling relaxed from his recent break, he is not feeling any pressure to think about the gig.
"I know it's on the horizon but I don't tend to think about it til a week in advance," he chuckles. "Me and Johnny my driver will have a banter in the car on the way to the gig and it will all flow from there. I don't have a set.
"There will be the classics," he adds in his still noticeable Salford accent. "But mostly it will be new stuff. People shout out requests and I try and accommodate them, so there will be something for everyone - it's the way it has to be.
"It's great because there's no specific demographic and usually I get an audience made up of people aged between 14 and 98. To have all these new fans and attract the youngsters - it's terrific."
The fact he has a whole legion of young fans should come as no surprise given that he and his poetry have been a feature within the GCSE syllabus for some time, something of which he's rightly proud.
"You cannot want for more than that as a poet can you?" he says warmly.
It appears that his love of poetry stems from his own school days.
"I enjoyed poetry at school - in fact my whole class was really interested in it because our teacher John Malone inspired the whole class," he says.
"He was a rugged outdoor type, like Ernest Hemingway, who'd go skiing and mountain climbing but he had this passion for 19th century romantic poetry which he instilled in the entire class.
"It was a slum school, a run down secondary modern in Salford and I hated every second of it," he laughs. "But this man was a rose in a garden of weeds and he made it live and breathe. So yes, I was lucky.
"I loved some of the poetry more than others of course but it inspired me - although as a career it's a non starter and I was told it wouldn't work so to keep it as a hobby.
"Everyone we ever liked didn't make a career out of poetry alone," he adds. "TS Eliot was a banker wasn't he. They had something else to do so I feel lucky in a way to be able to make a living out of it."
It was seeing the career trajectory of Pam Ayres that convinced him to give it a go.
"Her success on the TV show Opportunity Knocks gave me encouragement," says John. "She writes about her world and I write about mine. If you write what people like then why not? That's what I thought.
"Also whenever people are being kind about any work of art or movie or music, they say it has a poetic quality about it. So poetry is everywhere."
Since then he's inspired generations of artists and musicians although it's the punk era with which he is best known, thanks in part to his look - tall and thin with drainpipe trousers, dark glasses and wild, black hair.
"I was working in Manchester and I had this moddy look that was totally out of fashion until punk rock came in," he says.
"The Buzzcocks asked me to do shows with them and said I would fit right in. I'm glad I did. It was edgy and a bit hostile but not for very long and it was the right thing to do.
"It got me out of Manchester and out of England. Since then I've circumnavigated the globe nine times. I couldn't have done that without punk rock."
Since then his influence has extended over the years and to new bands. He is particularly pleased with the band Arctic Monkey's version of his poem, I Wanna Be Yours.
"I loved what they did and their version is absolutely fantastic," he enthuses. "They covered a light hearted poem into a heartfelt love ballad by not doing very much. The guys are really top."
And he says he "loves" their stuff though admits to being a bit "old school".
"I'm a very old man and have listened to music all my life," he jokes. "I've got Sinatra on the CD now but like Doris Day too and other popular music. And I'm appreciative of Elvis of course."
And it seems music has influenced his poetry.
"Beasley Street is inspired by a song in the musical 42nd Street," he says. "I wanted something cheesy and worked my way backwards.
"I don't rely on inspiration though," he insists. "It's all about graft and putting in the hours. Inspiration is for amateurs. I've always got a notebook with me and am constantly making notes - sometimes even on stage.
"I've got books full of lines - sometimes that's all it takes. Sometimes one line gives rise to a five page poem."
So no plans to retire then?
"Oh no, poetry is not something you have to retire from and I've no intention of ever quitting," he says categorically.
"I've been lucky - there have been ups and downs, of course there have, but I feel lucky to have the opportunities I've had to do this.
"The level of success I have now is greater than I've had before and it's better now.
"My stuff is better and I'm writing more - in fact I've been writing a lot lately so a new book is definitely due!
"I couldn't have planned it though - in fact if I had it wouldn't have been like this," he chuckles.
"And I'm just amazed that as an old man I'm still packing out the halls and people are still wanting to come and hear my stuff.
"That's pretty good isn't it?"

John Cooper Clarke is at the Royal Festival Hall on Saturday, October 4. Tickets cost from £22.50. Visit or call the box office on 020 7960 4200.

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