Interview: Joseph J. Clark, performance poet

Drunk with a pen, Joseph J. Clark is returning to Brighton Fringe to perform 13.5 poems that will make you laugh, cry, and reach for a pint

Interview: Joseph J. Clark, performance poet

Joseph J. Clark! Cheers! It’s a year since you performed ‘Drunk with a Pen’ at Brighton Fringe Festival. How has the show been received?

Cheers!

I had a great reception last year: a couple of very warm reviews (thanks!), plus great feedback from friends and family alike.

You know, it’s really scary to kick-off a show with an audience of literally two mates you happened to bump into in the street outside an hour ago. But we had a great time and all went to the pub after and they were full of praise for the show - which is really, really affirming. 

I played to bigger audiences as the festival progressed, but that night turned out to be a real highlight.

Can you tell us what inspired you to create a show based on booze? Or is it all a little fuzzy?!

I have no idea *hic* what you’re talking about. Is that my rum or yours?

The show comes from many places, really. Ultimately it’s a natural extension of the self-published, indie af book of the same name. And that in turn was a natural extension of listening to too much outlaw country music, really.

But underpinning all that is a relationship to alcohol which has been a strong influence throughout my life. Even as a young child, when I’d grow up watching my father drink. And particularly as an idealistic, tee-total eighteen-year-old, angry at a world which seemed to run on booze.

Why 13.5 poems? Intentional quirk or writers block escape route?

I’ve drunk a fair bit of supermarket red wine in my time, and I’ve noticed that 13.5% is a fairly typical ABV. It seemed a good number to aim for!

Name two of your favourite poems: one of your own, and one from a poet you consider an influence.

Well my favourite poem to perform at the moment is Reckless: which is a defiant, self-righteous poem about drinking too much. It’s got a couple of fun swears and lets me get a bit shouty at audiences.

My inspiration comes more from songwriting than poetry, so I’m going to have to go with Guy Clark’s song The Randall Knife. It’s a study of character and grief written for the death of Guy’s father, filled with razor-sharp storytelling. I have a poem which is quite closely modelled on The Randall Knife.

Your show combines elements of both comedy and tragedy; both of which require some skilled delivery. Had you explored any other avenues of performance before deciding to perform poetry, or has it always been your first love?

My only stage experience has been through poetry - and only recently, at that. I think my performance persona has been a bit of a surprise to my friends (it sure surprised me!).

6b93eb6af7f1e99ccb72aca66e3cc301fe6fcf7c.jpgWhat is your process for writing a new piece? 

It usually starts with a particular idea: maybe a line, or a concept. Occasionally a mood or metaphor. Usually these come out of the blue and I try to drag the poem out from there. Kicking and, usually, screaming.

It tends to take a long time to finish a piece. Many don’t make it to the stage, a few change heavily afterwards. A lot of this comes down to indecisiveness, or laziness, or sometimes just a lack of inspiration. But I edit aggressively and without remorse. I constantly worry about length and always ask myself: what is this poem trying to say, and is it saying it clearly?

I’m not really a fan of the idea of poetry as a puzzle or enigma, or a means of obfuscating what you really think. Or even as an elitist language which only a handful of people can understand.

For me, if a poem can’t clearly communicate its core idea to an audience in a single reading, then it’s failed. And really my process is all about trying to find that clarity.

What has been the highlight of your career to date?

Talking about Steve Earle with Sam Lewis backstage at Cambridge Junction. Hearing King Size Slim say “You’re f*cking great, mate”. Shouting Vogon poetry in a London basement during the world cup, with Engurland fans cheering our brave boys on above me. Shaking the hand of a Lad in a Lewes bar after making him cry during an open mic set. Taking over the Marwood cafe for an impromptu Fringe show because my mate couldn’t make an evening show.

Spoiler free, can you give us an idea of what to expect from coming to see the show?

You’ll get to see me in a silly shirt saying a whole load of ill-advised stuff and forgetting words in all the wrong places. I will probably make you laugh. I will probably make you cry. I think one or two of the poem will stick with you for a couple of days after the show.

You’ll also get to see my friend and local fundraising hero David Attree do a short support set. He’ll probably make you cry, too, and I’m really proud to have him on board.

What advice would you give to someone who would want to follow in your footsteps?

Don’t do this for anyone but yourself. Thicken your skin. Don’t forget that every second on stage is a privilege. Treasure it, enjoy it, respect it.

In the words of the great Ray Wylie Hubbard: keep your gratitude higher than your expectation.

If you could send a message back to 16-year old you, what would you say?

Stop trying so damn hard and focus on the bits you actually enjoy.... Actually, I’d probably send that to my present self as well.

Where and when can people catch the show next?

I’m on at 9.15 at The Warren from Saturday 4th May until Thursday 9th May.


Header Image Credit: Zulfiya Wilde

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