In our series where we ask poets to discuss how where they are from informs and helps form their work, Robert Garnham tells us about the influence Paignton has had on him.
Hello, my name is Robert Garnham and I am a spoken word artist. One of the reasons that I am a spoken word artist is because I live in the town of Paignton. Paignton is a seaside town on the South Devon coast, it’s got a pier and a road full of amusement arcades and it’s got a lot of fish and chip shops, but one thing it hasn’t got is culture. There are no museums here, no art galleries, no concerts, no art venues of any kind, nothing of that sort. It has got a theatre and the Chuckle Brothers once visited but in all other respects it’s a cultural wasteland. In fact the only culture here is the strange fungus which grows in the bus station.
In fact, it is this very lack of culture that led to me becoming a spoken word artist. Having finished my masters degree, (Museum Management, if you must know. Which I completed just as the financial crisis hit and museums stopped hiring staff), I found myself with a lot of spare time, so I decided to go along to something cultural that would get me out the flat and away from the smell of fish and chips and seeing something worthwhile. There were two things on in the whole of Torbay that weekend: the Torbay Symphony Orchestra, which only lasted two weeks before succumbing go infighting and arguments over the correct pronunciation of Ravel, and performance poetry at the Blue Walnut Cafe, Poetry Island. So I went along to that.
And I thought, I can do this. They’re speaking my language, this is my kind of humour. I’ve been going ever since. That was seven years ago now.
I became acquainted with an American that night. A real American, from America. His name was Bryce Dumont, which I thought was the best pen name I’d ever heard, until I discovered that this actually was his real name. He opened a vegetarian restaurant/ book shop / arts venue in Paignton a couple of weeks later and called it Epicentre. It was an attempt to bring something along the lines of the City Lights books store in San Francisco to Paignton, and it became a small cultural arts hub featuring music, crafts and spoken word nights. I mean, wow! Right here in Paignton!
Bryce and I became good friends and, along with singer / songwriter John Samuel, and rapper / musician / film maker Max Coulson, formed the experimental rock / jazz / spoken word band Croydon Tourist Office. It seemed that Paignton was rocking, becoming a true artistic Paris of the south west, and it was all a short walk from my flat and the fish and chip shops. Bryce would encourage me to be as experimental as I could at the spoken word nights, developing a surreal persona and doing things such as phoning in the set by mobile from the other side of the street, performing through the window, sellotaping tea bags to my forehead, building a robot version of myself. Robot Garnham, I called him.
It was at this point that I began to develop both as a poet and as a performer. Initially my poetry was written with the intent to be experimental, but once I’d done a few slams and seen a few other, more famous poets, I decided that I would like to make people laugh, and also to think about the world in a wider context. I won the Exeter Poetry Slam and came second at the Bristol Poetry Slam in quick succession, with poems which were humorous in intent and yet with a serious subtext, mostly of LGBT rights, social exclusion, and the heteronormativity inherent in the media representation of gender issues.
This was the first time that I was able to explore gay issues for myself. As a gay man, I’d always known that I was defined to myself as many things as well as being gay. The gayness was never the dominant characteristic, and I don’t think it is now, either. I like modern art, electronic music, motor racing, travelling, and I just happen to like blokes, too. I am very fortunate to have lived a life without sadness or hardship, nor any major instances of homophobia, and if is horrid to think that other people do, even now in these more enlightened times. The murder of Matthew Sheppard in Wisconsin in 1999 was a big event for me personally because it made me decide to enjoy life and to try and make homosexuality as normal as possible in the minds of other people. I still wonder now what homophobes have to be scared of. It’s not like we’re going to be stealing their girlfriends.
I was raised and lived until I was in my early twenties in Surrey, a county so conservative that anything slightly out of the ordinary was seen as something which people Don’t Talk About. This was a major part of my show Static last year, and something which has made me look beyond such wilful narrow minded views. Difference is good. When I was putting my first collection, ‘Nice’, together, I wanted it to have a normalised attitude towards homosexuality, that people might enjoy and laugh along with the poems and the fact that they have a mostly gay theme being secondary to that experience. I am incredibly proud of ‘Nice‘ as a result.
So Epicentre helped me with all of this, with its atmosphere of acceptance and experimentation. And then it closed!
Paignton went back to being its dark and moody self. Mostly moody. A monotone place of permanent autumn, grey concrete, and the pier with its intricate ironwork like a Victorian lady paddling out into the bay. Bryce moved to Exeter. But there are still a smattering of performance poets living here: Ellie Davies, Shelley Szender, Brenda Hutchings, Ken Beevers, and myself. Nick Degg once lived here, briefly.
Last year I launched ‘Nice’, published by Burning Eye Books. We had a small event at the Torbay Bookshop in Paignton in which we all read and had a good time, but it’s sad to think that this was the last spoken word event there has been here in over a year.
So that’s Paignton. It’s the town I live in. It’s the town that I chose to live in, and it’s the town that’s made me the spoken word artist that I am today.
Find out more about Robert here: www.robertdgarnham.wordpress.com
She stood before me
On a sultry summer Surrey night,
The stone steps to her parents’ flat
Radiating the day’s heat,
Bricks soaked with sun sweat,
Sweet dust smells and caramels
And the subtlety of Kate’s fragrance
Ever so delicate.
The moment was so beautiful.
And so was Kate.
Her cousin was a former Miss World,
Her aunt was married to a very famous
Californian Kate with Guyanan ancestry,
Skin so soft like coffee,
Wide cinnamon eyes filled with love on that
Exotic sin-drenched August night,
Standing before each other
In a moment of the purest romance.
I felt nothing.
I could sense a dark chasm
Deep inside of me,
Swallowed down with every lie,
Every untruth, every evasion,
So obvious as to obliterate all but my own
And Kate, culturally American,
Who saw in me the mannerisms
Of a Disney gentleman
As we bent for a kiss on those
Sun baked steps,
Gazing in each other’s eyes
Like lovers are meant to.
What do you want?
I don’t know what I want.
How can I reach you?
I think it’s impossible.
Is it something I’ve done?
I think I just need a little time.
Time for what?
To get my head in order.
Why are you lying to me?
You’re not the only person I’m lying to.
Her hand in mine,
Soft and small and warm,
Her cotton summer dress
Falling down to her delicate sandals
With a modesty that so many others
Found truly alluring as I
Fantasised a Hollywood wedding
And saving myself for our
First night of bliss.
An air conditioned kiss
Plenty of time to steel myself,
Brace for her beauty,
I always knew.
But I can explain.
Every time I looked at you.
Please don’t do this.
We were both young. We were both stupid.
I tried to change.
It’s who you are.
Please don’t so this.
Why couldn’t you ever tell the truth?
Because it was impossible.
Certain processes and cultural
None of which can excuse the
Failure to ignite that which only
Or to grasp a truth so vital
As to stay hidden potentially forever.
She stood before me
As the deep blue sky
Smudged itself brown on traffic fumes
As we parted just with a
Peck on the cheek,
A short walk home relieved to have endured
And prolonged the pretence
To a family happy to have their Romeo return,
And everything right with the world.
The elephant’s trunk
Swayed from side to side
Like the nozzle of a
Vacuum cleaner being carried
The elephant’s ears
Like pancakes being brandished
By a chef who’s castigating a
Junior chef on his pancake making ability.
The elephant’s tail
Like the windscreen wiper of a bus
In the rain.
Looked at us quizzically.
Our guide said we’d better move
As it was rutting season.
© Robert Garnham