Last Saturday I tried something terrifying that I’ve been thinking about doing since last year. In my day-to-day life as a performance poet, I meet a load of people who think poetry is boring and irrelevant to their lives. (I don’t think it’s their fault, by the way, I blame the school syllabus.)
But it always makes me immensely happy when I’m at a festival or a pop-up street gig and these types of people spend a little time listening to what I do and then say something like this: “I don’t like poetry, but I like what you do.” Now, I’m not a believer in god, or someone who thinks they have a pre-ordained purpose in this life, but when I hear those words I feel like I’m doing what I was put on this Earth to do. It’s worth more to me than a sold out room in a swanky theatre, or the best review from a critic you can possibly imagine.
I’m also very aware that a lot of people think performance poetry, and art as a whole, isn’t really proper work. I come from a working class background and most of my family still aren’t really sure what it is that I do. They, like me, often find it difficult to get their head around the fact that you can be paid to stand up on a stage and rant about cannabis smoking pensioners, or arrogant men with overly large testicles. So the idea was: What if I give myself the job of a ‘door to door poet’? I create a ‘proper’ job for myself; then I go about trying to make poetry accessible to people by asking them what they care about and writing them a poem about it.
But the general public is a strange beast, painted through the lens of the news as a kind of menacing blob of meat- all vaguely wishing you some kind of ill-will. What would they make of this? I’ve always believed that people are generally good, but once you come to terms with the fact that you might be told to fuck off, or get dragged inside the house and cut apart with a junior hacksaw, you’re forced to take the whole affair a bit more seriously. And this works both ways. Would people at the door be able to trust me enough, despite the fact that I was acting like someone who’d gone mental? For better or worse, I finally bit the bullet. On a clear and fairly warm October Saturday afternoon, I put on a shirt and tie, put the word ‘performer’ in an old lanyard and started the experiment. This is what happened.
Captains Log, 10/10/15 14:05
By the time I get outside the nerves are horrific. I pick Mundella Terrace in Heaton because Mundella sounds a bit like Mandela, and Nelson was a good guy, wasn’t he? Maybe the people on this street are nice too. Also, it’s near enough to my house so that I don’t have to walk very far, but far away enough so that I still have somewhere I can anonymously hang my head in shame if it all goes tits up.
I suddenly feel like I’m in a big spotlight. I haven’t even knocked on a single door, but as I walk past two people on the pavement it feels like the whole world is staring at me. After changing my mind a few times, I pick the first door at the top of the street and knock. A jovial knock, a knock that says “I am not ‘The Man’.” Or something like that. I wait. What was that? A noise past the door. The tension is unbearable now. I try to remember what to say… the floor feels like it’s sinking, like I’m in a lift. I’m just staring at the little spy-hole in the door now. Are they looking through it right now? To see who I am? Checking me out to see if I’m a murderer. Note to self: Try as hard as you can not to look like a murderer.
I suddenly realise I’m dressed a lot like a door to door salesman. It seemed really funny and tongue-in-cheek at the time, but now I’m very aware that I just look like some kind of salesman. They’re going to think that’s what I am, aren’t they? I consider shouting through the letterbox: “It’s OK! I’m a poet”. I don’t. No one comes. “Should I keep waiting? I’ll just go,” I think, “But what if they come out when I knock on the next door? And then I have to apologise to someone next door while I’m halfway through talking to someone else?” Is this what door to door salesman have to worry about every day? This is shit. “OK, I’ll just count,” I decide, “I’ll just count and when it’s been too long I’ll go.” But how long is toolong in this situation? Thirty seconds? It takes me much longer than that to answer the door at home. Maybe a minute then. One thing I have learned: A minute is a very long time when you’re a door to door poet. I’ll never complain about the postman not waiting long enough again. I decide it’s definitely time to move on now. I try another door. Nothing. I wonder how often this will happen? Maybe I’ll spend the best part of the day knocking on the houses of people who go out and actually enjoy themselves like regular human beings at the weekend.
After a few more doors, I ring a bell. I hear someone coming. JESUS THIS IS IT. The bolts are clicking, the door is opening, my heart is bouncing around in my chest like it’s in a washing machine. A girl in her mid-twenties answers the door.
“Hello, umm, [don’t say umm you idiot!] I’m a local performer, my name’s umm [stop it!] Rowan. I was wondering if you had a minute and ten seconds to spare while I told you about a project I’m putting together? I don’t want any money or anything.”
“Yeah OK,” she said yes! I do the explanatory poem (see below*). Oh… She’s actually responding to the poem, like in a normal conversation. This was unexpected. She’s nodding and saying ‘OK… yeah?’ Like… a lot. This is weird. I feel like The Cat in the Hat; I’m rhyming and she’s answering the statements I’m making but she’s not rhyming. OK here comes the joke about Jehovah’s. Damn she’s not laughing. Right throw the joke apology about Jehovah’s out… She’s still not laughing. She looks interested though. She’s listening. She has black hair, warm features, she’s smiley.
She tells me her name is Clara. “So basically,” I say, “I know most people don’t think poetry is important. So I’m going door to door asking people what’s important. So what do you like? What are your interests?” She looks worried now. Her soft features are wrinkling like a crisp packet on a teenage bonfire.
“I don’t know…” she sounds worried now too. “I like going out with my friends?… I like shopping?…” Has anyone ever wrote a poem about that? It’s a bit bland. I keep pressing.
“OK, where do you like shopping?” I say.
“I’m sorry… I’ve got some bacon on, I think I’m gonna go,” she says. The door closes.
Is that it!? Is that how this is going to be!? My biggest worry was that no one would listen. I hadn’t even considered the possibility that people might want to listen but not want to talk. I try a few more doors. Nothing. And then a group of long-haired lads answer. They look spaced out and suspicious, like me when I answer the door. I remember that it’s mushroom season. Jesus, this would really fuck with your head if you were on mushrooms, wouldn’t it? ‘HAS THE WHOLE WORLD TURNED INTO A RHYME?’
“Sorry mate we were just on the way out, do you have a flyer for it?” says one lad slowly through glazed eyes.
“No it’s pretty early stages actually,” I reply [as in, I need you to actually tell me something to write about or it doesn’t exist].
A few more doors. An old man politely says he doesn’t have time and wishes me luck. And then, all of a sudden, a young guy with short blonde hair answers and he says he’s interested. And he laughs at the Jehovah joke! He’s laughing much more than I expected, I cut off his laughter it’s that unexpected. He shakes my hand. His name is Kyle and I’m the first poet he’s ever met. I tell him it’s great to have the privilege. He’s from Yorkshire and he likes surfing. The nearest place to go surfing in Yorkshire is Scarborough, but he tells me that’s crap. Why? The water is really brown and there’s nowhere to park your car and all the people stare at you because you’re having fun and people in Scarborough don’t like that. And when you walk back to the car and you’re soggy everyone looks at you weird too. I wonder if it’s because he’s got a bright wet suit on. He says it is black: Even a black wet suit catches stares in Scarborough. I ask him if I can write him a poem about it and he says yeah. More than that, he seems genuinely excited about the concept! I give him my website and tell him I’ll post the poem through his door. He shakes my hand before I leave.
I DID IT! I ACTUALLY DID IT. He wanted a poem and I’m going to do him one. It worked. Everything from here is just a bonus. I cross the street and start to work my way back up. I try a few more doors and it’s nothing but by now it hardly matters. One old woman asks me what I’m selling and I say “I’m not”, she still says no. One woman sleepily tells me “we were having a nap.” I let her get back to it.
Then another success! A man in his late twenties opens the door with brown hair and an equally brown dog. He closes the door behind him, which makes it seem like he’s slightly suspicious. But I stroke the dog while I pitch the idea to the guy. He likes it. I do the poem. He’s laughing. I stroke the dog again. It’s working! The man is enjoying it. The dog is enjoying it. I AM ENJOYING IT. It’s working, it’s actually working. His name is Josh. He tells me he likes animals and going to Ouseburn farm. I love Ouseburn farm. Can I do a poem about it for him? He’s in. I feel incredible, we have a bit more of a chat before I say goodbye.
This was where I decided to stop. I felt insanely happy and 50 feet tall, which is weird considering all that happened was two strangers told me to write something. I looked at my phone and it had barely been an hour. But it was intense. I’d went from not being sure this would work at all, to learning that it might actually be a really good idea. I hadn’t even tried the whole street and I’d got two suggestions, it was time to go home and re-asses the whole idea. Old people seemed less into it, were they intimidated? Could I get them involved too? What would happen if I hit a less studenty area? Either way, I am now officially a door to door poet AND I NEVER EVEN GOT BEAT UP…. yet.
*I’m a door to door poet,
I’m scruffy and hungover
still, this could be worse y’know
I could be a Jehovah.
I won’t tell you that you’re the devil
if you disagree,
I won’t talk about the afterlife-
one’s enough for me.
(If that’s your religion, by the way,
I’m sorry. I don’t mind them,
I mainly put that in
so I could get a decent rhyme in.)
In school they taught me poetry’s bust
wrote by toffs who’ve turned to dust.
Country manors, deathly shrouds,
love sonnets and fluffy clouds.
I found it quite hard to relate
I grew up on a rough estate
walls thin as paper used to trace
the clouds an endless shade of grey.
I’m here to make poetry exciting
like bungee jumping, but less frightening
so I’m at your door to find
the subjects that flow through your mind.
Tell me about your life.
OK, maybe not the whole of it.
I’ll put it in a poem
or at least have a decent go at it.
Maybe you heard a great story
you’d love to hear in rhyme.
Maybe your blood is boiling
from a recent council fine.
Maybe you dropped your i-Phone 6
and it fell down the toilet.
I don’t know, I can’t decide
for you ‘cos that would spoil it.
So cheers for listening to these verses
I hope I’ve got across my purpose.
Don’t slam the door, don’t be nervous,
the door to door poet is at your service.