Like being a comedian, only verse...

Tim Clare on the stand-up poet's lot

So the gig was going great. Every punchline was landing, ad libs sprang effortlessly to my lips, and the room reverberated with hearty laughter. I was working them with the easy conviviality of a seasoned raconteur, but I felt sure there was more to it than that. These people liked me.

It was time. It was definitely time.

Twelve minutes in, I ended a sentence with the words: ‘so I decided to write a poem about it.’ Then I recited said poem.

The transformation was miraculous.

The crowd’s smiles evaporated. Their faces took on a pinched, crumpled look I recognised from the night I confessed to my ex-girlfriend that I’d cheated on her.

‘How could you do this to us?’ their expressions seemed to say. ‘We trusted you. We loved you.’ A slow miasma of something akin to stunned grief spread to every corner of the room, as I hammered out my ‘comic’ poem to complete, mausoleum-like silence.

Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Tim Clare, and I am not really a stand-up. I am a poet.

Except I’m not really a poet either.

As a stand-up poet, you get used to being a freak amongst freaks. After five years, I still haven’t figured out a pithy way of describing what I do.

‘It’s like stand-up, only not as funny, and it’s like poetry, only not as clever.’ Hardly an enticing elevator pitch.

Naturally, you sometimes get viewed with suspicion – if not outright hostility – by both sides of the divide. Stand-up poets often find themselves in this weird hinterland, page poets on one side accusing them of dumbing down in a desperate attempt to canvas for laughs, and stand-ups on the other accusing them of pretentious pseudo-artsy postering.

The strange thing is, both groups are probably right – and I’m not sure it matters.

Dignity is a commodity that poets overvalue, something that probably accounts, in part, for poetry’s marginalisation as a live art form. No one’s ever approached a performer after a gig to slap them on the back and say: ‘Hey, super-dignified show there man. Nice work.’ This apparent need to be ‘appreciated’ sees poets regularly sent up as figures of fun, whereas stand-ups – for whom dignity usually proves something of a handicap – are regularly venerated as geniuses. He who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.

The main obstacle preventing stand-up poetry crossing the floor and joining its more lucrative mainstream is cousin is that, frankly, its practitioners are undisciplined. As a stand-up poet, you end up getting booked for a baffling range of gigs, from cabaret to support slots for bands to stages at festivals to book launches to, yes, occasionally even poetry nights. Freed from the pressure of constantly keeping that laughter flywheel moving, the temptation is to try eliciting more than just guffaws – things like astonishment, or rapt attention, or sadness. Soon, your head becomes polluted with weird ideas like, gosh, maybe there’s more to life than comedy.

With the success of Tim Key at last year’s Fringe, and the return of a rejuvenated (in spirit if not body) John Cooper Clarke, there has been a lot of talk about how stand-up poetry is due a renaissance. This small spark may never catch light, but far be it from me to wee on the embers.

  • Tim Clare's Death Drive is at Zoo Roxy at 7pm from August 6

Published: 29 Jul 2010

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