In Defence of Poetry Unplugged


I still remember an Independent article by Christina Patterson from a few years back. The only part relevant to this blog is the first paragraph:

One of the worst evenings I’ve ever endured was at an event called Poetry Unplugged. About 50 people were crammed into a sweaty basement, all perched expectantly on orange plastic chairs. How nice, I thought, to see such an enthusiastic audience for poetry. As one figure after another leapt up to read their doggerel, the truth dawned. They were all here not to listen, but to perform. They would suffer each other’s poetic rants, but only for their moment of glory. A woman in a red wig recited a poem about her vagina. A man in a blue jumper did a lengthy lament on lost love. It was a very long night.

Now, I could just point out that this particular evening took part a few years before I took the reigns and leave it at that. I could also point out that there are far fewer egos going through the same “greatest hits” every week as if preparing for their big show at the O2 Arena as there once were. I could even argue that among the many that sign up to leave, there are some that read their poems and run out immediately afterwards, leaving the rest of us to say “Good riddance…” But even though I think that Poetry Unplugged is probably at its best ever as far as quality and atmosphere are concerned, I have a feeling it would still not be good enough for the like of Patterson and others. I personally cant think of a greater irony than her article’s title “How Poetry is Losing its Elitist Image”.

I love Unplugged, I love hosting it now more than ever. It’s where I started and it’s where plenty of others that went on to far bigger things than me also started out. I still remember the days when I would be planting a few hundred plants, digging a long trench for a beech hedge or patiently pruning a few thousand roses, all the while mumbling some newly penned verse under my breath. I remember the big moment later on when my piece would get it’s make-or-break airing and how haunted I would be for the rest of the week if it went wrong. I remember heading off afterwards in a ragtag bunch, either to the Troy bar on Hanway Street or Cafe Boheme on Greek street; either ending up in some dire political debate with my fellow inebriates or getting my snog on with the latest starlet/visiting literature student. After all that, I remember getting about two hours of sleep, waking up to realise that I’m still pissed and that the hangover would nonetheless intrude some time towards the afternoon. Good days, good days. Thank goodness they’re over.

Things may have changed a bit for me now that I’ve settled into my thirties but I still hope that the current crop of young upstarts are off to engage in a night’s debauchery as they head out through the glass doors of the Poetry Cafe. The duties of hosting dictate that I remain sharp so there’s no booze for me until the job is done. I’ll indulge on occasion but it always seems to blunt my wit. If you see me nursing a beer while hosting it’s probably a sign that I’ve had a hectic week. Last night, I told the poets and audience that it was their job to supply the energy because I was feeling a bit run down. They didn’t disappoint. The noobs and vets were on fire and it didn’t take long before I was back to my jolly self. I think it was at that point that I realised how lucky I was to host such a night. I perform at other venues and sometimes find myself at odds withthe posers, pseuds and networkers that populate them. I turn up at some big literary events and find myself frustrated at the wine quaffing la-de-da mafia love-ins that they turn out to be. Some may turn up at Unplugged through pure vanity but I find that it ain’t too different at the supposed elite end of things.

Poetry Unplugged is still one of the most random, representative hotch-potches of humanity that you’ll find in this great city. You’ll find council workers in their uniforms and city workers in pinstripe taking the mic and knocking back a bevvy together afterwards. I’m always blown away by the talent, lack of ego, and genuine enthusiasm I experience from people that one wouldn’t immediately pin down as “arty types”. The big thing for me here is that the poets at Unplugged inspire each other and realise that they are part of a collective endeavour. They come together to provide one of the best nights of entertainment you could get in London. People watching doesn’t get more dynamic, or interactive than this.

Back to Patterson and her big realisation that people come to Unplugged not to listen but to perform. Bollocks. I challenge anyone who thinks that to look around during the second half for the faces of those that have already performed. You’ll find that it’s the “read-and-run” types that are in the minority. But then, to find that out you’d have to stick around for the second half and I have a hunch that our intrepid journalist didn’t bother.

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