Animal Magnetism at Blackwell’s

This report from the trenches of live performance represents another step in my determination to be a better person when it comes to keeping you abreast of what I’ve been up to. I’m also attaching a special edition pdf containing the poems I read, just click this sentence. It includes two poems that aren’t in either of my free-to-download collections, this one, or this one. If that catches on, I might do it for each of my performances, with a little cover and edition number for each.

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This was the 6th time I’ve performed at Blackwell’s. I still have to pinch myself about that. This is the place of wonder where I spent half my time and a good deal more of my grant as a student decades ago. I couldn’t have imagined then I’d get to come back and read. To actual crowds! But since I won their “favourite Oxford novel” competition in 2011, the staff at Blackwell’s, especially Euan and Zool in events, and Ray in the fiction department, have been incredible to me.

Nonetheless, the nerves were a little higher than before for this event. It marked the first time I got carte blanche to choose what I read. The first chance to showcase what I do, erm, best – and possibly my one real chance to get that right and who knows, maybe one day get asked back for one of my more outre novels or collections.
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There was also the small matter of the fact I was MCing a tight schedue, and that meant performing the superhuman feat of keeping to time the legendarily prolix legend of Oxford poetry George Chopping. But most of all I was nervous because this was a celebration of the brilliant Paul Askew, whose collection Animal Magnetism was right at the heart of the Nothing to Say installatin I’d staged this year. This event was for him, bringing together three of his very favourite writers (and me) as a glorious festschrift for his work. Which was a huge responsibility. One that put the usual “what if no one turns up?” “what if everyone overruns and is generally crap?” worries under an electron microscope.

In one of those twists of symmetry it was at Blackwell’s that I first met Paul. He had come along to This Is Oxford, a wonderful event they’d let me run in the world famous Norrington Room featuring representatives from various of Oxford’s underground literary enclaves. I found him intimidating. Not beause he’s standoffish or supercilious or aggressive. He isn’t. He’s actually one of the loveliest people you will ever meet. But because he exudes this aura of sharp, charismatic creative intelligence. He’s one of those people you fix on in any room and think, “ah yes, he’s the most brilliant one here.” And you’d probably be right.

Paul chose three remarkable people to accompany him last night (and added me to the list, almost certainly out of politeness because I was both host and publisher. Whatever the reason, it was a joy to be part of such a  line-up.)

Joe Briggs is unlike anyone you will ever see perform. His pieces are part journalism, part rant, part reminiscence, part punk poetry, all delivered with a splenetic passion from that day’s scrawls on scrunched up scraps of paper and all reflecting on his extensive experience of the musical underground and laced with a scalpel sharp sense of cross-reference and critical awareness that never takes you out of the delerious  drive of the moment.

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Lucy Ayrton was the person I have to thank for getting into performance poetry as opposed to just performing what was written in front of me. She is an instantly engaging presence, a storyteller who beguiles you with brilliantly layered allusions as she pieces together her modern feminist riffs on ancient tales. She is one of those performers, like Paul, who is able to hold you through the stillness and the silences as much as through the words.

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George Chopping is one of those poets who has the ability to defy any and every expectation of normality and do whatever he wants and still be loved by everyone across the social spectrum. Host of the sidesplitting and notoriously late-running George’s Jamboree his delivery mixes the fluent and the stuttering to such gloriously jarring effect you are never certain what’s deliberate and what’s the first malfunctioning brake pad of the most gargantuan car crash.

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In the event, last night will join the mythology of Oxford literature alongside the great Jericho poetry fight of 2012. Lucy was spellbinding, George mesmeric as I’ve never seen him before, and Joe Briggs’ part flarf part satire part contemplation part memoir of the history of Ramones-derivatives was one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever heard. But it was Askew who had the last word, quite literally, delivering a visceral set before tearing up his copy of Animal Magnetism, announcing that the book and the material therein is no more, and walking out. There was nothing to worry about when it came to turnout in the end, but in years to come a lot more than actually stuffed themselves into Blackwell’s will claim to have been there.

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