• Amy Toledano

In Conversation with Poet Luke Wright

Image courtesy of Idil Sukan

Luke Wright is an established poet in the British spoken word scene. He has performed a huge range of spoken word shows and plays including The Toll, Frankie Vah and What I Learned from Johnny Bevan. He has performed at Glastonbury and has been an Edinburgh Fringe regular for years. Lockdown has even interrupted the tour of his new play, The Remains of Logan Dankworth which debuted at Norwich Arts Centre in November and will be returning to venues in the autumn.

Luke Wright – Thanks for talking to us today. How are you finding the pace of lockdown?

It’s changed my life beyond recognition. I’m used to being away a couple nights a week on the road so it was a bit of a shock. I immediately thought what can I do, what can I do. That’s when I took to doing gigs online every night – probably went a bit too hard – but at the same time, I think there’s something in that. There’s something in committing yourself to a project. It felt like a defiant act in a way.

But it’s not like I feel like I’ve got lots of time on my hands because I’ve got two young children. The same as any of us really – my life is usually quite ordered when I’m at home, lots of writing and then I get to go out on tour and cut loose. I’m missing cutting loose. I’m missing that slightly more irresponsible side of my life.

You have talked previously about getting into poetry in your late teens and early twenties, your time with Aisle 16 at university and being spurred on by creative friends. What inspires you now?

I am definitely still spurred on by those around me. I don’t always work closely with people in the way I did with Aisle 16 but I’m always surrounded by other poets. The summer months are always great for that because you end up going to festivals and seeing more of your peers. It’s always good to see what new material people have and it fires you up. Right now, I’m writing this series of ballads based on existing Georgian ballads. So, I’m doing historical fiction in a fun and not meticulously researched kind of way. I’m spinning them in my own language. It’s been great to have the time to get stuck into them.

I write much more about myself these days. I spent the last year writing confessional poems. When you’re younger, anything goes, and as you get older, you get a greater sense of what you write. Sometimes that can box you in. You gain a greater self-awareness. Of course, you can’t help being influenced by the way other people see you but you become more confident in your voice. It’s important not to gain too much of an idea about yourself from others because that can constrain you. Nobody wants to think they’re recreating the same old ground. Making art is always about reinvention and not being afraid to go into new places. I’m very aware of that; I don’t want to become stale. It’s about risk-taking. You’ll do something because you know it works. You’ll think people like it when I do this sort of thing but you can’t be making art for other people; you’ve got to make it for yourself and accept that sometimes it’s not going to be as popular.

Would you say there’s a piece of your work that doesn’t always get the best reception but that you love, or a piece that you started off thinking it wasn’t as good but now gets a great response?

If you’re writing funny stuff, you get an immediate response from people and it always surprises me that some bits get a laugh when you weren’t really intending a laugh there and other bits you’ve slaved over don’t go down so well. There’s a piece of mine called ‘One Trick Bishop’ which when I started performing it, it just didn’t go anywhere near as well as I thought it might but I kept performing it because I really liked it. And actually, it does get the response I want it to now and I think maybe there was just a stumbling point on the performance. My greatest vice as a performer is that I go too fast. I’m in love with the sound of the words and, for me, it’s a composition. It’s almost a song but, if you’re going too fast, people don’t have time to appreciate the bits of language.

Generally, I think my consensus falls with the audience. One of the nice things about doing these online gigs is that it forces me into my back-catalogue and often to pieces which really never made it onto stage and, for one reason or another, never made it into a book. I’m finding pieces that had been completely lost, that I’d performed a couple of times but that had never been published. It’s been great to return to things I wrote five years ago and go there’s something in this. Some nights I feel very confident in my abilities but some nights I feel tired and think I’ve never written anything of any note but that’s just the ego of an artist! If I’m going to be doing lives every night, I need to do them in a way that’s honest and good for me. Some of these online gigs actually suit more meditative works because it’s nice to basically have someone read you a story. I need to not worry about whether it’s right for people or not.

That sounds quite freeing because it must make you feel more authentic as a poet and you don’t have to feel like you’re a performer on stage all the time?

Yeah, I think that’s completely right! In many ways, you can be much more yourself when it’s just you and a camera in a room. At first that was quite nerve-wrecking and I was still trying to put on a performance [in the first few shows]. All my poems have intros which aren’t scripted but the more you do them, the more you know where the gags are and they become little bits of stand up. Those bits obviously don’t work to camera. People can tell when you’re doing a bit and it can feel much less honest. So, the lives force you into a more honest place. It encourages you to speak your mind a bit more, to go on flights of fancy and I enjoy it! There’s not once have I clocked off and thought thank God that’s over.

What made you want to start doing the Twitter lives and what role do you think art can play in difficult times like these?

I feel like Twitter’s more my platform than some other social medias. I’ve thought about re-streaming it on other networks but then it gets a bit complicated and my head hurts. I had always fancied to do a live feed but I had always felt a bit self-conscious so I thought this is as good a time as any. And it gives me something to do! I’m so used to doing gigs these days. I don’t think I’ve gone more than three weeks without doing a gig. It made sense that, if I was going to do something, I should do it every single night. Later on, if we’re still in this, there’ll be a masochistic element like look here he still is, dragging himself to his chair every night. These are extraordinary times so if I did something, it had to also feel extraordinary. We still need art in our lives.

You regularly return to politics in your work. How do you see your politics interacting with your work? How impactful do you feel political poetry can be?

Satire exists to remind the powerful that they shit and die, as Martin Rowson always reminds me. It’s important to have those subversive voices. Do I think political poetry alone can change politics? No but I know my politics came from art initially.

My parents would call themselves apolitical but of course no one’s apolitical. It was through listening to bands who mentioned politics or subversive writers who I then went and read, and that led me to poetry like [Attila The] Stockbroker, and The Ranting Poets. They helped to shape my politics. They can have an effect particularly on younger people whose opinions are less formed yet. Sir Bob Worcester, who founded the polling company MORI, said when we were guests together on Poetry Saturday Live, that by the time people are twenty-five, their core beliefs are mostly formed and they’ll never move from those. The politics on top of that might waver but essentially, their core beliefs are formed. So, while I don’t think political poetry is going to change hearts and minds, it gives a voice to people. All art gives voice and understanding to things we might be thinking. So much of what I understand about the world has come from books I’ve read and songs I’ve listened to. Art has a responsibility to interact with the world in which it exists whether it offers up a mirror or whether it becomes a hammer to smash those things.

I’m definitely less overtly political in my work these days. I think politics is an interesting backdrop and I’m very interested in the way that we think and move as a body of people. I’m interested in those big political events and how they affect us personally. I don’t soapbox in the way that I used to because I don’t think there are any easy answers and poetry should be striving towards some kind of truth.

In my plays, there’s always a big political event in the background but I try to represent that event or the attitudes towards that event through a single character. In some ways, it helps me explore my understanding of the event. It takes that event and says well what does this actually mean? In my latest play, I ask what if Brexit was a marriage and you start getting into the idea of trust. It is interesting to examine the argument through characters. Inevitably what happens is the characters take over and their story becomes bigger and more important than the event which seems right because we’re more interested in people and their contradictions than we are in politics. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun and take the piss out of the Tories if you want to.

You’ve been performing poetry now for over twenty years. In one of your Twitter lives, you joke about the return of clicking at poetry nights. How do you think the art world has changed since you started performing?

There’s much more of a performance poetry scene than there was when I started. It’s more professionalised and there’s easier ways to see a career path in it. Not that that’s why people do it – they start because they love it. I was just mucking around with the clicking thing. In some ways, it’s a nice way of showing appreciation for certain things and they click during the poem, like that was a good line. Nothing wrong with it – I was just shocked to see it. We always thought it was part of that naff pretentiousness of poetry when we were first aware of it. It was one of those clichés. I didn’t think people actually did it.

As far as the poetry scene now, it’s amazing that people will start doing a poem now in 2020, and you think God I heard that poem ten years ago. The same sorts of poems. There’s lots of good stuff out there but, as I get older, I’m less into performance poetry. I’m less interested in the poetry of younger people because they’re not talking about the things that are relevant to me. Of course, there’s exceptions to that and you can appreciate a brilliantly written piece no matter who has written it. I think back to when I was starting out and I could tell older people were a bit disparaging about us. Well, of course they were. I was talking about the things that were important to me and the things I had just realised and they’d realised them twenty years before. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Molly Naylor has a great line: being young is knowing everything and getting older is losing it. And I think that’s true! I’m much less certain of what I think. I’m less ideological and I’m more empathetic. I have sympathy for the frailties of the human condition in ways I didn’t when I was younger. I used to think that everyone who didn’t agree with me was a fucking idiot and how couldn’t they see what was so obvious. When I wrote Frankie Vah, which is about a twenty-five-year-old starting out in poetry in the mid-80s, people would come up to me afterwards and say I was there, how did you know? And I said I sort of guessed. I know what it’s like to be an angry twenty-five-year-old. When I was an angry twenty-five-year-old, it wasn’t Thatcher but I can imagine the things that I thought about Blair. You change the names, the scenery changes but the sentiment is the same.

I think that people in their twenties today are much more emotionally mature and better self-explored than I ever was. I think part of that is to do with this revolution around mental health. A lot of it is to do with defying gender roles as well. I was still very much pinned in by the way I was forced to think at school about what men could do and what women could do. Even in the Nineties, men weren’t encouraged to talk about their feelings. Now, it’s much more normalised. We were much less questioning about the world than people are. So yeah, I think people now are probably making more mature work in their twenties than I was in my twenties.

Any plans for future projects whether it’s virtual and in lockdown, or once we’re all allowed out again?

I’ve got the second half of my The Remains of Logan Dankworth tour lined up for the autumn. So, I’m hoping I can finish that off because I’m pleased with it and I’ve worked long and hard on it.

And I’m writing something new, and I’ve got a new collection coming out next year.

Do you have any advice you would give to emerging artists now?

If you’re an emerging artist, there is the online world and you can find ways to build up an audience there. Of course, it depends what you do. If you’re making multi-person theatre shows, it’s a difficult time to do that. I think, for all of us, being nimbler and more adaptable is important. 90% of the work is just words so that’s an easy thing to adapt whether it’s in a pub with no mic or on a theatre stage. It’s about being smart and savvy and spying where you can fit in. In many ways, adapting will suit emerging artists because they’re less stuck in their ways.

Luke – thank you so much for talking to me and all the best from everyone at Within Her Words! Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers?

If you get a chance, check out the gigs! You might find me tired; you might find me full of energy – who knows!

Leah x

Tune in to Luke's Twitter each night at 8pm for a live perrfomance and other show information.

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